Not long after the Second World War the readymade environmental sounds of musique concrete became one of the hallmarks of avant-garde composition. Subsequently co-opted by everyone from Stockhausen to the Shangri-Las, six decades later musique concrete remains a vital ingredient in all kinds of left field music. David Sheppard traces is trajectory from 1940s Paris to the contemporary Suffolk coast and poses an inescapably post-modern question: has music stopped evolving?
We may not know, but we live in an acousmatic world. This tricky sounding adjective has been defined as: “the sound one hears without seeing its originating cause- an invisible sound source.” We take for granted the music that bleeds from our iPods as we perambulate city streets, and find nothing extraordinary in a department store disgorging the somnambulant strains of Muzak or mobile phone ringtones filling the air with digitalised blasts of Beethoven, Jay-Z or -oh the withering irony- an old fashioned telephone bell ring; all sounds whose provenance remains at one remove. Recorded sound is woven inexorably into 21st century aural life, so much so that a pre-acousmatic world is now almost impossible to comprehend.
Just one lifetime ago, however, acousmatic sound recordings were an exotic rarity, exuding a mystique that we simply can’t imagine today. The tone was set by HMV’s iconic “Nipper” logo, from the early 20th century which featured the eponymous Jack Russell must looking awestruck by the sound of ‘his master’s voice’ emanating from the horn of a wind-up gramophone. The HMV trademark was borrowed from 1898 painting by British artist Francis Barraud who’s actually titled it, with astonishing lack of imagination, ‘Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonograph’.
But it wasn’t only canines who found the phenomenon of recorded sound so alluring and mysterious. Thanks to the increasing popularity of radio leading up to and during the Second World War, reproducible sound recordings, in the form of phonogram discs resonating over the airwaves, began to impinge significantly on Western daily life- even more so after hostilities ceased in 1945.
While post-war austerity was being brightened up by the jolly ubiquity of big band waxing piped into cupboards-sized radiograms, there were some for whom the ‘wireless’ was becoming more than just a conduit of mass entertainment. Indeed, for very select few, radio apparatus was less a living room diversion and more a diving rod for the boundless creative possibilities of amplified sound.
One such sonic avatar was a man called Pierre Schaeffer. Born in Nancy, France, in August 1910, Pierre Henri Schaeffer was the son of engineers. After studying at the Ecole Polytechnique, the young Schaeffer seemed destined to follow his parents’ career path and, indeed, he eventually drifted into the realm of a telecommunications, finding a job in the mid-1930s as a technical engineer at the Office de Radiodiffusion Television Francaise (RTF) in Paris. Soon gravitating from engineer to radio announcer, Schaeffer’s would become famous as the voice which described the liberation of Paris to a relieved French populace in August 1944.
Although active in the Resistance during much of the war, he had continued working for RFT, despite it being under the control of the occupying Germans. In 1942, at the age of 32 and with the war at full throttle, he somehow persuaded the authorities that a department of ‘musical acoustics’ was just what the broadcasting institution needed.
At a stroke, Schaeffer had altered the very essence of sound recording.
RTF’s facilities were state-of-the-art and put at Schaeffer’s disposal an unrivalled cache of phonograph turntables, recording devices, disc cutting lathes, mixers, processors and sound effects libraries. Dubbed Studio d’Essai Schaeffer’s laboratory would become an aural play pen. Remarkably free from intervention, there he had licence to experiment and spent months perfecting such techniques as the ‘locked groove’ (fixing a stylus in pace in order to create repetitive loops of sounds- something certain rock records would deeply as a gimmick several decades hence) on shellac, 78 rpm discs. He was also among the first to investigate the possibilities of edited magnetic tape (it was the Germans who had made the greatest strides in this area, inventing a magnetic tape recording device called the Magnetophone as early as 1935. This would later evolve, courtesy of the American Ampex Corporation, into the world’s first commercially available tape recorder). These laboratory trials eventually lead to more structured experiments into sound replication, editing and aural montage which began to ask philosophical questions about the very nature of sound and composition.
Schaeffer eulogised radio as “this miracle-machine, this chamber of wonders.” Untrained in music, he was nonetheless intrigued by the idea of isolating naturally produced sounds- particularly the mechanised noise of the city around him- until they became malleable elements in a wider sonic collage. These ideas coalesced in Schaeffer’s first broadcast sound piece, 1948’s Etude Aux Chemins De Fer, (‘Railway Study’), compiled entirely from recordings captured at a Paris railway depot. The montage included six whistling steam locomotives, accelerating engines and wagons passing over points. “At the moment”, one critic wrote, “The train of contemporary musical aesthetics left the station, never to return to its familiar old rounds”.
