Site of Formation 1954

Henri Pousseur's Prospection

Cory Smythe

Perhaps too soon, I find myself wanting music—that I listen to, that I make—to cleanly and wildly break with the recent, pestilent, barely survived past. (And the past before that, of course, its garish, monstrous tones. And the falsely comforting beds of sound, the throbbing, ebullient thrum, of the past before that. And. . .) Not what you might call a generally congenial mindset, but a propitious state just the same for a first encounter with one of Henri Pousseur’s early, pathbreaking pieces, Prospection

Finished in 1953, and scored for three pianos tuned an extraordinary one sixth-tone apart, Prospection was, according to Pousseur, his “first and only rigorous serial work”.1 By rigor, Pousseur likely intends what is often called total serialism: the strict logic of twelve-tone technique extended beyond pitch to encompass other musical parameters (like dynamics, duration, and quality of attack), and the defining mode of art among the composers of the Darmstadt School with whom Pousseur became affiliated around this time. The influence of total serialism upon every kind of newer music at which I’ve tried my hand is impossible to overstate, and yet I’ve largely shied away from this strange, demanding body of work. To help close this gap, I’m turning to the work of musicologist M. J. Grant, whose book Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics begins by objecting to the very naming convention I’d taken to be widely accepted: “. . . the qualifier ‘total,’ used not only to talk of ‘total serialism’ but applied in the sense of ‘total control,’ paints a limited picture of the aesthetic impetus for this music. . .”2 Pousseur’s “rigorous” serialism, with its suggestion of unyielding adherence to rules, even the stiffness accompanying death, doesn’t capture this impetus either. What Grant has in mind, drawing upon dozens of contemporaneous writings by Pousseur, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and others, is a serial aesthetic characterized, above all, by a kind of radical openness. Pousseur’s music, in (Grant’s translation of) his words, “no longer forces the listener to follow the unfolding span of tension, as is otherwise the case; rather, he remains outside of the tension and participates more freely in the multitude of musical events.”3 Here, Pousseur was remarking on his Variations II, written in 1956/57 for two (normally tuned) pianos, whose playing instructions grant freedom to the performers in making decisions about the structural ordering of musical events. (He wrote many such open-form pieces, including the seminal and widely re-interpreted electronic work, Scambi.) But arguably, even with its fixed form, Prospection remains, for the listener, every bit as open. There’s no heroic narrative forced upon us, no recollection of a prior composer’s themes, no themes whatsoever. 

And even the anchoring sound of the piano comes unmoored. In this unusual trio, Pousseur places a key ingredient of the piano’s tone—three strings per note, beating ever so slightly out of tune—under a microscope: three whole pianos tuned thirty-three cents apart.

Enlarging this set of intonational dimensions, the squiggly line my brain understands as “piano” spreads out into three distinct blobs I instead recognize as pitch—or rather, both pitch and piano, somewhere in between. At times while listening to Prospection, I hear three pristine Steinway Ds in peculiar microtonal combinations; sometimes one Frankensteined piano whose sour tone alternately evokes a ruined upright, an imagined future synth. Often, I hear both microtonality and timbral variation at once, and occasionally neither: just a piano. The unusual tuning is well chosen to sit near the edge of my capacity to detect it, playing within and at the boundaries of a space where microtonal pitch collections and instrumental sound blur. 

That Pousseur would so situate his music with respect to these critical bands of sonic perception isn’t so surprising, given the prevailing interest among the composers of the Darmstadt School in the burgeoning field of psychoacoustics and, indeed, information theory more broadly. (Darmstadt, incidentally, was to have been the site of the Prospection premiere in the summer of 1953, a performance which failed to materialize owing to what Pousseur called “technical reasons,” no doubt referring to the near impossibility of getting permission to do the necessary piano-compromising adjustments. Three decades would pass before the piece was finally performed.4 If prior experiments in piano detuning by Charles Ives and Ivan Wyschnegradsky furthered the aims of a kind of impressionistic music making, situating familiar, forgotten phrases beneath a surface tension of rippling waves (“the distorted image. . . of an object floating in shallow waters,” according to one mid-century reviewer of Ives’s Three Quarter-Tone Pieces For Two Pianos.)5 Pousseur’s microtonal pianos belong to the remarkable ambitions of post-war serialism: near absolute avoidance of the sounds of past European concert music, an obliteration down to the bedrock of human communication, acoustics and psychoacoustics, here building anew. 

There doesn’t appear to be a published score circulating for Prospection. While I’m curious about the rows underlying its composition—are there 36 tones instead of twelve? are the other serialized elements similarly organized in extraordinary 36-part gradients?—it’s doubtful they’d yield to my unpracticed score analysis. In fact, even if a more accomplished music theorist were able to make sense of the notated work’s fund of materials, the impossibility of hearing-out these elements makes this sort of analysis somewhat beside the point. As I listen to the recorded performance, I’m following Grant’s lead and trying to understand this music as a latticework of musical parameters, some creating a ground of stability in order that others may surprise me with discontinuity, all working together to create the conditions for a flow of musical apprehension from one moment to the next. 

