Julien Beau is somewhat of a mysterious artist to me. Partly because he doesn’t seem to be too well known and also because most of the information about his art is in French, which I can’t read.
Beau is an experimental composer and sound artist, combining both composition and improvisation of acoustic and electronic sources “for a chaotic mixture of sonic and textural elements” (Julien Beau: About). As a practitioner of Musique Concerete, he explores the use of musical instruments, everyday objects, and electronic sounds. His albums were published by music label Aposiopèse, which is an interesting, artsy term in itself: a sentence which is left to the reader to complete. He works closely with SCRIME and INA-GRM, organizations dedicated to musical creation and research (Aposiopèse).
The video we watched in lecture appears to be a demonstration of his piece Les Poupées de Népenthès. It was performed on October 13, 2014, in Studio 116 of Radio France, which is primarily used by INA-GRM, a division of the National Audiovisual Institute of France. For over 60 years, the studio has “[fostered] and [encouraged] the development of electronic music (Furious).
Les Poupées de Népenthès, or The Dolls of Nepenthes, is performed using prepared piano, which is “a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects between or on the strings”. The technique which dates back to the 1940s, when the use of the instrument was pioneered by the famous avant-garde composer John Cage.
Looking closely at the video, you can find a wide assortment of items scattered across the piano strings: a clothes hanger, beaded necklaces, screws, spoons, a call bell, statuettes, and so on. In addition to pressing the keys, he also uses a rod to brush the handles of the spoons, creating resonating, bell-like gongs. In the recorded version, he combines these organic noises with electronic sounds to create a very eerie, suspenseful track. It’s a combination of the acoustic with electronic, like a modern take on John Cage’s work.
According to Beau’s blog post on the piece (if you understand French, a translation would be super cool—Google Translate is awful), it’s a short poetic piece composed to sound like a music box, with themes of “dreams and loneliness, play and ritual, the hope of the day and a trap in the night”.
It raises questions about fear and desire, on the strength of determination, and the inescapable straitjacket of nature. — Julien Beau
But is the straitjacket of nature really inescapable? The modification of the piano to create such unfamiliar sounds parallels the modification of the human body to no longer resemble itself.
Where do our boundaries lie?
Much of the art we’ve looked at so far seeks to stretch our natural bounds. However, despite incredible advances in biology and medicine, our limits have only been stretched—death is still far from inevitable. At the same time, is our virtual presence a form of escape from death? We may be physically dead, but a fragment of ourselves remains online.
Is a prepared piano still a piano, or does it become an entirely different instrument of its own? How different does it have to be to be considered different? One might say, it’s just a piano with things thrown in it! But a viola is just a larger violin with thicker strings, after all. How large does a violin have to be before it is considered a viola? How much modification does a human have to go through before they have surpassed the idea of a “human”? Exactly how many ears would Stelarc have to implant on himself before he is considered an abomination?
What is natural?
Why do prepared piano pieces often sound eerie or unsettling? Part of it may have to do with how they’re played. It’s like a horror movie condensed into music. The unique sounds and unpredictable pauses between each note create a sense of suspense—you never know what’s coming next.
It might also be because these are unnatural sounds for a piano. The unfamiliar often creates fear. Why might a person with more than 2 ears be considered an abomination? Because it’s unnatural? The uncanny valley might also apply to sounds. A piano shouldn’t sound like this. It sounds very close to a piano, but it’s not. Is it broken? Is it sick? If a piano can sound sick, can it also be hurt?
On this video of a prepared piano piece by John Cage, a commenter shows concern for the piano being “hurt”. If pain is a social construct (Wilson 149), can inanimate things also feel pain? We’ve recently discovered that trees can feel pain. Can a piano? Whether or not it can, why would we associate pain with an inanimate object in the first place? Our sentimental value for an object may create an illusion that the object has feelings too, which also raises concern for our tendency to anthropomorphize things.
In the end, even though a prepared piano is just an animate object and incapable of acting on its own, it shares many of the concerns usually reserved for humans.
P.S. See Mia Maguire’s post for more on Musique Concrete.