At a stroke, Schaeffer had altered the very essence of sound recording. No longer a passive, technical activity dedicated to the fidelities of performance replication, recording was suddenly transformed into a proactive creative medium, with the capacity to embrace and re-order the sonic vocabulary of the modern industrial world and make of it an entirely novel art form. Where composition had previously been a kind of dictatorship of the manuscript- with musicians reacting to a composer’s set instructions- the new art form married the roles of composer and performer together (a synergy we take entirely for granted today), but now freed from the existing musical canon, from traditional instruments and from the enduring notional strictures of music itself.
A further series of Schaeffer’s quotidian sound studies grouped together as Cinq Etudes De Bruits (‘Five Studies in Noise’) were also broadcast by the RTF, flooding French sitting rooms, to much initial incomprehension, with bricolage recordings of train whistles, toys, kitchen utensils, river barges, miscellaneous percussive instruments and the occasional solitary piano.
To contrast with more or less accepted forms of musique abstraite which at least doffed a hat to notation, instrumentation and performance, Schaeffer coined the phrase musique concrete to describe his new work.
Schaeffer’s concrete music experiments son gathered space, with prescient results. He studied the effect of striking solid objects and observed that a single sound event could be characterised not only by timbre, but by attack and decay. He recorded bell tones straight to disc, manipulating a volume control between the microphone and disc cutter to eliminate the attack- creating gliding tonal eaves that resemble latter-day ambient music. he also made speculative designs for an instrument that could provide the sounds of an orchestra by means of a bank of pre-recorded tapes- anticipating the Mellotron and the sampler by decades.
Although clearly an individualist with a pioneering spirit, Schaeffer’s work didn’t appear in complete isolation. German Walter Ruttman had composed a ‘symphony of noise’ back in the early ’30s and roughly contemporaneous with Schaeffer, American composers as diverse as John Cage, Harry Partch and Henry Jacobs were rejecting canonical thinking and questioning traditional musical instrumentation (and in Partch’s case, building his own microtonal contraptions).
Schaeffer himself had been influenced by the work of the 1930s Italian Futurists, who called for an art that captured the speed, vibrancy and puissance of the 20th century city. In Italy, Futurist composer and essayist Luigi Russolo wrote a manifesto titled The Art of Noises which decreed that urban clamour was the music of the future. While the Futurists were prodigious writers of manifestoes (whose urgent political modernism was eventually co-opted by Benito Mussolini’s Fascists), it took a technically schooled maverick like Schaeffer to translate the philosophy into sonic reality.
By the turn of the 1950s Schaeffer was consolidating his ideas, along with a new confrere, Piere Henry, a classically trained pianist and percussionist also drawn to the principles of musique concrete. Together the two founded Group de Recherché de Musique Concrete (GRMC) which received official recognition from the RTF, who duly presented them with a new research studio. The GRMC would son open its door to such musical luminaries as Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and George Barraque.
The early ’50s found Schaeffer applying ‘concrete’ principles to all manner of sound sources and, several years before developments in stereo would come to fruition, he began concentrating on the spatial possibilities of sound reproduction. These experiments resulted in fanciful sounding devices like Morphophone which anticipated modern reverb effects, of the Phonogene which played simultaneous recorded loops at different speeds. Schaeffer began to compose less as the ’50s waned, although his sound experiments continued even as electronics (initially courtesy of American Robert Moog’s eponymous synthesisers) began to permeate mainstream music. Indeed, by the mid ’60s, musique concrete was becoming, more or less, an accepted phenomenon and even began infiltrating the pop charts courtesy of records such as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Summer In The City’, which employed road drills and traffic noise to evoke urban agitation, or the Shangri-La’s ‘Leader Of The Pack’ with its iconic revving motorcycle engine.
Latterly a victim of Alzheimer’s disease, Pierre Schaeffer died in 1995 at the age of 85, leaving a legacy that is as vast as it is unique. His immediate successors- Henry, Stockhausen, Milhaud, Boulez, Messien et al- were all indebted to his discoveries and those of GRMC, as were all manner of later 20th century musical experimenters including Luc Ferrari, Terry Riley, Robert Ashley, Steve Reich, and Kraftwerk (and in turn a vast compositional hinterland upon whom these figure’ influence is still keenly felt) whose sophisticated evolution of Schaeffer’s basic ‘concrete’ tenets has become synonymous with the eloquent evocation of both cosmopolitan modernity and, on occasion, urban dystopia. Reich’s hugely influential early ’60s loop ‘phase’ experiments owe nearly everything to Schaeffer (and one of Reich’s better known later works goes by the literal, Schaeffer-esque title, City Life).
Electronic artists have often found fascinating uses for musique concrete. Brian Eno’s 1982 ambient album On Land uses the sound of stones, gravel and rusty chains in tandem with electronic processes to help evoke the East Anglian landscape of the composer’s youth. In 2001, reversed San Francisco duo Matmos released an album called A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure which used computer software to manipulate and montage sounds recorded exclusively during plastic surgery operations. Maverick english composer Mathew Herbert has made recordings using scrunched burger wrappers and clothing as his only sound sources while the pieces on American post-classical collective Rachel’s 2003 instrumental opus systems/layers were peppered with field recordings of everyday life sent in by fans from around the globe. Meanwhile, contemporary ‘turntablist’ sound artists like Christan Marclay and Philip Jeck continue to explore the sonic possibilities of manipulated vinyl records to great acclaim; though their techniques are almost identical to those Schaeffer was employing even as Nazi jackboots marched up the Champs-Elysées sixty-odd years ago.
