Michael Nyman, Pierre Henry, and the CEC

Grant Chu Covell

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

I must confess an occasional liking for Michael Nyman, quite a stretch from my customary diet of dissonance and atonality. But for each piece I like there’s at least one I detest (the score for The Piano is inexorable, whereas the score for The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is riveting). Right now, the “Mazda Concerto,” the Double Concerto for Saxophone and Cello, is high on my list. The EMI recording (7243 5 56487 2 3) features John Harle, saxophone, and Julian Lloyd Weber, cello, and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Nyman himself. The hybrid sound of cello and sax is very beguiling. The concerto has some very five inspired moments of lushness and beauty and some engaging tunes, especially a reoccurring jaunty motive in fast waltz time. Some of the transitions are odd and abrupt (I wonder if there’s a larger formal process going on, like the Fibonnaci series used to define section lengths). The concert is the opener on a disc of three concertos, one for harpsichord and strings and the other for trombone and orchestra.

Philips Music Group France has embarked on a wonderful project by releasing/reissuing the music of Pierre Henry. 16 CDs will present 27 works, 6 never before released. Here come pieces that were created all through the second half of the last century, some too long out of print, some never before released. Pierre Henry has built for himself a hugely inspirational niche in electronic music and commands a following all across the musical spectrum, from academic electro-acoustic music to techno. This set will bring new generations to the technically unsurpassed yet eclectic music of Henry. From classic musique concrete of Symphonie pour un homme seul to the “jerks electroniques” of Messe pour le temps present, Henry has built an awesome variety of concert length works (ballet, religious, pagan), utilizing and perfecting the most current electronic and music concrete techniques. Extensive field recordings bump against current pop tunes (current when Henry wrote the piece) in brilliantly constructed combinations, full of textural variety and pregnant with interpretation. Henry is one of the creators of this genre and is a master, and these releases will influence and inspire many. These CDs are somewhat tricky to find as they’re European imports, you will need to look for them in your local independent CD store. The CDs are available individually or in boxed sets with bonus CDs, so far the first two volumes (Mix 01 and Mix 02) seem to be generally available in the US.

From CEC, the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, here’s a Website of varied electro-acoustic music, all for free, and all are long pieces: http://cec.concordia.ca/Radio/Long/index.html. I’m not saying that length is good, but length can imply substance, and for the handful of composers represented (mostly Canadian) this is an excellent sampling of the genre. The focus is on works that work best on radio, and this core requirement makes them inviting for casual listening over the Internet as well as somewhat self-explanatory.