Perfect Sound Forever


His Creative Agony
by Mike Pursley
(October 2015)

"A sort of nausea takes hold of me."

In March 1948, sound engineer Pierre Schaeffer raided French Radio and Television Broadcasting's sound effects department for doorbells, rattles, and bicycle horns. The clerk signing out the bells and allsorts could not understand why Schaeffer wanted sound effects when not working on a specific radio play. "What about the person who wants noise without text or context?" Schaeffer asked.

The sound effects were soon abandoned for being too explicit. On April 4 1948, Schaeffer received a "sudden illumination"- the idea to mix sound with noise, in this case to combine melodic and percussive elements. To get at this, Schaeffer cut strips of wood to different lengths. A day later, he wrote "my bits of wood are pathetic." Searching for other non-explicit sounds, Schaeffer acquired the mangled scraps of a church organ that had been blown apart in the war. With three assistants, he composed a piece for the damaged organ and bells. One assistant blew into the pipes, another hit the pipes with mallets, and a third rang the bells. His own harshest critic, Schaeffer wrote that "the result is woeful." Because the sounds were still identifiable, he declared "I'm giving up on music." There is a certain irony here, in that the musical sounds produced by the dismantled organ were what caused Schaeffer to nearly abandon his experiments. More accurately, he could have said he was giving up on noise.

But Schaeffer persisted. Instead of continuing experiments with instruments, he moved to the sound booth to modify previously recorded sounds. With this short journey, from one side of the glass to the other, Musique concrete was born. On April 21st 1948, he was rewarded with a breakthrough- "If I cut off the sounds from their attacks, I get a different sound." This discovery meant the quest for novel sounds would not lead to new instrumentation, but instead to the manipulation of auditory activity that was already recorded. On the heels of this development, there came doubts about avant-garde music, in particular the electronic music coming out of German studios. "We are craftsmen," Schaeffer wrote. "I am seeking direct contact with sound material, without any electrons getting in the way." Armed with this new idea of sound manipulation, Schaeffer was ready to compose the earliest works of Musique concrète.

Concrète's drastic interrogation of musical fundamentals vexed the musicians with whom Schaeffer chose to work. Perhaps in response to his colleagues' lack of interest, Schaeffer often refrained from calling himself a musician, using the term ‘musician-engineer' instead. This is not to say that he did not collaborate with peers involved in more conventional approaches. However, at least in his humble, ever self-deprecating reflections, his collaborators were not exactly enthused by the thought of working with him. Their involvement is framed more as a professional courtesy than a display of any real interest. At one point, Schaeffer tried to recruit jazz musicians to his cause. Sadly, "jazz, even more than the classical orchestra, makes its music with nerves and muscles. The jazz musicians declined as well." One cannot imagine many jazz musicians would relish the hours of laborious sound editing that a Musique concrète composition necessitated.

Other times Schaeffer's questions probed if what he was doing held any value at all. Often, the answers were extremely downcast. Time and again Schaeffer nearly abandoned his experiments. When working on "Suite 14," a concrète work that involved the processing of an orchestral recording, Schaeffer wrote darkly that "I had to admit that I had invented amazing techniques for destruction but that every attempt at synthesis fell to bits in my hands." He later reflected: "How can I describe the anguish, the bitter disappointment, at times the fury, that accompanies the genesis of a new work of concrete music?" These emotions would even manifest distressing physical symptoms for him: "As soon as I come into the studio, a sort of nausea takes hold of me."

In the years after his concrète experiments, Schaeffer's opinions turned even darker. In 1986, he granted an embittered interview to Tim Hodgkinson for ReR. "You have to remind musicians of what Dante wrote over the Gates of Hell: Abandon hope all ye who enter here." "If you enter, if you want to make music, you must abandon hope," Schaeffer warned. In the interview, Schaeffer also used the term ‘DoReMi' to mean traditional musical tuning, instrumentation, and arrangement. "There's no way out of traditional music," he opined. And, most darkly, Schaeffer told Hodgkinson: "Seeing that no one knew what to do anymore with DoReMi, maybe we had to look outside that. Unfortunately it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside DoReMi. In other words, I wasted my life."

But to respectfully disagree, Schaeffer's life was not wasted. He directed recording technology's ability to preserve sound to inspiring new terrains. Sound could now be kept as a substance to be reshaped and altered. Previously unhearable noises were made from transfiguring everyday recordings. The scope of this project was not small; Schaeffer strove to create nothing less than an entirely new art from. His ambitions, setbacks, and successes have much to say about any daunting creative endeavor. Schaeffer, in finding his own uses for records and tape, did something unheard of.

(Diary quotes from In Search of a Concrete Music, translated by John Dack and Christine North. 2012)

Also see Reading Pierre Schaeffer's Journals
and our article/interviews on the INA-GRM studio, which was founded by Schaeffer

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