updated 18 November 2015
© D.R.

Bernard Parmegiani

French composer born 27 October 1927 in Paris; died 22 November 2013.

   Despite being born to musician parents (his mother and step-father were both pianists and piano teachers), Bernard Parmegiani did not pursue a traditional musical education. He became interested in the art of mime, studying from 1955 to 1959 with Jacques Lecoq (an esteemed practitioner in the field in the 1950s) and Maximilien Decroux (the son of Étienne Decroux, a renowned mime artist in the “pre-Marcel Marceau” era), who had, incidentally, worked with composers including Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Henry. Parmegiani subsequently embarked upon a successful career in this art, which suited his personality — he was very reserved — and saw him regularly appear on television.

During this period, he also worked as a sound technician. His activities in this field, initiated during his military service (he worked for the army’s film and documentary department), included contributions to several cinematic projects (short and feature films), television programmes, and, finally, radio plays. In this setting, he developed a secret love of “tinkering” with sound. Having by 1959 amassed considerable experience in this respect, Pierre Schaeffer invited him to work for the Groupe de Recherche Musicale in 1959 as an audio technician and assistant editor.

In this capacity, Parmegiani served as the assistant of Iannis Xenakis and Luc Ferrari, and became acquainted with numerous prominent film directors of the day. Upon also assuming a role in the Research Department at GRM, he undertook two years of study of musique concrète (notably alongside François Bayle), during which he gradually transitioned from sound engineer to composer. He went on to compose pieces for a variety of settings; in addition to some 70 acousmatic works, he also created music for film (e.g., films with puppets, short, medium-length and feature films, documentaries, advertisements, animated films, video works, etc.), mime performances, dance and theatre productions, television and radio jingles, and “sonal” works (“sound signal,” i.e., sounds associated with public spaces, the most well-known of which was undoubtedly the chimes preceding announcements at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, which remained in use from 1971 to 2005), which collectively make up a catalogue comprising some 130 works.

Parmegiani’s work may be broadly divided into two periods. From 1960 until the composition of De Natura Sonorum, he was extremely prolific, maintaining a balance between the aforementioned context-specific pieces and his output which generally respected the established methods of musique concrète. The virtuosity and humour which manifested in his recordings and editing (e.g., Violostries, L’Instant mobile, Capture éphémère, La Roue Ferris, etc.), as well as his frequent collaborations with jazz and pop musicians — which gave rise to a string of unique cross-over works including Jazzex, Et après…, Du pop à l’âne, Pop’ eclectic, and Pop secret — contributed to establishing his reputation as one of the most important figures in the field of “art and sound on fixed media.” Starting in 1970, Parmegiani showed himself to be no less capable at mastering more formalised and refined large-scale forms, as in Enfer, Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d’Orphée, De Natura Sonorum, and*La Création du monde. His work from this time also reflects the influence of the philosophical writings of Gaston Bachelard, Vladimir Jankélévitch, and Clément Rosset, notably regarding the notion of “capturing the instant.” Various sets of works illustrate the composer’s creative dialogue with philosophical texts:Plain-Temps,Le Présent composé,Entre-temps,La Mémoire des sons*, etc.

As Director of the Music/Image Division in the Research Department of French National Radio and Television (ORTF), he remained closely affiliated with the INA-GRM until 1992, at which time he established his own studio, known as “Fabricasons,” in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (in the south of France). His interest in exploring the relationship between music and image, and his discovery of the “art video” genre while on a study trip in the United States in the early-1970s, gave rise to multimedia works such as L’œil écoute, Jeux d’artifices, and Écran transparent (the latter produced at WDR in Cologne).

Parmegiani, an artist who defies easy classification, composed few works with acoustic instruments (despite the fact that one of his early pieces, Violostries, is for violin and tape), favouring instead electronic instruments and fixed media. Through his work on synthesis and his contributions to the fixed media canon, Parmegiani, a great admirer of Stockhausen and with the emphatic backing of Schaeffer, not only inspired a generation of contemporary musicians, but also had, and continues to have, a significant influence on sound artists of all ages, styles, and persuasions.

