C O M M E N T A R Y :    C O M P O S E R S

Towards a new phenomenon of sound
The visionary music and writings of Jean Catoire: James D'Angelo

Jean Catoire never wanted to be a musician: rather music chose him to be a transcriber of unique forms of sound structures which are the antithesis of much contemporary classical music. However, Catoire did not emerge out of a musical vacuum. His uncle Georges Catoire (1861-1926) was a well-known composer in Russia, the homeland of his father, a Moscow engineer. His mother who provided him with music lessons was of German origin. Both fled Russia after the revolution and settled in Paris where Catoire was born on 1 April 1923 (he revels in the fact that his birthday is also April Fool's Day). By 15 he was seriously studying piano and composition with two Russian masters, Paul Kovalev and Vladimir Butzov. This led to a diploma from the Conservatoire Serge Rachmaninoff in Paris where he later taught. Within a few years he found that his pieces were coming to him with great completeness with little need for editing. Nonetheless he believed that he should have further study and followed the path of many other young French composers by attending the composition classes of Oliver Messiaen, France's leading composer after WW II. In 1949 he followed Messiaen to Tanglewood, a major summer music school in the USA. Subsequently he spent some time in New York where he studied conducting with Leon Barzin. Barzin premiered Catoire's Symphony No. 8 at New York's most important concert venue, Carnegie Hall. Eventually he became Barzin's personal assistant in Paris.

The effect of studying with Messiaen was profound. It made him realize that what Messiaen was putting forward was in direct opposition to what he wanted to project and it gave him the confidence to carve out his own path. In striking out into his own territory he came under the influence of Bartok's and Hindemith's music. He found himself marginalized from his fellow students who either accepted the aesthetics of Schoenberg and his followers or devoted themselves to Debussy, composers far removed from Catoire's musical conceptions. If he has any French antecedents, it would be Erik Satie, a composer for whom he has high regard. The modern Russian composers with whom he feels a strong kinship are Scriabin, Mussorgsky and Prokofieff. He never liked the music of Stravinsky. Some have thought his music bears a relationship to that of Bruckner in its highly repetitive thematic material but Catoire has dismissed such a connection.

The works of Jean Catoire can be divided into three periods separated by two years (1959-1960) and much later another two years (1989-1990) of silence. The first period consists of 102 works of which 24 were destroyed by the composer in 1988. He decided to retain his original opus numbering so that the first work now extant is Op.11, written in 1948. His leanings towards a sacred mysticism were already emerging at this time as shown by his more than 30 choral religious works including two requiems and three masses. By the mid-1950s he had already reached his Op. 69. Little did he realize that by 1996 he would reach 604 opuses, encompassing every standard vocal and instrumental medium as well as works for synthesizer and Tibetan bowls. Thereafter the direction of Catoire's music was absolutely singular. His second, creative period grew logically out of the first in which his music became quite steadily stripped of traditional forms, development in its usual sense, contrast, embellishments and expression/dynamic markings. For many years his music was characterized by a free chromatic use of triads in geometrical patterns or the interchange between major and minor thirds. These patterns gradually became simpler and simpler until the multiplicity of chords gave way to one chord (major and minor) and then to single notes, usually C and G. Occasionally in his later stages he wrote down works with fast tempos, an unusual departure from his far more usual marking of 'Lento.' The evolution of his music was so rapid that he anticipated the now famous American minimalist composers LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass who first gained attention in the late 1960s. However, Catoire's style in its continuous static slowness and quietude cannot be truly compared with the pulsating rhythmic styles of these composers. Rather Catoire precursors such composers as Henryk Gorecki, John Tavener and most especially Arvo Pärt who often write sacred works in an archaic yet modern style and have been referred to as the 'sacred or holy minimalists.' In this sense the Catoire music echos the sacred compositions of the medieval Notre Dame school of Perotin and Leonin and, in relation to its unusual chromaticism, the works of Gesualdo.

