Electronic Composer Jean-Jacques Perrey Hears the Future

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Jean Jacques Perrey and his Ondioline, November 15th, 1960.

The bouncy beat of a synthesizer-driven tune, Island in Space, provides the incongruous opening music for this 1968 installment of the usually staid series Music and the Message. The guest is Jean-Jacques Perrey, electronic composer and fervent advocate for the then-new Moog Synthesizer as well as the Ondioline, one of the first electronic keyboards. Perrey, with his Inspector Clouseau accent and seemingly outrageous belief that electronically-generated sounds will provide the music of the future, is treated with good-humored condescension by the interviewer, who clearly regards him more as a curiosity than a harbinger of the 21'st century sonic landscape, the reason being perhaps that Perrey does not resemble one's picture of the typical avant-garde composer producing inscrutable works that challenge the listener's very concept of music. Instead his aim is to raise synthesized sounds "to the level of pop music."

Asked about his training, Perrey describes a background in the "musique concrète" of the time, taking samples of seemingly "unmusical" sounds, making tape loops, converting, through filters and distortion, a car horn, say, into a "lion roaring." "But then," he disarmingly admits, "I realized it would be more fun…to make it more approachable to the public." Looking towards the future, he predicts "a complete change in musical expression" as electronic sounds become "a part of life." While the interviewer expresses skepticism, Perrey accurately perceives that "it has to happen."

Jean-Jacques Perrey (1929-2016) may not be one of the best-known of the first wave of electronic composers but it is more likely that you have heard his music than that of his more famous contemporaries. His ubiquitous jingles are still used in television commercials, his more engaging "hooks" are sampled by today's rappers, and anyone who has visited a Disney theme park has likely heard his Baroque Hoedown during the Main Street Electrical Parade. As Perrey's frequent collaborator Dana Countryman told Rolling Stone:

"For those who don’t realize it, Jean-Jacques first started recording electronic music in 1952, long before the Moog synthesizer was first made for sale in 1967. Relocating from Paris to New York City, JJ actually owned and recorded with the second Moog ever produced, and with his musical partner Gershon Kingsley, they released their first Moog album – almost two years before Wendy Carlos released her first Moog album. Jean-Jacques was truly the pioneer of popular electronic music."

Perrey straddled that fascinating line between willfully obscure Bohemianism and an almost deliberately vulgar pandering to a mass audience. Humor seems to have been the common element. In its obituary, the New York Times recounts how:

…his 1970 album, “Moog Indigo,” included one of his most daring adaptations, a version of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” which was pieced together from recordings of real bees. The pitches of their buzzing were shifted and arranged to recreate Rimsky-Korsakov’s familiar melody, a process that Mr. Perrey said took 46 hours.

It would be a mistake to dismiss such compositions as mere pranks. This interview shows Perrey envisioning with great prescience an auditory world that has since come to be. His subsequent work included film scores, commercials, and music for ballet, but also albums intended to help insomniacs sleep and other adventures in ambient sound which pre-figure the aesthetic of Brian Eno and Terry Riley. His music has been featured on South Park, The Simpsons, and saluted by The Beastie Boys. Yet Perrey can also be seen as very much exemplifying his time: the boundless optimism of Sixties, when the notion of fusing serious artistic exploration with commercial success and broad public appeal did not seem as fraught with danger or essentially contradictory as it perhaps does today. Richie Unterberger, writing for allmusic.com, contends:

 …his work was never intended to be part of the avant-garde, as Perrey himself cheerfully declared in his liner notes. His goal was to popularize electronic music by deploying it in happy, simple tunes and arrangements. That's why his music falls far closer to easy listening/space age pop than any sort of cutting edge -- and that is also why his music sounds more cheesily nostalgic than futuristic.

But of course the very feelings summed up by the word "futuristic" could be seen as yet another branch of nostalgia. Perrey, in this interview, very sweetly embodies both the strangeness of the new and a comforting assurance that what is good will remain.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 150971
Municipal archives id: T4399