Awards, Grants, and Prizes

  • Prix Italia (1976)
  • “Grand Prix” from the Académie du Disque (1979)
  • SACEM Composers’ “Grand Prix” (1981)
  • Prize for Contemporary Music Composition, Fifth Victoires de la Musique (1989)
  • Magisterium Prize, Bourges International Competition (1991)
  • Knight of the Order of Merit (France; 1991)
  • “Golden Nica” Prize from the Ars Electronica Festival for Entre-temps (Linz; 1993)
  • “Coup de Cœur” from the Charles Cros Academy for Portrait Polychrome (CDMC/INA-GRM; 2003)
  • “President of the Republic” Prize from the Charles Cros Academy for the twelve-CD box set presenting the majority of his catalogue of works (2008)

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2015

By Vincent Tiffon

Sculptural music, sound material, and corporeality

Parmegiani was a master of musique concrète and acousmatics, a creator of eminently “sculptural” music – sound art that did not adhere to any kind of aesthetic formalism. The sculptural nature of his sound was directly linked to his life story: before he began composing, in the early 1960s, Bernard Parmegiani was a mime and a sound engineer. While the skills he acquired as a sound engineer were invaluable in his subsequent work as an acousmatic composer, it was his mime skills that were foundational to his career. In Phonosophobe, Parmegiani “attempt(ed) to apply to sound the mime techniques that [he] was practicing at the time: the principle of the continuous metamorpohosis of gesture that makes different meanings appear1”. During this period, it is worth mentioning that Parmegiani spent a great deal of time “tinkering” with sounds (what he called bidouillage), and with photomontage (La Crème des hommes, 1957-1958) before moving to electroacoustic music. What developed from this was less an aesthetic of collage and more an attraction to experimentation with visual objects, which extended naturally into the musique concrète promoted by Schaeffer. This did not prevent Parmegiani from using collage in certain of his acousmatic works, such as Bidule en Ré, Musico-Picassa, and Des Mots et des Sons. Giving corporeality to disembodied recorded sound characterizes Parmegiani’s work: while written music is brought to life – embodied – by a performer, musique concrète and acousmatic music must reinvent new forms of embodiment. “Music has a body, and that body is the sound material itself2”. Parmegiani had, after all, entered the artistic world through a form of narrative theater (mime), where the spectator was able to experience the thoughts and inner life of the actor without the use of words, through the simple expression of attitudes and gestures – the body as a medium for ideas and feelings.

The idea of transmitting feeling with the body described above intersects with working on sound material in a way that crystalizes perfectly in Parmegiani’s musical work. While the body calls for listening that is focused on sound’s iconic quality, and sound material calls for listening focused on the symbolic dimension (of which Variations pour une porte et un soupir by Pierre Henry is an archetype), there is little room left for the deictic dimension – despite the fact that this dimension is intrinsically linked to the tools of audio capture used in musique concrète and acousmatic music. It is therefore understandable that Parmegiani would have developed a whole lexicon of deictic references using his many sounds and sound creations. For example, the railway noises in L’œil écoute: the sounds themselves refer to the sound material, naturally – but above all to Pierre Schaeffer. (The inventor of musique concrète witnessed the Lagny-Pomponne rail disaster in 19333, and later on recorded railway sounds at the Batignolles train station, the raw material he used in his Nocturne aux chemins de fer.) Also of note in this respect: the radio play E Pericoloso sporgersi, the first minutes of Sons/jeu, which recall with humor and self-derision the archetype of the loop, Shaeffer’s closed groove, and, finally Bidule en Ré, whose title recalls Schaeffer’s Bidule en ut – as do its choice of sounds, its transformations, and its editing strategies. In the work of Parmegiani, the deictic quality is for the most part a reference to borrowing, to citation, and to humor, most often associated with one another. Here, surrealism is a source of inspiration. His numerous citations appear as truly exquisite corpses – of styles and eras mounted together, revealing the limits of collage and the exhilaration it can bring. Du pop à l’âne, from 1969, contains references to tango, Messiaen, Poulenc, The Doors, Pink Floyd, a mixed version of Stockhausen’s Kontakte, Scelsi, progressive rock, and more. The Moonlight Sonata appears in Sonare. More subtly, it is possible to hear micro-quotations in works that are constructed entirely acousmatically – Stravinsky’s (Rite of Spring in L’œil écoute, for example. One also hears self-quotation, of Capture éphémère (wings fluttering) and La Création du monde (Black Light) in La Mémoire des sons, as well as Sonal4 in Espèces d’espace. Finally, we note that in works Parmegiani himself described as “minor,” his work creating material was sometimes what generated his creative process, to the detriment of certain formal aspects of composition5: Outremer, La Roue Ferris, L’œil écoute, Le Pouvoir d’Orphée. Conversely, Parmigiani’s masterworks are the ones in which “the advent of form” came before the creation of the material, such as De Natura Sonorum, Dedans-Dehors. What was essential for Parmegiani was capturing the instant or the immanence – this can be considered a predominant tropism for him.

