And now for BYG Actuel’s first serious misstep. Stigmates is not the label’s last foray into contemporary (for the time) classical, but it is certainly its worst. It’s telling that nothing from this record was included on the Jazzactuel compilation and that he’s been basically wiped from the popular (if you can call anything this niche popular) memory of the label.
Michel Puig is a composer who first started writing in the early ‘60s, and while his main focus has been musical theater (most prominently through the Music Theatre Ulis, which he cofounded in 1972), he got the opportunity to record two albums of his compositions. The first, L’Arbresle, was released in 1966 on Editions Studio S.M. The orchestra on that record was co-conducted by Jean-Marie Morel and Puig himself. L’Arbresle is extremely rare, and I haven’t actually heard it so I can’t speak on its quality.
For his second album Stigmates, Puig managed to attract a minor legend of French classical music, Rene Leibowitz, to the project as conductor. Leibowitz was born in Poland but moved to Paris in 1926. While there studied under Schoenberg and Ravel during the 1930s. Beginning with his first major published piece in 1939 (“Sonato for Piano”), Leibowitz embarked on a prolific and acclaimed career. When Puig recruited him thirty years later, Leibowitz was a leader in his field and he must have been seriously impressed with the much younger Puig’s work if he was willing to conduct for the Stigmates recording.
Puig, Leibowitz, and their orchestra convened sometime in the summer of 1969 at Paris’ Intersonor Studio, away from the standard BYG Actuel hub Studio Saravah. The resulting album could be loosely described as an opera, although most of the lyrics (which originated from a text by Jacques Pajak) are either spoken or incoherently yelled. The piece is split into six scenes, all of which drag. Even some exciting interplay between several alternating instruments in Scene 2 isn’t enough to save the LP, and most of the vocal parts, especially in Scenes 3 and 6, range from tedious to obnoxious. It’s possible that I would appreciate the vocals more if I understood the lyrics, but even that wouldn’t save the composition as a whole.
The closest analogue to Stigmates in the BYG Actuel catalog so far is the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s A Jackson in Your House. Puig and the Art Ensemble draw on completely separate traditions—centuries of European orchestral traditions in Puig’s case and the sweeping history of jazz and African music in the Art Ensemble’s case—but their use of minimalism, negative space, sudden, surprising bursts of sound, and odd vocal choices are very similar. But while the Art Ensemble uses these methods with an unforced, intuitive style, Puig’s attempts to build a composition around them come off as uninspired. Also, that much of the Art Ensemble’s material comes from improvisation rather than an entirely composed place lends it an infectious spontaneity that Puig can’t match. Stigmates is at its best when he eases up on the avant-garde stuff and just allows the clarinet or the percussion to stretch out a bit. For collectors determined to own a complete set of the BYG Actuel catalog, Stigmates is a must-buy when the rare copy pops up. For everyone else, this is one of the few albums in the catalog that bears skipping.
Michel Puig’s recording career ended with BYG Actuel, but he was tremendously successful with his theater works and has refocused on teaching in recent years. Rene Liebowitz passed away in 1972 after publishing his ninety-third work, a piece for a string quartet.
Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 08: Burton Greene Ensemble – Aquariana
Actuel 09: Jimmy Lyons – Other Afternoons
Actuel 10: Alan Jack Civilization – Bluesy Mind
Actuel 11: Archie Shepp – Poem for Malcolm
Actuel 12: Alan Silva and His Celestial Communication Orchestra – Luna Surface
 Terry Riley and Pierre Marietan’s Germ-Keyboard Study 2 (Actuel 27) is the much better option if you’re looking for great BYG Actuel avant-garde classical. Unfortunately it is the rarest release the label ever put out. Most serious collectors of these kind of records have never even seen a copy.
 I never got around to finishing Rosetta Stone French.