Perfect Sound Forever


Pierre Schaeffer

(April 2000)

INA-GRM (Institut National Audiovisuel, Groupe de Recherches Musicales) GRM- a Paris studio formed by Pierre Schaeffer in 1951 to foster and encourage the development of electronic music, later assisted by François Bayle, who headed its director in 1966. GRM incorporated with INA (another branch of the Office de Radio Television Francaise) in 1974.

50 years of Musique Concrète
by François Bayle

Pierre Schaeffer's first experiments with musique concrete date from april 1948. He was joined shortly afterwards by Pierre Henry and from then on that new form of music, which distinguishes sound from its initial acoustic cause, experienced a rapid development. 50 years later, the acousmatic experience is still going strong.

The invention of musique concrète, or, in a broader sense, sound as musical material, must not be confused with several other types of music, which, in musicology or organology, belong to neighbouring fields.The use of electricity to produce a sound wave dates back to 1906 with T. Cahill's Telharmonium, followed by L. Theremin's Aetherophone in 1921, and the Onde Martenot (invented by Maurice Martenot) in 1928. The futurist movement also had its composers, including L. Russolo, who published a radical futurist music manifesto entitled L'arte dei rumori in 1913, while the American composer John Cage gave the first stage performance of a work using variable-speed turntables and frequency recordings (Imaginary Landscape, 1938). As for that great pioneer Edgar Varèse, who composed Ionisation, a score for 13 percussionnists, in 1931, and, before that, in 1926, Intégrales, in which he envisaged a spatialisation of sound, such gestures remained within the framework of conventional music, even though he attempted tobreak away from it.

The invention of musique concrète by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948 had nothing to do with those mentioned above, other than the fact that it happened in a context of modernity, using a resource that had never been used before: that of sound presented on a medium and accessible from that medium without having to return to the initial acoustic causes. Several degrees of freedom then suddenly became apparent: freedom from things, from time, and even freedom from moments of sound.

Suspended sounds

Thus, Pierre Schaeffer set out to explore the creative possibilities of the bossed groove recorder. Instead ofallowing the record groove to follow its usual spiral course, he closed it in on itself to form a loop and then set about observing the surprising effect obtained when a moment of sound is suspended, isolating an atemporal musical figure that has been freed from its anecdotal origin; or else opening the recording shortly after an attack by the piano, he observed a complete change in timbre, which reminded him at the time of the oboe. Continuing his exploration, he read the recording backwards and noted the astonishing result, the violent change in perception resulting from the change in sound profile, for which he used the term ‘anamorphose’ (anamorphosis).

Immediately Schaeffer saw the immense experimental possibilities that lay ahead. This led to all the musical research of the second half of the 20th century, which, from essays to works, from manifestos to institutions, took the author from Études de bruits (1948) to his Traité des Objets Musicaux (1966), and from the Club d’Essai (1943) to the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM, 1958), then the Service de la Recherche (1960) and, finally, the creation in 1975 of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA), including the GRM in its recent Département d'Innovation.

Very soon, Schaeffer felt the need for collective research, associating the creative field of researchers and technicians with that of the musicians themselves. It was then, from his meeting with Pierre Henry onwards, that the musical adventure really took off, in particular with their famousSymphonie pour un homme seul (1950). Right from the very first public concerts in 1950, it was a sensation.

Co-authors of musique concrète, Schaeffer and Henry came together in 1949, and during the early years they welcomed (not without great controversy in some cases!) young musicians such as P. Boulez, K. Stockhausen, O. Messiaen, E. Varèse, M. Philippot, M. Jarre, H. Sauguet, I. Malec, A. Boucourechliev, I. Xenakis… to mention but a dozen of those who have now become the classics of the 20th century.

The search for a new world

However, the absolute originality of Pierre Schaeffer's approach lay in his ambition to create a form of musical research which went beyond musique concrète and of which he himself was the prime conceiver. He undertook and completed the vast project of establishing a study of the types and forms of musical objects. Raising the level of the debate, he claimed the need for basic research, which he said was the indispensable precondition for the advancement of a new art, related to the evolution of ideas and the sociocultural changes of a century that was audiovisual and interactive—that of machines à communiquer (‘machines for communicating’).

