EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Pousseur’s Huit Etudes Paraboliques: Musical and Social Contexts

John Dack

John Dack, attachement


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My paper will explore the specific contribution that electroacoustic music can make to challenging the accepted concert framework both in terms of a work’s duration and the location in which it is to be presented to the public. My case study will be the specific practices of the Belgian composer Henri Pousseur (1929-2009) and his electroacoustic work Huit Etudes Paraboliques (realized at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk studios in 1972). Each of these eight compositions is an autonomous work. However, according to Pousseur they can also be regarded as source material to be ‘plundered’, reconfigured and thus re-mixed to produce new works. Furthermore, new musical material – by Pousseur or other composers – can be added. These Huit Etudes Paraboliques were the first works of a ‘Système des Paraboles’ (Parabola System) where each piece has the potential for extension. Thus, the connection with earlier and indeed later ‘open form’ works is clear and, as a result, the Huit Etudes Paraboliques are transformed into individual Paraboles-Mix. What is of relevance for the questions posed by the EMS2014 conference is that each of the new Paraboles-Mix, by using material from one or more of the Huit Etudes Paraboliques, opens them up to infinite elaborations. Consequently, the musical material need not demand closure after a limited amount of time thus encouraging works of extended duration – the main subject of the EMS2014 Conference. The act of poiesis on the part of the musician realizing the ‘Paraboles-mix’ now dominates.
Pousseur’s social commitment was a consistent thread in his intellectual development. It was particularly evident in the first decades of his career as demonstrated by his book Musique Sémantique Société (1972). Similarly, his ‘open’ work Scambi (a rare example of an ‘open’ electroacoustic work) has social as well as aesthetic implications. Moreover, Pousseur even imagined real-time realizations of Scambi, possibly resulting from interaction by several musicians in ‘music workshops’. Clearly, such social gatherings would not conform to traditional concert practices. These ideas were speculative and perhaps even utopian. The technology of the 1950s prohibited the full potential of Pousseur’s vision. Nevertheless, I will argue that Pousseur’s combination of practice and theory can now be fulfilled and inevitably challenges both the nature of long durations and traditional concert practice.
Drawing on and elaborating research already undertaken on Scambi (references to this project can be found in the following text) my methodology will be to examine specifically the Huit Etudes Paraboliques both as ‘closed’ works and in their manifestations as re-appropriated, ‘open’ works. There are several Paraboles-Mix where Pousseur and others use the original material in ‘live’ re-mixing. These Paraboles-Mix can be subjected to a cultural interpretation along the lines of Craig Ayrey’s article “Pousseur’s Scambi, and the new problematics of the open work” where interpretation of ‘openness’ can lead to the premature ‘closing’ of the work under consideration. I believe it will also be possible to show a continuity between Pousseur’s methods in the WDR studio where the equipment allowed him to embark on ‘voyages sonores’ and the final realization before an audience in non-traditional venues.

EMS14 Proceedings