Review – Pierre Schaeffer: In Search of a Concrete Music (Translated by Christine North and John Dack)

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Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995), was one of the founding fathers of music technology. An groundbreaking book by him, which has finally been translated into English, is reviewed.

by Warren Burt, July 2014


For those who came in late, Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995), was one of the founding fathers of music technology.  Trained as a radio engineer in the 1930s (but with considerable musical experience) he went on in the late 40s to create the first works of what he called musique concrete, a music made with technology, using sounds from the real world, whether natural or mechanical.  At first, this work was done with phonograph records, cutting closed groove records for loops, and using mixers to manually shape the envelopes of sound.  It was only in 1950 that he got the first tape recorders for his studio at the French Radio.  The tape recorder at that time was still an experimental beast, and Schaeffer had custom machines made.  One of these, the first of a family he called phonogenes, which had a traditional music keyboard to control the tape speed, was the first sampler.

In Search of a Concrete Music  is one of the founding documents of electronic music.  It consists of Schaeffer’s diaries from 1948-1952, concluding with a long philosophical and scientific essay in which he evaluates the first four years of his work, and speculates, often with an eerie prescience, as to where this technological development might lead.  For many years, this book has only been available in French.  Now, thanks to Christine North and John Dack, Schaeffer’s difficult and complex French, often filled with ironic (and quite humorous) observations, has been rendered into clear and elegant English which revealed, even to an old hand like myself, many new aspects of Schaeffer’s personality and thought.

In the late 1940s, the works of the German philosopher Hegel began to appear in French translation for the first time.  The influence this had on French philosophy was profound, and is still being felt today.  Likewise, although there have been a number of excellent writers in English who have dealt with and extended Schaeffer’s ideas (such as Denis Smalley), to have Schaeffer’s own voice available to us at last will undoubtedly have a major impact on the development of thinking about music technology, at least for those who care about where in history their ideas and tools come from.

Schaeffer was not only an engineer and a composer, he was also a writer (essays, novels, radio scripts, religious tracts, etc.) a music producer (he founded the World Music label Ocora, which is still producing world music recordings to this day), an arts administrator, and an anti-nuclear activist.  In this book, the writer clearly shows through – the writing is elegant, well-formed and occasionally very witty.  At the same time he doesn’t sell short the difficulties he (and his colleagues, the composer and percussionist Pierre Henry, and the engineer Jacques Poullin) had at the beginning. These difficulties were not only practical – what to do with 500 or so custom made looping phonograph records, and more, how to get bureaucratic permission to even make the aforementioned loop recordings – they were aesthetic as well.

Before Schaeffer’s work, no one had, for example, listened to a looping recording for a long, long time.  After about a half-hour of listening to a loop, Schaeffer reported that the way he heard sound changed forever.  He was much more aware now of the inner life of the sound, of how timbre, envelope, texture, etc. affect the way we hear sound.  In short, he was becoming aware of listening into the sounds (acoustics), as well as hearing the relationships between the sound (music).  Having achieved this kind of listening, the question for him, which gave him, a relatively conservative musician, great difficulty was – how would one make music with these sounds.  Very quickly he realized that although one could make traditional sounding music with these new means (Suite for 14 Instruments is an example of this) the new tools he was using implied a new set of “rules” for music making, a new way of thinking about musical structure (pitch rapidly became much less important than timbre and texture, for example, and the old debates about tonality versus atonality became quickly irrelevant when faced with the whole world of sound).  In fact, Schaeffer, the musical conservative, is forced to become the reluctant radical, the founder of a whole new way of thinking about the relationship between sound and music, simply because of the capabilities he discovers his tools to have.  Although this path is difficult for him, and he talks about this at length, once he realizes the way forward, he pursues his elusive goal with an almost ferocious dedication.  At one point, in fact, he says of his new phonogene that he may regret having made a tool that makes it easier to compose.  For Schaeffer, hard work, research, and a grappling with the aesthetic problems one’s working methods and tools give is an essential part of composing.   He ends up wanting his tools to not only give the ability to make new sounds, but to encourage one into making a new kind of music as well.  For Schaeffer, eventually, the way is clear: new tools not only encourage new kinds of music, they demand them.