While Pierre Henry, with his usual constant supply of success and inspiration, founded his own studio, the GRM (as it was known from 1958 onwards) launched a tremendous movement, which has given rise to many lasting vocations over the decades: in the capital, L. Ferrari, F–B. Mâche, B. Parmegiani, F. Bayle, M. Chion, J–C. Eloy… and in the provinces, F. Barrière, C. Clozier, P. Boeswillwald, B. Fort, M. Redolfi, G. Bœuf…

‘The greatest adventure in music’

At the end of his life, Olivier Messiaen himself considered and declared that the invention of what he succinctly called ‘electronic’ sound was the greatest adventure in music, going so far, even, as to influence conventional composition. New centres were born by the dozen, composers by the hundred, and works by the thousand.

From the creation of a prestigious institute such as the IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et de Co-ordination Acoustique/Musique) by Pierre Boulez, to spontaneous popular movements, from rock to techno, from the synthesiser to the computer, from real time to the Internet, the coming of sound has attained a major dimension.

In the worldwide dynamics of currents and counter-currents created in the world of music by the technological medium, we must note the importance of the GRM, which has been present since the very beginning, the exceptional career it has achieved over the past fifty years, its extraordinary pertinence at each of the technical stages and turning-points, which in fact confirmed every time the fruitful nature of the ‘concrete’ approach, clearly postulated and established by Pierre Schaeffer.


Schaeffer « phonogène »
by François Bayle

Re-reading Pierre Schaeffer's book A la recherche d'une musique concrète, the vibrancy of the words brings his personality back to life, just as the grooves on a record reproduce the music. In his music we find the violin and the railway, a new combination: tthe mute and speed, audacity that invokes and restraint that provokes. He always played at losers-will-be-winners.

‘There is no reason why an inventor should be capable of seeing the reality of his invention, its scope and its possibilities for the future. As soon as I began to write, I was no longer the man who invented machines, who manipulated sounds. Finally, there is a third man, who does not in fact feel at ease with any kind of machine, be it a typewriter or a machine for producing music.’ And a few lines further on, we find Pierre Schaeffer—who was barely forty at the time—taking stock of his life and drawing up his plan for the future: ‘Five years of musique concrèteis all right for a musician, but for a writer it is time he pulled himself together.’

So he decided to give up composing and announced (several times—each time sincere!) that he was going to say farewell to musique concrète. He wrote, formulated thoughts, manipulated words; he demanded that he "be able to express the philosophy of his own invention". Absolutely. I shall not attempt, in this article, to complete the biographies of Schaeffer that exist: my account is different—it is that of a young man who was touched by a certain tone, a young musician who was struck by a particular sound. Good and ill fortune, those fairies that are present at every cradleside, accompanied Schaeffer and his undertakings more than another.

The good fortune of having found everything, understood everything, about the excitement of surviving after the horrors of war and being able to live in peace once more, with new promise of life, enriched with the promises of new techniques, of livelier communications, intimate and intense, generous and open. His experience in radio with the artists of theClub d'Essai re-evaluated the world. He dared to seize the means of making that potential intelligence available to everyone. He also re-evaluted the modernity of music and put forward musique concrète as a solution. He invented new sounds and therefore a new way of listening, material for fashioning those sounds, and groups to try them out, on audiences that were just as experimental.

‘The innocent will be rewarded,’ he would say. He was not really innocent (!) and that is where ill fortune lay in wait for him. Mercilessly, his tactics worked, but for others, not for himself. Proudly, he rejected the gifts that fortune brought him, not only because he wanted to an example, but also because of his institutional position. He was the boss and he behaved like the boss, i.e. he was severe.

He bestowed the ‘severe lesson of music’ in the form of caustic criticism, refusal, and other such encouragement. When his undertakings were a success, the success was not for him. When his music gave rise to vocations, he thwarted them, put them to the test of his own force. When he was admitted to learned assemblies, his uncompromising ideas put him in a difficult position, alienating even his allies. ‘Was he good, or was he bad?’ Diderot would have asked. Was he the very devil? He was the severe father, and true to himself... as Lacan would have put it.

From magnetic tape to mouse
by Daniel Teruggi

Research, both theoretical and technological, is an essential part of the grm's work. Musique concrete cannot exist without machines for recording and fixing sound and systems for modifying sound. Over the years, the engineers and composers have created their own tools, now computer tools.

