Richard Pinhas: Electronique Guerilla – A Profile by Tony Mitchell


There’s always been a mystique surrounding French guitarist and electronic musician Richard Pinhas, partly due to his association with French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Jean-François Lyotard. In 1974 Pinhas completed his PhD in Philosophy from the Paris Sorbonne, where he had studied with Deleuze, with his dissertation, “Science-Fiction, Inconscient et Autres Machins’ (Science Fiction, the Unconscious and Other Things), about time and connections between science fiction, such as Frank Herbert’s cult novel Dune and analogue electronic music. As he told US interviewer Aug Stone, “I saw Foucault on stage like a rock star, Deleuze and Lacan too. After getting my PhD at the Sorbonne, I found I was becoming interested in … something not rational. Not Cartesian, OK?” He taught philosophy for a year at the Sorbonne, but he also founded Heldon, an experimental rock band (and also the name of his studio) with Didier Batard (drums) and François Auger (bass), which combined his guitar with experimental electronics and took its name from the 1972 novel The Iron Dream by flamboyant anarchist US science fiction writer Norman Spinrad. The novel contained a narrative in which Adolf Hitler emigrates to the USA in 1919 and becomes a science fiction illustrator, editor and author, writing a science fantasy novel called Lord of the Swastika in 1953, shortly before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Influenced by Hendrix, whom Pinhas saw in Paris and London in the 1960s, as well as Clapton, Robert Fripp, after seeing King Crimson in 1972, and with whom he later played, and Brian Eno, his first album with Heldon was called Electronique Guérilla, the first side of which was dedicated to William Burroughs. The first track on Heldon’s second album, also released in 1974, was called ‘In the Wake of King Fripp’, and the album featured mostly acoustic guitar with violin via mellotron. Another track was entitled ‘Omar Diop Blondin’, after a Senegalese student who took part in the events in Paris in 1968 with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and appeared in Godard’s film La Chinoise, before returning to Senegal, becoming involved in anti-colonialist struggles, and dying in prison there in 1973. The track was dedicated to Fripp and Eno. The album also featured the very Terry Riley-sounding ‘Fluence: Continuum Mobile Disjuncta’, a 12 minute track highly reminiscent of Rainbow in Curved Air. But as Pinhas has commented: ‘I think the main difference between Heldon and other bands at that time was that we always used real instruments and real drums. Even if I used some electronic drums, there was always real drums on it’. His association with the cutting edge of French post-sructuralist philosophy, prog rock, science fiction and analogue electronic music of the 1970s, as well as the revolutionary events of Paris 1968 has lent him an aura that is well expressed by the title ‘Electronique Guerrilla’.

By 1979 Heldon had released seven critically acclaimed albums, mostly instrumentals featuring Pinhas’ guitar and synthesizers, as well as guest appearances by members of the cult French prog rock band Magma. Heldon released three albums on Pinhas’ own label Disjuncta, where previously he had released a single, Le Voyageur, by his former band Schizo, which featured a text by Nietzsche read by Deleuze. Pinhas went on to create further electronic soundscapes for texts by Deleuze, especially after the latter’s death in 1995, and dedicated his first solo album, Rhizosphere, to Deleuze in 1977. Rhizosphere featured four pieces for solo synthesizer – which he had got into through hearing Herbie Hancock on a Miles Davis album – plus a duet with Heldon drummer François Auger, using Moog and ARP synthesizers. Pinhas released five solo albums between 1976 and 1982, and all these 1970s albums have been reissued on Washington-based label Cuneiform Records, whose manager Steve Feigenbaum signed Pinhas to the label in 1991, and has since released most of his back catalogue. Cuneiform is noted for its ‘experimental, ambient, unusual and avant-garde’ releases by the likes of Soft Machine and Wadada Leo Smith. As Pinhas commented in 2009: ‘I am very, very involved in working with this american label: Me and CUNEIFORM records have been working hand in hand for 20 years now and make a wonderful team. We can work on the basis of 100% trust and respect. That is very rare in this “industry”’. Critics have acclaimed the re-releases of Pinhas’ early recordings, one remarking that ‘Heldon’s trailblazing electronic pathways have rarely been eclipsed even today’. Comparisons have been made to Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Neu! although Kraftwerk was the only one of these three Pinhas knew at the time: ‘I would meet with them when they came to Paris, lots of times from ‘76-’81. During those years, I was a session musician, working 300 days a year playing the synthesizer in these big analog studios. I enjoyed it for four years and then I got depressed. You make money, but not so much. It was okay because when the session ended, we had the key to the studio and could work there’.

