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Staff highlights from 2017: Andrew Stride on Pierre Henry

Bluecoat turns 300 this year, and throughout 2017 there have been a series of exhibitions and events to mark this major anniversary. Below, local musician and Bluecoat Engagement Assistant, Andrew Stride writes about his personal highlight of the year, Pierre Henry’s The Liverpool Mass at the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

His piece is made all the more poignant by the fact that Pierre Henry sadly passed away in July at the age of 89. The musique concrete pioneer was pleased that The Liverpool Mass had finally been performed as intended. Bluecoat was privileged to work with him on the presentation of his masterpiece, and is thankful to everyone who helped realise the project.

As a pioneer of musique concrète his work continues to resonate and have a profound impact on music today.

Better late than never: The Liverpool Mass finally performed in its intended setting, with all surrounding ceremony.

Fifty years ago this year, Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral sought to be ambitious with their inauguration ceremony. Borne out of the 60s’ air of creativity and boundary-breaking spirit, the Cathedral commissioned Pierre Henry to produce the world’s first electronic mass to be interpreted through contemporary dance. As it happened, the mass didn’t arrive in time to debut at the inauguration, and so it was with excitement and a strong sense of ceremony and historicity that Bluecoat presented Messe de Liverpool at the Metropolitan Cathedral on 13th May 2017, also the 300th anniversary of the Bluecoat.

The evening began with several speeches, each shedding a different light on the programme. The scene is set as Mary Cloake, Bluecoat Chief Executive, Bryan Biggs, Bluecoat Artistic Director, and Mark Goodall, University of Bradford Senior Lecturer, paint the picture of the ceremonious circumstance surrounding Messe de Liverpool, Pierre Henry and the Metropolitan Cathedral. The timely revival sits alongside celebrations of the city’s rich artistic history taking place this year, as part of the 50 Summers of Love.

The first drop of music to permeate the Cathedral space is the bold opening material of Epplay and Takahashi’s HAPAX III [a Liverpool Requiem] – a snippet of the first ‘hey’ from the Beatles’ Hey Jude. The musique concrète work forms a dynamic soundscape of Liverpool’s past; the Parisian sound designers give a glimpse into an outsider’s perspective of the city and its history, weaving together found sounds from industry and culture alike.

As the pair diffused the piece through the forty loudspeakers configured around the Cathedral, they showcased the wondrous space, and made clever use of the 7-second reverb time with dramatic and varied spatialisation. It was very clear that this was a piece by two composers; there often seemed to be two strands operating quite independently, providing busyness but perhaps restricting the piece from being too focused. Just as the space requires a pause to allow the sound to die, so the audience appreciated the breathing space of an intermission after the extensive sonic journey of HAPAX III.

Jarvis Cocker’s appearance provided an air of inclusivity and a route into the genre for those with whom it is unfamiliar. Anecdotes about experiencing Henry’s music and his visit to the composer’s home allowed the audience to warm to the composer, and he eased the audience into the idea of a performance with no central visual element to focus on. Similarly, Bill Harpe, Director of the Black-E and choreographer for the 1967 inauguration ceremony, shared his memories of Pierre Henry getting to know the Cathedral space by shouting and clapping and observing the echoes and reverberations. The Messe de Liverpool was composed with this particular space in mind, and furthermore Thierry Balasse, a long-standing collaborator of Henry, was present to perform the piece using the specially created speaker set-up, giving the evening a firmly authentic fingerprint.

Where HAPAX III was far-reaching in its sources for sonic material, Messe de Liverpool was focused on a small selection of sounds – mostly the human voice, choosing in-depth exploration over vast soundscapes. To this end the piece showcases Henry’s compositional skill, in achieving a vast array of sonic outcomes with a small palette of sources, while maintaining the listener’s attention. Over the course of the six movements we are taken on a spiritual journey, through moods of sombre ritual, restful lullaby, frenetic excitement, and jubilant worship, all with the three central components of a meditational human voice, strings and percussion.

The two pieces complimented each other harmoniously; where Messe de Liverpool showed what was possible even with the technical limitations of its time – the laborious manual manipulation of audio tape, for example, HAPAX III breathed the fresh air of contemporary techniques and technology, showing how far the genre has developed. Together with the surrounding speeches, the evening was a replete and well-crafted celebration of everything Liverpool, artistic and spiritual.

If you would like to learn more about Pierre Henry and The Liverpool Mass, read the blog about Henry by our Artistic Director, Bryan Biggs.


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Bluecoat is Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, the oldest in the UK. Our landmark building, located in the ...

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