A Shaman of Electroacoustics

Michel Chion
Sambas pour un jour de pluie / La machine à passer le temps / On n’arrête pas le regret
INA e 5005.
Participants on “On n’arrête pas le regret”: Andy MacIntyre; prepared piano, Pascale Ebel, Jean-Pierre Colas & Michel Chion; voices.
Duration: 30:10.

Once I produced a radio program in Swedish Channel 2 with the music of Michel Chion, in a summer series with electroacoustics that I hosted. I was completely obsessed at that time with Chion’s “Requiem”, which I had had for quite a while on an LP from INA – GRM (AM 689.05) with that famous cover with a medieval European man ringing the bell for the plague. Now the piece had been issued on a CD on empreintes DIGITALes (IMED-9312), so I had picked it up again. I also got his “Préludes à la vie” on IMED-9523, and of course I could not resist “Le Tentation de Saint-Antoine” and “La Rondeon INA C 2002.

I was looking for some kind of text that would get the listeners in the right mood for “Requiem”, and found what I was looking for in the basement of the Police Authority of the little Swedish town of Nyköping, where I found a series of government issued rules and regulations, starting back in 1813 and continuing up to our days, with one thick book for each year with the collected rules and regulations on current issues. The text was hard to read, with an old German type of font that was used in the 19th Century, but I learned how to read it, and found a number of pages offering regulations on how to behave to avoid catching the Cholera. A vivid account of all the dreadful symptoms of Cholera was also provided. One piece of advice to stay well was to hang sheets soaked with vinegar in the house, and not to eat rotten meat or sleep out on the cold ground. I used the text about Cholera in the radio program, and I think the impression was quite powerful, as an introduction to Michel Chion’s “Requiem”. Another time I made a private text-sound composition about the horrible fate of the ship Estonia, which sunk in the Baltic Sea and drowned more than eight hundred passengers in September of 1996. I mixed the radio traffic from and to Estonia right up to the actual sinking with some parts of Chion’s “Requiem”, and the effect was horrifying. Since that piece is crowded over with copyright problems, I have kept it to myself.

Michel Chion 1972
(Photo: Robert Cahen. Adaption: I. L. Nordin)

Anyhow, with this background I just liked to stress the fact that there really is some kind of meaty medieval death/sex feel to the electroacoustic works of Mr. Chion, placing him in a long, steady Central European tradition all the way from the likes of Rabelais, Grünewald, Arcimboldo and Bosch. Paradoxically, the latest electronic means of shaping sound are well suited for making illustrious representations of age-old dramas. Chion has amply demonstrated this.

This CD from
INA; called “On n’arrête pas le regret”, but containing two other pieces too, is more lightweight to its character, but not less imaginative. “Sambas pour un jour de pluie” (“Sambas For a Rainy Day”) (1985) is a pretty humorous piece; supposedly the impressions of a child who stays inside on a hot, muggy thunderous day, until the storm breaks out. Chion also says that the piece is an homage to Debussy. Chion shows that he’s a master of this little format too, in this sonic bagatelle which nonetheless tells a close-up story of the child in the kitchen by the table, with a fly buzzing in and out of view, a dog barking outside and the screech of breaking car some distance off – and you even feel like you get right into the kid’s head, feeling her thoughts and smelling what she smells, with her eyes on level with the table, barely able to look across it.

La machine à passer le temps” (“The Time-Killing Machine”) (1972) is a masterpiece in the small format too. It was issued on an LP from INA – GRM in 1983 (n° 9114 ch). The explanation to these sounds is “the relaxed idle time on holidays”, but really, it could be anything, even though the setting may inspire associations to late 19th Century outings with bottles of wine, moustaches and blankets; the whole middle class perspective. The sounds follow each other in a stream of blonks and plinks of a glassy character, mixed up with many other sonic finds. A pleasurable and intricate little piece, full of innovative ideas, even though it’s supposed to be Chion’s first concrete piece of music.

Michel Chion
(Photo: Stojan Pelko. Adaption: I. L. Nordin)

On n’arrête pas le regret” ("You Can't Stop Regrets") (1975) is a maddening concrete piece which sounds very modern, but which was also first issued on the LP mentioned above, in 1983. The theme provided by Chion here is: “From morning to night, a succession of five children pieces remembering Schumann”. This is quite lovely, at times surprising, but always with this uncanny feel for the medium, the concrete, electroacoustic possibilities, which sometimes tend to crowd some composers, but not so Chion. He is truly fastidious, choosing the exact sound he wants, and keeping the audio texture lucid and transparent. He applies the sounds with gentle strokes of the brush, and there’s a rarely experienced pleasure coming from listening to this piece.

Chion for sure is one of my favorites when it comes to the special French kind of musique concrète, which in itself is the state of the art musique concrète. We are always welcoming more magic from this electroacoustic shaman!