Heliograms: The Album That Kicked Off 30 Years Of Electronic Music Evolution [Q&A With Jean Piché]

Last month, Digitalis Recordings released a record that composer Jean Piché created 30 years ago, one regarded as one of the first albums created using only digital sound synthesis. When the collection, titled Heliograms, was initially slated for release in 1982, the label planning to put it out went bankrupt, sending the record into limbo for decades.

It was in those decades that electronic music went from being the product of an experimental community of hyper-technical composers to ubiquity in pop genres across the board. Digital synthesis replaced analog synthesis in many studios, and in several others synthesizers replaced traditional instruments altogether. Electronic instruments went from being behemoths of wood and cables to compact units that fit atop a desk. Whereas once you practically needed a degree in physics to operate a synth, product designers had stepped in to simplify the machinery, ensuring that anyone with the slightest understanding of piano key layout and the motor skills to turn a knob could operate one. Then came software, followed closely by scores of MIDI controllers, each designed to increase the ease of making something that sounds complete, in a contemporary sense, without the operator having to try too hard.

While the possibilites for electronic sound have opened up, the art of forging sound from its raw elements has been lost. Heliograms is no longer a feat of current technology as it was when it was created, but rather it is a relic—a musical time capsule that stands as an example of how far this medium of creation has come, and how much has been gained or lost along the way.

We spoke with Jean Piché about Heliograms, his perception of it 30 years on, how the times have changed, and whether or not there will always be hope for innovation in electronic music.

The Creators Project: You recorded Heliograms 30 years ago. What do you hear when you listen to it now? Does it sound less mature to you than your later work? What would you have done differently if you recorded a similar record now?
Jean Piché:
I have periodically listened to Heliograms over the years and never lost faith in the works even as they languished in a cellar shoebox. Seeing it re-released is a relief. I think the value of a work is related to its keystone moments—when the music takes you somewhere you have never been before, a unique place where the light strikes at a peculiar angle. These moments, in any music, stay with you for a long time. The music on Heliograms has some of these moments. What I heard then, I hear now. Of course there are technical issues that went unnoticed because of the standards of the day, but these never interfere in experiencing the music. I am thankful more people will perhaps share it now.

A young Jean Piché

As to the way I relate to the works now, perhaps I would do some things differently, but not very much. I find a unifying breath on the album that does not need much tinkering. What I am most surprised about now is the patience exhibited in the large form. It is not something one would normally expect from a young, late 20s composer eager to make his mark. It is to good effect and I am rather proud of this.

At the time, the works were highly experimental, technically and musically. In a roundabout way, they used issues of language to make their point. Robert Ashley, Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young were some of my heroes and were influential in me working with consonance. The works all use naturally micro-tuned harmonics which, at the time, was technically hard to do and slightly against the grain academically. In fact, as a way of explaining the relative obscurity of the album at the time, I ended up with music too exotic to make it in the emerging electronic music culture of the early 80s and too impolite for academia.

There is an insert text that accompanied the original release of Heliograms—which, for production considerations we decided to leave out of the new edition. The text describes where I was emotionally when I was in my mid-to-late twenties. Images of very late nights morphing into early mornings, driving back from suburban institutions in my old MGB. There was an entirely new concept of musical time making its way into the age, time slow and contemplative on the edge of the Pacific. The music of Heliograms was informed by these images and I am grateful it still transports me there.

Video for “Rouge” and “Ange” from Heliograms

Aside from the Samson Box, what kinds of synthesizers did you use on Heliograms? Are there any contemporary artists that you feel are producing in a similar style today?
Besides “Ange,” which is the Samson Box piece, all the sounds were computed on Barry Truax’s POD system. All pieces use the original implementation of frequency modulation synthesis, a few years after the method was patented by John Chowning at Stanford University and later by Yamaha. “Ange” was realized on the original Systems Concept Digital Synthesizer [Samson Box] using an FM variant that called for multiple modulating sine waves.

Structurally, using Barry’s POD (Poisson Distribution) programs was a challenge. POD was in keeping with the prevailing tastes of the day, musically biased towards stochastic and random distributions of musical events. The programs often had to be finessed into obeying the rules that I set. Computer music composers (and their avant-garde brethren) of the day were often happy with letting pitch determination be the function of an undeterministic aesthetic. This state of affairs often had more to do with ideology than purely musical interests.

I have been remiss in keeping up with how the vernacular side of electronic music has developed since then. When I was working on this music, the “new age” phenomenon was putting down roots in California and many people later said Heliograms was akin to the “astral trips” proposed by its music. But I was not really aware of this movement then and the influence came much more from the early practitioners of minimal music.

Jean Piché

Did the limitations of your Hewlett-Packard 2116 setup have an effect on the final sound of Heliograms? In what positive/negative ways did it impact your production?
Yes. The effect of the workflow and of the software was rather direct but the computer itself was not an issue. The 12 bit converters did taint the sound on output, and data tape storage confined to a small quantity of RAM restricted the quantity of music one could produce in one go. But it was also the first time you could generate precisely tuned and slowly evolving sound over a long duration. This capability gave rise to the rather relaxed and luxurious pace of Heliograms.

