Perfect Sound Forever


Reading His Journals
By Daniel Barbiero
(October 2015)

Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) was one of the pivotal figures in postwar experimental music, the repercussions of whose work are still being felt today. His invention in the 1940's of musique concrète-the direct manipulation of recorded sounds first with discs and turntables and later with tape-opened up new ways of composing, not only directly with sound but with an understanding of music as a continuum of sounds defined beyond pitch and harmony.

Although Schaeffer came to his musical experiments through broadcasting rather than as a composer, he did have a musical background. Both parents were musicians-his father played violin and his mother sang-and he himself had studied cello at the Nancy Conservatory in France's Lorraine region. Trained in electrical engineering and telecommunications, he undertook the experiments that crystallized into musique concrète while he was working in Paris as a radio sound engineer at the studio of Radiodiffusion Français, where he had founded an electronic studio.

Schaeffer's journals of 1948-1951, along with his essay "The Concrete Experiment in Music" of 1952, show in detail the inner processes behind the external events they document. Schaeffer was an accomplished writer with a highly literate style-he wrote fiction as well as expository prose-which translators Christine North and John Dack have rendered into appropriately elegant English. By all the evidence here, Schaeffer was a master of the highly polished rhetoric of French expository writing. Reading his journals allows us to look over his shoulder and to gain some insight into the universe of thought musique concrète arose from-to extract the conceptual from the concrete, as it were. The questions Schaeffer raised are just as relevant to experimental musicians today as they were to him nearly seventy years ago.

The decisive event in Schaeffer's invention of concrete music, recorded in his journal for April 1948, was his discovery that the sound of a bell with its attack removed was the sound of an oboe-not a sound that could be identified as a bell. By manipulating the attack envelopes of sounds, he could alter them, rendering them acousmatic and concealing their telltale signs of origin. Further experiments in spring 1948 with recordings of locomotives at the Gare des Batignolles in Paris culminated in the "Etude aux Chemins de fer" and prompted him to describe the results as ‘musique concrète,' compositions made of sound fragments extracted from recordings and altered by having their pitch, tempo and timbres changed by mechanical means. These were compositions that were meant to get directly to the empirical reality of the sounds themselves.

The idea of musique concrète is a philosophically rich one. As North and Dack point out, the French "concrète" is a multivalent word whose meaning encompasses concepts of palpability and experientiality-of a direct encounter with empirical reality unmediated by abstract theories (as it is in English as well-think for example of the expressions "concrete experience" or "concrete reality"). The grammar of the label Schaeffer chose, with its implications of a confrontation with sound as a self-coincident in-itself, is indicative of something essential to his experiments, which he hoped would give him access to the music dormant in the material being of sound. To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, no sounds but in things.

Thus the fundamental unit of musique concrète would be the sound object, the fragment of sound extracted from reality. A sound with its pre-existing form and narrative context stripped away, its origins in the unwritten soundtrack of mundane objects, events and states of affairs thereby obscured. In order to find the potential musicality of sounds he would have to isolate them from what he called their literary content-that is, their recognizability as sounds taken from specific real-world settings. Without that crucial step having been taken, they would appear to be little more than sound effects suitable for radio drama, but not for music.

With their mundane associations removed, sound objects could, through the intervention of the composer, take on musical form. But what form? Like many postwar composers, Schaeffer was faced with the common problem of post-tonal music: what kind of forms would provide effective vertical and horizontal organization?

Like a true experimentalist, Schaeffer had more hypotheses than final answers. Tellingly for someone seeking to go beyond conventional musical forms based on the tonic-dominant relationship-and rejecting the examples of Stravinsky and Schoenberg-he looked to the visual arts for formal parallels, to Impressionism's building of forms from individual atoms of color or to Cubism's reconstructing forms from decomposed surfaces and volumes. Schaeffer suggested that this could mean breaking musical material up into "new volumes" or "brushstrokes of color," or assembling sound objects into abstract series and groups to replace conventional melodies and harmonies. In practical terms this would entail the use of montage for horizontal organization and mixing for vertical organization. This was the method he used for such work as "Symphonie pour un homme seul" (composed with Pierre Henry in 1949-1950), a multimovement construction of sounds gathered from the body and its surroundings.

Despite his successes in establishing an institutional infrastructure for sonic experiments, attracting collaborators and stimulating interest in his work, Schaeffer in the end felt that he had failed. He devoted an entire chapter of "The Concrete Experiment in Music" to "Farewells to Concrete Music," in which he acknowledged certain internal divisions regarding the work he was doing-he was a not always harmonious mixture of engineer, musician and writer-and the need he felt to come down on one side or another. Accordingly, he confessed that he'd ceased to write music. The excitement of discovery-of noticing in 1948 the ordinarily unnoticed rhythms expressed in the sounds of a locomotive-gave way just a few short years later to frustration that somehow it didn't add up to music. He found himself instead "deep in matter, floundering in formlessness." In a 1986 interview with Tim Hodgkinson for ReR Quarterly, Schaeffer told of his conflicted state during these experiments. While he was happy with the progress he made in surmounting the technical challenges inevitable with turntables and early tape machines, he was correspondingly unhappy with what he considered his inability to make music-to find his way to a viable new music beyond the structures of traditional tonality, or what in the interview he called "DoReMi." It would seem that in his own mind, the tonic-dominant relationship would have to have the last word.

Despite his sense of failure, Schaeffer's reflections on his experiments suggested two fruitful ways for composers-and improvisers too, for that matter--to conceive of musical materials: as sounds existing and coexisting within a world of sounds, and as elements whose arrangement could very well resemble the arrangement of colors and forms in an abstract painting.

Musique concrète licensed an expansion of the universe of musical materials to include sound beyond pitch as specifically musical, as opposed to anecdotal. The first of these was helping to lay the groundwork for imagining musical material beyond pitch. This is the legacy of the sound object and its properties- a leveling of what it could mean to be a musical element.

This comes out in what Schaeffer called the "complex note," a sound element defined by the three dimensions of frequency, duration and dynamic. These three qualities are common to all sounds whether musical or otherwise; by defining the fundamental unit this way, Schaeffer could open the compositional process up to work with elements of sound entirely neutral in terms of their musical content. The complex note was an expansive enough category to embrace any kind of sound based on the properties that all sounds have in common; what remained was to distinguish them. This would have to be along a fourth dimension--that of timbre. Schaeffer referred to timbre as a "classical variable" or dimension of music, but its function as a formal element goes beyond music to sound itself. Timbre, in short, could be used as the basis for organizing sounds into compositions.

And this points to the parallel between musique concrète and modern art that Schaeffer liked to draw. His comparison of the music of sound to modern painting suggests new ways of imagining the organization of timbres into compositions that are particularly apt. We routinely speak of timbre as color; it would seem to be a short step from there to organizing timbres in time as an abstract painter would colors on a canvas. Timbres could be arranged to exploit their similarities and differences, or their capacity to thicken or thin the overall texture of a composition or improvisation. Like an abstract painting, the musical work would be a field of contrasts and tensions: between bright and dark, dense and open, loud and quiet, or any of a broad spectrum of sound qualities that can be opposed to or complementary of one another. Sound objects or complex notes would thus be points along a qualitative continuum rather than notes in a melodic or harmonic progression.

And what is this if not the realization of Schaeffer's declaration that "concrete music is nothing less than the bringing to consciousness of this phenomenon... [that causes] sound forms and sound colors to appear and develop in time and space"?

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

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