Bernard Parmegiani
Bernard Parmegiani at work in 1980

Aficionados of Bernard Parmegiani favour a particular term of respect when talking about the great man. And that term is “dude”. When the revered French electronic composer and musician died in November at the age of 86, the blogosphere was buzzing with eulogies tracing his influence on the likes of Sonic Youth and Aphex Twin, with personal accounts of Damascene moments when, during the twilight hours, in some dimly lit room, his music just kind of . . . clicked.

This might seem unlikely. In photographs, Parmegiani appears to belong to a much earlier era – George V beard, home-knit sweaters, often a pipe in hand – and his work has been dismissed as cerebral and austere, the stuff of post-grad courses, not concert programmes. But, as organisers of the first major UK retrospective of his work are keen to point out, Parmegiani was one of the 20th century’s great cultural innovators, an artist who sought inspiration in rock music as well as free jazz, film and found sounds, who seized the opportunities of new technology and who is said to have influenced art forms from early hip hop to contemporary sound art.

“He’s so rarely featured in core programmes in the UK,” says Lucy Railton, one of the four founders of the London Contemporary Music Festival, a not-for-profit arts commissioning agency behind the three-day event. “But almost everyone who has worked with electronic music will have worked very closely with, or been influenced by, his work.”

Parmegiani was born into a musical family in Paris in 1927 and (in an incongruous twist) trained as a mime artist with Jacques Lecoq before joining Pierre Schaeffer’s experimental Groupe de Recherches Musicales around 1960. Schaeffer had pioneered the development of musique concrète, a method of composition involving electronic montage, in the 1940s and through GRM he began to explore these techniques. At first, Parmegiani worked with colleagues including Iannis Xenakis but he soon developed his own practice.

At its inaugural event last summer, LCMF presented Parmegiani’s “De Natura Sonorum”, a landmark work from 1975 that features the sound of acoustic instruments, including a soft tabla snap, alongside complex knotted jingles and dirty electronic twangs. This year’s retrospective includes performances of “Violostries”, a notable early work from 1964 that uses violin and tape to sinister, psychedelic effect, and “La Roue Ferris” (1971), which pits a sort of looping electronic coloratura against a series of violent interruptions.

Each evening, Parmegiani’s pieces will be supplemented by new works from leading electronic artists, including Rashad Becker, musician and mastering engineer, and producer Sebastian Gainsborough, aka Vessel.

Parmegiani’s omnivorous tastes have proved a mixed blessing. He earned fans across many genres but his work is often forgotten in the fast-crystallising canon of 20th-century music. The Southbank’s “The Rest is Noise” festival, for example, included work by Schaeffer and Xenakis but nothing by Parmegiani. Part of the problem is that curators have been slow to acknowledge that traditional concert venues, with fixed seating and acoustics, may not be the best spaces for contemporary music.

Album sleeve for ‘Pop’eclectic’
Album sleeve for ‘Pop’eclectic’ (1968)

LCMF have found a seemingly apt venue for the child of musique concrète: a former carpet factory in London’s east end. “It’s a classic concrete-shell warehouse space,” says Sam Mackay, another LCFM founder, “but it’s got this crazy mezzanine and that’s something we’ve been able to incorporate into the presentation, so you have a double aspect on to the space, and that’s exciting.”

Another challenge to Parmegiani’s work is the scarcity of performers – or rather, “diffusers” – who are sufficiently skilled. For the LCMF event, several current members of GRM will form part of a team diffusing Parmegiani’s music through a Music & Audio Sound Theatre system of 32 loudspeakers.

Interest in Parmegiani’s work has been encouraged by the recent reissue of many of his recordings, characterised by their swirling op art cover designs (highly collectable in their time). And this has led to a better understanding of performance requirements. Railton and Mackay speculate whether it would have been possible to present these works in such a way 10 or 15 years ago, not least Parmegiani’s hour-and-a-bit-long film work, La Création du Monde, a monumental “sound picture” that dramatises the Big Bang.

On the final night, Florian Hecker, a German-born musician and sound artist, will perform his own software-based work in a line-up including Parmegiani’s “Dedans dehors” (1977), a throbbing, tinny track that anticipates 1980s techno, and his “Espèces d’espaces” (2002), which references George Perec’s 1974 book of the same name. “It’s rude to choose, as Gilbert and George say, so I’m happy with this pairing,” says Hecker. Like others, he is reluctant to admit direct influence but identifies a particular quality of timbre in Parmegiani’s work.

It is not clear whether the two men ever met, but Perec and Parmegiani shared – alongside creative facial hair and an attraction to pattern, collage and the absurd – an interest in airports. In Espèces d’espaces, Perec (years before Spielberg’s The Terminal) pondered the reality of living in a terminal building. Three years earlier, Parmegiani had composed an “indicatif” for the PA system at Charles de Gualle airport, a bubbling flourish lasting three seconds (now available as an MP3 track or ringtone) that prefaced announcements for the next three decades. “It can be seen as the quintessence of a certain period in electroacoustic music,” Hecker says of the piece. “I don’t know any other composer who has a key work that lasts just a few seconds.”

Although the “Indicatif Roissy” was officially replaced in 2005, there are rumours that the motif returns occasionally; such tales have helped to whip up a cult-like following for Parmegiani that thrives on the elusive, mystical quality of his work.

“If I must define what the ‘Parmegiani sound’ is,” the composer himself said in a 2002 interview, “then it’s a kind of movement, a kind of colour, a way of starting and a way of fading the sound, a way of bringing life into it,” adding, perhaps a little mischievously, “I do consider sounds as living things.”

Runs March 20-23.

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