The Lasry-Baschet Sound Structures might not be the go-to group on Spotify right now, I really couldn’t say. However, it would give humanity as a whole a tremendous boost if everyone were to run out immediately and listen to their remarkable, otherworldly creations. There are some composers who worked for years to bring to life the sounds they had inside their heads; for others, it flowed out of them onto the manuscript paper like a dam bursting. There was a select other group – including, most famously perhaps, Harry Partch, who had to go a step further – they had to first invent the instruments that could make these trapped sounds. It was such an adventure that the Lasry-Baschet collective set out – the results still sound like putting a glass to the wall of another dimension and hearing ghosts sing to the moon.
François Baschet (born 30 March 1920) and Bernard Baschet (born 24 August 1917) were Parisian brothers, both extremely well-educated but driven away from the fields of engineering and business and towards the art world. François was the vision, performance and artistry; Bernard had the scientific and design skills – the combination proved ruthlessly effective. Ever the free spirit, François had abandoned his studies after World War II to travel the world as a modern-day minstrel, earning money playing music in clubs on his grand tour. There was a problem – carrying a guitar everywhere he went would be cumbersome and liable to be broken or stolen. He engineered a solution – the inflatable guitar.
This may sound ridiculous, or give rise to mental images of a guitar which you literally inflated. In the latter case, you’d be correct. In 1952, François received a patent for his instrument, la guitare pneumatique, and proudly played it under the stage name of Felix Barrel. Comprising a collapsable wooden neck and what amounted to little more than a balloon, Baschet had ignited a passion which never left him and which also infected his brother. Together, they set out to reappraise the instruments which were commonly used and to adapt them in such a way that they straddled the divide between the familiar and completely alien. Accentuating the visual as well as sonic impact of their new family of instruments, their frustration with the limits of what could be achieved with instruments which, broadly speaking, had remained unchanged for 200 years or more, led them to experiment with shape, sound and the very materials the instruments were made of.
The Baschets created new musical instruments throughout the 1950s, calling them structures sonores (or ‘sonorous sculptures’). They were usually large, very tactile objects, designed to encourage the user – whether musically trained or otherwise – to immediately get stuck in and create something new. Aluminium and steel featured prominently, fashioned into sail-like structures and flared resonators, all of which looked like they had fallen off a passing spaceship. These reflective geometric shapes emitted elaborately textured, sometimes ethereal sounds – some plucked to generate tones, others hit percussively or teased with water or wet fingers. What was missing from the equation was a musician to play them – step forward husband and wife team, Jacques and Yvonne Lasry.
The Baschets met the Lasrys in 1954 and worked together to unify the presentation of their new arsenal of instruments for an unsuspecting world. Jacques was born into a Jewish family in Alger, French Algeria on January 29 1918, and had risen to prominence in France as a bandleader, pianist and composer. It was whilst studying piano at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris that he met his future wife, Yvonne. Yvonne was born on in the North-East of France on the border with Germany and Switzerland and was studying to play the organ when she met Jacques. The outbreak of war saw them both fleeing to Algeria, returning when peace was declared to work as accompanists for cabaret acts and even stars like Michèle Arnaud and Serge Gainsbourg. So committed were Yvonne and Jacques to the avant-grade, that they declined an offer to play with Charlie Chaplin, someone they considered far too mainstream.
Although the Baschets and Lasrys were quite different personalities, they worked well together calling themselves, Les Structures Sonores Lasry-Baschet, ‘The Lasry-Baschet Sound Structures’. They sought to make music which fit into the modern landscape, reflecting technological advances and ideas of futurism. Bernard remained very much behind the scenes, whilst his brother set about the task of designing and manufacturing these new musical instruments. The Lasrys meanwhile had to both adapt existing works (Bartok and Bach were popular targets) and not only write new original pieces but find ways of making them playable.
The group toured successfully from 1955, and in 1960 were asked by Jean Cocteau to provide music for his film, ‘Le Testament d’Orphée‘. The exoticism appealed to not just classical music fans and art connoisseurs, and they were featured on television shows around the world, including a trio of appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1966 they were invited to hold an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but what was paramount was that the instruments were accessible to all, whether they appeared in museums in Japan, Germany, Mexico or America or were used in small performances closer to home in clubs and universities. They delighted in watching audiences lose themselves whilst playing with the installations – François once remarked, “We have never seen so many Scandinavians so happy without being drunk” A further film appearance came with William Klein’s satirical, arthouse film ‘In and Out of Fashion’ (also known as ‘Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?‘ – ‘Are you Polly Maggoo?’ ) featuring both their sounds and sculptures.
Of course, the creation of new musical instruments didn’t stop there. In 1962, came ‘Le Sifflant Tournant’ (The Rotating Whistler) a rotating metal keyboard which produced an elongated, peculiar sound without the need for an amplifier. ‘La Tôle à Voix‘ (‘The Voice Leaf’) arrived in 1965, a large, rather kite-like resonating instrument which converted the human voice into a robotic drone when sung into. ‘La Percussion Polytimbre‘ (‘The Polytonal Percussion’) was unveiled in 1967, a collection of violent-looking spikes of metal which were to be beaten with sticks or mallets, the sounds strangled and then spat out by a collection of unusually-shaped cones. Elsewhere they created clock towers and fountains which interacted with water and wind to create self-generated sounds in public spaces.
As well as vocalists, the group were often accompanied by Jacques and Yvonne’s son, Teddy, on clarinet – Teddy would later find a new audience when he founded Prog Rock behemoths, Magma. Also a collaborator was clarinettist and saxophonist, Roger Simon, later to record for the De Wolfe music library. Their recorded output was not insignificant – a two-track record was released in 1956, ‘L’Orgue de Cristal et Les Percussions‘ featuring ‘Rhapsodie de Budapest‘, ‘La Danse du Cristal‘ and ‘Prélude Métallique‘. Their first LP was the self-referencing 1959 release, ‘ Les Structures Sonores‘, which included, ‘Sonate d’Ecclès‘ ‘Sicilienne‘ (Bach), ‘Mazeppa‘, ‘Duo pour Cristal et Violoncelle’, ‘Choral’ (Bach), ‘Dances Greques‘, ‘Polyphon 758‘, ‘Sonate Exotique‘ and ‘Danse du Cristal no.2‘. An avalanche of releases followed, up until 1967 when, sadly, the group disbanded, heralded by Lasry’s conversion to orthodox Judaism and relocation to Israel. Since then, countless collections have been issued and reissued, lapped up by enthusiasts, and influencing artists from Mort Garson to Jarvis Cocker to Tom Waits to Daft Punk, with the use of the Cristal appearing in films including ‘Traffic’ and Solaris’ by director Stephen Soderbergh.
Though featuring as incidental music in the original run of ‘The Twilight Zone’ in America, The Lasry-Baschets Sound Structures also have a special relationship with the UK, heavily influencing composers Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, indeed the group was the first choice of producers to compose the theme music for ‘Doctor Who’. In the end, they had to settle for a lesser but no less evocative slot – their track, ‘Manège’ playing as the theme tune to daytime-skiving-off-school-spectacular, ‘Picture Box’, presented for its near 30-year run by Alan Rothwell.
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