Jean-Jacques Perrey’s Prélude au Sommeil was released in 1958. It could be the world’s first “ambient” album. By this time, Perrey had formed a close working relationship with George Jenny, the inventor of the Ondioline, a touch-sensitive electronic keyboard with a remarkably varied and expressive palette of sounds. Hired by Jenny as the instrument’s official demonstrator, Perrey rapidly became its virtuoso exponent, lending its by turns ethereal, jaunty and whimsically funky tones to recordings by established pop singers such as Charles Trenet. But even as his career as a musician and entertainer took off, the more serious idea of making a record with a therapeutic purpose - a cure for insomnia - continued to hatch in the back of Perrey’s mind (Perrey was also a former medical student).
In 1957 – as far as we can tell - Perrey embarked upon the project. Accounts vary, but somewhere between six and thirty doctors helped out with the testing of Ondioline-generated tones on patients, the research taking the best part of two years.
Prélude au Sommeil consisted of two 25-minute-long pieces of languidly billowing, pillowy textures that unfold at a sedate – or even sedative – pace. The overall vibe is suggestive of funeral-parlour Muzak in a mausoleum on the moon. But rather than the Big Sleep, the album has been scientifically designed to ease passage to Death’s briefer nightly foretaste: the slow slide into unconsciousness. Both the accompanying interviews that Perrey gave to Francophone newspapers in Europe and North America, and the record’s liner notes play up the medical aura of the project. The effect is a bit like an infomercial or old-fashioned television commercial featuring an actor in a white coat standing in a laboratory talking in a calmly authoritative doctorly voice about some new painkiller or panacea. Prélude is described as an infallible “remedy” perfected through “in-depth research and multiple, patiently conducted tests”. Rather than music, the album’s contents are characterized as a “sound complex” developed for the purpose of “electronic sonotherapy”. This will relax “hypertonia in the muscles” through “measured and dosed” emissions of “acoustically pure” tones. In one interview, it’s claimed that Prélude au Sommeil is not even available over-the-counter, in record-selling boutiques, but is “distributed only through doctors” – and presumably required a prescription!
While it may be advisable to take all this framing with a pinch of salt, there’s no doubt that Perrey was genuinely interested in the tranquilizing potential of his beloved Ondioline. The album’s original liner note presents insomnia as a contemporary pandemic, a debilitating byproduct of modern life’s frantic tempo (which makes it difficult for people to unwind after a day’s work) along with the disruptive intrusion of street noise into the private domestic space, and a general culture of hyper-stimulation. The result of all this lifestyle dysfunction and environmental pollution is strained nerves and psychological disequilibrium. But the chemical palliatives offered by physicians and pharmaceutical companies only create their own problems of tolerance and addiction.
By contrast, Prélude used scientifically enhanced yet fundamentally natural techniques to slow down respiration and heart-rates. The woozy indistinctness of the Ondioline-generated textures induce a meditative state of “self-forgetfulness” and “disinterest,” a term borrowed from the philosopher Henry Bergson, who regarded it as the key to achieving slumber.
“Electronic sonotherapy is a process that tries to ‘retrain’ the insomniac into natural sleep rather than force it,” Perrey told a reporter from the Montreal newspaper La Presse. In this and other interviews, Perrey expounds in impressively technical detail about the brain cycles of deep and shallow sleep that structure a healthy night’s sleep, and describes the normal process by which the onset of drowsiness occurs: “the numbing of the reflex center,” which is located at the base of the brain, creates a “wave break’ that gradually moves through the cerebral cortex and “the lower nervous centers”, shutting down the mind and body. “Cerebral reactivity diminishes... muscles relax... consciousness and willpower progressively disappear.”
Extracted from Simon Reynolds’ liner notes for the upcoming reissue of Prélude au Sommeil on Forgotten Futures, a new record label established by Wally De Backer (Gotye) dedicated to excavating lost works by pioneering musical instrument inventors, composers and recording artists.