As he trod a mystical path towards extremely pure and absolute sound structures, a conceptual sense of music as an art form gave way to what could be described as a contemplative phenomenon of sound. In his essay entitled 'Contemporary Problems of Sound' Catoire stated:

What is conventionally called 'music' is an evolution of sound phenomena that originated with incantations such as the ritual chants of non-European peoples and the Gregorian chant of the Western Christianity. Such incantational music can awaken certain psychic states in human beings, allowing their consciousness to expand beyond their ordinary mental framework. If these incantations are positive in nature, then the vibrations produced induce a state that is no longer emotional in the usual sense but purely psychical. At the other extreme lies the full development of pure music which reached its apex with the works of Haydn and Mozart. In their output the realization of sound is free of any primordial element and rooted entirely in pure abstract forms. Nonetheless their sound world can still place listeners into a psychic state where they are capable of perceiving the primary structures from which later sound forms will be derived.

After Haydn and Mozart the progressive realization of pure music begins to disappear. In Beethoven's work elements of incantation start to appear as his music evolved towards pure archetypal sound structures. This emergence of the incantational becomes gradually predominant in certain 19th century composers, notably Wagner. In less than 100 years the result was the disintegration of musical forms and the dislocation of musical language itself. It should be realized that the music of the avantgarde are not experiments whose purpose is to go beyond music but rather attempts to keep alive a corpse that they have been deliberately killing for over a century.

Catoire goes on to say that composers can no longer create music by aligning themselves with any school or established composers or styles, that they must abandon the idea of writing music as such and begin tapping into a phenomenon of sound that goes beyond music. With the guidance of that which enables composers to perceive sound in its more primoridial forms, they can begin to realize the new sacred value of such sounds. In a letter to a younger composer he wrote:

We live in a time when absolutely any kind of academic knowledge of music is no longer useful. The composer has to create for every one of his works a way of realizing and connecting sounds from the first idea, delimiting what in that system is his own and what is particular to the composition he is realizing at that moment. Not only does he have to be careful to see the inner evolution of his language, but also what particular language should be used for each composition. How we receive the flow of sound data or capture it is not our problem. Our work consists of keeping an inner silence and getting in touch and realizing the inner visions of the sound patterns in concrete form.

From this advice one can see that for Catoire the problem of writing down his works was never a problem of school but merely a problem of deep sincerity towards his own being and towards the one Creator who bestows the faculty to contemplate the inner structures of the sounds.

At a fairly early stage in his development Catoire had the gift of reaching deeply silent creative states and captured these works on paper in a completely psychic manner which he describes as 'auditive vision.' That is, he does not 'hear' his works but sees them in his mind's eye already written out. Here we are reminded of Mozart whom Catoire feels was the greatest seer of musical forms. His only responsibility is to copy out what he sees and that is why he insists on being called a 'transcriber' not a composer. There is no struggle with any thematic material or its development. He is like a faithful secretary who has to labour with great clarity and endurance. He once went to the conductor Leon Barzin with one of his symphonies and claimed that he had completed this substantial work in a day. He was not believed. In fact, when one realizes that the vast majority of his numerous opuses are between 30 minutes to up to twelve hours in length and composed over a period of roughly 48 years (1948-1996), one can appreciate what energy and devotion he has given in getting it all down on paper. And this does not include a vast collection of mystical writings and essays on the phenomenon of sound and conducting.

In an attempt to encapsulate the essence of his music Catoire explained to his student Nicolas Bacri:

These compositions were realized outside of any artistic phenomenon with the object of revealing sound in its pure state before it has passed through the filter of musical conception and art. The works are a juxtaposition of sounds characterized by a synthesis of structure and regularly rhythmical values in a dynamic continuum. Elemental forms are thus created which represent the anterior, pre-sound values before their integration into an artistic, musical conception or mould. This phenomenon of sound gives birth to a different sense of time and duration; at the same time it lends to the structural elements (notes, intervals, chords, the formal relationship of the sound material) a value and a dimension beyond anything which one finds in so-called 'music.'

In his extended essay entitled 'The Phenomenon of Sound', Catoire explains the levels of creation as they relate to the phenomenon of sound and his auditive vision and establishes criteria for performers projecting and listeners receiving such sound structures. He begins by making a distinction between music and the sound phenomenon:

A sequence of sounds contain within themselves two possibilities. The musical one which essentially leads to a so-called work of art (music) and the other possibility (the sound phenomenon) which precedes such a work of art and is linked to pre-sound archetypes.