So the advantages and shortcomings of the available technology gave rise to aesthetic alternatives that would not have appeared obvious without it. Much of the discursive issues of electronic music are bound to the technologies they utilize. To inverse the Bauhaus axiom that “Form Follows Function,” in music technology “Function Follows Form.” There are countless examples of this in music history. One particularly pointed example is the pianoforte, which gave rise to romantic expression in the 19th century by making dynamics available as a preponderant parameter of the composer’s primary tool, the keyboard. Another exemplary case is that of musique concrete which evolved as a distinct musical style partly out of the near impossibility to precisely synchronize multiple tracks of sounds assembled on analog tapes. The “failure” of the system opened new ways of hearing the music. These perversions and opportunities are at the root of much music from Xenakis, Stockhausen, Bernard Parmegiani or Klaus Schulze.

What are you using to create music now and how does it compare to that old setup?
All my work is done on standard computers, using my own software. I do not use hardware devices like synthesizers or outboard gear. I think it is important for a genuine computer musician to be as close as possible to the generating components of sound-making in order to better inflect and explore signal processing for expressive purposes. I don’t want an instrument designer to make aesthetic decisions for me as a composer and, unfortunately, this is one of the great downfalls of current electronic and computer music practices. The artist is becoming much too dependent on what sound engineers are deciding will be the way of the future. When someone designs an instrument, choices are made and those choices are imposed upon you. In other words, I prefer synthesis and composition on “my own terms.” I have written much of the software I use in my current work. The mainstay of this activity is Cecilia, a software project of mine that has been going for 15 years and contributes heavily to my audio signature.

Screenshot of Cecilia

30-40 years ago, electronics and computer software were extremely limiting for musical expression and one had to constantly fight against these limitations and this gave rise to some very original and tangential approaches to music making. Paradoxically, the situation has completely flipped over in the last 10 years or so. The resources, both hardware and software, are so general, so powerful and all encompassing that one is left breathless contemplating the wide-open ocean of possibilities. Anything can be done. It can be done fast, efficiently and interchangeably. There is only an illusion of freedom when everything is possible.

Electronic music production has changed by leaps and bounds since your beginnings. In your opinion, what are the innovations and developments that have impacted the sound of modern electronic music most?
We have reached an era where sound is cheap, gorgeous, plentiful, and extraordinarily easy to produce. Hopefully this will in time put a premium on the act of composition rather than the surface value of the sounding material. There is too much music being made now that relies almost obsessively on the latest FFT algorithms developed by the hot software shop of the month. This leads to an overabundance of music that relies on novelty as opposed to discursive and formal considerations. It is not truly concerned with the profoundly aesthetic act of composition. We have reached a sonic plateau of sorts where anything can be done and, consequentially, purchased. Faced with this abundance, sound no longer has much value for me.

We have come through a couple of decades now in which certain specific pieces of software have had enormous influence on the music being written, as much in the vernacular as in the academic. Ableton Live defined a large part of contemporary electronica, GRM tools changed electroacoustics and acousmatics and Max/MSP is giving people the illusion they are now software gurus generating the kind of stochastic noise making that was thoroughly explored 40 years ago. This is another reason I write my own software.

Cover of Heliograms

What electronic music from the past two decades do you like the best? Specific artists? Songs?
I must confess that, aside from student works, I do not listen to much electronic music anymore, but in the past few years, I have enjoyed the minimalism-tainted work of Kim Cascone and a number of French acousmatics composers, even though it is often with an academic’s (archeologist’s, even) inquiring mind. Recently, I have taken a great liking to the music of Monty Adkins of Huddersfield. His blend of acoustic and electronic sources in an elegant harmonic language makes for a delightful experience. In a more hyperactive mode, I think Amon Tobin is fabulously talented. But I do find myself mostly enjoying instrumental music now. Perhaps out of the realization, I fear, that fine performance on acoustic instruments is closer to the fundamentally human nature of music making. I have yet to think more clearly about the consequences of this confession!

Has electronic music lost anything since its analog origins?
No, I dont believe so. In a curious chronological reversal, I suppose this view is the new “old school” in sound design. Contrary to current trends and beliefs that analog instruments were/are sonically more expressive, I think computers are and will remain much more versatile in creating malleable sonic matter. I started doing music cutting analog tape on Revox tape decks and modular Moog synthesizers, and I could only do with these tools what the tools permitted me to do. I was elated when computers came along in the early 70s and allowed the precise tuning of two oscillators. It opened up incredible horizons. I never looked back and, to be honest, I have yet to be convinced that analog sounds somehow “better” than digital. To make the case, double-blind testing should be taught in music schools. How many beer-soaked arguments have disintegrated in the face of simple A-B test in controlled situations? It is really a matter of understanding the acoustic behavior of sound and modeling it in a way that makes the tool transparent. And ultimately, music demands that the tools be transparent. When I listen to Bach or Stravinski, I don’t listen to the harpsichord or the orchestra, I listen to the inner voice of the composers.