1910 – 1995
Born in Nancy, France
Like many of the pioneers of electronic music, Schaeffer was not a musician. He received his diploma from L’Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, and did an apprenticeship at the Radiodiffusion-Television Francaises (RTF) which led to a full time job as an engineer and broadcaster. He was a member of the French resistance during the occupation of France by the Germans. He also was a writer and biographer.
After being rapidly promoted in 1942, at the age of 32, he persuaded the RTF corporation (which was under the control of the German occupying forces), to initiate the science of musical acoustics with himself as the director. He had at his disposal the resources of RTF such as phonograph turntables, disc recording devices, a direct disc cutting lathe, mixers, and a large library of sound effect records owned by the studio. Initially the new studio was known as Studio d’Essai and later renamed Club d’Essai.
Schaeffer spent months experimenting with the technology available to him. He discovered that he could lock-groove records. In other words, instead of spiraling toward the center of the record, the needle could be made to stay in one groove creating a loop. He was drawn to the possibility of isolating naturally produced sounds. This would lead eventually to the term ‘Musique Concrete’ which meant that the sounds were based on natural sounds recorded and played back in a musical context. He was influenced by Russolo and the Futurist Manifestos.
In 1948, he studied the effect of striking percussive instruments different ways. He observed that a single sound event could be characterized not only by timbre, but by attack and decay as well.
On April 21 of that year, he recorded bell tones to disc using a volume control between the mike and cutter to eliminate the attack.
On the 23rd, he speculated that an instrument could be created that would provide the sounds of an orchestral instrument by means of a bank of prerecorded events. (The Mellotron eventually fulfilled this prophecy.) Go to his invention the phonogene.
His first official composition, Etude aux chemans de fer (Concert for Locomotives), was a montage of sounds recorded at the train depot in Paris. Sounds included six steam locomotives whistling, trains accelerating, and wagons passing over the joints in the tracks.
Although the composition is considered to be more of an experimental essay rather than a serious composition, it was significant in four ways.
1. An act of musical composition was accomplished by a technological process.
2. The work could be replayed multiple times.
3. Replaying was not dependent on human performers.
4. Elements were “concrete.”
Schaeffer then began to play records at different speeds. This affected not only pitch and duration, but also the amplitude envelopes of the sounds. This led to a series of Etudes during the summer of 1948.
Etude pour piano et orchestre combined the sounds of an orchestra tuning up with spontaneous improv piano playing by Jean-Jacques Grunenwald. The effect was of two unrelated ideas and therefore had no coherence.
Etude au piano I and I Etude au piano II .These were based on piano sounds alone. Pierre Boulez played multiple styles of piano such as classical, romantic, atonal, etc. Schaeffer tried to piece the parts together into a cohesive production but failed to do so.
Oct. 5, 1948, these pieces were broadcast by RTF on a show named Concert a bruits. The reactions by the public were sharply divided.
Schaeffer was then sent abroad to give symposiums on recording and broadcasting. Upon his return he asked RTF for funds for assistants. RTF assigned Pierre Henry, a composer who had studied with Messian, and Jacques Poullin, as sound engineer to assist him.
Their first work, Suite pour quatorze instruments, was the starting point for the syntax for musique concrete . It consisted of five movements. The Courante was a montage of an entire library of source material. The Gavotte was a simple musical phrase on different instruments. Pitch transposition was used for variations. Schaeffer was not happy with the results since the phrase retained many of its original characteristics, even with all of the treatments.
This led him to analyze the nature of sounds, which led to his definition of oblect sonore. The isolation of a basic sound, separated from its context and examined for its characteristics outside its normal time continuum. He began to observe sound not only by a broad definition, but also in a finer analytical sense such as the filter and amplitude envelope.
His next composition was a collaboration with Henry entitled Symponie pour un homme seul (Symphony for a Man Alone). He divided the composition process into two lines: 1. Using new technical aides to extend the possibilities of instrumental sources. 2. Incorporating his objets sonores principles. He decided to use human sounds as his main source material, as well as some non-human sounds. He divided the material into two groups:
1. Human sounds (breathing, vocal fragments, shouting, humming, whistling).
2. Non-human sounds (footsteps, knocking on doors, percussion, prepared piano, orchestral instruments).
Symphonie was divided into eleven movements. Repeated patterns of spoken words were used as rhythmic patterns mixed with other sounds such as prepared piano, etc.
