The Man and his Music | Richard Pinhas
We feature one of France's most fascinating Electro-Musicians, and look at the man, his music and the philosophy behind his composition.
Richard Pinhas is one of Europe's most creative electronic musicians. We examine the man and his music — including an exclusive interview and an analysis of his latest album 'L'Ethique'.
It is often said of prophets that they are never accepted in their own country. Richard Pinhas, that quiet, intense Frenchman, who has produced some of the most interesting electronic music of recent years, is a prime example of that truism.
He has been voted number one electronic musician in Japan and he has a dedicated group of followers world-wide (with such notables as Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and Vangelis numbered amongst his friends and admirers) yet the importance of his position in modern music has yet to be realised by his own countrymen. Happily, he is now starting to gain recognition in England.
The basic force behind Pinhas' music is the philosophy from which it stems — and Pinhas is well-grounded in philosophy. He taught at the Sorbonne after receiving his PhD at an early age and he has developed an attitude towards music that goes far beyond the sounds one actually hears to an almost mystical conceptualisation of the meaning behind the sounds.
For Pinhas, music and time are inextricably linked, and in a thesis written for his PhD he elaborates on this relationship.
Man, maintains Pinhas, has no real volitional control over his existence. His mode of being is taken as given and is dictated by the Law of Eternal Recurrence (which has been written about at length by Ouspensky and other mystically minded philosophers). Basically this Law concentrates on the cyclic nature of existence and is extremely fatalistic in emphasis. What man can do, though, is express his own individual existence through an art form such as music, using his will to focus his perceptions into a creative point. Music, when approached in this manner, transcends limitations of time and expresses the eternal through a time based medium.
Some may find this a difficult concept to grasp and, admittedly, I am trying to convey a 21 page doctoral thesis in a few lines which doesn't help matters. But to understand Pinhas' music it is essential to understand the ideas behind it.
This is not to say that Pinhas' compositions are abstract intellectualisations. They are essentially emotional pieces and a sincere attempt at artistic, non-verbal (and therefore non-intellectual) expression. A serious headphone session with Pinhas' latest album 'L'Ethique', which, incidentally, is titled after a work by Spinoza, should make some of the above a bit clearer.
Pinhas has arrived at his present understanding of music after years spent working with many eminent musicians. During the late sixties he formed a blues band which included Klaus Blasquiz (who later turned up as a regular member of the shifting Magma line-up) and followed it up with a jazz-rock group. At the same time he was studying at the Sorbonne where his PhD paper (examining aspects of time) sufficiently impressed the authorities that they offered him a teaching job there. This he accepted and took up the post for one year before quitting in order to concentrate his activities in music.
Between 1971 and 1973 he stopped making music but after he finished at the Sorbonne he recorded the backing tracks of the first Heldon album. The album was made very cheaply with one AKS, a guitar and two Revoxes and Pinhas is the first to admit that the sound was bad and the compositions unachieved. But this album opened up a new direction that Pinhas was able to explore subsequently.
Three more Heldon albums followed — all home recordings — and these early albums all display traces of Pinhas' affection for the music of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. With Heldon's later albums the more overt aspects of Fripp and Eno's influence diminished as the technology they were working with changed. Now working with Francois Auger (drums and percussion) and Didier Batard (bass) Pinhas was using sixteen and twenty-four track equipment instead of his small home set up and his music became less personal taking on a hard metal-electronic direction.
Two solo albums followed, 'Rhizoshere' and 'Iceland', the latter being Pinhas' first release on the British Pulse label, they were followed by 'East-West' and his latest album 'L'Ethique' sees a return to the externalised violence of his earlier work with Heldon. In spite of three computer based compositions the overall feel of the album is that of a band production. The Pinhas band consists of Bernard Paganotti (bass) and Clement Bailly (drums). In addition there are occasional contributions from such Parisian stalwarts as Goude, Gauthier and Grunblatt.
There is no new album planned until 1984 but the title is already fixed as 'Sein und Zeit: The Rise and Fall of Joe Chip". 'Sein und Zeit' is German for 'Being and Time' so Pinhas' interests are certainly consistent. Joe Chip is a Sci-Fi character — Sci-Fi being another of Pinhas' passions.
