label primer: recollection grm
"Unfortunately it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside 'do ré mi'... In other words, I wasted my life." - Pierre Schaeffer
welcome to issue #9 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every second and fourth monday, and on the first and third mondays i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers. actually now that i’m looking at the calendar march has five mondays this year so… i guess we’ll do a “fifth monday special” of some sort.
this week, after a brief plague-related preamble, we have an overview of the recollection grm imprint of the editions mego label, focusing on important but lesser-known composers associated with france’s groupe de recherches musicales (grm). if you want to know what you’re talking about (or seem to) when you talk about musique concrète, this issue’s for you.
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welcome to this special Socially Distanced issue of the newsletter. hopefully i’m preaching to the choir but if you don’t have a reason to go out dear god don’t go out. there’s a real-life plague out there. just stay inside and listen to some tunes. let’s say you go to the bar and your asymptomatic pal gives you a high-five and then you scratch your nose well guess what now you’re asymptomatic but still a carrier. so the next day you buy groceries from a cashier who may be a bit older let’s say or young but immunocompromised and now you’ve given it to them completely unwittingly. in your mind you’re still like “what’s the big deal, nobody i know is sick at all” but in fact you’ve left a trail of anxiety and grief behind you because dollars to doughnuts that cashier doesn’t have insurance because we (americans) live in a sort of cartoon dystopia where sneering ceos determine what human rights we get and medical care isn’t one of them apparently. anyway so the idea is that by reducing the number of such interactions with other people we can slow the spread to the point where hospitals can keep up. no bar, no high-five, no spread to the cashier. this article from the washington post is quite helpful and has some interesting animations too.
ok now watch me gracefully segue into the topic of music. you’ve probably seen that every concert ever is cancelled (except for apparently reverend horton heat?). that means that those musicians who live on income from live shows now don’t have income. luckily you can offset that lack somewhat by buying their stuff. so i’m going to recommend bandcamp albums for you that were made by friends and acquaintances and strangers. these are all folks that live off their concert earnings which is a hell of a hard thing to do in the best of circumstances so now is a good time to pony up. a couple of holodeck bands: future museums makes beautiful meditative drones. i’d recommend Rosewater Ceremony which is about microdosing lsd. some of those same folks are in the ‘80s goth revivalists single lash. you can’t go wrong with Providence which is about heavenly providence but also the rhode island town. tv honest is in that constellation of folks too. listen to “he treat me mean” and tell me that ain’t a jam. claire rousay is like two degrees separated from those guys but she put out an album with more eaze who put out an album as long shadow duo with future museums. rousay’s music is upsettingly intimate which i reckon is the point. i’d recommend rehearsal / improvisations which is half-done but all the more interesting for it. so anyway give them $$$.
alright time for a second graceful segue into our topic proper. let’s see… speaking of bandcamp, that’s probably the best way to buy the albums we’re discussing today because they sell out of vinyl copies like hotcakes. that’s right, we’re talking about the recollection grm imprint from editions mego. this is a series of reissues of albums from the collection grm line started through ina-grm in the 1970s. “ina” stands for france’s “institut national de l'audiovisuel” but that doesn’t matter so much as the fact that “grm” stands for “groupe de recherches musicales,” which was begun by pierre schaeffer in 1958 (after an earlier iteration, the groupe de recherche de musique concrète, strayed out of his control). this group researched the techniques and potentials of musique concrète, that is, music made from re-arranged and manipulated recorded sound sources rather than directly from instruments. schaeffer’s idea was to arrange the sounds of the world itself—birdsong, traffic, that “zwip zwip” sound that corduroy pants make—into compositions and create a new system of notation for this process. but he ran up against technological and theoretical obstacles. here’s an excerpt from his diary in 1948:
June 4. There is no instrument on which to play concrete music. That is the main difficulty. Or else we have to imagine a huge cybernetic-like machine that can achieve millions of combinations, and we're not there yet. As long as I have no more than two or four turntables that make only approximate transitions, I shall remain horribly imprisoned in a discontinuous style where everything seems to have been hacked out with a billhook. Is there a compromise?
