BY Rob Young in Profiles | 01 JAN 12
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Issue 152

Pierre Schaeffer and the Birth of Musique Concrète

The French composer's purpose was to find a breach in the fortress of musical tradition, open up ‘fissures of randomness for the poetic adventure to slip through’

BY Rob Young in Profiles | 01 JAN 12

Recorded sound was first imagined as long ago as 1552. In the fourth book of François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, there’s a tale about crossing the Frozen Sea where, the previous winter, there had been a battle between two warring tribes. The noise of combat had turned to ice but, as the sea unfroze, so too did the sounds, pouring forth in a torrent of war cries, whinnying horses and clashing weapons. This ‘cryosonic’ notion of sound as a solid, retrievable object appealed so much to Pierre Schaeffer that, in 1952, he created a piece called Les paroles dégelées (Thawed Words), in which he altered the timbre of a voice reading Rabelais’ work aloud by various tape manipulation techniques – a process he had already dubbed musique concrète.

In the same year he published what can be seen as his manifesto, À la recherche d’une musique concrète, part-diary, part-essay, part-scientific manual. Shamefully, no English translation of the book – in hindsight one of the most important and prophetic written on music since World War ii – has been published until this year, thus restricting it to discourse and academia within the French-speaking world. At last, 60 years after publication, the work has been unlocked in a translation set to reach across the globe as never before (In Search of a Concrete Music, translated by Christine North and John Dack, University of California Press).

Schaeffer, born in 1910, was an engineer at Radio France during the war, where he was given the run of the sound effects department. The book opens with extracts from his 1948 journal. He is contemplating a ‘symphony of noises’, and is collecting klaxons, gongs, bike horns and other objects from the departmental store cupboard. The diary reveals the process by which Schaeffer imprinted non-musical sounds (such as locomotives and found debris), percussion, prepared pianos and sounds from the human body onto shellac locked grooves, whose circularity allowed him to contemplate sound as an object wrenched away from the temporality of performance. Much of the writing that follows is an evolving attempt to understand what he is doing; to generate a theory of music in the light of this practice and to try to position it in relation to the musical conventions of the past.

Pierre Schaeffer with the phonogene in his studio, 1951. Photograph: Serge Lido © INA
Pierre Schaeffer with the phonogene in his studio, 1951. Photograph: Serge Lido © INA

Today, journalistic shorthand tends to reduce Schaeffer to ‘the composer who invented musique concrète’. But he practically ceased producing works after 1960 and his collected oeuvre barely stretches to more than three CDs. In France, Schaeffer was better known as a linguistic and communications theorist, author, novelist, media pundit, administrator of the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales, inaugurated in 1958) as well as a departmental head within France’s national broadcasting corporation. All these roles, while informed by his early musical experiments, would ultimately supersede them. And he was far from an unapologetic proselyte for this new music. Many of his pieces were given quasi-‘classical’ titles – part-satire, part-homage (étude, symphonie, etc) – and by the time he died in 1995, he had renounced his entire musical output, singing instead the praises of Bach and Beethoven.

In the pages of In Search of a Concrete Music, however, Schaeffer emerges as a prophet of the new media and a questing 20th-century spirit in the same mould as John Cage, Marshall McLuhan or Buckminster Fuller. Anyone recall how mind-blowing the Internet seemed in the early 1990s? Similar wonderment occurs here, when Schaeffer begins recombining snatches of noise, spinning them backwards, varying their speed and dreaming up three-dimensional playback systems. Until then, music had no plastic qualities – composers conceived music in the mind, then wrote marks on paper that corresponded to the stable frequencies of musical notes, intended for performance. Concrete music, on the other hand, could not pre-exist, but was a product of its constituent recorded elements. ‘As long as meaning predominates, and is the main focus, we have literature and not music,’ writes Schaeffer. ‘But how can we forget meaning and isolate the in-itself-ness of the sound phenomenon?’

