The Liverpool Mass: Interview with Thierry Balasse, the man performing the 1960s music piece for the first time
Two landmark celebrations will collide next month as Bluecoat, currently marking its building’s 300-year anniversary, presents a special event to honour 50 years of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.
French composer Pierre Henry, whose work has been sampled by Fatboy Slim and inspired the theme tune of TV’s ‘Futurama’, was originally commissioned to create a piece of music for the building’s 1967 opening. However the work, entitled ‘The Liverpool Mass’, was not completed in time and therefore not used.
In this golden anniversary year, Pierre’s music will be performed for the first time in the cathedral by Thierry Balasse, a sound engineer who has long been collaborating with the composer.
Thierry tells Your Move how the immersive performance will provide a fitting celebration.
Interview by Natasha Young
How did your collaboration with Pierre Henry start, and what projects have you collaborated on with him?
I met Pierre Henry thanks to Etienne Bultingaire, who was his regular sound engineer.
To begin with I was Etienne’s assistant, and then I occasionally stood in for him. The collaboration was going well so Pierre asked me to perform some of his works like the ‘Hypermix’ concert in Mexico, or the ‘Quartet Phrases’ with Maurice Béjart at the Bastille Opera in Paris in 2002.
I also advised Pierre on new digital equipment for his Son Ré studio. Over the last few months he has asked me to perform his new compositions and has also explained to me what his desires and his visions for the future are. In particular he has outlined how he would like his major works, what he calls his ‘essentials’, to be performed.
You’re going to perform ‘The Liverpool Mass’ at the Metropolitan Cathedral. What can the audience expect?
The main thing about this work is that it places the voice at the heart of the whole composition in a way that is so full, so advanced, that it has become emblematic of this kind of work.
So you shouldn’t expect the profusion of sounds that is often typical of Pierre Henry’s work. It’s more like a thorough exploration of the voice and of the text.
Pierre Henry composed this mass for the inauguration of the Metropolitan Cathedral, but it was never played in the venue for which it was created. Has Pierre made any changes to it over the last 50 years?
Pierre has added the Credo section, which was composed in 1970. Otherwise this is the original piece, re-mastered by Pierre himself for this performance.
Are you planning to perform ‘The Liverpool Mass’ elsewhere? If so, would the work change at all with each performance?
Each performance is closely linked to the venue – if only because the acoustics vary from one venue to another.
I’ve never performed ‘The Liverpool Mass’ before and there are no plans to stage other performances in the foreseeable future, so it’s a pretty unique event.
Pierre is still composing, he is extremely creative, and he likes to see his latest works performed as well as, and rather than, his older pieces.
What do you think of the relationship between this mass and the cathedral’s unusual architecture?
When you listen to ‘The Liverpool Mass’ it is very clear that Pierre composed it for that specific space, and it will only reach its full potential in that very space. I really can’t wait to hear it and perform it in the cathedral.
Preparing the concert and listening to the music in the studio is a frustrating experience because Pierre anticipated the echoes and reverberation of the cathedral, and so the sound feels a little ‘dry’ for the moment.
It will gain amplitude when it unfolds in the space of the cathedral.
‘The Liverpool Mass’ marks the 50th anniversary of the cathedral, but 2017 is also Pierre Henry’s 90th birthday. How are you going to celebrate Pierre’s own milestone year?
Several celebrations are scheduled for 2017. First there will be a great ball, with the ‘Mass for the Present Time’ being performed by eight choreographers under the nave of the Grand Palais in Paris, on 14 July.
Pierre is also closely involved with two other events. There will be a ‘Sleepless Night’ on 7 October at the Paris Philharmonie, during which several of us will be performing a wide selection of his work.
Radio France is planning a long birthday weekend from 8-10 December too.
Three new compositions will premiere on 9 December, and on 8 December I am staging a concert, titled ‘Concert for the Present Time’, based on the ‘Mass for the Present Time’. There will also be a concert on 10 December.
I should also mention that [the label] Decca will issue a 12 CD box set in November 2017.
“I’ve never performed ‘The Liverpool Mass’ before and there are no plans to stage other performances, so it’s a pretty unique event.”
You’ve been making electronic music for several decades. What effects have technological innovations had on your work?
The most striking changes have had to do with the computer, of course. Computers have enabled us to save a lot of time; they’ve also offered many new creative possibilities in terms of sound treatment.
But there aren’t only advantages; I’ve often noticed that, precisely because the screen is the main interface between you and the computer, you often end up composing with your eyes as much as with your ears… and it’s a trap you mustn’t fall into. Pierre never has.
Who or what have been your main influences as a musician and a composer?
I won’t list the names of theatre directors but I have often worked for the stage, trying to serve the director’s vision and to interact with the actors’ voices – this has really had a big impact on my work.
Then [French composer] Christian Zanési encouraged me a lot, and I was able to watch him work and compose in the studio – the way he worked on sound, on its materiality, was quite an education.
And of course, I’ve been very lucky to work with Pierre Henry himself.
Have you ever played in Liverpool or in the North West of England in the past?
Believe it or not I’ve never been to Liverpool, or even to Great Britain!
I’m delighted to come and perform this incredible work in this incredible cathedral; it’s a very exciting prospect!