DJ culture also owes Schaeffer a debt. Cutting mixing and, most particularly, scratching (employing the material vinyl disc in tandem with the record player stylus as an expressive musical instrument in its own right) are effectively extrapolations of Schaeffer’s 1940’s vinyl experiments. The spirit of the young Pierre Schaeffer is still at play on music’s fertile margins.
Indeed, Schaeffer came to my mind several times during the late summer of 2009 during which I was privy to a contemporary manifestation of Morphophone in the decidedly bucolic environs of Benjamin Britten’s Snape Malthings centre, Suffolk. There, in what amounts to a prestigious campus for the cream of international classical musicians (and whose focus is the annual music festival inaugurated by Britten which takes over the nearby coastal town of Aldeburgh every June) a Schaeffer-esque musical experiment was taking place.
Commissioned by the Snape-based Aldeburgh Music organisation, A Sufolk Symphony was the culmination of a week-long residency in conjunction with esoteric British electronic record label, Touch. One of four such commissions under the umbrella title ‘Faster Than Sound’ (a name shared with an experimental music festival previously staged at a nearby disused air base and supported by Aldeburgh Music), A Suffolk Symphony was composed by Swedish electronic artist B.J.Nilsen and aforementioned turntablist Phillip Jeck using material sourced from the Aldeburgh area during their weeklong stay. This included field recordings of wind in upturned boars, waves crashing on shingle, farm machinery, creaking doors, rustling vegetation and, in Jeck’s case, old vinyl records, including at least one Benjamin Britten album, purchased from a local second hand shop. It was effectively a pastoral rejoinder to musique concrete’s signature urban milieu.
I visited the musicians as they were completing their work and it was made clear that string this composition, so obviously lacking in orthodox orchestral accoutrements (not to mention audaciously calling it ‘a symphony’) in so august a centre of classical music tradition was regarded by some as an act of dangerous avant garde-ism. Six decades on from Cinq Etudes De Bruits, it seems, harvesting the sounds of the world around us and calling it ‘music’ is still a contentious matter.
On a warm, August Saturday night Jeck and Nilsen premiered their just-composed symphony in one of Snape’s acoustically perfect concert spaces. Accompanied by slides of the local landscape by Touch photography Jon Wozencraft, Jeck work his magic at a pair of beaten up Dansette record players (their lids up, they looked liked bakelite 1950s laptops), processing the scratches, glitches and occasional eidolon shards extant music using delay pedals and a tiny mixing console into a haunting dubsacpe, while Nilsen’s laptop (a proper one) tweaked and filtered a battery of concrete sounds into a succession of , by turns, liquid, airy and dissonant textures.
As an electronic music ‘gig’ it was for the most part engaging, occasionally stirring and its few moments of droning longueurs were easily ameliorated by Wolzencroft’s snaps of the gorgeous Suffolk countryside. But, for all the eyebrow raising among the classical elite this music felt familiar, even comfortable. It was less like sonic insurrection and more an exercise in what has become an established canonical form- electronica. What’s more, despite the fact that microchip technology has rendered unwieldy Morphophones and Phonogenes redundant, the processes and sounds being deployed and teased would have been easily recognised by Pierre Schaeffer. He would have enjoyed the performance, I’m sure.
On the train back from Suffolk I began thinking about the evolution of experimental music. I tried to think of the last revolutionary sea change in musical form. Could it be that Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrete was it Woodbridge, Brian Eno’s place of birth, surrounded by the Suffolkian landscape he’d once tried to evoke using variations on musique concrete, I wondered what had happened to ‘generative music’- the computerised compositional method in which unique music is ‘grown’ from inputted parametrical ‘seeds’- which a decade and a half ago Eno predicted would transform the way we continue music but which is still to catch on in any meaningful way.
Later, I glanced at my newspaper and noticed an article about a composer called Emily Howell. ‘Emily Howell’ is not, it transpired, a human musician at all but actually a computer programme ‘capable of composing original classical music’. The programme had been dreamt up by one David Cope at the University of California over 4o years ago but only now is his vision of a machine that could create ‘convincing music’ (as the article put it) being realised. ‘Emily Howell’ is set to release her first album, From Darkness, Light next spring. The idea, presumably, is that a casual, acousmatic listener would imagine him or himself to be experiencing the artistic creation of a human brain. The emphasis, by definition, will be on the piece resembling as much as possible existing forms of classical music.
Pierre Schaeffer will be revolving in his grave like a 78 rpm record.