Re-Issue: Jean Piché’s Heliograms

Categorised as MUSIC., REVIEWS.

In 1982, a small Canadian record label specialising mostly in classical music released Heliograms. This was the first record by Canadian composer and video artist Jean Piché, and it was also one of the first albums to feature music produced almost entirely with digital synthesizers. But, due to an unfortunate turn of events, the label went bankrupt as soon as Heliograms was released, therefore relegating this essential piece of electronic music to obscurity. 

Mint Magazine were recently kind enough to send me a copy of a re-issued Canadian synthesizer LP. Upon receiving it, they told me that I had free reign to do what I wished with it, as long as something was written. Listening to the record, Jean Piché’s Heliograms, for the first time was an odd experience, and one that re-affirmed the notion that context is everything. Had someone played you any of the album’s four tracks, you could have been mistaken for thinking it was something that had just come out on a label like Spectrum Spools, or another Editions Mego off-shoot, or even a rare mid 70s German ambient excursion.

In fact, Piché’s record is something of a landmark, being one of the very first albums to produced almost entirely with digital synthesizers, with this important technical difference helping to distinguish itself from the analogue experimentation of Cluster or Tangerine Dream. The computer that Piché composed with and recorded on seems comically primitive today. It ran on just 48k of memory. Scroll down and listen to the attached song, then scroll back up and think about that.

Some thoughts that arose whilst listening to Heliogram:

1) When we describe things as being ‘timeless’ or being in possession of timeless qualities, are we not reinforcing our stance as people unable to grasp a sense of temporal drift? Timeless just means things haven’t evolved.

2) Technical wizardry/instrumental mastery and virtuosity as the foregrounded component in music as opposed to ‘feeling’ has become something that we distrust because it puts us, as a listener, at a distance from the person making the music. We like mistakes, we like vulnerability, we are sold on the notion of ‘soul’. Computer music of this kind is too perfect, too transparently the result of process, too removed from the physicality of life.

3) Perhaps our interest in the ‘original’, the Ur-artefact, the thing that exists as a standalone object pre-replication, pre-packaging, stems from a desire to master narratives; we like to position art/cultural objections within the broader history of their form/medium because in doing so we appear knowledgeable. So, for example, the proto-punk of The Monks or The Seeds is cooler than the fully fledged punk peddled by The Sex Pistols because it strikes as somehow more authentic, more ‘real’, less refined, less calculated. This attitude can be problematic and lead to disappointment; in our search for the original, upon hearing it we can only be lead to making direct comparisons to that which followed in its footsteps, diminishing the power of the thing we sought to find.

4) My knowledge of how things ‘work’ is rudimentary and listening to this record was an exercise in attempting to create a narrative for its sounds, to determine their origins, to try and understand in my own way how a computer that looks like THIS can make music that sounds like THIS. Of course, it isn’t the computer that is ‘making’ the music (the computer is just performing calculations that have predetermined outcomes that operate within certain parameters, and it is when these parameters are modulated that the result differs, and this process of manipulation, modulation, working and reworking is a process that relies on some level at least on a relationship between computer and operator, so the music that exists as Heliogram, those four glacial tone drifts, exists only as the result of an entirely mutually dependent relationship. I think. Don’t trust me on this), but it is the computer that generates the sounds that are structured into the compositions.

5) Ignore any of the negative things written above and concentrate on the fact that this is a really cool record and one I’d recommend to anyone who had their ears pricked by Emeralds or Oneohtrix Point Never over the last few years.

Heliograms is out now in the UK/ROTW

Josh Baines

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