The first public performance of musique concrete took place in 1950 in Paris. Schaeffer used a PA system, several turntables, and mixers. The performance did not go well as creating live montages with turntables had never been done before.
After a break, Schaeffer decided to arrange sounds (objets snores) into categories (solfege), much as Russolo had done.
1. living elements such as voices
3. prepared instruments
4. conventional instruments.
With this categorization he began to try and devise a system of notation that could be used.
In 1951, RTF provided Schaeffer with a new studio. It included a tape recorder. This was an important event as the phonograph had been his tool for composition up to that point. One of the recorders had 5 track capability. One , known as the Morphophone, had 12 playback heads, which allowed for tape echo and a pseudo reverb effect. Two other decks known as Phonogenes were designed to play prerecorded loops at different speeds (one came with a 12 note keyboard!). At this time, while stereo was still in developement, Schaeffer had the means of playing up to 5 separate tracks with 5 separate speakers. (MPEG-2 technology allows for 5 distinct outputs as used in DVD production, here we see the idea in affect almost 50 years ago). This allowed for spatial experimentation of sounds. Four speakers were used for playback. Two speakers were located in front of the stage on the left and right, one was placed directly in the back in the middle, and one was suspended from the ceiling. The ceiling speaker allowed for experimenting with vertical sound placement as well as the usual horizontal placement. The fifth track contained an additional channel spread between the four speakers that represented a performer using a handheld coil which could be positioned near one of four wire receiving loops that sent the info to each speaker.
During this time, Schaeffer and Henry began work on the first opera concrete, Orphee . A premiere in Paris did not fare well. It received such ferocious criticism in the press that the world actually began to take notice.
Schaeffer felt that his music was the link between the polytonal – polyrhythmic works of Stravinsky, and that the objet sonore was similar to Shoenberg’s pieces.
He felt for the new music to flourish, that a new syntax had to be created, so he further broke sounds into two more detailed classifications:
A sound event (objets sonore) was to be classified in one of two ways. The first was a set of 25 definitions for the use in the description of objets sonores and the processes which might be applied (length, complexity, extracts, etc.). The second was concerned with the application of these definitions to create a language for the synthesis of musique concrete (manipulation, transmission, modulation, etc.).
These characteristics were published in his book, A la recherche d’une musique concrete (The Search for a Concrete Music), which went into detail defining sound to the most exact descriptions possible. He also described the composer of musique concrete as one who“ …Takes his point of departure the objets sonore, the sound objects, which are the equivalent of visual images, and which therefore alter the procedures of musical composition completely …The Concrete experiment in music consists of building sonorous objects, not with the play of numbers and seconds of the metronome, but with pieces of time torn from the cosmos.” (3) Many composers of the day such as Milhaud, Boulez, Messian and even Stockhausen were enticed with the views Schaeffer put forth about sound. Many of them visited the studio and composed using the tools made available to them.
Schaeffer and the studio went on to create many patents.
Schaeffer died in 1995 from Alzheimer disease. He was remembered as the ‘Musician of Sounds.’
“ …Unfortunately it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside DoReMi …I think of myself as an explorer struggling to find a way through in the far north, but I wasn’t finding a way through …There is no way through. The way through is behind us.” (2)
Russcol, Herbert, The Liberation of Sound : An Introduction to Electronic Music, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1972.
1) p.32 3) p.85
Manning, Peter, Electronic and Computer Music, NY, Oxford Press, 1985.
Hodgkinson, Tim, Re-records Quarterly Magazine, Vol. 2 No 1., (March 1987)
2) pp. 5-9
Appleton, Jon H. and Ronald C. Perera, The development and Practice of Electronic Music, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1975.
Simms, Bryan R., Music of the Twentieth Century-Style and Sructure, NY, Schirmer Books, 1996.
More Schaeffer pictures