Watering (Down) the Avant-Garden: Pierre Henry and Sampling

Posted by Charles Reece, July 20, 2009 10:35am | Post a Comment

The recent issue of The Wire caught up with one of the fathers of sampling, musique concrète maestro Pierre Henry. He's been down on the contemporary state of electronic music for awhile. The article begins with a quote from a 1997 interview:

"Today I feel less inspired[.] We're living at a time where everything is controlled, planned and codified and even popular music isn't popular any more, it's imposed upon us."

And he's not any more positive now:

"I think it's a big mistake to call today's music electronic music[.] People do things with computers and samples but it's not the same approach as the way I work, or how Karlheinz Stockhausen worked in his electronic pieces. There is not the same craft, and it's not progress."

Suggesting by implication that the sound collages of El-P, the world creation of Tod Dockstader, Matmos' technological music, or even Björk's omnivorous use of the sounds she finds do not involve a high level of craft just seems wrong-headed to me. The "problem" was better stated in the older interview: codification. When a revolution takes place, there will then follow a prolonged period in which people work under the new order. Not everyone can be Chairman Mao (nothing's more ironic and true in this regard than Maoism -- the revolutionary figure par excellence was used as the ultimate criterion by which the subsequent potential equality of all others was to be judged). Thanks to the revolution of Mssrs. Henry, Stockhausen, Varese and Schaeffer, electronic music has now become a genre, whether Henry likes it or not. Why? Consider Thomas Kuhn's distinction between normal and revolutionary science as they pertain to working within what he called a paradigm:

Mopping-up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers. They constitute what I am here calling normal science. [Its] research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies. [p. 24, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd Edition]

[S]cientific revolutions are here taken to be those non-cumulative developmental episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one. [p. 92, ibid.]

The paradigm is that relatively stable period in which scientists have an interpretative matrix through which discoveries are understood. As more and more anomalies are unable to be mapped onto (explained away by) the matrix, a scientific discipline will reach a crisis, at which point a revolutionary interpretation or discovery might be made which, with enough supporters, becomes a paradigm shift.

I'd suggest that something similar happens with genres of music -- or any art, really. A musical discovery, such as musique concrète, won't fit any known genre, or system, of music at first, and might even be irritating noise to the vast majority who encounter it, but once it begins to accrete followers, it's only a matter of time before its methodology is codified, and commercialized. That is, with an art form's acceptance comes the potential for market exploitation. Is there a better example of this than how William S. Burroughs' cut-up method can now be found at any check out lane at a corporate book store in the form of magnetic poetry? (Making literal Laurie Anderson's Burroughs-esque mandate: "You pick up the pieces. You connect the dots.") Through his own revolution, John Cage helped codify noise as music, which has now been turned into a trendy sub-genre of rock and roll -- likewise, Eliane Radique's explorations in drone.

The difference between scientific and musical revolutions is that sciences keep moving and genres begin to eat their own tails. Take Henry's approach to sampling:

"When I borrow material [...] it is to reconcile an existing form with new forms of today. I try to find connections between these older forms with the techniques that interest me now, and the form that emerges from that dialogue becomes the material of a piece."

I happen to believe bringing this formerly avant-garde method to pop culture -- as The Beatles, Zappa and hip hop did -- was an innovation in itself, but with sampling now our present day ontology, all subjects have become de-historicized, present without any attachment to time or place. Henry's historico-moral concern has been left to lawsuits, where borrowing is nothing more than making sure the "original creator" is paid. The "newness" had surely worn off by Fear of a Black Planet. With sampling now one of our fundamental forms, part of our Being, I don't much see how Henry or any artist could re-historicize subjects through the technique. The only "innovation" left to the artist is coming up with a sample no one else has used; the revolution is the order of things.

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Avant Garde (24), Pierre Henry (2), Sampling (3), Music Criticism (10)