History of Electroacoustic Music

Musique Concrète

Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) was a graduate of the Paris Ecole Polytechnique, after which he went to work for Radiodiffusion Francaise (RF) as an engineer and broadcaster. In 1942, during the Nazi occupation, he convinced the RF to make him project director of research into a science of musical acoustics. He was able to use the station's turntables, disc recorders, a disc cutting lathe, mixers, and library of sound effects. He spent a great deal of time studying with the equipment, also doing experiments in music and radio theatre.

By 1948 he had learned how to lock-groove records, meaning that instead of a disc consisting a spiral groove that went toward the center of the disc, there was a single circular groove (or a series of circular grooves) that could play a continuous loop. He became interested in studying the nature of natural sounds, creating recordings of percussion instruments struck in different ways, and editing recordings of bells. He discovered that, in addition to timbre, sounds could be classified by their change in volume over time (the envelope), particularly by the initial rise in volume (attack) and overall volume shape following the attack (sustain-decay).

In 1948 created a piece from the sounds of locomotives, Etude aux Chemins de Fer (Study in Locomotives). The piece consisted of a set of recordings made at the depot for the Gare des Batignolles in Paris: six steam locomotives whistling, trains accelerating, wagons moving over rail joints. This initial effort represented a number of "firsts":

  • The piece was created entirely with audio technology
  • The piece existed entirely in recorded form, requiring no musicians
  • The piece was derived entirely from recorded sounds that were not musical.
Thus, this work was a realization of Russolo's concept that any sound could be an acceptable source of music, plus the idea of found objects being taken from their original contexts to be reframed as a piece of art. This led him to coin the term musique concrète:

"This determination to compose with materials taken from an existing collection of experimental sounds, I name musique concrète to make well the place in which we find ourselves, no longer dependent upon preconceived sound abstractions, but now using fragments of sound existing concretely and considered as sound objects defined and whole."

This piece also was the first step in a philosophical/aesthetic quest that was to form Schaeffer's life's work: that of defining and developing a language of sound, and the role of the electronic sound studio in the realm of musical composition.

While Etude aux Chemins de Fer represented a number of first steps in a new field, it also made clear that further steps were necessary for this new art to develop. As the piece was composed of successive, rather than overlaid recordings, listeners were naturally inclined to associate these familiar sounds with their sources - locomotives. As such, it was a sound portrait illustrating some of the rhythmic sonorities of a train yard, rather than a true study in sound evolution.

Schaeffer went on to create a series of etudes based on sounds of musical instruments in an attempt to lessen the effects of listener association. All created by recording sounds onto disc with a lathe. He would play back a number of discs simultaneously through a mixer to create a piece. He would also vary the speeds of the turntables, thus affecting the pitch, attack, and decay of the sounds.

  • Etude pour piano et orchestre combined the sounds of an orchestra tuning up with sounds of a piano improvisation. Musically, this was unsatisfying as there was no dialogue among the sound elements, so the result was the sound of superimposed, rather than composed, disparate sound sources.
  • Etude au Piano I (Etude Violette) and Etude au Piano II (Etude Noire) were both based on just sounds of a piano, (played by Pierre Boulez). They were composed of fragments and textures meant to represent a variety of historical musical styles. Again, the piece was a bit of a patchwork.
  • Etude aux Tourniquets was created from sounds of toy tops and percussion instruments.
  • Etude Pathétique, from sounds of saucepans, canal boats, a harmonica, a piano, vocals.

Pierre Henry
He broadcast his etudes in a program called Concert de Bruits (Concert of Noises) on October 5, 1948. Listener response was divided, apparently proving through controversy that this work was worthy of further investigation. Schaeffer was given two assistants. Pierre Henry (1927-2017), was a trained composer who had studied with Messiaen. Henry was the first formally trained musician to dedicate himself to electronic works. Jacques Poullin was also hired as an engineer, who helped to realize many of Schaeffer's and Henry's ideas.

While Schaeffer's work was divided between foreign postings, where he was assigned to attend symposia on radio and recording, or assist in the development of distant facilities, while at home he became increasingly philosophical in nature, as he attempted to define correlations between conventional musical composition and concrète composition. His definitions were to lay the groundwork for succeeding composers of electronic music in general. One important distinction concerned the means of conception and realization, which could follow two paths. The first involved composers coming to a clear concept of the sound structures and evolutions they wished to explore, followed by drawing up the appropriate set of studio procedures necessary to realize the concept. The second involved starting with a set of sound sources, investigating their possibilities, and allowing a piece to emerge as these possibilities were realized. In practice, most composers move between the two approaches.

