The techniques of musique concrète — where recorded sounds are used as compositional material — have been around since the 1940s. It wasn't until the mid-'60s, however, that this cut-and-paste method found its way into mainstream music. The man who helped popularize it, as well as inject humor into electronic music, is Jean-Jacques Perrey.
Although he is often associated with composer Gershon Kingsley (see “Respect” on Kingsley in the April 2006 issue of Remix), with whom he recorded the seminal electro-pop record The In Sound From Way Out (Vanguard, 1966), Perrey's 50-year career is as wide ranging as it is long and includes successful collaborations with numerous well-known artists. Not surprisingly, his work is just as popular today as it was four decades ago: His tunes appear in television ads, and his unique rhythms and perky melodies are prime targets for sampling and remixing. Just ask Ice-T, Dr. Dre, Fatboy Slim and the Beastie Boys.
Born in France in 1929, Perrey had a gift for music as a child, but he went on to pursue a career in medicine. He eventually quit his studies to follow his muse, despite being kicked out of the Amiens Conservatory for playing his accordion in public while still a student. He eventually taught himself to play piano by ear and took a job as a sales representative for Georges Jenny, the inventor of the tube-based monophonic keyboard, the Ondioline. His musical talent led to work as an accompanist for famous singers such as Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf. It was through Piaf's support and connections that Perrey created a demo recording that eventually brought him to New York.
During his decade-long stay in the Big Apple, Perrey demonstrated the Ondioline, performed his own stage show and eventually scored tracks for radio, television and records. Ultimately, his experiments with tape led to the development of the cartoonlike loops that have become his signature sound.
Perrey's approach was to create syncopated rhythmic patterns using a variety of sounds that he recorded and manipulated using filters, tape-speed changes and other processing tricks. “I recorded outside — cars, the environment, cries of animals and every kind of unexpected sound,” Perrey explains. “Then, I would isolate each sound and make a master tape. I created about 1,500 sounds that I used backward, double-speed or half-speed.”
The distinctive sound of his rhythm tracks come from a practical awareness of composition. “I have a simple policy for building loops,” Perrey notes. “For the beginning, I use a high sound, then it must be a low sound next. The third one must be a medium sound. Then go back to high. So it is diversified; it is not boring.
“I choose whatever sound works best after the previous one,” he continues. “For instance, I would use a soft sound, and then an attacked sound, then another attacked sound and then a soft sound, almost schematically. But I never prepared the scheme in advance.”
One of the best displays of Perrey's ingenuity with magnetic tape is his version of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” from the Moog Indigo (Vanguard, 1970) album. For this project, he recorded the bees himself and spliced the sounds into a complete version of the melody. In the decades before digital sampling, creating tape-based rhythms and melodies required the utmost patience: “Flight of the Bumble Bee” took nearly 50 hours to complete.
“I changed each note by slowing it down a little bit to get the half-tone and then slowing it down again to get the next half-tone,” Perrey explains. And when I needed a C or a D or a D sharp in the melody, I would select the corresponding tapes and cut them to the proper length because they had to be cut into mathematically exact lengths. If you don't do that, the rhythms slow down or speed up.”
Now in his late 70s, Perrey still keeps a busy creative schedule that, over the years, has included research into interspecies communication, and how sound influences the human body. In 2006, Perrey conducted his first U.S. tour in decades for the CD release The Happy Electropop Music Machine (Oglio, 2006), a collaboration with kitsch-music provocateur Dana Countryman. In fact, a second collaborative effort between the two is underway.
“Jean-Jacques is truly a pioneer in electronic music,” Countryman notes. “When he made The In Sound From Way Out, he used only tape loops, the Ondioline, the Ondes Martenot and a couple of other instruments. It was pre-Moog synthesizer. When you consider what he had to work with, it is pretty darn amazing.”