Pierre Schaeffer very soon realised, in the early days of musique concrète, that it was important to work in association with skilled technicians who were open to experimentation. Such collaboration was essential to the development of a structure that was to be devoted not only to research but also to creativity and imagination, in combination with technical possibilities.

The two most brilliant technicians who worked with Pierre Schaeffer were Francis Poullin, in the early 1950s, who developed the phonogène and the morphophone, and Francis Coupigny, in the 1960s, who created the console and the integrated synthesiser.

Those who worked with François Bayle were Jean-François Allouis, from 1974 onwards, who took part in the development of deferred-time programmes for Studio 123 (with Benedict Mailliard), later going on to develop the Syter system. Hugues Vinet took over in 1988, creating GRM Tools, then in 1994 Emmanuel Favreau came in and has since been taking research at the GRM in new directions.

The Phonogène

Two versions were devised by Pierre Schaeffer and Francis Coupigny: the phonogène chromatique and the phonogène à transposition continue, also known as phonogène à coulisse.

The phonogène chromatique was controlled by a keyboard and included a 12-speed driving system for a magnetic tape looped back on itself, making it possible to transpose the reading speed according to the frequency relationship of the tempered scale. The phonogène à coulisse permitted constant variation of speed by means of a control lever. Pierre Henry's Voile d'Orphée is one of the earliest examples of use of the phonogène à coulisse.

In 1966 a new type of phonogène appeared, developed by Francis Coupigny and his team. It became known as the phonogène universel.

The Morphophone

The morphophone permitted formal-type modifications by accumulation of events, filtering and reinjection. It consisted of a turntable on which was set a loop of magnetic tape. Around the table was a unit comprising several heads, whose positions were adjustable. The heads were as follows: an erasing head, a recording head, and ten playback heads. A sound was recorded on the tape, either in a loop or continuously, and the ten playback heads could be adjusted to provide different delays. The sounds could be filtered and re-injected to obtain artificial reverberations or continuous threads.

The modular console and synthesiser

The console of Studio 54, which later became the console of Studio 116 C at the Maison de la Radio, was used for the composition of some 600 works between 1966 and 1992, in ideal technical conditions. There were 24 signal input control channels and 4 outputs, associated with a remote control assignment panel and a plugboard. A synthesiser completed the console; its originality lay in its ergonomics and in the variety of synthesis modules it used,.

Programmes for Studio 123

The deferred-time programmes for Studio 123 (known in French as logiciels 123) were devised and developed from 1978 onwards by Jean-François Allouis and Benedict Mailliard. They made it possible to find, in a computer, all the functionalities of work in the studio and led to the development of new concepts in the processing of sound. Analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters had been specially built for the system.


The Syter system, consisting of a real-time sound processor, a host computer and a disc for storing sounds, makes it possible to modify, in real time and by means of very simple ergonomics, the parameters of the transforming and synthesising algorithms proposed by the system and, secondly, to programme new algorithms in modular manner. The system is presented as a powerful simulator, in which most of the actions on sound we know today can be carried out. The processor with the processing cards, converter and also the software were invented and realised by Jean-François Allouis.

GRM Tools

The software known as GRM Tools is the result of the adaptation to personal systems of concepts and tools that were developed on the previous systems. Software specialising in the processing of sound associated with an original ergonomy make this tool a reference in its field. In 1997 GRM Tools was awarded the ‘Editor's Choice‘ by the magazine Electronic Musician. Present developments concern the adaptation of GRM Tools to new computer environments and the devising of new algorithms.

François Bayle, music in the future

Francois Bayle

By Jean-Pierre Teyssier

(ED NOTE: Bayle was the head of INA until 1997)

'A portrait is not a means of identification, but rather an expression of emotion.’

A quotation from James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and a means of paying my respects to François Bayle who is about to leave the GRM. First of all the man: François Bayle is a man who stands out, a man full of charm who commands respect. We notice his sensitivity, vitality and enthusiasm, his perseverance and energy. With his taste for paradox, the finesse and depth of his opinions, one can but take an interest in his projects.

François Bayle has described himself as his own prototype. That is because he has managed to achieve the twofold success of a recognised artistic œuvre and a particularly accomplished professional career, without the two merging into one.