In 1979 he released Iceland, his third solo work, a sonic representation of the Nordic country, apparently influenced by the soundtracks of Richard Carpenter, Ennio Morricone, and Edward Artemiev. With drums by François Auger, it is a series of eight ambient tracks recorded in the Heldon studio, starting with Iceland parts one and two and ending with Greenland, dedicated, rather oddly, to F.Scott Fitzerald, in which Auger and mini-moog player Jean-Phillipe Goude join Pinhas on analogue electronics and guitar. Beginning with chords on a church organ, the album segues into synth and percussion, with the latter maintaining a repetitive beat throughout, which transforms into breathing. The synth part seems to run slightly slow, which contributes to the stirring and slightly disturbing atmospheric effect of the album. It received a major label release on Polydor, and the 1992 Cuneiform CD edition added Wintermusic, recorded in 1983, an extra 25 minute piece in more conventional ambient mode. This was followed by East West, on CBS in 1980, which once again employed Spinrad on ‘Houston 69: The Crash Landing’, parts 1 and 2, and even added a David Bowie song, ‘Sense of Doubt’, while L’Ethique (1982) once again used Gilles Deleuze on the title tracks.

In 1982 Pinhas virtually retired from music for the best part of a decade: ‘Instead I went to the French Alps six months a year to parachute, paraglide, and read philosophy’. But he returned with a vengeance in the 1990s: ‘When I came back I went directly to digital, and learned digital recording in Sound Designer. Pro Tools didn’t exist yet’. He picked up the album he had left unfinished in 1982, DWW, which now consisted of ten pieces recorded between 1983 and 1991. There are three pieces from Iceland, four different versions of ‘The Joe Chip Song’, for synth and the Paris Opera String Quartet, along with a piece by Heldon associate Patrick Gauthier for bass, two guitars, synth and piano. William Tilland described the album as ‘the usual mixed bag typical of a Pinhas solo release’ in AllMusic, but at least Pinhas was back at work.

Cyborg Sally, with Pinhas on guitars and electronics, French prog rock keyboard player and electronic artist John Livengood on electronics, sampling and digital processor, and Norman Spinrad on ‘cyborg voices’, followed in 1994. In 1998, Pinhas joined forces with French cyber-punk author Maurice Dantec on Schizotrope: The Life and Death of Maria Zorn, on which Dantec read from Deleuze’s and his own works, and Pinhas played electronically modulated guitar, and toured what became an ongoing project to the USA in 1999.

Meanwhile Pinhas had reformed Heldon in 1997, doing live concerts in Paris, exerpts from which were included on the 2001 double CD release Only Chaos Is Real, with synthesizer and lyrics by Maurice Dantec from his novel Le Racines Du Mal (The Roots of Evil) and Norman Spinrad on the title track, and a line up which included Olivier Manchio and Bernard Paganoti on bass, Antoine Paganoti (from Magma) on drums, and Philippe Laurent on electroloop. Three further live Heldon albums followed, featuring sets from 1975, 1976 and 1979. The latest of these is a vinyl-only 2015 release from 1975 live in Paris in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. Heldon’s back catalogue now runs to 17 releases, while Pinhas’ solo works and collaborations total 38. As he has said, ‘It’s strange that now Heldon is cataloged as noise or postrock, but I keep myself fresh playing with young musicians. Also, I have two sons in their 20s and 30s and they expose me to a lot of new stuff. In France you don’t have a distinction of generations, a guy in his 60s can play with a guy in his 20s.”

In 2001 Pinhas published a book, Les larmes de Nietzsche: Deleuze et la musique (The Tears of Nietzsche: Deleuze and Music), described in the publishers’ blurb as ‘From Nietzsche by way of Spinoza … From Wagner to Boulez via Kraftwerk, Lou Reed and the Sex Pistols … Speeding up philosophical and musical variations, Richard Pinhas succeeds in describing music in words, tracing a luminous network in an inspired Deleuzian vein. In texts of violent and playful poetry, he evokes, quite simply, Deleuze the master and deceased friend.’ An translation would be fascinating to read, but it has never eventuated. As Pinhas has commented: ‘All my problems in philosophy were crossing with musical problems. Ideas about time, about repetition, about events. You have the same problems in music. When I first met Oren Ambarchi, he was very involved in all these things too, so we had a lot to talk about’.