It is important to understand what Catoire means by pre-sound archetypes and auditive vision as these concepts form the basis for going beyond music and realizing new phenomena of sound. To paraphrase Catoire:

The pre-sound phenomenon exists as an antecedent to all sound phenomena. It is an archetype not perceivable by the physical act of hearing but by what one might call the 'inner ear.' Equally the pre-sound archetypes can be seen in the totality of their initial structures. The term 'seen' is not really adequate to describe this process. Either the vision is completely free of all hearing, including the pre-sound itself, or the inward seeing of the archetype and its pre-sound realization merge in a synthesis of perception. Auditive vision is not a 'sense' in the usual meaning of the term but rather an ambivalent faculty through which it is possible to gauge what is not part of one's ordinary mental function but what is purely psychical. Those composers who possess or can develop this auditive vision must find a method of transcribing the pre-sound values shown to them as conscious mediums on the archetypal level through the limited faculty of the mental plane. Ideally these two faculties should be in perfect balance.

Every sound work is first presented in its absolute aspect as a non-sound archetype wherein lie all the primary relations from which will emerge all subsequent sound values. That is, it is first revealed as a totality, down to the smallest details of its subsequent development as sound, in an absolute present and then allowed to unfold chronologically within time and space. The perceptions are entirely psychic and not sensory so that only value relations and concentrations of energy remain.

There actually exists two kinds of archetypes. Both are absolute in their existence. The first kind are those which lie unmanifested in the universal mind of the Creator. The subsequent archetype moves a step beyond the first and possesses in its pre-sound values the plan for its future material realization. The first type, although containing all subsequent possibilities, is only the impetus for pre-sound realizations while the second is the direct cause of them. However, archetypes of the second kind have latent within them, although not totally realizable, the energy and universal structures of the initial archetype.

The archetypes of the second kind are so conceived that, on the level of their own manifestation, the initial archetypes out of which they emerged can be glimpsed. The archetype is both a concentration and a partial structuring of the primordial energies gathering itself towards a posssible aspect of manifestion. Even if the field of observation is reduced to a precise, specific manifestation, all the others are also seen either already realized or realizable. Nonetheless it is necessary to limit the vision of the second type of archetype to the elements of those particular pre-sound and eventually sound structures.

In the third section of 'The Phenomenon of Sound' Catoire takes up the subject of the realization of pre-sound into the sound phenomenon by the composer. Here he substitutes the term 'transcriber' for composer. He recognizes that the value of physical sound as a specific energy quite definitely changes the state of the listener and that this energy sets in motion a resonance with the non-material vibrations from which the sounds had their origin. He also states that when the act of transcription is undertaken, what the transcriber perceives in the absolute aspect is subject to his individual way of seeing and thinking. Even though the transcribing of relations is issuing from this same level, his perceptions will be different from each other simply because the inner structures of the archetype and the ways of its manifestation are infinite and incommensurable. Catoire divides the process of transcription into three successive stages:

1. At the level of the archetype the notes are conceived as hieropglyphs anterior to any non-sound value (stage two) and sound value (stage three). On this level the notes are pure, absolute values. Such a passage is neither heard nor read, It is inwardly realized in its expression of original synthesis.

2. At the level of pre-sound, the abstract values, expressed by the notes, are read but not yet heard within the abstract sonorities of the archetype. At this point the groups of notes are no longer just graphic, representing one or more relations of the non-sound archetype. Here the notes represent not only the cosmic archetype but also the sound archetype not yet expressed in sound. For example, the progression of notes of C to E flat and then C to E which was initially represented by a pure, non-formal progression becomes a proper symbol of a pre-sound progression. In contrast to the symbols described within the first level, this symbol is already read within time and space and is no longer just an abstract synthesis of the archetype.

3. When the particularization of the archetypes are sufficiently structured in the two preceding levels, the note values can be translated into sound. The physical sound, acting as pure sound values, contains the active potential of the prior levels. If the relations of the three levels are correctly established and the primary vision expressed, an increased force is generated not only in sound but also in auditive vision. In such a state the sounds cannot be considered as music but as patterns of sound which are directly linked to the antecedent, higher levels and thus superior in their expressive power.