He spent his childhood in Madagascar, close to nature, whose forces and beauty indelibly imprinted themselves on his memory. His teenage years were spent in Bordeaux and it was there that he first had the insane desire to compose music. François Bayle was a young and determined autodidact and he was as crazy about the cinema as he was about music. He left for Paris because he wanted to see Cocteau, ‘who speaks so well about contemporary music’, but instead he met other great names: Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen and, of course, Pierre Schaeffer. The latter momentarily put him off his ambitions of composing music, when he gave him the post of general secretary of the Service de la Recherche, then in its early days.

Rubbing shoulders with the best and cultivating his instrument, he found himself entrusted by Schaeffer with the directorship of the GRM in 1966, before finally being able to present his own ‘poetry of sounds’ in the form of Espaces inhabitables, his first outstanding work (which appeared in the famous series entitled Prospective du XXIème siècle).

François Bayle's musical œuvre shows an awareness not only of works written earlier in the century (Maurice Ravel) but also of those of his contemporaries Pierre Henry and Iannis Xenakis. Yet it is resolutely situated in another dimension, and that is what makes it so absolutely original.

Through his economy as an administrator, he managed to perpetuate an undertaking that was then in a fragile position. He was an organiser rather than a manager and always welcomed new composers, enabling them to experiment with the various advanced tools that were available at the GRM. Finally, as a theorist on his own work, he explained some of the specific concepts of acousmatic music by successfully combining the activities of research and creation. Thus, with great subtlety and determination, he paved the way for the innovations of the future—for many years to come.


Daniel Teruggi: interviewed by Franck Podguszer
‘Creation is still central to the GRM's activities’

(Daniel Teruggi took over as head of the INA-GRM in July 1997.)

Q: How do you view the legacy of Pierre Schaeffer and François Bayle?

Pierre Schaeffer conceived the GRM and musical research as an attitude to be associated with creation. He managed to convince the heads of radio of the validity of his project in as early as 1951—when the GRMC was created— and until 1975, when the INA was born, of which he has been described as the ‘spiritual father’. From 1966 onwards, François Bayle was the driving force behind the group, and above all behind musical creation. He directed a GRM that was more and more sure of its objectives, a GRM that was in excellent health both institutionally and creatively. Pierre Schaeffer's paternity not only brought the GRM into being, but it also built up the very concepts of its action. François Bayle implemented them whilst adding a more creative aspect and giving thought to problems to do with music that he was the first to call ‘acousmatique’.

We have now reached the beginning of a new stage whilst carrying on along the same lines as those put forward by Pierre Schaeffer and François Bayle: firstly, research into musical creation and the means of using technology for creative purposes; secondly, research into ways of thinking and perceiving; thirdly, research to find and develop creative tools.

Q: 50 years after the invention of musique concrète, how do you see the future of musical creation?

Creation is still central to the GRM's activities. The composers bring up the real problems relating to the use of sound and tools; they invent new ways of working, new creative possibilities for the uses of sounds in music. The GRM's role is to listen to what those creators have to say, provide the tools they need and understand their methods of creation. Above all, the true dimension of their projects must be recognised, they must be given the necessary means to achieve their aims, and have at their disposal an excellent tool for the presentation of their works in concert.

If it is to be successful, the relationship with creators must be constant, through the study of creative projects, in seminars, in the analysis of the most salient works in the repertoire, in concerts, radio broadcasts, records, in creating future prospects for their works. The GRM is still a place for discovery; we do not know it yet, but the great composers of tomorrow are now working here.

Q: What course do you intend to take where technological research is concerned?

At the moment we are developing three aspects: research into the processing of sound, leading to new algorhithms as a result of creative projects; research to find efficient systems proposing intelligent means of data control; research into the perception of sound and music through the development of tools for the recognition of complex sound phenomena.

To gain a better understanding of the most complex form of sound, i.e. music, and also of the mechanisms of listening, in order to work out the best means of analysis and indexation of other sources of sound: those are our objectives for tomorrow.

NOTE: The amazing music of the INA-GRM is available through the Electronic Music Foundation, including works by Schaeffer and Bayle as well as other INA legends like Jean-Claude Rissette and Bernard Parmegiani.

Also see these articles:
Pierre Schaeffer's Creative Agony
Reading Pierre Schaeffer's Journals

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