Time capture, “frozen moments”

Parmegiani’s music is a living environment where static sounds (Rabelasian “frozen sound,” audio freeze-framing) and ephemeral sounds form a linked pair. Parmegiani elevates what might easily have been a shopworn metaphor in acousmatic music – the sound object incrusted in a static or evolving frame, possibly taken from the model of nature – to the rank of musical dialectic. He is not so much playing with the limits of sound perception – Parmegiani’s music is not liminal in the sense that many trends in 20th century music could be (minimalist, repetitive, spectral); rather, it shows a taste for static structures that make long listening possible. It is as if listening were expanded, occasionally disrupted by ephemeral objects – as the opposite to these structures. It is an association of matter and anti-matter: far from annihilating each other, at times, these ephemeral structures give mass to the work (see Capture éphémère). This juxtaposition of opposites is what makes it possible to appreciate the music’s length, a sort of stretching of time that fosters contemplation. This was the frame of mind in which Parmegiani conceived and composed his two major and monumental works, La Création du monde and De Natura Sonorum, with its last and no less masterful movement Point contre champs. It is also the bedrock of most of his acousmatic pieces, such as Dedans-Dehors, Entropie, the third movement of Chants magnétiques (1974), La Table des matières, excerpted from Mess Media Sons / La Table des matières, Rouge-Mort, and Immer/sounds.

The core of Bernard Parmegiani’s thinking was philosophy more than it was religion or any other form of mysticism. Parmegiani was a devoted reader of Clément Rosset. The influence of Rosset’s Anti-nature (1973) is clear in De Natura Sonorum. Rosset was one of the philosophers who argued that the supposed opposition between nature and artifice ought to be thought of as a dialectic, and in De Natura Sonorum, the close weaving of synthesizer sounds (artifice) and sounds captured by microphone (nature) is at the heart of the composition process. This weaving-together is made possible through the construction of composed and composite objects, the analog parallel to what would later become computer-generated sound hybrids, meaning that Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos plango, vivos voco may be seen as a mirror of De Natura Sonorum. Here, too, one sees how a reflection on time, with Bachelard’s writing on lived time (L’Intuition de l’instant, 1932), may “naturally” be added to a compositional practice built on notions of instantaneousness and instantaneity, as in Capture éphémère or L’Instant mobile. For example, the fluttering sound in Capture éphémère was synonymous for Parmegiani with capturing the present moment. This signature fluttering of wings was included in the theme music of Radio France Culture’s ACR (Ateliers de création radiophonique) broadcast in the 1980s and 1990s6. Parmegiani’s philosophical references also include Vladimir Jankélévitch (Irréversible de la nostalgie, 1974) and the idea of circular time, of “immobilizing becoming,” which gave rise to Parmegiani’s Plain-Temps, Le Présent composé, Entre-temps – the reference among Parmegiani’s compositions of the 1990s – and, finally, La Mémoire des sons and Rêveries, whose title refers to the description of the stance of attentive listening to sounds and their associated sound images7, an “escape from time, from duration” – “frozen moments.” Hearing the frozen bell or the frozen chords from Wagners’ Lohengrin in La Mémoire des sons is enough to demonstrate why Parmegiani enjoyed quoting Bachelard’s dictum: “Being is a place of resonance.”

Music and image: at the boundary-line of genres

Parmegiani’s catalogue, which contains over two hundred references, includes nearly seventy acousmatic works to be heard as such; that is, in acousmatic concerts. However, what makes this catalogue unique are the hundred-and-thirty-odd pieces of music for film (cinema and advertising) and functional music (stage, dance, mime). It is these pieces that open the door to rich and often complex sound matter, despite the fact that this music was above all experienced as a consumer object for consumer products, or as the audio backdrop that helped to communicate a visual message or a non-musical artistic project. The boundary-line between them is not absent; rather, it shows Parmegiani’s easy ability to slip fluidly from one genre to another, from functional music (in service of visuals) to acousmatic music, music for the ear in which there is “nothing to see.” Highly prolific in his early years in the world of functional music thanks to his previous work as a sound engineer for radio, film, and then television, Parmegiani wrote film scores, essentially for short films between 1960 and 1975, and a few feature-length ones (Jacques Baratier and Joseph Kosma’s 1962 La poupée; Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished Inferno the same year, Pierre Kast’s 1972 Les soleils de l’Ile de Pâques, Peter Kassovitz’s 1981 La guerre des insectes), music for theater and dance (La Divine comédie: enfer in 1972, Rouge-Mort in 1988), radio plays (E Pericoloso sporgersi), radio jingles and theme music that entered the French collective imagination (the jingle for the broadcast Inter Actualités between 1960 and 1965; the France Culture theme from 1972 to 1980), television themes (the theme music for FR3 News from 1972 to 1974, the Stade 2 theme for the Antenne 2 channel from 1975 to 1986), advertising jingles (L’alcool tue with text by Boris Vian, in 1962) and other musical punctuations, such as Sonal, the announcement sound heard by millions of travelers passing through Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris between 1971 and 2005, whose longevity was remarkable in a setting where novelty generally trumps quality or aesthetic considerations. Parmegiani’s overwhelming productivity in this field, which was of course driven by economic necessity and by commissions, made him a pioneer in the field of sound design. However easily Parmegiani moved from one genre to another, the borderline remained: his so-called acousmatic works were resolutely not functional works. The effectiveness of his functional compositions lay in the relationship he built between the music’s symbolic and indexical features and the object, concept, or medium to which they referred. The presence of the symbolic in Parmegiani’s acousmatic works is exemplary.