Here Catoire offers a view as to why composers of different eras continued to change styles. First of all he notes no evolution of archetypes exists because they are outside any notions of space and time. The archetype always proceeds and remains in the Absolute even after its concrete realization in sound. However, there does exist an evolution of grasping, realizing and transcribing the archetypes. For Catoire each transcriber/composer possesses his own universe of archetypes which listeners can recognize as the archetypes proper to one composer or another. He has seen that each master composer works within well defined zones and goes on to write:

Those who believe that certain composers seem to repeat themselves all their lives have mixed up two essential concepts: the zone or zones of archetypes within which the composers have worked and the archetype itself. It is quite possible that they have limited themselves to certain zones of archetypes but nonetheless their apprehension of the various archetypes was always different. Every style is a limitation of the means of expression. That is why the closer and closer the composer approaches the archetype during the moments of realizing his work, the more he limits his zone of investigation and the more stripped down his style becomes.

From this point of view Catoire believes that the great composers of Western music, had they lived long enough and opened themselves up fully to the purely psychic, would have come full circle and begun to simplifiy and strip down their music as he himself has done. However, he is emphatic that this view in no way implies that he thinks himself greater than composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

If his music is so abstract and pure of extraneous elements, why does he specify which instruments or voices should realize his compositions and why call them symphonies and sonatas? He claims that the archetype manifests the elements in such a way that it causes the pre-sound dimension to formulate itself into particular timbres for its projection. In some cases there will exist a multiple manifestion from a single archetype so that, for example, a piano work might also appear as a string quartet or even an orchestral work. Except for his early works (before Op. 100), Catoire never employs texts for his vocal compositions. (He has never written an opera.) Presumbly the world of pre-sound archetypes would never need to express itself in ordinary language. Therefore Catoire requires that anything he has transcribed for voice should be sung only on simple vowel sounds. He believes that the vibrations of the human voice, liberated from the constraint of emotive texts, possesses an enormous power of incantation that draws the listener far closer to the source of his music.

Another question that can be raised is why are so many of his works of long duration? His reply is that each sound phenomenon carries within it its own particular time frame. Within the physical dimensions of existence passing time cannot be avoided. However, Catoire points out:

In the sound groupings that proceed from the expression of the sacred, time stops. Even though the evolution of the sonorities structured through time continues, they are no longer heard in passing time but rather in a static time which places listeners directly in contact with the time of the earlier stages. This enables them to move beyond the channel of the physical sonorities and perceive the tones in their primordial values. In such an ultimate experience the listeners would have transcended both the sound and pre-sound archetypes and be in direct psychic contact with the cosmic archetype.

It is quite logical to assume that the longer one lives in the sound world of the Catoire music, the better the chance for the ordinary mental function to recede in favour of the higher mental planes where the psychic can manifest, time stand still and archetypal perception become the norm. Catoire has accepted that the extraordinary length of his works (almost always in one continuous movement) requires efforts that most musicians cannot physically sustain or would simply not be willing to sustain. Hence he envisions the use of programmed synthesizer versions of his works heard in recorded form. He will also allow abridged performances of long works if it will help their being heard by wider audiences. In either case he does not see the necessity of the receptors of the music deliberately focussing their minds on the structures as they often do at concerts. He is convinced that his compositions can strongly affect people just by being passively present within the sonic environment.

If the receptors have only to be open to these sound archetypes without actually paying attention to what they are hearing, then how do their emotions become aroused? Most music lovers feel that the whole purpose of listening to music is to experience a whole gamut of emotional states that ultimately uplift them out of their ordinary self. Catoire would answer that there is only one state, that of the sacred. Once listeners can identify themselves with the cosmic level of manifestation triggered by the sound archetypes, then their human psychology, which limits the understanding of the sacred, recedes and they live within an act of contemplation beyond opposites where only pure bliss exists. This has always been the ultimate purpose of the artistic, creative act.

In the pentultimate section of the essay 'The Phenomenom of Sound' Catoire discusses the role of the performer and his relationship to the audience. He expects the performer to be able to identify himself with the state the transcriber has realized in himself in the presence of the archetype. For Catoire true interpreters have the gift of being able to glimpse and understand the structures of the archetypes, fully or partially, and of then psychically projecting this vision to the audience. He goes on to state that:

The archetype is immutable. However, each performer interprets it according to the state in which he finds himself during the moments of this heightened perception. Having localized the particular character and the initial means of perception of the archetype, the great performer superimposes his own intelligence of this vision without suppressing it. A performer should not be merely someone who makes music. He should be able to reveal the secret dimensions of the music, the inner structural data of the work, through the deep organization of his own being. Such an interpreter conquers the audience from the outset and allows them, through the sound values he project, to experience directly the cosmic archetype even bypassing the pre-sound values of notes. Nonetheless the archetype varies in its image simply because it must pass through the filter of the emotional and intellectual nature of first the performer and then the audience.