In 2014 he released Tikkun, a CD and DVD recorded in Paris with Australian multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, after several collaborations with Japanese noise artist Merzbow.
Pinhas is credited with Roland analog synth guitar and loop guitar, Ambarchi with noises, loop guitar and drums. Pinhas found he shared an interest in the [Judaist philosophy] Kabbalah with Ambarchi: ‘I started looking at religion, not using it, just observing. Trying to understand how something can be immanent and rational at the same time…. I started going back to the roots of Kabbalah and spent four or five years on this. I started by reading almost everything by [German-born Israeli philosopher and historian] Gershom Scholem. He writes about the sources of evidence, in a historical rather than religious sense’. Scholem, who died in 1982, was the first professor of Jewish mysticism at the University of Jerusalem. Tikkun is one of the two stages of existence described in the Kabbalah, referring to the esoteric active spiritual work of rectification which replaces Tohu or chaos. How the drone-like guitar and noise music, with powerful pulse-like drumming by Ambarchi, expresses these ideas is not exactly clear, but the philosophy underpins their playing together.

Welcome in the Void (2014), Pinhas’ collaboration with Ruins and Zeni Geva drummer Yoshida Tatsuya, who has been called the ‘indisputable master drummer of the Japanese underground’, is the second part of what he calls his Devolution trilogy on ‘the historical political effect of machines … a cry to revolt against slavery’. It consists of two tracks, both the same as the album’s title, one just over four minutes, the other just under an hour and four minutes. The first assumes a rapid pace, the second is slower and a noisy drone. Pinhas has always held that tracks demand their own length, however long or short: ‘Each one has its own internal length, its own clock,” he told Marc Masters in the Washington Post. ‘So if a piece is two minutes, it has to be two minutes; if it’s one hour, it has to be one hour. ‘Welcome in the Void’ had to be as long as it is. After months and months of hearing it, I have no doubt about this’.

The Devolution trilogy began with Desolation Row (2013), which owes only its title to Dylan. As Pinhas described it: ‘Desolation Row is an image of what we can Feel and See coming during this neo-liberalist era… neo-liberalism transforming ultimately into TEKNOFASCISM. … Music is a way to fight… and to bring weapons to people, to make them feel outside of their servitude, and perhaps to make them happy, even for one minute… a way to fight THE POWER!’ Oren Ambarchi and Pinhas’ son Duncan guest on the album, along with other French musicians, and it contains an 18 ½ minute track called ‘Moog’. Craig Hayes described the album in Pop Matters as : ‘an exquisite undertaking overall; all intricately layered, with hailstorms of immersive noise and vast glistening vistas. The percussion and electronics range from majestic to monolithic, and guitars transform from six-string progressive gambols into abstract shards and misty loops’.


Pinhas, now 64, has strong feelings about the current state of the world: ‘I think people are becoming corporate zombies. I don’t mean to laugh but I’m being honest. I don’t like the rich or the individualist rich society. The trilogy is the idea that we’re in the de-evolution of humanity. People don’t read anymore. Young people spend more time on video games. Why not? I don’t have any judgment, I just see that we’re not heading in a good direction. And for music it’s worse and worse … It can turn you very stupid if you’re only on the internet, and you fail to read and have a real life’.

Originally released on vinyl only in 1978, on the French experimental label Cobra, which also released vinyl albums by Heldon and Sun Ra, Chronolyse is now receiving its first vinyl release pressed on 180 gram white vinyl and featuring the original album artwork, as well as an mp3 release on Cuneiform, for more than 35 years. It was Pinhas’ second solo album, which he devoted to Frank Herbert’s cult science fiction novel Dune. It includes one side of solo, live synthesizer pieces, played on a huge Moog modular synthesizer and the other side with mellotrons, electronics, guitar, bass and drums by Heldon. The Cuneiform release also commemorates the 50th anniversary of Dune, the first volume of which was published in 1965.The release was backed by an extensive tour of the UK and France by Pinhas in October, with various guests including Yoshida Tatsuya & Ono Ryoko of Sax Ruins. All the album tracks derive from Herbert’s novel, citing Bene Asserit, Duncan Idaho, and a 30 minute track featuring Pinhas’ guitar entitled Paul Atreïdes, after the novel’s protagonist. The title Chronolyse came from a work by French science fiction novelist, Michel Jeury, whose writings dealt with time manipulations, and the album, which bears a passing resemblance to works by Terry Riley, expresses Pinhas’ concerns with philosophical concepts such as timeless repetition and the superimposition of events. First released by Cuneiform in 1991 on CD in 1991 with liner notes by Norman Spinrad, its vinyl release comes full circle, so to speak.

The passion and intensity of Pinhas’ music continues unabated – his collaborations with Merzbow, Tatsuya Yoshida, and US noise rockers Wolf Eyes put him right into the vortex of contemporary experimental noise music, and his international profile has probably never been better, but it’s all for a political purpose: ‘Music is a kind of politics itself – you can change people through music. I don’t believe in God, but reparations [Tikkun] seem very good and necessary for the kind of society that we currently live in’.

Richard Pinhas reissues are available from Cuneiform records.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.