Symphonie pour un homme seul and the Origins of Musique Concrete and Experimental Dance

VIS 159: A Case Study of Symphonie pour un homme seul and the Origins of Musique Concrete

I found this week’s lecture to be very inspiring and thought-provoking. Although I usually don’t enjoy contemporary performance art, experimental, or “noise,” music, I was absolutely fascinated by the video that Professor Catwright showed during the lecture featuring the ballet performance accompanying the score composed by Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer called Symphonie pour un homme seul. While the score came out in 1950, the ballet performance that used Schaeffer and Henry’s music occurred in 1955. I felt that this video not only exemplified the connection to body, music, and technological manipulations of sound but also relates to some of the ideas that were expressed by Wilson in this week’s reading regarding performance art, dance, and other forms of art and performance in which artists use their bodies as a canvas to express their ideas and to challenge social conceptions of the body and rapid rates of technological advancements in relation to their social consequences. When we watched the video in class, I was immediately intrigued by the sonic composition and its perfectly accompanied choreography. It lead me to become curious about what types of themes were expressed and/or what kind of social influences and/or commentary was attempting to be conveyed. I felt that at some points of the composition, themes of feminism and male versus female dominance and sub ordinance were being explored along with emotional states and suicide near the end of the performance. This led me to do some more research regarding the context of this piece.

The choreographer that responsible for providing the dance performance in unison with the music by Henry and Schaeffer was a French choreographer and ballet dancer named Maurice Bejart. He deemed this work a “philosophical ballet,” and had noted that it was the first ballet to ever feature experimental music. The theme of the ballet/concert Symphonie pour un homme seul was human alienation and the difficulty of human interaction and communication and Bejart was inspired by the philosopher Jean Paul Satre (Christout 427). This is perhaps reflective of the postwar disillusionment of the time period that plagued many people and inspired many visual and performance artists and art movements including abstract expression. This performance has been cited as the one of the most influential sources for choreography in terms of contemporary dance, as it merges the dance with theatre, philosophy, performance art, and experimental music, in a way that was unprecedented at the time. Symphonie pour un homme seul launched Bejart’s career as an established and Avant garde choreographer and he became known for his theatrical and performative take on traditional ballets. This performance was also exceptional due to its score using musique concrete. Bejart went on to embark on a successful career lasting over four decades in which he continue to use experimental sounds and choreopgraphy including rock and pop music in unison with choreography that challenged the traditional ballet form and style.

Ballet for Life – Maurice Bejart | “Bohemian Rapsody”   (1997). This ballet was intended to celebrate the life of Freddie Mercury. The full version is available to watch on YouTube).

The term Musique Concerete was originally coined by Pierre Schaeffer and has remained widely influential to computerized and technological music. The term stems from the idea that using concrete, abstract, and yet familiar sounds in order to compose music was analogous to building anything and these were the foundations to building music (musiqueconcrete.co.uk). The basic concept of musique concete is to create an “assemblage,” of sound, utilizing organic sounds stemming from everyday objects or places and that are identifiable as coming from conventional music instruments or sounds (Britannica). Schaeffer and Henry began recording sounds from various sources including pots and saucepans, babies crying, railroads, and engines. They were able to manipulate and unify these sounds into one complete work due to recording on quarter inch analogue tape (musiqueconcrete.co.uk). This medium was essential to the ability to compose this type of music as it allowed the musicians to manipulate the sounds in various ways including slowing them down, making it louder, repeating the sound, etc. These manipulations were done using a razor blade in order to physically rework the tape being used.

(This composition by John Lennon is said to have been largely inspired by Musique Concrete and also by performance artist Yoko Ono. Revolution 9 was an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens; just like a drawing of a revolution. All the thing was made with loops. I had about 30 loops going, fed them onto one basic track. I was getting classical tapes, going upstairs and chopping them up, making it backwards and things like that, to get the sound effects. One thing was an engineer’s testing voice saying, ‘This is EMI test series number nine’. I just cut up whatever he said and I’d number nine it. Nine turned out to be my birthday and my lucky number and everything. I didn’t realise it: it was just so funny the voice saying, ‘number nine’; it was like a joke, bringing number nine into it all the time, that’s all it was.” -John Lennon in 1970 )

-Mia Maguire

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