Permanent waves

Richard Pinhas redefines guitar heroics

An ordinary rock 'n' roll party animal he is not. In fact, the resume of French-born musician Richard Pinhas is somewhat daunting. Since the early '70s he has, among other things, founded the forward-thinking electro-progressive rock unit Heldon, written a book drawing connections between time, music and the philosophies of Frederich Nietzsche, and invented his own guitar process, dubbed metatronics.

"The metatronic process is based on delay lines with very long ping-pong repetitions," explains Pinhas. "First it was done with two Revox tape recorders. Now I work with an Orville Eventide machine. Fantastic sound." As evidenced by its title, Pinhas' latest CD, Event and Repetitions, is the culmination of many such metatronic sessions. It uses the guitar as a harmonic and rhythmic tool, radiating waves of sound, altering the listener's spatial framework.

But while his new disc relies greatly on patterns, Pinhas' past reveals an artist who has refused to replicate himself. In the early '70s, he fused proto-electronics with aggressive prog-rock in ways many consider to be groundbreaking. "The first time I heard something in electronic music, it was a VCS3 in a Miles Davis record," he says. "My real major influence, though, was done by the music of [Robert] Fripp and [Brian] Eno."

During his regular attendance at King Crimson concerts, Pinhas recalls hearing some of Fripp's electronic music played prior to the actual show. "Unconsciously that influenced me," he says, "so it's not astonishing that the first Heldon album came out exactly at the same time with the first Fripp-Eno album."

Subsequent Heldon discs pushed the boundaries defining progressive rock, prompting Forced Exposure magazine to dub one "the apex of the punk-electronic sound." Meanwhile, after years of playing synthesizer, Pinhas began recording with his first love: the guitar. "Hendrix was my major encounter and influence," he says.

But it was a meeting and eventual friendship with Fripp that would have the most lasting effect on him — one that can still be heard today. Recent gigs have seen Pinhas improvising on his guitar "inside a very complex structure of music and effects," he says. "The patterns are fixed, but inside these patterns I am free to improvise, to make a song longer or slower. It depends on the mood of the concert day, the audience, of course, and my concentration at the moment."

Helping with this process on stage is Jerome Schmidt who, via a Macintosh computer, plays drums and samples, and processes Pinhas' guitar to the point where its traditional sound is obliterated and a new form emerges.

Schmidt and Pinhas have also been involved in a different type of collaboration: La Naissance de L'electricit (The Birth of Electricity) is an upcoming book described by Pinhas as "a kind of rock 'n' roll history of electricity." The book, co-authored with French cyber-writer Maurice G. Dantec, isn't Pinhas' first foray into the publishing world. Parts of his book Les Larmes de Nietzche (Tears from Nietzche) are currently being translated into English, and he's looking forward to collaborations with, among others, Nick Tosches and Bret Easton Ellis.

"I am working in philosophy on the concepts of time, silence, repetition and difference," he says. "You can immediately see or feel the relationship between these concepts and the repetitive music of the 20th century — including what I am doing."

Despite these heady ideas, Pinhas isn't some stuffy, old-fashioned intellectual. He continues to find excitement in contemporary musicians — ones he may very well have influenced. Over the past decade, artists such as Nine Inch Nails ("incredibly violent and remarkable") and Aphex Twin have caught his ear. His latest discovery, however, is Godspeed You Black Emperor.

"Their music is one of the more beautiful I have ever heard," he says. "In Paris last year, I got the same shock that I had 25 years ago with King Crimson."