John Dack

Listening to ‘Plastic’ and ‘Musical’ Languages in Pierre Henry’s Variations pour une porte et un soupir

Do we use entirely different listening strategies for instrumental and electroacoustic music? Many contemporary composers have acknowledged the influence of studio experiences on their instrumental and vocal works suggesting that there are areas of mutual concern. Nevertheless, the musical materials and processes of many electroacoustic compositions inevitably challenge established modes of listening and thus require special attention from analysts. It is likely that there is an interplay between modes as they corroborate or subvert each other while the listener actively seeks meaning in the work.
My paper will explore how different listening strategies can be applied to an analysis of Pierre Henry’s Variations pour une porte et un soupir (1963). Henry’s episodic structure (25 clearly demarcated sections) contrasts two musical languages - ‘plastic’ and ‘musical’ - which are described briefly by Pierre Schaeffer in his Traité des objets musicaux (p. 636). Each uses different types of material and, as a result, each demands a different listening strategy. For example, sections with varying sounds of indeterminate pitch and extended duration will evoke the ‘plastic’ discourse. Such sounds are inevitably problematic for a traditional analysis due to their continuous movement through pitch-space. In other sections, where a ‘musical’ discourse dominates, the listener can identify clear rhythms which are developed in a motivic manner. In such cases a subtle relationship emerges between the intrinsic sound qualities and a recognition of their real-world source.

My methodology will be based on my own listening experiences as a musicologist/analyst of electroacoustic music. In addition to Schaeffer’s ‘four listening modes’ I will also draw on analytical studies by Marty (2012) with particular reference to the directional structures clarified by ‘narrativity’ and Delalande (1998) regarding ‘reception behaviours’ of electroacoustic music.