despite the difficulty of his project, he pressed on through the grmc and then the grm, recruiting like-minded composers and musicians who wanted to create music outside of the confines of traditional instrumentation and notation. no single “cybernetic-like machine” appeared before schaeffer’s death in 1995, though today’s laptops and daws do seem to come close. but as late as 1986, schaeffer admitted defeat: “unfortunately it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside 'do ré mi'... in other words, i wasted my life.” well, any sane music enthusiast would call his invention of musique concrète anything but a waste. for one thing, the grm still exists as perhaps the preeminent institution for research into the recording, arrangement, and playback of both acoustic and synthetic sound. the people he recruited to help in this massive endeavor took wildly different directions in their approach to the problem, leaving subsequent generations with a thrilling archive of eclectic experimental music. folks like autechre and demdike stare are not only fans, but their projects literally could not exist without the work done at the grm.
the Big Names associated with the grm—pierre schaeffer, iannis xenakis, luc ferrari, bernard parmegiani—are folks who will eventually get their own dedicated issues in the newsletter, because this is right bullseye in the dead center of the newsletter’s wheelhouse, but this issue provides brief introductions to some of the lesser-known artists who have been reissued through editon mego’s recollections grm series. stick around (or i guess scroll down) to the end for a compilation i created consisting of choice tracks from these and other grm artists. five artists in no particular order:
though grm is most closely associated with musique concrète it’s important to remember that musique concrète isn’t all sampling pots and pans and throwing your shoes down the hallway. beginning as early as the ‘60s a contingent of grm-ers focused on computer music. jean-claude risset dedicated his career to researching computer synthesis and psychoacoustic phenomena in a series of positions at places like ircam and mit. a couple of fun factoids is that he helped create the shepard-risset glissando which sounds like it’s constantly rising and the risset rhythm which sounds like it’s constantly speeding up. these types of audial illusions explain the escher-like design on the recollection grm cover. but really the more interesting parts of his work deal with the use of computers to replicate natural sound. he spent some time at bell labs, for example, recreating the sounds of brass instruments. “sud” alternates between field recordings and synthesized sounds, gradually overlapping them until they are hard to distinguish. bird calls and insect chirps and waves butt up against digital bleeps and washes until they reach a mutually illuminating detente.
françois bayle might be best known for inventing the acousmonium, which is an 80-speaker soundsystem designed to create an immersive concert experience. he called it “another utopia, devoted to pure ‘listening.’” here is a very good interview with him about it, wherein he talks about the influence of pre- and post-’68 politics, set design, and contemporary sound editing software on the invention and use of the acousmonium. he also says some stuff about haydn and beethoven that blew my mind. check out this screengrab:
anyway he also composed a whole slew of music for ina-grm, including “tremblement de terre très doux.” if it’s not obvious from the picture, he’s something of a mad genius when it comes to sound design, and all of his madness and genius is apparent here. everything is panned and layered just so, so that even though it’s from 1978 it sounds like it was recorded tomorrow. just my opinion but since i’m the authority in this here newsletter i’d say this is among the best that the grm produced.