Pinhas recently performed 'L'Ethique' in its entirety in London at The Venue. The day after the concert Pinhas talked to E&MM and this is what the man had to say.
Do you regard the guitar as your main instrument?
Richard: Yes. I compose on the guitar and I always think that I play guitar, I don't play synthesiser. But I don't know how you can play synthesiser, it is not an instrument, it is a machine that creates sounds but it is not an instrument for somebody who can play. I mean you can make the chords or scales on the synthesiser but that doesn't mean anything, it's just a medium to create on because you can get fantastic sounds, fantastic velocity, and you can explore a lot of fields. For example, in my system you have sixteen tracks, you have floppy discs, you have a lot of things, and you have a lot of sounds but it is not an instrument.
You are really implying that if you approach a synthesiser you would start making sounds rather than playing sounds.
Yes, of course.
Surely a keyboard player can get over that. If I want to compose on a synthesiser I can ignore that quality.
It is better to compose on a Steinway grand concert.
Yes, I agree with you on that. I have a piano in the lounge that I still prefer to sit down at and not be distracted by the interfacing of synthesisers and whatever.
You can use a synthesiser for playing or composition because you know you can transpose, you can play with the sounds, but you can do this in your mind when you have been playing synthesisers for ten years. I think that I can represent in my head all the sounds that an analogical synthesiser, even one with 20 different voices, can do. After years with synthesisers I have started to think like a sound engineer to an extent and have learnt quite a lot about the technical side.
So you consider that a knowledge of the electronic aspects of your instrument is as important as the music.
Yes. I know how to produce any sound using synthesisers and recently my guitar amplifier broke for the first time in 6 years and I repaired it myself, but I am not an electrician. I know all the components of sounds and I am working theoretically with the nature sound.
Let me go back to this interesting point — you are implying that you are using the guitar as a harmonic, melodic and rhythmic instrument, in a traditional sense if you like, but in that initial stage of composing you are not really interested in creating the sound because you already have in your mind a concrete image of what that sound will eventually be, on guitar of synthesiser or whatever. For example, you might eventually put the guitar through a flanger or a harmoniser but what you are implying is that you are still basically, in the first instance, only concerned with the melody and the music itself. Then I listen to your music and I have to say that sometimes I have this feeling, not so much on the new album, that it is very easy for you and I who are using new technology instruments to create new sounds and then to say "this is an effect I like, this is my music for this piece" and one then begins to lose a sense of classical form or whatever.
On the first tracks of 'L'Ethique', I wanted to get away from the technology. All the album has been done with big technology, big synthesisers. I am in a position to have everything I need if I want it, and the first track is the best one for me. It has been done with one Minimoog and one guitar and it sounds bigger than all the things we spent a lot of time on. We made all the rhythms with the Minimoog by hand — not with a sequencer — and we wanted to try to go to the more simple things. I think we have succeeded on this track to get with one thousand pounds worth of instruments (and I have more than £40,000 of computers and everything, including Prophet 10, E-mu system and PPG digital waveform terminal) to produce the best track we can do with the smallest technology — and it sounds like the biggest technology you can imagine.
And all the technology has grown up. I mean that in '74 it was possible to release a record that had been done on a Revox because the standard of the records was very low. It has increased a lot every year, now everybody is recording using digital systems, and the standard of sounds in two years should be higher and higher and higher.
You haven't actually done any digital recording yet?
Not yet. That's the next LP.
What have been your main influences?
The main influences are Richard Wagner and Robert Fripp — definitively.
I like very much what Robert Fripp is doing and I think there is a straight connection between who I see as the three most important people in the history of modern music: Wagner, Bartok and Robert Fripp. But Fripp is the most important composer. It is important that people realise that what he has done has more importance than any other recent compositions. I can just tell you one thing, that he is developing something like an organic rhythm that suggests the pulsation of the earth. You know in physical studies you have something you call the electronic noise, the noise of the Cosmos? Well, he is doing this in music and that is one of the most important things you can do. Wagner developed all the ground mythology and Fripp is developing electronic noise reality. And the second thing is that his music is composed of a block of time, he is not doing music in the time, he is doing music that is immediately a block of time. That is why he is so important.