As aspects of Schaeffer’s thought are revealed, the contrasts with the thoughts of his colleagues become apparent.  For example, in the excellent 2007 documentary by Eric Darmon and Franck Mallet, Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds, describing the early days at the Paris studio, Pierre Henry says that for Schaeffer, musique concrete was a philosophy, a way of thinking about composing that would make composition almost impossible.  He on the other hand, as soon as he had his hands on the equipment, wanted to make works at once, and what’s more, works that would be profitable.  Schaeffer, in his summing up essay at the end of the book, describing his own methods and the working methods of two of the young composers in his studio, Pierre Henry and Pierre Boulez (who many years later would found another music technology institute in Paris, IRCAM) as three totally different approaches, and how delighted he is by that diversity.

Another interesting contrast of thought – as early as 1948, Schaeffer is wondering about how one will perceive order in this new kind of music.  He says, for example, if you have 7 sounds, labelled “a” through “g”, and you play them simply in order – a b c d e f g – most people will not hear order – or the mark of the maker, in that.  But simply introduce repetition – aa bb cc dd, and then e f g without repetition at the end, and the average person, whether they like the result or not, will hear a kind of humanly imposed order in that – simply because “nature does not repeat.”  What is interesting about this is that at precisely this same time, the American composer John Cage was talking with the curator Ananda Coomaraswamy, who was telling him that in Asian arts, the purpose of art was to “imitate nature in her manner of operation.”  In other words, nature doesn’t repeat, and neither should we.  The difference between these two approaches is profound.  And you can hear the results – in Schaeffer and Henry’s “Symphony for One Man Alone,” (1950) there are multiple repeats, and a very traditional concern with the elegance of the form.  In Cage’s “Williams Mix” (1952) there is no repetition whatever, just a rapid progression of striking and happy audio chaos.  Both approaches are valid – but even right at the beginning of the field, the two approaches are already defining themselves.

One thing Schaeffer finds out very early is the primacy of the ear over theory.  Music theory says things should work one way, but Schaeffer finds that his ear, the power of his analytical approach to listening, tells him quite another.  He makes a valiant attempt at developing a method of categorising sounds.  (He would later expand this approach considerably in the 1960s with his masterful Solfege of the Sonic Object, which is also still awaiting translation.)  And useful as this method is, when, at the end of the book, he calculates that there should be, when all the elements of sound are taken into account, about 50,000 different kinds of sounds,  he realizes that all his analytical tools are simply useful vehicles for an empirical “assemble-it-according-to-your-own-listening-and-instincts” kind of composing.

Schaeffer clearly sees the relationship between what he’s doing, and what the abstract painters of the time are doing.  Despite the fact that he’s working with sounds from the real world, he is concerned with being able to extend and modify those sounds so that the knowledge of the original source is greatly reduced, if not eliminated altogether, so that we are now listening to the raw matter, the original matter of sound itself, regardless of the story of its origins.  This approach also led to a number of composers from the GRM (Schaeffer’s research institute) to composing works in the 60s using environmental sounds, where the entire composing material of the piece consisted of emphasizing the “origin stories” of the sounds being used.

Over the past several decades, I’d mostly read other people’s words about Schaeffer, but I hadn’t encountered the man himself.  From other people’s writings, I’d gained the impression that he was a bit of gloomy guy, conflicted by the philosophical implications of the music he had helped bring about.  On reading him, in his own words, I can now see that he’s a much more sunny, and likeable guy than he has been portrayed as.  The philosophical conflicts are still there, and there are lots of them. Now, however, I see them not as a negative but as a part of the fun of inventing a new world – the philosophical struggle is part of the joy of the exploration.

Folks today who play on a keyboard into their DAW, in order to make a better version of the music they’re already familiar with, may be wondering why they should even be concerned with the struggles around the origins of their tools.  For me, reading Schaeffer was exhilarating, and fun, as I got a greater insight into where we came from, and what our artistic and philosophical grandfathers did and thought.  As another very different musical pioneer, Harry Partch once said, “Affirmation of parentage is a primary source of rebellion.”    Reading the wonderfully clear, complex and often witty writing of Pierre Schaeffer was a delight for me, as I gained greater understanding of the context from which our music came.  If you want to find out more about the origins of our field, this book is more than a delight, it’s essential.


University of California Press, Berkeley Ca. USA 2012 29.95 USD (Amazon price)


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