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Collage, montage and the composer Pierre Henry: The real, the concrete, the abstract in sound art and music

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In his book Theory of the Avant-Garde ([1974] 1984) Peter Bürger claims that the technique of ‘collage’ introduced ‘reality fragments’ into paintings. He went on to emphasize the fundamental importance of both ‘collage’ and ‘montage’: ‘A theory of the avant-garde must begin with the concept of montage that is suggested by the early cubist collages’. For Bürger the consequences of using ‘reality fragments’ were profound: the artwork was transformed and, as a result, the ‘organic’ nature of art itself was challenged. In many ‘collages’ the artist ensures that ‘reality fragments’ coexist (uneasily perhaps) with painted, abstract representations of the world. This article explores these topics within the context of teaching a module on the undergraduate Fine Art course at Middlesex University. The teaching is seminar-based in groups of up to fifteen students with a particular emphasis on understanding the relationships between practical work and underlying theoretical assumptions. In order to tease out these relationships I introduce examples from the works of the French composer Pierre Henry who collaborated with Pierre Schaeffer at the very beginnings of musique concrète. Henry’s work is chosen as an example of the tension between the ‘real-world’ sounds and their possible meanings. The split between Henry and Schaeffer was in hindsight inevitable given the former’s insistence on exploiting the significance and intrinsic beauty of ‘real-world’ sounds. By using terminology from Fine Art critiques of the avant-garde I shall demonstrate in this article that many of Henry’s later compositions can be examined by means of formal concepts such as ‘collage’ and ‘montage’ within a pedagogical framework. Problematic terms such as ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ will also form part of this enquiry.
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Keywords: Schaeffer; abstract; collage; concrete; montage; sound art

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Middlesex University

Publication date: December 1, 2013

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  • The Journal of Music, Technology and Education (JMTE) explores the issues concerning the use of technology in music education. It examines pedagogy at all levels and across genres such as composition, musicology, performance and music production. It is the only journal specifically dedicated to the educational aspects of music technology and the technological aspects of music. Peer-reviewed, with an international editorial board, JMTE aims to draw its contributions from a broad community of educators, researchers and practitioners who are working closely with new technologies in the fields of music education and music technology education.
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