So he does obviously give you inspiration.
A little bit more than inspiration. You know, to understand any music you must devote yourself to listening to it. When I discovered Wagner I listened to each opera thirty times, one after the other, it takes weeks and weeks. When I discovered Stockhausen ten years ago, it was the first record I discovered 'Hymnen' and he takes some real instruments, big orchestral playing, and he makes electronic noise on it. I took the record and spent three days and nights just trying to understand what he is saying. And the more you listen, the more you realise that music and life are completely connected. When you are composing you are actually re-composing something that has been working for a long time in your head. And even when you improvise, it is the improvisation of all your life. I have been working for four years at the Freudian school in Paris and it is true that your unconscious work is more important than your conscious, and your unconscious is working 24 hours a day.
The years '71-73 are reported that you did no music, presumably because you were studying.
Yes, that is right because I was finishing the Ph.D. during '72-73.
That can't really be true, because once a musician always a musician.
Well, I was making music but it was not the main centre of my life at that time.
And you started out, as most of us do, with an album using little equipment: an AKS, guitar, and two Revoxes. How have you built up to your present instrumentation?
I sold my small independent record label to a guy and he gave me a Moog modular system in exchange. Then I got some ARP stuff but I sold all that. I kept the AKS and then I got an Oberheim DS2 sequencer and I made a custom analogue sequencer. Then I got the E-mu system that I used recently at The Venue, in London. Everything at the gig was controlled by the E-mu system.
You were using an impressive array of equipment at the gig. Perhaps you could describe the set-up you were using.
Well, first of all there was the E-mu modular system and on top of that I had a French 4-voice RSF synthesiser and the E-mu computer interface. Next to that was my small E-mu — basic VCO-Filter-VCA. I also had two custom-built Moog modular systems including fixed filter banks for percussion.
You have a marvellous percussion cymbal sound which, of course, you can only get by very precise filtering.
Yes. All percussion comes from the modular Moog systems and is triggered by the computer. To the right of all this was my Polymoog and next to that was a digital delay/harmoniser. I use two Teac 8-2 mixers for on-stage mixing.
What guitars do you use?
On stage and for recording I use a 1965 Gibson Stereo and I also play a 1957 Les Paul, but I only use that in the studio. On the last album, 'L'Ethique', I played through a Roland guitar synthesiser on Robert Fripp's orders! I also have a Travis Bean which I used at The Venue with the Roland equipment.
How do you regard the role of the two synth players? In actual fact you don't really need them, do you?
No, I don't need them but I like the presence of other musicians. They are great. They're not computers but very, very good musicians. They're all on the album and we're very close. Patrick Gauthier played in Magma for three years and Jean Phillipe Goude played with Bernard Paganotti and Patrick Gauthier for a long time.
Are the synth players using sequencers or playing rearranged patterns?
They don't use sequencers although they do play sequences. But they make moods in the sequences that no computer can do. They change things where they want to and they certainly add their own presence. All the tracks, apart from the solos are completely constructed, but within that construction they are able to add their own personalities. And Bernard Paganotti's such a complete musician that I couldn't see a live performance of my music working so well without someone of his standard on bass.
You have done solo and band work, which do you think you would like to concentrate on in the future?
I'd like to continue with a mixture of both. I intend spending a year and a half until my next album. I don't want to release an album before 1984 and I've some surprises in store for that. I don't want to say too much about it yet though.
I'm recording a string quartet playing a piece that I wrote and I may use that for the next album. I'm going to analyse all the string sounds with a real-time analyser and encode them for the PPG digital synthesiser and correct the timbre. I'll take the real timbre of the strings and make one piece with the real timbre and another with the real timbre analysed by a synthesiser — a Fairlight or something like this — but with the PPG.
You don't have a Fairlight though.
