Michèle Bokanowski was born in 1943 into a family of musicians. Her father, an amateur musician, was the writer Pierre Daninos and her mother, a pianist, for many years accompanied silent films on the piano. Michèle Bokanowski studied Russian and philosophy and at the age of 22, after reading À la recherche d’une musique concrète by Pierre Schaeffer, decided to turn to composition. After classical training in harmony, she met Michel Puig, who taught her counterpoint and analysis based on the treatise of Schönberg. In September 1970 she began a two-year course in the research department of the ORTF under the direction of Pierre Schaeffer. In parallel she took part in a group researching into sound synthesis, also studying computer music at the Faculté de Vincennes with Patrick Greussay and electronic music with Éliane Radigue, whose work she held in admiration.
Michèle Bokanowski has composed electro-acoustic music for the concert, the theatre, dance, the cinema and television, in particular for the films of her husband Patrick Bokanowski. With regard to the theatre, she has collaborated notably with Catherine Dasté, and with regard to dance, with Hideyuki Yano, Marceline Lartigue, Bernardo Montet and Isabelle Kürzi. She has also composed musical installations, including a musical tree for a children’s library, and a 24-hour sound installation for the Nucourt grottoes in the Val d’Oise.
Bokanowski’s music is characterised by the use of concrete sounds and repetitive mechanisms in which expressivity is paramount. 1974 saw the creation, at the Maison de la Culture in Bourges, during the International Festival of Experimental Music, of Pour un pianiste, a work commissioned by Gérard Frémy. In preparing the tape, Bokanowski used harpsichord clusters at the start, followed by sound from different themes, figures and rhythmic cells, recorded by Gérard Frémy on a piano and on a prepared piano. In this way she obtained orchestral colours and effects. In addition to the version for solo tape, there is a concert version, performed by Gérard Frémy, that is a kind of concerto for piano and tape in which the pianist is confronted with a deformed image of his own playing.
Bokanowski records her material on tape. For Tabou (1984), for example, she taped conversations of some female American friends. The four-voice dialogue subsequently inspired her to write an organ melody that can be heard in the work. Tabou, later used by the choreographers Hideyuki Yano in 1985 and Marceline Lartigue in 1993, opened up to her the world of dance. In Phone variations (1988) her sound material is significantly enlarged by the use of voice messages and answering machine music and this enables her to cast new light on the intimate, domestic dimension of these messages by setting them in a public music space. Work on space, on the illusion of space, with the result of making music almost as tangible as the illusion of perspective in painting, is exploited notably in L’étoile absinthe (2000), its base material being an improvisation in clusters on a synthesiser.
The composer’s works reveal a work of poetry and mystery. In Trois chambres d’inquiétude (1976), for example, the title of which refers to a series of engravings by the Danish artist Lars Bo, minimalist sound material, such as a child’s laugh, a female voice, breathing, is put to the service of a diffuse narrative dimension; Cirque (1994) is a continuous whirl of evocative, poetic sounds; Chant d’ombre (2004), a minimalist work, is a mix of unsettling textures and vibrations that plunges to the heart of the void, a terrifying journey in a thrilling obscurity somewhat like a modern funeral oration.
As regards technique, Michèle Bokanowski skilfully handles sound loops, reinjection procedures, montage ‘scripting’. For the music of the film L’Ange (1982) of Patrick Bokanowski, she used a string trio dealing with accumulations, complex rhythms and morphologies, rising spirals, dramatic ruptures… a rhizomatic ensemble of connections and deconnections. A single technique is applied to different materials, creating a deep dramatic unity throughout the ten parts. The music highlights different listening zones for one and the same sequence. This score, no doubt one of the composer’s best known, forms a link with the American minimalists, classical contrapuntal writing and musique concrète as invented by Pierre Schaeffer.