Henri Pousseur: Tales & Songs from the Bible of Hell

Commissioned by Electric Phoenix with the aid of a grant from The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon

Both the germinal sources and the formal structure of Tales & Songs are mystical and numerological. When asked in 1979 to compose a work for Electric Phoenix, Henri Pousseur was deeply immersed in the study of Dowland's Flow my tears and Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The commission from an English group fortuitously allowed him to perform a marriage ceremony of his own.

The union was blessed with a remarkable issue. It opens with an ingenious four-part realization of Dowland's accompanied song, out of which evolves a fantasia in four continuous movements: an allegorical journey from hell to heaven and back, ending with a "leap into the void which is between our solar system and the fixed stars”. With the exception of two brief excerpts from earlier orchestral and electronic pieces, the music is derived totally from the Dowland, though sometimes transformed beyond recognition. In the pre-recorded tape which accompanies the singers, a single phrase may be lowered four octaves to provide a drone, or re-recorded dozens of times and spooled at high speed across the heads to create an accelerating frenzy—thus the work becomes at times a simultaneous multilayered theme-and-variations. But no matter how complex the treatment (some segments passed through as many as twelve stages), the elements cohere, partly because of their common vocal and thematic origins.

With the exception of speed changes, the "live" voices of Electric Phoenix are subjected to the same electronic treatment as in the tape: ring modulation, band-pass filtering, and digital reverberation. This is done by means of four vocal synthesizers designed and built for the group by Ian Macintosh and controlled by the singers themselves, thus integrating vocal and electronic performance with an exactitude which would be otherwise impossible.

Dowland's Lacrimae, Pousseur writes, is "a spiral of tears to oppose the torments of love", while Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell "opposes love's torments in a much more baroque and theatrical manner, without completely obliterating the terror which is perhaps the most profound source of these works." (Other literary sources briefly quoted include Poe, E.E, Cummings and Dylan Thomas.) Blake’s title is ironic. Hell, he believes, is merely a negative way of looking at energy; heaven, in the mouths of preachers, a form of senile innocence. The poem, moreover, is no marriage of convenience but a dynamic juxtaposition of the opposites that make up the Yin and Yang of existence. "Mutual forgiveness of each Vice, / Such are the Gates of Paradise.”

Finally, a personal note* The pre-recorded tape was assembled in three weeks, entirely from written instructions, and was heard by the composer for the first time an the day of performance. No subsequent changes were necessary, This demonstrates, of course, that Pousseur knew exactly what he wanted and how to achieve it; but it also suggests that we are indeed in an area of mystery. If the "energy end imagination” transmitted through Dowland, Blake, Pousseur, and Electric Phoenix reach the listener intact, he is in for a remarkable experience.

John Whiting