In the very first notes of the piece, I hear a descending major ninth, repeated an octave higher, the wide leaps and short note durations pleasurably evading my capacity to clearly perceive any microtonal pitch relationships. Something’s not quite right with these pianos, these intervals, but even knowing what I do about the piece’s altered tuning, I’m still unable to say just what. The fifth and sixth notes of the piece are thrown into relief. Louder and higher than the rest, they form a snippet of chromaticism whose stepwise ascent makes its microtonality instantly comprehensible: an unusually wide semitone. The latter note, unsettling yet clarifying, hangs in the air for what feels like an extra beat, given the tempo established by the jagged, propulsive arrivals of the preceding intervals. I have just enough time to recast my impression of those opening not-quite-ninths, to hold in my mind a crystallizing “a-ha” of microtonal pointillism, before layer-upon-kinetic-layer of pianistic bits enfold me, a marvel of sonic information rendered intelligible in just six notes. 

Over the course of the next 40 or so seconds of music (prior to a new, slower, quasi-chordal section), I’m at liberty—“remain[ing] outside of the tension and participat[ing] more freely. . .”—to consider any number of constellations blinking out from the lambent flow. I notice the way quieter notes go from first seeming to be at the same semantic level as their forte counterparts to providing little clouds of embellishment around their louder neighbors. They briefly coalesce into their own layer of almost oompah accompaniment before rejoining a resemblance of the opening gesture: a single line whose wide intervals again give way to a step-wise phraselet. Only this time the tunings and timbres I perceive are reversed, with stacked and therefore obviously detuned octaves preceding a spaced-out, descending (near-) whole step, the time between its two notes a tick too long for me to sense any microtonal or timbral peculiarities. Just two gleaming piano tones. 

Maybe unearthing these once familiar, now transmuted tones is the object of the titular prospection. Maybe I’m merely free to think what I want. Pousseur’s aesthetic—what Grant calls the serial aesthetic’s “relation-by-negation to the previous tradition” of European concert music 6—withholds the signposts I might once have relied upon to construct musical meaning in order that I may tunnel my own way within the sonic terrain, carry to the surface what I’m able. Pousseur calibrates the flow of information in time, paying attention to and playing with what he understood to be the way my mind would receive each moment’s collection of sounds. The resulting, carefully coaxed, mental models aren’t exactly predictive (even if decades of influence later I find the gestures familiar, I can’t actually foresee what’s coming next in Pousseur’s pointillism, not like I can an approaching Mozart cadence, a surging Schoenberg climax). But they do help light the way through a music overrun with veins and threads. They’re future-oriented, prospective.

By the end of his life, Pousseur seemed to have regarded the efforts of the post-war period with not-so-subtle condescension. In a 2005 talk, translated at the Scambi project website,7 he speaks of a “fanatical” interest in asymmetric sounds during this time producing some “very, very rigid and poor” music. These tendencies gave way, he notes, to “a certain evolution during the 1950s,” as pointillistic serialism became more textural, more conventionally “musical,” and as progress in electronic music yielded more and more insight into the nature of sound itself. Prospection seems to embody this transition—its detuned instruments a kind of investigation and non-electronic processing of the piano’s timbre, its pointillistic first section yielding to a more sumptuous, sonorous second act. Still, I can’t help dwelling on that remarkable first minute or so of music, a post-war artifact heard now in the hoped-for aftermath of another great calamity. Pousseur’s youthful, rigid, fanatical music insists on an almost absurdly hopeful covenant with the listener, whose prospects for partaking in a completely new music in a completely new way somehow looked bright. An enormous feat of imagination and optimism well beyond my pandemic brain. And heartbreaking, it seems to me, here beneath months of echoing tragedy, not to at least try to become the sort of listener this work sought to discover. 

1 Henri Pousseur, “Electronic Experimental and Microtonal 1953–1999,” Liner Notes for Henri Pousseur, Electronic Experimental and Microtonal 1953–1999, Sub Rosa CD.

2 M. J. Grant, Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics: Compositional Theory in Post-War Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 5.

3 M. J. Grant, Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics: Compositional Theory in Post-War Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 144.

4 Henri Pousseur, “Electronic Experimental and Microtonal 1953–1999,” Liner Notes for Henri Pousseur, Electronic Experimental and Microtonal 1953–1999, Sub Rosa CD.

5 Perison, Harry, “The Quarter-Tone System of Charles Ives,”

6 M. J. Grant, Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics: Compositional Theory in Post-War Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 144.


Henri Pousseur's Prospection