When Pierre Schaeffer asked Parmegiani to take over as director of the Music/Image Division in the Research Department of French National Radio and Television (ORTF), he already had expertise in the relationship between image and sound, having composed for documentaries and both live-action and animated films. By the early 1970s, he was involved in video art, notably through a trip to the United States. L’œil écoute in 1973; L’Écran transparent from the same year, but created at the WDR studios in Cologne (in co-production with the ORTF); Jeux d’artifices in 1979, again at GRM for its spatialized television screens; L’Écho du miroir, influenced by the graphic art of M.C. Escher – all of these relied on a logic that would later be known as intermedial.

Parmegiani was not a composer of mixed pieces: he humbly maintained that he lacked the training to compose for acoustic instruments8. In Violostries, one of his first works in the GRM repertoire, the violin part was created by Devy Erlith after Pargmegiani had composed the electroacoustic part, which he made using violin sounds. He used this same approach in Outremer with an ondes Martenot. While these are indeed “classical” pairings in which an instrument is associated with its electronic double, these pieces cannot be considered to be hybrid; rather, they are assemblies involving two forms of writing. Jazzex, a reference in the mixed music repertoire, juxtaposes the free improvisation of a jazz quartet with Jean-Louis Chautemps, Bernard Vitet, Gilbert Rovère, and Charles Saudrais and a composition by Parmegiani on tape. The same dialectic exists in Et après, with Michel Portal on bandoneon, and in another register, in Pop secret, where the pop group The Third Ear Band improvises in dialogue with sounds on tape. Parmegiani pressed this form of intermixing into what he called “actions musicales,” which were composite forms (yet again!) of standard concerts, stage music, melodrama, musical theater, etc. Examples of this may be found in Trio, Des Mots et des Sons, and Démons et des Mots, whose titles all show the composer’s sense of humor. A few mixed creations, more classical in their form, do exist, however, such as Tuba-raga, as well as a handful of mixed pieces with electronic instruments on stage, with the appearance of synthesizers and samplers in the 1980s. These Parmegiani embraced, notably in Stries or in Itinéraire 10 and De sable et de sons.

It was thus in the musical genre of “cinema for the ear” that Parmegiani became one of the major composers of his generation, within the francophone world of the sound sculptor heirs to the two Pierres – (Schaeffer and Henry), the inventors of musique concrète. Bernard Parmegiani did not belong to the first generation of musiciens concrets. Nor did he seek at all costs to go down in the history of revolutionary discoveries. He owes his legacy – in the singular genre of electroacoustics – to a few emblematic masterpieces, including his celebrated De Natura Sonorum. It is in fact this piece that makes it possible to divide Parmigiani’s work into “periods.” While he himself mentioned a repetitive period in the 1970s, the most marked distinction in his work is before and after De Natura Sonorum – which we can see in its economy of means. But the years around 1975 were a turning point for most composers of this generation: following two decades of research into language and form, 1975 represents the apotheosis of the compositional mastery of tape, used blindly, and marks the beginning of a progressive shift to computer screens, first in institutions and organizations, and then in home studios. Parmegiani himself left the GRM to work in his own studio in 1992. In most of his works he remained faithful to musique concrète and acousmatics in his composition methods, which alternate between making and hearing, and consider reduced listening as the alpha and the omega of the creation of sound objects. At the same time, his mastery of synthesizers gave him a balanced aesthetic as a composer, making him representative of music that was literally electroacoustic, in that it mixed electronic sources with sources recorded by microphones. This began with L’œil écoute (1970), which was the first time an analogue synthesizer was used at the GRM. In De Natura Sonorum, he vigorously returned to the techniques of musique concrète: figures against a background, creation of a framework and evolution of that framework, insertion of sound objects, transient substitutions, accumulations, etc. His composed and composite objects are models of the genre. But at the same time, Parmegiani made a place for himself as a great discoverer of hitherto unheard synthesizer sounds, excluding all digital programming, which was a practice completely foreign to his work. This balance, added to his many artistic offerings in sharply delineated domains, leaves more than enough room for an artistic imprint, a “Parma” style embodied in his long, panoramic De Natura Sonorum and distilled into a four-second sound ringing out through the Charles de Gaulle Airport.

