It’s not often Bowlegs gets the chance to pick the brains of a highly respected academic but on this occasion we managed to snaffle some time with a busy Jean Piché, creator of the magnificent and recently reissued Heliograms. Jean shares his thoughts on academia, music making, the all conquering computer and lost classics of the seventies.
Bowlegs: How you feel about the current interest in missing, presumed lost, works of electronic innovation, such as your now reissued Heliograms and what you feel they can teach current practitioners about electronic production?
Jean: I am very pleased by the re-release because the music in Heliograms is holding its own above and beyond a rediscovered artefact from the early days of computer music. Much music was made in the 70s and 80s that was extremely adventurous in a myriad of ways. Much of it is wrapped in a certain academic conceit but I am certain that many works will rise from the ashes as people realize that technologically based music making goes back more than half a century.
From where we stand today and with the astounding technological advances of the last four decades, it is difficult to remember that sound was not always so easy to make. At the time, this led to a situation where the act of composition was mortgaged in favor of “new” soundings. The aesthetic premium was placed on materials because they required much time, craft and engineering. But now sound is easier to make than ever before, and this is at once a deliverance and a challenge for practitioners. Moving from the preoccupation/obsession for pure sound allows structure and meaning in the music the determining role it really should have. In other words, the medium is becoming sonically transparent. Music is the meaning, not the way it is made or even how it sounds. The writing makes the music.
Bowlegs: Perhaps you could give us a little background to the time you put together Heliograms, something of your musical history and how you got started…
Jean: Like many musicians who, early on, espoused experimental music, I came to it from a non-traditional musical upbringing. I was part of the first generation that used the garage as a music school. I kept going for a few years until I discovered the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Henry. At university, I successfully argued my way into a full music program so I could get access to the brand new analog synthesizers that just arrived. I did have to compress five years of piano lessons into one but when I got there I never looked back.
The following few years were spent arguing my way through the intricacies of a Synthi AKS and a full Moog modular. I was a big fan of the Sonic Arts Union who were doing wild experimental things out of Ann Arbour in Michigan. In 1971 I was part of a group of like minded students who started a live electronics group which must have been a first, at least in Canada. We had Synthi AKS and ARP 2600 synthesizers and fed sounds from acoustic instruments into the synth’s VCAs and ring modulators. It was the glorious era of beeps and quacks in electronic music but the nature of the instruments meant we were never quite certain what would come out. I grew weary of this unpredictability in the end and immediately took to digital computers as a way to move further, musically and sonically.
Bowlegs: Maybe, for the less technical amongst us, you could outline some of the differences between the methods of composition that you were developing at the time of Heliograms and those which were available to other electronic composers at the time.
Jean: In the late 1970s, computer music was still in its infancy, hidden in the air-conditioned bowels of academic buildings. These places didn’t have much to do with music making. But some important developments were coming online and this was the only way to take advantage of them. Yet, at the time, most electronic music was produced with racks full of analog gear. The compositional approaches for both media were completely different.. For example, frequency modulation techniques for sound generation could only be used on computers. Also, stochastic (controlled random) methods for the generation of structures were not available in the analog realm. That being said, I still needed the analog studio to put together and mix the music. Computer were not powerful enough to do all these things in a reasonable amount of time.
Bowlegs: Could you describe the set up that produced Heliograms and tell us something about the processes you used to arrive at the sounds and the tracks you composed?
Jean: Two of the earlier works (La mer à l’aube and Heliograms) were synthesized on a Hewlett-Packard 2116 mini-computer that sat in a psychology lab using Barry Truax’s POD programs for synthesis and composition. Rouge was synthesized on a Varian-V70 mini-mainframe and Ange was done using the Systems Concept Digital Synthesizer at Stanford University in 1978. The SCDS (the Samson Box), the world’s first digital synthesizer, was in fact a special purpose signal processing mainframe computer. It could generate 256 audio signals in real-time and served as the development platform for the famous Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer.
All the pieces on Heliograms were done using variants of the frequency modulation (FM) algorithms developed by Dr. John Chowning in 1974. I also used many additive synthesis techniques to enrich the sonic vocabulary of FM, notably by stacking up to 500 micro-tuned FM voices which blend into single sonic gestalts because their harmonic are very finely correlated. This is heard in a somewhat dramatic fashion in the Heliograms title track.
Bowlegs: What was the artistic ethos behind the project – was it to showcase technological innovation in an ‘academic’ way or was it about the compositions themselves? Did the technology drive the compositions or vice versa?
