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"…in search of the miraculous”: an introduction to Pierre Henry: The Liverpool Mass

For Pierre Henry, The Liverpool Mass at the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral has “become something of a musical myth”, after he was unable to perform the piece for the inaugural mass as intended. Ahead of the performance on Sat 13 May, Bluecoat artistic director Bryan Biggs has said a few words about how this myth came to be, and what we can expect when we hear this piece, 50 years later than originally intended.

Pierre Henry is a pioneer of musique concrète, composition that uses electronically treated natural sounds, and his influence continues on a range of music today, from contemporary composition to dance music. He was commissioned to create the world’s first electronic mass, The Mass of Christ the King, for the inauguration of Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in 1967, and now, 50 years on, in a unique collaboration between the French composer and Bluecoat, the piece is being staged at the Cathedral.

The Cathedral under construction, with Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral in the distance. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Cathedral

The idea for the commission came from Bill Harpe, director of the Cathedral’s opening arts festival who proposed that the new Cathedral, with its bold, modernist design by Frederick Gibberd, be accompanied by equally adventurous music: musique concrete in a concrete, brutalist architectural setting, radiant with John Piper’s stunning stained glass. The programme he proposed, The Drama of the Mass, would comprise two parts: The Choreographed Mass, featuring Messa Concertata by Italian early Baroque composer Francesco Cavalli (1602-76), and the Henry commission.

Pierre Henry in his studio, Paris. Photo: Léa Crespi

The idea to revisit Henry’s Liverpool commission came from Mark Goodall, lecturer in film studies at the University of Bradford, a musician and editor of acclaimed book on the esoteric and spiritual in popular music, Gathering of the Tribe: Music and Heavy Conscious Creation. He approached us with a proposal to re-stage The Liverpool Mass as a symbol of what is possible when the experimental and the sacred are brought together. He felt the Metropolitan Cathedral, and this music specially composed for it, represented a high point in the application of modernist art and design to the realm of the religious and spiritual.

We then discovered that Henry’s tape had arrived too late to be included in the opening programme in 1967. Instead a short extract from it was presented, followed by a danced interpretation of the earlier Musique pour les Evangiles, involving four dancers in dramatic, specially designed costumes. Henry revised the work that Summer, adding the Credo section, and presented it later that year in Bordeaux. A recording, Messe de Liverpool, was released as an LP on the Philips label in France in 1970.

The work has since been presented at the Cathedral - in 1998 new music festival, Upbeat to the Tate. We are now however presenting The Liverpool Mass with Henry’s cooperation, enhanced by a new sound design created to his specification by his sound engineer Etienne Bultingaire, following a site visit to the Cathedral - the result of a visit we made to Henry in his Paris studio Son Ré in 2014, when he was pleased to accept our invitation to present his commission in Liverpool.

Thierry Balasse. Image courtesy of Inouïe

Consisting of six movements - Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Communion - The Liverpool Mass interprets the traditional mass through recitation of its texts, and musical instruments 'treated' by Henry, producing a haunting composition. The new sound design will use 40 speakers, arranged around the circumference of the space. Thierry Balasse, Henry’s collaborator over the past 15 years, will present a live mix of the work, which he describes as placing “the voice at the heart of the whole composition in a way that is so full, so advanced, that it has become emblematic of this kind of work … you shouldn’t expect the profusion of sounds that is often typical of Pierre Henry’s work. It’s more like a thorough exploration of the voice and of the text”.

The Liverpool Mass is preceded by a performance from Paris-based sound artists and musicians, Vincent Epplay and Samon Takahashi, whose work is inspired by Henry and his musique concrète innovations.

This concert is a highlight of Bluecoat’s 300th anniversary year and its celebration as the UK’s first arts centre with a century-long engagement with contemporary art. Bluecoat’s relationship with Henry in fact stretches back to 1968 when Bluecoat Arts Forum promoted the North West’s first electronic music concert at the University of Liverpool with a programme, directed by Bill Harpe, including several pieces by the French composer.

An uncompromisingly daring piece of music for its time, The Liverpool Mass remains innovative, and we are honoured to present it in 2017, the year of Pierre Henry’s 90th birthday. As well as forming part of Bluecoat’s tercentenary programme and the Cathedral’s Jubilee, The Liverpool Mass is also a key strand of Liverpool’s 67-17: 50 Summers of Love programme. We are pleased to be part of both these celebrations that revisit and reinvigorate that moment of optimism in Liverpool half a century ago that the new Cathedral and Henry’s music represent.

Mark Goodall cites P.D. Ouspensky in describing Pierre Henry as still being “in search of the miraculous”, and considers The Liverpool Mass as “a work that appeared in the midst of the electronic music revolution, which continues today. Audiences will find in The Liverpool Mass an encounter with the natural sound world, the magic of the modern recording studio, and a deep spiritual sensibility - a new form of sacred music that has been finally and profoundly realised”.

Tickets are still available for the performance on Sat 13 May. Please visit our event page for more details.

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