No, I've got the PPG. It's better with the PPG because the technology of the PPG is really brand new. The Fairlight is four years old. It's good but the PPG is using higher technology. With the string quartet I'll be using this technology to analyse the sound step by step, taking in all the parameters of length, intensity, duration and timbre. This way I will have the original quartet and a synthesised one that has been taken from the original image.
I am really interested in the whole digital thing. I have a lot to learn because digital synthesisers are still at the beginning stage. Whereas with analogical synthesiser, people like Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream or people like me don't have anything left to learn. We are at the end of the analogue era.
But you obviously appreciate the analogue/digital mix of the PPG.
Even the analogue E-mu. I like it but I don't think it can help me find really new sounds. To give you an idea — at the beginning of the 'seventies it would take half an hour to find a really new sound.
Now it would take two months because all the sounds have been done by people like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Schulze, Brian Eno or Heldon. In the composing process choosing the sounds can take a very long time while choosing the notes can take a comparatively short time. But this isn't a good way to work. You have to do the composition first and try to find the sounds as a part of the composition. You have to first get your idea, and when you've got your idea it's an idea of composition. I insist on this word 'composition' because the composition is not only notes or chords — it is also sounds, texture and density.
So in terms of the new technology you are keeping up with all the latest developments.
Yes. When I knew the digital synthesisers were coming I learnt as much as I could about them in advance. They didn't exist yet but I started learning the basics just to be prepared.
Do you think that musicians today should have an awareness of these new developments.
If they like this aspect, yes. If they don't, I think the answer must be no. The important thing is that the musician understands how to compose his own music and knows how best to express this music — whether electronically or not.
Many electronic groups today don't do anything new or important. They just duplicate and you can't even call this music. The important thing is to do music — electronic or not. The electronic process comes in symbiosis with the music. You have to be a musician before you can be an electronic musician.
How would you describe your own music?
It's elementary Cosmic expression. The same is true for Wagner, and Robert Fripp, and at a lower level, for me.
The focal point of Wagner's music is God, for Robert Fripp it is organic pulsation, and for me... I think this is still something I have to discover. I hope I still have a long way to go. I hope this is only the beginning.
Track One: L'Ethique (Part 1)
The album opens with this minimalistic track comprising solely of a repeated six bar theme which is itself split into three identical two bar segments based on the major tonic, minor second and diminished third triads respectively. Underneath this chordal progression a bass riff repeats a one-bar phrase alternating ominously between two roots an octave apart.
Synthesised chord layering and sequencing produce a powerful yet ethereal effect that is brought down to earth by the insistent regularity of the programmed percussion, and on top of this Richard Pinhas' heavily treated guitar meanders with a plaintive aimlessness.
Track Two: Dedicated to K.C.
After an introduction consisting of one root bass note per chord and synthesised arpeggios this track suddenly erupts into a chaotic section that resurrects ghosts of seventies 'progressive' rock — King Crimson in particular comes to mind and I should think it's a safe bet that they are the K.C. of the title.
The time signature changes from simple 4/4 to alternating 4/4, 3/4 with the bass guitar supplying a seven beat riff under a gradually rising guitar line that makes a good imitation of a horde of angry hornets.
Another abrupt change and a third theme (back in 4/4) is introduced. This is all on one chord and features Pinhas' guitar, with the emphasis still on ascension, over a hectic rhythm section. This section explodes back into the eighties with a bright sustained chord on synthesiser and a different feel is introduced. The emphasis is still on repetition but the mood is comparatively more relaxed and a short breathing space is provided before the final theme.
This 'motif finale' is a violently simple descending pattern that departs from the usual 1, 2, 4 or 8 bar format. Spread over five bars this section reinforces the 'off-beat' and unusual time structure of the track and counterpoints the ascending guitar lines featured earlier on.
Track Three: Melodic Simple Transition
The title of this track says it all, although it cheats a little. It seems at first to be the most melodic track so far but then one realises that there is, in fact, no melody at all! The melodious flavour is provided by a sequenced synthesiser pattern that flows easily from one key to another. The 'melody' lies in the transposition which is beautifully accomplished.
The sequence itself is four bars long and consists of quaver notes that dance and cascade like a musical waterfall. The four bar phrase is really the same bar repeated four times with the bass and lead synth lines counterpointing each other through lush chordal layers.