In the conclusion to 'The Phenomenon of Sound' the composer sets out what might be described as his 'artistic credo' , his purity of purpose in serving as a channel for the Absolute:

A work of sound should never be written for the purpose of a moral, social or political cause. The vibratory phenomenon, unhindered by artistic conditioning, is free of these human contingencies. It proceeds solely from the order of the absolute and cannot be subordinated by any ethic. Only the act of contemplation, wherein the work is suggested to the composer/transcriber who is free to refuse it, can teach him to transcribe correctly and honestly what he sees in the Absolute into tangible, concrete values. This activity is essentially incompatible with the realms of psychology, ethics and sociology because such disciplines are confined to a limited stage of human understanding.

The sound phenomenon must be free of any formal, artistic impositions. Its structures and forms, in the musical sense, do not proceed from an artistic origin but from a vibratory synchronization between transcriber and the written composition and between this work and the one who listens to or simply hears it. The composer can never deliberately calculate and induce a specific psychic phenonemon within the human mind. Only the pure meditative act of the transcriber, synchronizing himself to the archetypal will of the forms, can capture the sounds which lead the receptors of those sounds back to their original, primordial values.

In the concluding section of 'Contemporary Problems of Sound', Catoire forecasts the next possible stage of the processes he has outlined. He predicts that by gradually replacing present-day sound by sounds beyond music, new forms of incantation could be realized differing from the ancient incantational phenomenon of sound yet retaining its sacred, continuous character. Quite astonishing is his vision of devices, supplanting vocal and instrumental means, capable of transcribing the pre-sound phenomenon in a manner closer to the archetype. Moreover, the devices could realize completely new aspects of sonority and possibly even glimpse the archetypes in their pre-sound reality without in any way passing through the concrete sound phenomenon! He further hypothesizes that the abstract structures of pre-sound phenomena could be transcribed through representational forms such as heiroglyphs, letters or numbers rather than be realized through actual sound.

His vision of the ultimate stage of the phenomeonon of sound as he has experienced and transcribed it in his numerous works could not be more utopian and thus hoped for:

If a unique, unvarying complex of sound were allowed to develop infinitely in the static multiple of its possibilities, humanity would finally realize this continuous sound in its innermost being while going about his daily life. Moreover, the very fact of not listening to these sound structures but merely hearing them, narrowing the process of mental awareness to the utmost, would enable the psyche to widen enormously its perceptions. Thus what would not be listened to or perhaps not even heard, would nonetheless be realized in the silence of inner unity. Within such a sacred state, man induced into a receptivity by the phenomenon of sound, could return to the beginning from which this sound came, to the non-musical, non-sound cosmic archetype.

What will the future hold for the music and writings of Jean Catoire? The world at large has yet to become aware of his work. At first his music, being too 'advanced' for its time, was not accepted. Then Catoire did not bother to promote it largely because his energies were so consumed by the sheer labour of writing down the output streaming into his consciousness and by supporting himself by teaching both institutionally and later, privately. Some fellow musicians and students have presented a few of his works in France, England, Australia and the USA. The overwhelming majority of his opuses remain unperformed and none has been published. Now, however, interest in his music has been stimulated in England and France where it is to be played by well-known professional ensembles in 1996. Whatever final judgments are reached about what he has written down in composition and mystical essays, there is no doubt that Jean Catoire's visions are worthy of contemplation and respect in a world where the very idea of the sacred is rarely acknowledged.


In 1999 The first recording of Catoire's music was released on a Virgin Classics CD 7243 5 45324 2 9. It features his Requiem Mass, Op. 573 (a revision of an early work) for unaccompanied women's voices, Requiem Antiphons, Op.195 and Interludes for Organ, Op.84.

James D'Angelo 30/7/96


Commentary listing