  1. Régis RENOUARD-LARIVIERE, in Portraits Polychromes: Bernard Parmegiani. Paris, CDMC/INA-GRM, 2002, p. 95.
  2. Régis RENOUARD-LARIVIERE, “Bernard Parmegiani. Matière et continuité,” in Portraits Polychromes: Bernard Parmegiani. Paris, CDMC/INA-GRM, 2002, p. 9.
  3. Pierre SCHAEFFER, “Récit d’un témoin,” L’Est républicain, 26 December 1933.
  4. Sonal,” the French word for a signature or brand sound, is a portmanteau made up of the words “son” and “signal” (“sound” and “signal”) – a very short sound, generally used in a public space, that punctuates, identifies, or draws attention to a product, place, message, announcement, etc. Here, the “sonal” in question punctuated announcements at the Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle Airport in Paris for over thirty years.
  5. François DELALANDE, “Entretien avec Bernard Parmegiani,” in THOMAS Jean-Christophe, MION Philippe, NATTIEZ Jean-Jacques. L’Envers d’une œuvre: De Natura Sonorum de Bernard Parmegiani. Paris, Buchet-Chastel/NA-GRM, 1983, p. 149.
  6. René FARADET. Bref éloge du coup de tonnerre et du bruit d’ailes. Arles, Phonurgia nova, 1994, p. 149.
  7. Bernard Parmegiani, Opus France Culture, 19/12/1992, 1h16:25.
  8. Bernard Parmegiani, Opus France Culture, 19/12/1992, 0h27’.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2015

Liens Internet

(liens vérifiés en avril 2020)


  • Jean-Christophe THOMAS, Philippe MION, Jean-Jacques NATTIEZ, L’Envers d’une œuvre : De Natura Sonorum de Bernard Parmegiani, Paris, Buchet-Chastel/INA-GRM, 1983, 207 p.
  • Pierre-Albert CASTANET (dir.), Portraits Polychromes : Bernard Parmegiani, Paris, CDMC/INA-GRM, 2002, 118 p.
  • Bernard FORT*, Des mots et des sons, Bernard Parmegiani*, dans Bernard FORT et Philippe GONIN*, Du son à l’œuvre : un chemin vers les nouvelles musiques,* Lyon, Éditions Musicales Lugdivine, 2002, p. 87-101.

Discographie sélective

  • Bernard PARMEGIANI, Chants magnétiques (1974), 1 cd Fractal Records, 1975.
  • Bernard PARMEGIANI, Mécanicàmusique (2’. 1991), 1 cd CIRM, 1991.
  • Bernard PARMEGIANI, Entre-Temps (1992), Prix Ars Electronica 93, 1 cd Ars Electronica, ÖRF, 1993.
  • Bernard PARMEGIANI, La Divine comédie [François Bayle et Bernard Parmegiani], 1 cd Magison MGCB 0795, Musidisc, 245372, 1995.
  • Bernard PARMEGIANI, Pop’eclectic ; *Du pop à l’âne ; Jazzex ;*Et après, 1 cd Plate Lunch, PL 8, 1999.
  • Bernard PARMEGIANI**,** Questions de temps, compilation de trente et un titres dont, notamment, de courts extraits de musiques pour la scène, Vengeance ; Bless;La Table des matières;Abel-Abeth;Siloë, une série d’indicatifs dont plusieurs inédits et deux remix par DJ Nem et DJ Rom, Cabinet de musique généraliste 10 – Cézame / Harmonia Mundi, 2002.
  • Archives GRM consacré aux compositeurs du GRM contenant les pièces suivantes de Parmegiani : L’alcool tue ; La Roue Ferris ; Indicatif Roissy ; Indicatif France Culture ; Indicatif Stade 2, coffret 5CD, INA-GRM, 2004.
  • Bernard PARMEGIANI, Coffret 12 CD, INA-GRM, Ina G 6000/11, 2008.
  • Bernard PARMEGIANI, Rock, 1 vinyle, Transversales Disques, TRS01, 2017.
  • Bernard PARMEGIANI, Mémoire Magnétique, vol. 1 (1966-1990), Transversales Disques, TRS08, 2018.