There are only four chord changes repeated in a twelve bar format: 4 bars G, four bars D, four bars A and four bars C and it becomes difficult to pick out which is representing the tonic. This results in a light, floating quality — the resolution is always expected but it never quite comes.
Track Four: Belfast
A politically titled track — Pinhas has been dubbed the 'wild man of rock' because of his political interests and activities — that opens with an isolated 'space invaders' noise over a sparse, syncopated bass drum.
As the bass guitar comes in the 'space invaders' sound quickly establishes itself as an integral part of the powerful rhythm section. This is one of the tracks on the album where Pinhas' use of an extremely accomplished 'live' rhythm section, as opposed to bass synth lines and programmed percussion, makes itself most strongly felt.
A strangely sinister, high register nursery-rhyme-type synth line is repeated on every third and fourth beat of the track (it is used solo as an introduction) and the overall effect is one of danger and foreboding mixed with a tinge of the manic. Madness is just around the corner here.
The whole piece is based on the tonic with no other chords or key changes and the synth and guitar lines weave throughout the texture of the piece unable to find a resting place. As the instrumentation fades out we are left with the nursery-rhyme motif punctuated by staccato rim-shots.
Track Five: L'Ethique (Part 2)
A shorter version of L'Ethique (part 1) lasting 4.05 minutes instead of 6.21 minutes. Part One was introduced by solo percussion before bass, synth and guitar made an appearance, but on this side the piece gradually fades in with full instrumentation present from the beginning. Other than that, this is an identical revisitation to the album's opening theme.
Track Six: The Western Wail (Part 1)
This track opens on the tonic chord, A minor, with an arpeggio sequence and a root bass note indicating the key. The haunting two note motif enters almost immediately — a 'door-chime' E - C which, taken out of its usual major key context, has a plaintive and yearning quality.
The track consists entirely of repeated two bar statements. The first bar contains the two note motif played as dotted crotchet and a two-and-a-half beat minim plus quaver. The second bar contains the backing track only which plays exactly the same bass riff and sequence as in the first bar. Without the motif, however, this bar acts as an effective answer to the previous bar's question.
These two bars are repeated for some time and at exactly the right moment the whole arrangement is transposed into E minor. Unsure of itself the composition hops between A minor and E minor staying in each for four bars until, in desperation, it dissolves into a guitar solo played over staccato sequencing and a tribal drum beat.
The main motif then comes back, interrupting the guitar and re-establishing itself as the owner of the piece. But it is again displaced by a new theme (which reappears in The Western Wail, Part Two) before finally coming back and closing the piece.
Track Seven: L'Ethique (Part 3)
Not, as the title would suggest, a continuation of parts one and two but a completely different piece. This track is again based on chordal repetition in a four bar format — one bar each of Am, G, F and G again and uses Pinhas' trademark of powerful rhythm section, sequencing and chordal layering.
The most striking aspect of this track is the use of time. It is in 4/4 but try tapping out a steady four to the bar and you'd be totally lost. This is because the four bar sequence gradually slows in tempo towards the middle and speeds up again towards the end. This time sequence is repeated throughout the track and the hectic syncopation in the rhythm section and the placing of chords — they never quite come in on any beat — creates a music that is totally removed from the anchor of accepted musical time.
Track Eight: The Western Wail (Part 2)
This track consists entirely of a four bar melody repeated each time in a different key. Underneath this melody, and counterpointing it in a lower register, is a theme taken from The Western Wail, Part 1.
This is a completely synthesised track that features George Grunblatt on Minimoog. The plaintive quality that is evident in so much of Pinhas' work is very much to the fore here and the minor keys, the haunting melody, the counterpoint and the repetition are unmistakably his work.
Track Nine: L'Ethique (Part 4)
Another completely synthesised track with no bass lines or percussion. It opens with an arpeggio sequence that cannot be pinned down to any time signature — it just floats on its own. The sequence continues throughout this short track, embellished on the way by counter sequences and chording, until the whole thing fades out. A fragile piece that closes a stimulating, often violent, and always interesting album.