The Sky Trembles

chion

Michel Chion
Musiques Concrètes 1970-71
FRANCE BROCOLI 016 CD (2014)

Great to have a collection by Michel Chion, one of the French GRM composers whose wonderful work has somehow escaped me up until recently. This Brocoli CD compiles some of his earliest pieces, even predating the 1973 composition Requiem which is about the first time his work ever appeared on vinyl, and that not until 1978. This is the third time the Brocoli label have spotlighted Chion’s work, previous releases being the double-CD “Concrete Symphonie” from 2011 La Vie En Prose, and the double-act “Concrete melodrama” called Tu which came out in 2006; the latter mashed up Emanuel Schikaneder’s version of The Magic Flute with the surrealist poetry of Robert Desnos.

Unlike some of the purely process-driven and abstract work we sometimes get from the GRM composers, Chion’s work has a lot of narrative and meaning; the opening piece ‘Blanche’ (opus 7 from 1971) is structured like a classical symphony in 8 movements, and has a mysterious lyricism which is elusive and beautiful. Although there are lashings of the tasty “abrasive electronics” (as the press notes have it) in evidence, there’s also melody, voices, and even acoustic instruments layered into the story-like development. Certain passages, with a piccolo flute and what sounds like a hammered stringed instrument, will be something I recommend heartily to listeners who enjoy early Moondog records. Not just a superficial sonic resemblance here; there’s the same qualities of loneliness, and it’s all very moving. The press notes advise us that ‘Blanche’ is a precursor to the 1973 Requiem; let’s hope Ideologic Organ consider reissuing that one soon.

Another major work is ‘Le Ciel Tremble’ (opus 4, from 1970), where the composer recites passages from a poem by the obscure writer Pascal Fleury alongside an electroacoustic backdrop of sustained eerieness. The restraint in this music is in fact quite remarkable; I’d like to think it’s depicting an apocalypse of some sort (or at the very least a thunderstorm, a storm which is a metaphor for emotional turmoil), but Chion understates the violence, and instead creates a palpable tension of brooding malevolence through his murmuring unnatural drones, his tense silences, and his atonal cascades of metallic strings. Even the recit has had the emotion drained from it, all the power and danger emerging from a clipped, matter-of-fact delivery. Like the above, ‘Le Ciel Tremble’ also has a dynamic structure, where the idea develops through stages of light and shade, allowing space for the listener to absorb and understand. Excellent piece.

In terms of duration, I suppose ‘Train De Pianos’ is the main event on the disc, coming in at an LP length of 33 minutes. This 1970 composition is structured in 15 movements and features Chion playing prepared pianos, and his terse three-line description printed here is a condensed packet of information which explains how it was produced and played (“aux doigts de pied”), the musical styles it quotes and pastiches (“dans le style de la Renaissance, Blues, Guilleret”) and instructions to any possible future performers (“Rapide, Grande Danse”). This is really more of a document of a musical performance then a tape composition, although overdubbing has been used for the percussion and flute passages, and it’s likely the whole work was spliced together from multiple tapes (the cross-fades are quite audible). Far from “minimal” music, but it has a stark beauty which is almost terrifying, even during those passages which are clearly intended as jaunty accompaniments for silent comedy films, or a Sunday afternoon strolling en plein air. We might characterise it as a surreal dream, a wayward voyage through tributaries of musical history.

Also here: the rather uncanny ‘Étude d’après Beethoven’, which with its tape echo and harsh startling edits might have the most immediate appeal for some listeners; the short percussion and tape piece ‘L’Oiseau on Cage’ which isn’t much more than a sketch, but presents a very skewed view of everyday reality; and two more piano pieces, ‘Sonatine’ and ‘Habenera’. From 23 October 2014.