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Pierre Henry, Composer Who Found the Music in Sounds, Dies at 89

Mr. Henry was long associated with the avant-garde choreographer Maurice Béjart, with whom he collaborated on more than a dozen ballets, including “Arcane” (1955), “High Voltage” (1956), “The Voyage” (1962) and “Nijinsky, Clown of God” (1971).

Mr. Henry began incorporating electronics into his work in the late 1950s. He absorbed rock influences as well, most notably in his “Mass for Today,” written with Michel Colombier for a ballet by Mr. Béjart. A whiff of “Louie, Louie” and the Rolling Stones song “Get Off of My Cloud” could be detected in “Psyché Rock,” the music for one of the dances, which Christopher Tyng reworked into the theme song for the animated television comedy series “Futurama.”

Mr. Henry later worked with the British progressive rock group Spooky Tooth on the 1969 album “Ceremony,” which takes the form of a rock ’n’ roll church service, and with the Violent Femmes on his 1997 album “Intérieur/Extérieur” and on their album “Freak Magnet” (2000).


Pierre Henry in Paris in 2002.

Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

Pierre Georges Henry was born on Dec. 9, 1927, in Paris. A sickly child, he grew up in the countryside of Seine-et-Marne, where his father, a doctor and homeopath, and his mother, a pharmacist, had him educated at home.

Before his 10th birthday he entered the Paris Conservatory, where, before and after World War II, he studied piano and percussion with Félix Passeronne and composition with Nadia Boulanger. He took harmony classes taught by Olivier Messiaen, at which Pierre Boulez was a fellow student.

In 1949 Mr. Schaeffer hired Mr. Henry as a percussionist for the studios of French Radio and Television and invited him to join the Club d’Essai (Experimental Club), which Mr. Schaeffer had founded six years earlier.

Over the next decade, Mr. Henry wrote “The Well-Tempered Microphone,” “Variations for a Door and a Sigh” and “The Ambiguities Concerto” for piano,” which combined natural and altered piano sounds. He also wrote the soundtrack for Jean Grémillon’s short film “Astrology, or the Mirror of Life” (1952), the first time musique concrète was used in the cinema.

In 1958 Mr. Henry broke with French Radio and Television and, with the sound engineer Jean Baronnet, created the first private electronic studio in France. He began using electronic music in “Coexistence” (1958) and “Investigations” (1959), and in the 1960s embarked on a series of meditative compositions, including “Liverpool Mass” (1968), commissioned for the consecration of the Cathedral of Christ the King, and “The Apocalypse of John” (1968).

In the large-scale work “Futuristie,” written with the Canadian composer Bernard Bonnier, Mr. Henry paid homage to the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, the author of the manifesto “The Art of Noises.” “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony,” from 1979, knitted together isolated chords, arpeggios and rhythmic components from Beethoven’s nine symphonies into a single grand tribute.

To coincide with the release of Mr. Henry’s “Intérieur/Extérieur,” the Philips label invited the duo Coldcut, William Orbit, Fatboy Slim and other artists to do remixes of “Mass for Today.” The results were released on the album “Metamorphosis.”

In 2007, Mr. Henry donated his archive to France’s National Library. There was no information available on his survivors.

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