In his next pieces, Variations sur une Flûte Mexicaine and Suite pour quatorze instruments, Schaeffer took the latter approach, starting with source material of different instruments and creating pieces out of available editing techniques. Much of his manipulations were speed/pitch variations obtained by playing the recordings at different speeds. He found the results to be overly repetitive, and lacking direction or real development. This led him to explore the concept of the objet sonore (sound object), which was a a basic sound, abstracted from its natural environment and time span. He felt that this decontextualizing of sounds from their environments and treated as musical atoms was akin to principles of serialism, wherein sounds were decontextualized from common practice tonal contexts. This idea was to prove unpopular with the elektronische Musik practice that developed in Germany.

Feeling that recordings of musical instruments carried intrinsic musical contexts, Schaeffer returned to non-musical sources, and began the creation of a major opus, co-composed with Henry. They chose as source material unified by the idea of the sounds of a person. When the sounds made by a person (breathing, walking, whistling, speaking) proved too limiting, they expanded their scope to include sound made by a person while interacting with the world (including some instrumental playing, as apparently this concept gave them the freedom to return to some forms of musical instrument sounds). Their sound library consisted of:

Human sounds    Nonhuman sounds
Breathing Footsteps
Vocal fragments Knocking on doors
Shouts Percussion
Humming Prepared piano
Whistling Orchestral instruments

The piece was called Symphonie pour un Homme Seul (Symphony for a person standing alone). It was premiered on March 18, 1950 in an elaborate live concert of musique concrète. They spent some months creating a performance system consisting of loudspeakers, turntables, and mixers placed around the hall. The difficulties of creating montages from real-time turntable operations and sound distribution was a bit of a tightrope act. But they landed on their feet for the most part, and further performances followed, garnering enthusiastic reviews.

In his attempts to create a viable language for musique concrète, Schaeffer began to catalog sounds. Just as serialism created matrices of pitches, volumes, articulation, and considered music as being a multi-dimensional along these vectors, Schaeffer created vectors that described degrees of timbre, pitch, rhythm, density, and so on. He equated his creation of montage and loops to the polytonal, polytrhythmic structures created by Stravinsky. He also suggested that his concept of the objet sonore was an extension of Schoenberg's Klangfarbenmelodie. Not everyone agreed. In 1951, violent disagreements began to erupt between the approaches of musique concrète and the German elektronische Musik.

Also in 1951, the RTF gave Schaeffer a new studio. This new facility was outfitted with a tape recorder. While this device offered newfound flexibility, the composers had formed such an intimate relationship with disc-based technology that the new invention was initially resisted. Gradually, however, its advantages became unavoidable, and Schaeffer had Poullin create a variety of special purpose machines. The Phonogene had variable speed, allowing for pitch variations. One Phonogene model had a keyboard to produce tape speeds that corresponded to notes of a musical scale. The Morphophone had twelve playback heads, allowing for delay and reverberation effects. With splicing, a passage could also be played in reverse by simply splicing a segment out and taping it back upside down.

A tape loop could be created by connecting one end of a splice to another and put through the tape guide system, often with an additional guide such as a pencil, finger, or music stand. The RF Studio was also equipped with a sound system that was able to play five stereo tracks over five loudspeakers. This allowed performances to feature spatialization effects with two front speakers, one rear speaker and one overhead speaker. The fifth track could be spread among the four speakers by means of a handhold coil, the precursor to the joystick. On a multi-track deck, tape echo effects could also be created by patching the output of one track to the input of another, thus producing a delayed version of the first track on the second track.

The newly outfitted studio became increasingly active, as various composers, inspired by Poullin's technical innovations and Schaeffer's theories, came through to work with the new technology. Among the notable pieces created there were:

  • Pierre Boulez -- Etude I sur un Son (1952)
  • Pierre Boulez -- Etude II sur Sept Sons (1952)
  • Olivier Messiaen -- Timbres-Durees (1952)
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen -- Etude (1952)
  • Pierre Henry -- Orphee, a concrete opera, (1951)
  • Darius Milhaud -- La Riviere Endormie (Etude Poetique) (1954) for mezzo soprano, narrators, orchestra, tape
Schaeffer remained more a conceptualist than a composer. His focus continued to be on developing a theory of sound objects, an attempt to codify all known sounds onto a spectrum of characteristics. In 1953 he went to the French colonies in North Africa to work on radio projects, although he remained in touch with the studio as director in absentia.

Pierre Schaeffer, Traité des Objets Musicaux, 1966.
Joel Chadabe, Electronic Sound: The Past, Present and Future of Electronic Music
Peter Manning, Electronic and Computer Music.