Pousseur studied at the Academies of Music in Liège and in Brussels from 1947 to 1952, where he joined the group called Variations associated with Pierre Froidebise. It was in this group that he first became familiar with the music of Anton Webern and other 20th-century composers. During his period of military service in 1952–53 at Malines he maintained close contact with André Souris. He encountered Pierre Boulez in 1951 at Royaumont, and this contact inspired his Trois chants sacrés, composed that same year. In 1953 he met Karlheinz Stockhausen, and in 1956 Luciano Berio (Decroupet 2009).
In 1954 he married Théa Schoonbrood with whom he had four children: Isabelle (1957), Denis (1958), Marianne (1961), and Hélène (1965).
Pousseur taught in Cologne, Basel, and in the United States at SUNY Buffalo, as well as in his native Belgium. From 1970 until his retirement in 1988 he taught at the University and Conservatory of Liège where he also founded the Centre de recherches et de formation musicales de Wallonie. He died aged 79, on the morning of 6 March 2009, of bronchial pneumonia (Machart 2009).
Compositional style and techniques
Generally regarded as a member of the Darmstadt School in the 1950s, Pousseur's music employs serialism, mobile forms, and aleatory, often mediating between or among seemingly irreconcilable styles, such as those of Schubert and Webern (Votre Faust), or Pousseur's own serial style and the protest song "We shall overcome" (Couleurs croisées).
His electronic composition Scambi (Exchanges), realized at the Studio di Fonologia in Milan in 1957, is unusual in the tape-music medium because it is explicitly meant to be assembled in different ways before listening. When first created, several different versions were realized, two by Luciano Berio, one by Marc Wilkinson, and two by the composer himself (Sabbe 1977, 175, n. 86). Since 2004, the Scambi Project, directed by John Dack at the Lansdown Centre for Electronic Arts at Middlesex University, has focussed on this work and its multiple possibilities for realization.
In addition to his compositional and teaching activities, Pousseur published many articles and ten books on music, amongst which are Fragments Théorique I: sur la musique expérimentale (Brussels: Université Libre de Bruxelles, 1970), Schumann le Poète: 25 moments d'une lecture de Dichterliebe (Paris: Klincksieck, 1993), and Musiques croisées (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1997).
- Sept Versets des Psaumes de la Pénitence for four vocal soloists or mixed choir (1950)
- Trois Chants sacrés for soprano and string trio (1951)
- Prospection for three pianos tuned in sixths of a tone (1952–53)
- Séismogrammes electronic music (1954)
- Symphonies à 15 Solistes (1954–55)
- Quintette à la memoire d'Anton Webern for clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (1955)
- Scambi electronic music (1957)
- Mobile for two pianos (1957–58)
- Rimes pour différentes sources sonores for orchestra and tape (1958)
- Madrigal I for clarinet (1958)
- Madrigal II for 4 early instruments (flute, violin, viola da gamba, harpsichord) (1961)
- Madrigal III for clarinet, violin, cello, 2 percussionists, and piano (1962)
- Ode for string quartet (1960–61)
- Trois Visages de Liège electronic music (1961)
- Caractères for piano (1961)
- Votre Faust (1961–68), opera for five actors, four singers, thirteen instruments, and electronic music, libretto by Michel Butor. Several "satellite" works are related to this opera:
- Miroir de Votre Faust (Caractères II) for solo piano and (optional) soprano (1964–65),
- Jeu de Miroirs de Votre Faust for piano, soprano and tape (1964–65)
- Echos de Votre Faust for mezzo-soprano, flute, cello, and piano (1961–69),
- Les Ruines de Jéruzona for mixed choir and "rhythm section" (1978),