On 15 May 1948, he announces: ‘I have coined the term musique concrète for this commitment to compose with materials taken from ‘given’ experimental sound in order to emphasize our dependence, no longer on preconceived sound abstractions, but on sound fragments that exist in reality and that are considered as discrete and complete sound objects …’ The objet sonore (sound object) – a fragment on tape or shellac – allowed him to analyze and transform sounds at a magnification never before possible, and Schaeffer talks of vivisecting the atoms of sound to fuse unheard audio elements.

The book is an unusually vivid window onto an epochal moment in contemporary music. ‘Man is an instrument that is too seldom played,’ he writes while creating (with Pierre Henry) Symphonie pour un homme seul (Symphony for a Lone Man, 1949–50), and dreaming of winching himself into a body with a microphone to capture unheard corporeal sounds. One critic described the results as akin to ‘discovering a sound continent as virgin as Robinson Crusoe’s island’.

Much of the book plays off the Utopian desire to discover a new world of sound against a perpetual sense of failure. Schaeffer’s purpose was to find a breach in the fortress of musical tradition, open up ‘fissures of randomness for the poetic adventure to slip through’. But he rarely deluded himself enough to believe in a resolution to all the conundrums and dilemmas. Occasionally he’s ‘uncomfortable with this endless groping in the dark’. After trying to sample sounds from classical musicians who want to play conventionally, Schaeffer laments: ‘Gazelles die like this, behind bars.’ After another frustrating session: ‘I was like a child who has taken the growl out of his teddy bear, pulled out his dolly’s eyes and smashed his clockwork train.’ Concrete pieces are not completed outcomes, but constructed via exhausting techno-aesthetic trial and error – which makes him an experimental musician in the true meaning of the word. His labours generate mixed responses, including some hyperbolic admirers. His correspondent ‘G.M.’ lauds ‘the ultrasonic music created maybe by the movement of the planets: the music that Poe and Lautréamont and Raymond Roussel would hear inwardly. The noise concert is not only the first concert of surrealist music; it contains, in my opinion, a musical revolution.’

In Search of a Concrete Music chronicles four years of sustained, feverish creativity and intellectual effort. The ‘revolution’ attracted many acolytes within and beyond France, and the GRM organization – still extant today – became a rite of passage for hopeful electronic musicians. Inevitably, though, as Schaeffer’s original motivation devolved into the Sisyphean task of assembling a taxonomy of all conceivable sounds, younger artists used his resources to restore a sense of auteurship. One of them, Luc Ferrari, who died in 2005, declared an hour-long recording of a French coastline to be music, foreshadowing ambient and the plethora of field recordists active today. Another, Eliane Radigue, was celebrated in a major London retrospective in summer 2011. Radigue, now in her 80s, adopted synthesizers in the late 1960s, pressing their malleability and extreme frequencies into service as signifiers of the ‘eternal now’ she sought through Buddhism. Still composing today, she currently investigates similar transcendent qualities in acoustic instruments such as the cello and harp. The soundworld may be very different from Schaeffer’s earliest ‘noise studies’, but the interpenetration of matter and form, and the quest for a realm of sound beyond conventional ‘music’, survive. Tools that would have aided Schaeffer a lifetime ago now provide entry-level access for any home producer with a laptop and a copy of GRM Tools software, and the techniques he struggled to finesse are today a universalized, invisible component of music-making. Nevertheless, the now-unfrozen words of In Search of a Concrete Music can be finally shelved alongside McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964), Cage’s Silence (1961) and John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing (1972) as one of the postwar period’s most significant (and readable) grapplings with new artistic paradigms.

Main image: Pierre Schaeffer with the phonogene in his studio, 1951. Photograph: Serge Lido © INA

is Editor-at-Large of The Wire. He is the author of Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Faber and Faber, 2010) and editor ofNo Regrets: Writings On Scott Walker (Orion, 2012).