AMN Reviews: Henri Pousseur / Michel Butor – Paysages Planetaires (Alga Marghen; 2004)

This is a 3cd set of music by Henri Pousseur with an accompanying 60-page booklet of texts by Michel Butor. The CDs are packed away so this write-up is just on the digital files of the music.

Pousseur was a member of the Darmstadt School in the 1950s where he was connected with luminaries such has Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen. Besides composing Electronic and Tape based pieces, he was also influenced by such composers as Bruckner, Schubert, and Webern. In the 1960s, he began an association with French poet/novelist/essayist Michel Butor who penned the texts for the compositions on Paysages Planetaires.

I listened to this over two nights, it’s close to 4 hours of music and to use such hyperbole as “mind-blowing” or “jaw-dropping” etc. would be a severe understatement. The story is, Pousseur was commissioned by a Belgian architect to provide site-specific sound for a new building complex that was under design. Pousseur came up with the idea of a metaphoric clock representing a single terrestrial rotation of the planet highlighting a different part of the world and its indigenous people as the hours, minutes, and seconds advanced. So, what we have here is a massive sonic travelogue of epic proportions that flows along like the hands on a clock face.

The pieces organically glide like the circulatory system of a living entity in a quasi Luc Ferrari-like “Presque Rien” esque fashion. Throughout, the world journey is electronically manipulated, highly processed…basically tweaked till the ends of the universe, much more than Ferrari’s work. Sounds of exotic life, sacred ceremonies, cries of street hawkers, gospel hymns, and all sorts of wild indigenous celebrations originating from far-flung lands to more recognizable city streets, with all ports of call in between. The sounds are ingeniously stitched together and organized to flow naturally across your synapses making it easier for this listener to become present (albeit as an outsider) to whatever sonic film Pousseur wanted you to see.

Very little of this sounds like the “everyday”. The innumerable sound samples sourced from distant, faraway lands would delight ethnomusicologists everywhere. This ties into Pousseur’s stance on cultural and societal input and its effect on our learnings and beliefs. Specifically, Pousseur believed the mind to be a tabula rasa that is filled with experience, awareness, and understanding thrust upon us by the environment we are brought up in. So, in Paysages Planetaires, is Pousseur sharing with us (and by us, I mean the Western world) the result of a culture’s collective experience in sounds and words?

Regardless, there is a very distinct alienness to this particular passage around the planet, and Pousseur does an amazing job of guiding the listener down a rather bizarre path of discovery. With every “tik tok” of the perpetual world clock, we hear representations of wildly disparate cultures and societies, all completely unknown to my ears and all operating from a position of complete unfamiliarity. To add to the queerness of it all, Pousseur chain-linked different cultures which may have lined up in the same hemisphere but were utterly unrelated to each other. Apparently, the only rule was drawing a straight line from wherever the hands of the clock were pointing. As long as the lands were inhabited, any location is fair game to follow the previous location.

The electronic processing over these sounds adds a fascinating layer to the whole set. From unfamiliar sounds, to unfamiliar sounds being electronically tweaked may as well put the listener on another planet. And…it often did, in a most spellbinding and enchanting way!

Hearing this music again, after at least a decade proved to be an incredible experience for me, especially since I committed to being “all in” on the trip. I can highly recommend seeking this box set out, and if you do…bon voyage!

Mike Eisenberg