- La Passion selon Guignol for amplified vocal quartet and orchestra (1981),
- Parade de Votre Faust for orchestra (1974)
- Aiguillages au carrefour des immortels for 16 or 17 instruments (2002)
- Il sogno di Leporello: Parade 2 (de Votre Faust) for orchestra (2005)
- Apostrophe et six Réflexions for piano (1964–66)
- Phonèmes pour Cathy for mezzo-soprano solo (1966)
- Couleurs croisées for large orchestra (1967)
- Mnémosyne monody solo voice or instrument, or unison choir (1968)
- Mnémosyne II for variable media (1969)
- Les Éphémérides d'Icare 2 for a soloist, three-part concertino, and four instrumental quartets (1970)
- Crosses of Crossed Colors for vocal soloist, two to five pianos, six tape-recorder operators, two turntablists, and two radio operators (1970)
- Paraboles-Mix electronic music (1972)
- Vue sur les Jardins interdits for saxophone quartet (1973)
- Die Erprobung des Petrus Hebraïcus chamber opera in three acts, libretto by Léo Wintgens after Michel Butor (1974). Several "satellite" works are related to this opera:
- Chroniques berlinoises for piano and string quartet with baritone ad lib. (1975)
- Chroniques illustrées for large orchestra with baritone ad lib. (1976)
- Ballade berlinoise for piano solo (1977)
- Humeurs du Futur quotidien for two reciters and chamber orchestra (1978)
- Pédigrée for female voice and seven instruments (1980)
- Canines for voice and piano (1980)
- Flexions IV for viola solo (1980)
- Chroniques canines for two pianos with soprano ad lib (1984)
- Tales and Songs from the Bible of Hell four singers with real-time electronic transformation and pre-recorded 4 track tape (1979)
- La Passion selon Guignol for amplified vocal quartet and orchestra (1981)
- La Paganania for solo violin (1982)
- La Paganania seconda for solo cello (1982)
- Déclarations d'Orage for reciter, soprano, baritone, three improvising instruments (alto saxophone, tuba, synthesizer), large orchestra and tape (1988–89)
- At Moonlight, Dowland's Shadow passes along Ginkaku-Ji for shakuhachi, shamisen, and koto (1989)
- Leçons d'Enfer music theatre for 2 actors, 3 singers, 7 instruments, tape, and live electronics; texts by Arthur Rimbaud and Michel Butor (1990–91)
- Dichterliebesreigentraum for soprano, baritone, two solo pianos, choir and orchestra (1992–93)
- Aquarius-Mémorial (in memoriam Karel Goeyvaerts)
- I. Les Litanies d'Icare for piano (1994)
- II. Danseurs Gnidiens cherchant la Perle clémentine for chamber orchestra (1998)
- III. Les Fouilles de Jéruzona for orchestra (1995)
- IV. Icare au Jardin du Verseau for piano and chamber orchestra (1999)
- La Guirlande de Pierre for soprano, baritone and piano (1997)
- Navigations for harp (2000)
- Seize Paysages planétaires ethno-electroacoustical music (2000)
- Les Icare africains for solo voices, ad lib. choir, and orchestra (2002)
- Decroupet, Pascal. 2009. "Pousseur, Henri (Léon Marie Thérèse)". Grove Music Online (Accessed 30 August 2012).
- Machart, Renaud. 2009. "Henri Pousseur, compositeur". Le Monde (10 March).
- Sabbe, Herman. 1977. Het muzikale serialisme als techniek en als denkmethode: Een onderzoek naar de logische en historische samenhang van de onderscheiden toepassingen van het seriërend beginsel in de muziek van de periode 1950–1975. Ghent: Rijksuniversiteit te Gent.
- Vantroyen, Jean-Claude. 2009. "Le compositeur belge Henri Pousseur est décédé". Le Soir (6 March).
- Whiting, John. 2009 "Henri Pousseur: Avant-garde composer seeking a synthesis of sound and image". The Guardian (11 March)
- Composer's website: http://www.henripousseur.net/
- Scambi Project: http://www.scambi.mdx.ac.uk/
- Listen to Scambi: http://www.scambi.mdx.ac.uk/listenScambi.html
- (French) A biography of Henri Pousseur, from IRCAM's website.
- Henri Pousseur: A leap into the void