The History of French Electronic Music, a brief history in support of a “Best Of” compilation.
The 1970s have been referred to as the Golden Age of French electronic music. This is because the French government decided to subsidize the recording of electronic music, and also because it was the first time that French musicians began to make exciting and innovative recordings with synthesizers.
During this period, many important albums were made at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), a sound research laboratory that was founded by Pierre Henry in 1958 and Maurice Béjart in 1960. Other albums were recorded at INA-GRM studios. Among the most important people working at GRM and INA during this time were Bernard Parmegiani, François Bayle, Luc Ferrari, Iannis Xenakis, and Philippe Arthuys. These were all men who had worked with Pierre Schaeffer at one time or another. Pierre Schaeffer was an early pioneer in the field of musique concrète and a true innovator in the field of electroacoustic music. He was born in 1910 near Paris and died of cancer on August 19, 1995.
He began experimenting with sounds in the 1930s after becoming interested in radio
The history of Electronic Music in France is a fascinating one. It’s a history which is intertwined with the development of French radio, in particular the public radio station Radiodiffusion Television Francaise (RTF). It’s also a history which has been influenced by both French and American culture.
French interest in electronic music generated from an exploration of new musical ideas by composers such as Pierre Schaeffer, Guy Reibel, Luc Ferrari and Bernard Parmegiani. In 1955, Pierre Henry created what is described as France’s first electroacoustic composition entitled “Vox Populi”. Henry continued to experiment with new sounds throughout his career. His work with Michel Colombier led to the album “Messe Pour Le Temps Present” (1967) on Philips Records. The album was recorded at Studio Andre Perry and featured synthesizers, organs and other electronic instruments combined with orchestras, choirs and rock musicians playing guitars, basses and percussion. The result was a vision into the future of music. While it may sound dated today, this was truly innovative for its time.
By the mid-seventies Pierre Schaeffer had become director general of RTF’s ORTF network. He established a studio
It is difficult to know where to begin. Ask the average music lover about French electronic music and you will be met with a blank stare, even though the French have been at the forefront of electronic innovation for nearly 40 years.
But electronic music is such a vast subject that it can be hard to see its history in any kind of coherent way. Like most people, I’m a sucker for lists — if you want me to read your article, just add “Top Ten” or “Ten Best” to the title and I’ll be there. So that’s what I’ve done here; this essay is the result of my attempt to make a list of the ten most important moments in French electronic music history.
It’s not comprehensive; I may have left something important out, or chosen something less important than it seems now only because we don’t yet know its ultimate significance. If so, I hope some reader will point out my mistakes.
“The French have a singular love affair with electronic music,” has been a common refrain throughout the past couple of decades. A broad statement, to be sure, but an accurate one: the history of French electronic music is marked by an insatiable thirst for experimentation and innovation.
That said, it’s worth noting that the earliest traces of electronic music in France came not from any native-born artist, but from the Russian-born inventor Lev Termen, who lived in Paris during the 1920s. Termen, who is better known as Léon Theremin, developed his eponymous instrument in 1920 at his laboratory in Moscow. The theremin allowed its player to manipulate two antennae — one controlling pitch and the other amplitude — to produce a variety of sounds that were typically described as eerie or ghostly.
In 1928 Theremin moved to New York City, where he established himself as a professor of electronics at Columbia University and founded the RCA Theremin Company. The theremin was quickly adopted by American composers such as Henry Cowell and Edgard Varèse, who used it in their experimental compositions. Meanwhile, Theremin’s protégé Clara Rockmore became its most prominent virtuoso.
Before long though it was clear that the
In the mid sixties, when pop music was for the first time getting more and more popular in France, a new generation of musicians appeared with a different mindset. They had been heavily influenced by the new sounds from their English speaking counterparts but also by their French peers like Brigitte Fontaine and Jacques Higelin. With their own unique way to make music, they were able to give a new meaning to an old form of art. The birth of French electronic music started there.
The first electronic music was made in France in 1964 by Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley (Perrey et Kingsley). Their EP “Poupee Mecanique” was recorded on tape and consisted mainly of recordings of human voices which were then modified with an echo chamber. It was released on the Barclay label under the name “Kaleidoscopic Vibrations” and featured two tracks: “E.V.A.” and “Baroque Hoedown”, both composed by Perrey et Kingsley in collaboration with Raymond Scott. The EP is now considered as one of the first examples of what would later become known as electroacoustic music or musique concrete. Another artist who started experimenting with electronics at this time was Pierre Henry who released
In the beginning electronic music was made by mad scientists and earnest amateurs. Then in the 1970s German musicians discovered that it was also possible to make pop music with synthesizers. By the early 80s, French musicians were at the forefront of a new wave of European pop performers.
French bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream had made pioneering albums in the past, but it took a generation of post-punk artists to really bring synthesizers into the mainstream. They were helped greatly by the arrival of affordable synths like the Yamaha DX7, which allowed acts with limited financial resources to create music that sounded uniquely modern and high-tech.
By the mid-80s, French pop bands were consistently topping charts around the world.
In the early 1900s, Edgard Varèse, a French composer and conductor of Italian origin, was experimenting with sound and its manipulation through technology. By the early 1920s, he had begun to experiment with electronic instruments in Paris. In 1930, he composed his first electronic piece, Hyperprism. He is credited with coining the term “musique concrète” – which describes electronic music made from prerecorded natural and industrial sounds.