beatriz ferreyra is one of the few women who is associated with the grm, and like eliane radigue she was first only an assistant in the production of others’ works. she stayed at the grm from 1963-1970, after which she left to pursue film music, therapy music, and ballet music. later she also worked with bernard baschet on his “structures sonores” and, like michel redolfi (below), with jon appleton at dartmouth’s digital music studio. perhaps most indicative and most damning of women’s role in the grm is the fact that while she was there she worked on schaeffer’s “solfège de l'objet sonores” doing all the heavy lifting with no credit. kim courchene asked her in an interview for Computer Music Journal in 2001, “it has been rumored that you actually did a lot more work on the ‘solfège’ and in developing new techniques for tape manipulation of sound than perhaps you were given credit for,” to which she responded “yes, i made a lot of examples for the ‘solfège’ because we had to see if the ideas and techniques actually worked—if they were viable.” she then describes schaeffer’s work in the glowing terms that are common among those who knew him—a distressing mixture of sincere admiration of genuine genius and surrender to the sexist institution that ensured she worked for, and not with, him. as you can hear above, though, ferreyra’s music very much stands on its own—skip ahead to the 6:20 mark to hear vicious noise that abruptly stops, plummeting the listener into silence. these insane dynamic ranges are all over her music, which she still, at 82 years old, performs for the younger set.
so in 1979 michel redolfi went to the beach and became obsessed with the idea of ocean waves as a metaphor for “the history of the planet’s energy,” as he says in his liner notes, and recorded a piece called “pacific tubular waves” for the synclavier. standard hippie fare i guess but THEN he got the idea to re-record the whole thing under the actual ocean. so later that year he went to la jolla, california and, using waterproof equipment, recorded his piece underwater. then he took THAT recording and interspersed it among a new piece called “immersion” that imagines the listener immersing into the ocean from the surface, to partially, to profoundly, to totally (except in french). listen above: waves and such are most noticeable of course, but if you pay attention there’s some synth sounds making their way through. the original lp sleeve is in goofy 3-d, which is replicated on the recollection grm re-issue as well.
i know i told you that these five artists are associated with the grm but editions mego made an exception for jaap vink so i will too. vink is a dutch electronic artist (he prefers “technician” over “composer”) who worked with no (or low)-input feedback generated by giant modular synths. françois bonnet, current artistic director of the grm and collaborator with peter rehberg on these reissues, saw a picture of a crazy modular synth at jim o’rourke’s apartment in tokyo:
he tracked down the person responsible for that madness, which happened to be an almost-unknown technician who worked at utrecht’s institute of sonology. kees tazelaar, a faculty member at the institute, asked vink if his recordings could be issued through editions mego and he said yes. sasha-frere jones has an excellent article on the whole story over at 4columns, where he describes vink’s process:
Vink introduced input from one source or another, but much of the sound was coming from the feedback generated within a system of tape machines and synthesizer modules chained together. If we think of voltage as a natural occurrence, then this is a natural process: signals varying as they meet and combine, with only intermittent human intervention.
because vink was working on this stuff as early as the mid-60s, it might be some of the earliest passively machine-generated music. while it didn’t come directly from the grm, the idea that this music retroactively fits into a larger framework that can include both models is not without merit. jones argues that “now, these streams [within the history of electronic music] have all converged and younger electronic musicians working with both software and hardware are aware of people like pierre schaeffer, founder of grm and father of musique concrète. having access to the work of someone like vink, who was exploring the possibilities of sound with the best analogue equipment available, while free of any commercial restraints, is not a minor development.” i think i’d prefer to keep my historical streams as unconverged as possible, but vink’s work certainly can be considered in the same light as grm folks like radigue’s, providing a more chaotic, random version of her intensely patient and practiced modular drones.
ah i forgot to mention that the cover art for all these reissues was designed by sunn o)))’s stephen o’malley. well, now you know. and just to make sure you don’t leave the house, i’ve got…
Something to Keep You Occupied
while you are responsibly socially distancing yourself. i’ve created an mp3 album that includes a few folks i talked about above and a few folks i didn’t. get it quick because the link will expire in one week (that’ll be 3/23/20). it’s 11 tracks, 96 minutes so by my math if you play it 15 times in a row you’ll get through the day. all these songs come from recollection grm reissues of classic grm albums, so if you like anything that you hear go buy it from the source.
oh wait and also, if you want to watch a documentary about musique concrète featuring some grm folks go here. that’ll get you set for another hour and a half or so. ok be safe out there and stay inside and i’ll see you next week.