Pierre Henry is considered the pioneer of electroacoustic music, alongside Pierre Schaeffer.
Pierre Henry, born on 9 December 1927 in Paris, spent his early childhood in the country. In 1937, he began learning music at the Paris Conservatoire. He studied composition with Nadia Boulanger, piano and percussion with Félix Passeronne, and harmony with Olivier Messiaen.
After an initial work experience as an orchestral pianist and percussionist, in 1946 he joined Pierre Schaeffer in the studios of RTF, the French radio and television. Originally recruited by Schaeffer as a percussionist, Pierre Henry soon became a friend; he contributed as a composer and was involved in research into making experimental instruments. Their collaboration produced a seminal work in concrete music, the Symphonie pour un homme seul. The work - a sort of French suite - was choreographed in 1949 by Maurice Béjart.
Pierre Henry was accordingly hired by the RTF studios as a project coordinator for the GRMC (Concrete Music Research Group). This group, which had been founded in 1951, was renamed GRM (Musical Research Group) in 1958. The first concrete opera to be performed in concert - at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1953 - was Orphée, written by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in 1951.
In 1958, following disagreements over aesthetic issues, among others, Pierre Henry left the RTF to set up his own studio: APSOME (for Sound Processing Applications in Electroacoustic Music). In what was the first private research studio, he continued his basic research, exploring new techniques and adapting constantly-evolving technologies.
Pierre Henry set up a second musical research studio, called Son/Ré. It was located in the twelfth arrondissement of Paris and obtained support from the Ministry of Culture and the City of Paris in 1990. Over 70 new works were created there.
In 1949 Pierre Henry began a prolific collaboration with the choreographer Maurice Béjart. For a commission by Béjart, Pierre Henry composed a work that would become his signature piece for the general public: Messe pour le Temps présent (co-written with Michel Colombier). It took the form of a dance suite, for which Béjart created a choreography, premiered at the Festival d'Avignon in 1967. One section, called Psyché Rock, was a particular favourite with audiences.
Pierre Henry continued to innovate and develop his creative style. In his compositions, the pared-down style of Le voyage (1962) gave way to larger-scale works such as Hugosymphonie (1985).
Pierre Henry was a great collector and sculptor of sounds. He became a benchmark for many artists in electronic music, who, for his 70th birthday in 1997, gave him a remix of his famous Messe pour le temps présent.
In 2012, Pierre Henry premiered Le Fil de la vie at the Cité de la Musique, describing it as a sort of testament. This work is "the decomposition of some of my works. An introspective voyage... In my work, what goes on in front of the mike, the rhythms and the shouts, all of that expressive language runs like a thread through the gamut of my bodily and emotional states throughout life." (Cité de la musique programme notes)
- Three landmark dates in the life of Pierre Henry
1937: entered the Conservatoire and studied under Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen
1946: met Pierre Schaeffer
1949: began working with Maurice Béjart
- Three key works by Pierre Henry
1949: first performance of the Symphonie pour un homme seul
1967: first performance of the Messe pour le Temps présent, at the Festival d'Avignon
2012: first performance of Le Fil de vie at the Cité de la musique