Jean: When I moved to Vancouver in 1976, after being in Europe for a while, it was to study environmental music with Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. I ended up spending more time in the computer rooms but aesthetically more important to me was the rise of American minimalism and particularly the west coast variants coming out of the American experimentalist tradition. Terry Riley was a major influence along with the spoken works of Robert Ashley and the droning textures of Pauline Oliveros. As a young composer in Canada, these were unusual influences. My experimentations in the lab were technological but my musical aims were to emulate the music that was bathing the California coast in the mid-70s. Therefore, much of this fell flat in Canadian academia, where music of a more European tradition was venerated. But my priority was never to impress my academic peers. So I would say the composition superseded the technology but, at the same time, I couldn’t have obtained the unique sound I was getting, without the technology.
Bowlegs: Was there ever an intention to take this outside the academe and ‘perform’ it in some way or was it always conceived as a ‘studio’ based exercise?
Jean: It was always a studio approach because it couldn’t be anything else at the time. Getting a minute of sound often meant days of full time computation and you just couldn’t carry the computers on stage. Mind you, a few years later I did many live performances, often times in collaborations with video artists. Joan Gillerman is a Bay Area video artist with whom I performed with for awhile. Some of the work can be seen on my Vimeo site. When we had this group earlier in the 70s, analog synthesizers were not trustworthy enough to “sound” as they did in the studio. With the advent of digital samplers this changed of course. By the way I am hoping to release some of my early sampler work from the 80s. Most of it was done on a Fairlight CMI. More on that later, I hope. Brad (from Digitalis) and I are slowly working up a plan.
Bowlegs: How did you see these compositions as fitting in with other electronic music of the time?Did you see any similarities and were there any other artists that you felt an affinity with?
Jean: Terry Riley was one of my musical heroes although he didn’t do much electronic music beyond a sophisticated tape delay system and micro-tuned Farfisa organs. I was probably trying to emulate the musical space he was defining: droning, meditative and not shy to take its time. Maggi Payne, also from San Francisco was working in the same direction although I did not know her at the time.
Bowlegs: Do you hear the influence of these techniques on current electronic artists and if so are there any artists that you would point to?
Jean: I like the work of many composers nowadays but relatively few in electronic music. I am drawn to acoustic music now, perhaps out of the realisation that performance is the truest state of the art of music. And I mean performing as in actually playing the notes that are heard, without the assistance of technological devices. In that sense I think Arvo Pärt is probably the most important composer alive today. But there are too many others to name who are also making extraordinary contributions.
Bowlegs: We’d like you to tell us a little about the ideas behind the album title. Helios was the God of the Sun suggesting heat and light but the works contained on the album have an almost icy, waterborne feel – how do you relate the title to the atmospheres of the tracks themselves?
Jean: Heliograms are messages/images etched on glass or metal with sunlight. It was an early implementation of photography. I remember having this mise-en-scène in my head as I was working on the album: sitting in a comfortable chair somewhere half way between Mars and the Sun, outside all refraction fields from the atmosphere. With powerful telescopic sunglasses, I am examining enormous solar flares slowly evolving into magical shapes in the far distance. The large chords in Heliograms brought this image forwards and it stuck when I chose the title.
The “coolness” exhibited in La mer à l’aube and Ange are from a different locale but retain this observant position. Rouge is the exception in the cycle of works. In Rouge I was fascinated by the possibility of forging sonic compounds out of precisely tuning multiple stacked FM voices. I was really looking for a sound paradox in which many layers of sounds are perceived as one by virtue of harmonic fusion. It works quite well I find and having Rouge progressively dissolve into Heliograms worked well as both pieces used the same technique. The result is a rather paradoxical “monophonic polyphony”, sound-wise anyway.
Bowlegs: I recently interviewed Suzanne Ciani about her Lixiviation reissue and we discussed the idea of male and female approaches to synthesis and the production of electronic sounds. She said that she felt that the male approach to synthesis in the seventies tended to produce a kind of thrusting rhythmic emphasis in the music at odds with her slowly evolving wave based approach to composition. How do you feel these kinds of issues relate to your methods on Heliograms and electronic music of the period in general?
Jean: Suzanne may have something there but, for my sake, it is not to do with gender so much as geography, aesthetic affinities and, most importantly, new musical vistas made possible by emerging digital technologies. Working with computers at the time allowed things you could not do otherwise. It was suddenly possible to do massive precisely tuned drones with very dynamic internal timbral shifts. These “chords” take time to unfold and they perhaps explains the “slowness” of some of the works. Before Rouge, I didn’t do much rhythmically affirmative music. Not so after this cycle of works or presently!
Head here to get more info on the recently reissued and sublime Heliograms (out on Digitalis)
-Interview by Mark Williams-