Pierre Schaeffer: an interview with the pioneer of musique concrete
by Tim Hodgkinson, 2 apr 1986
Introduction: What is Musique Concrete and why is it so important today?
Musique Concrete is music made of raw sounds: thunderstorms, steam-engines, waterfalls, steel foundries... The sounds are not produced by traditional acoustic musical instruments. They are captured on tape (originally, before tape, on disk) and manipulated to form sound-structures.
The work method is therefore empirical. It starts from the concrete sounds and moves towards a structure. In contrast, traditional classical music starts from an abstract musical schema. This is then notated and only expressed in concrete sound as a last stage, when it is performed.
Musique Concrete emerged in Paris in 1948 at the RTF (Radio Television Francais). Its originator, leading researcher and articulate spokesman was Pierre Schaeffer - at that time working as an electro-acoustic engineer with the RTF.
Almost immediately, Musique Concrete found itself locked in mortal combat not only with its opponents within traditionally notated music, but also with Electronic Music, which emerged in Cologne in 1950 at the NWDR (Nord West Deutscher Rundfunk). Electronic Music involved the use of precisely controllable electronic equipment to generate the sound material - for example, the oscillator, which can produce any desired wave-form, which can then be shaped, modulated, etc...
At the time, the antagonism between Musique Concrete and Electronic music seemed to revolve largely around the difference in sound material. Over the decades, this difference has become less important, so that what we now call 'Electroacoustic Music' is less concerned with the origin of the sound material than with what is done with it afterwards.
The real difference, the most lasting difference, between Musique Concrete and Electronic revolves around a basic disagreement as to the nature of the whole project. For Musique Concrete, the essential character of music as a human activity is such that the listening experience and the 'ear' are crucial things. For Electronic Music, the priority is the idea, the system, the perfection of control, of precise rationalization... to become scientific...
And what is the situation today?  We can say unequivocally that whole areas of music - indeed, of aesthetic, humanist activity in general - have been hived off to the scientific establishment with its vast industrial and political power. Look at France today, with its megabuck prestige science-music research centre IRCAM (Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique) situated underground next to the Beauborg. The concatenation of state power, the technocrat elite, the production and consumption of an irrational surplus technology, the corridors littered with last month's computers - all this clearly testifies that the French state takes its music seriously enough to embrace it in a kind of mutual death-pact of technicization...
And this, in a nut-shell, is why Musique Concrete is important today; because the opportunity is still there to use all the parameters of sound and still make music and not pseudo-science...
Pierre Schaeffer: born Nancy, France in 1910. Developed a wide range of interests in poetics, technics and philosophy. Became famous in the late '40s when, working as a broadcast engineer for the Radio-Television Francaise, he formulated the ideas and techniques of Musique Concrete and founded a studio for tape composition. Collaborated with Pierre Henry on several of the classic compositions in the genre, including Symphonie pour un homme seul and the first Concrete opera, Orphee, staged at Donaueschingen in 1953. In the last two decades he has concentrated on his work as a writer and commentator on the state of western culture.
Tim Hodgkinson: born 1949. Studied social anthropology. Engaged in a wide range of musical work - Henry Cow, 1968-78; The Work, 1980-82; and numerous other projects since. Currently composing for orchestra and working on a general theory of music.
The interview was conducted in French at the house of M. Schaeffer and translated by Tim.
TH: You are a writer, a thinker, and a radio sound-engineer. This makes you, from the point of view of 'Music' with a capital 'M' - something of an outsider. Do you think that, in moments of crisis, the non-specialist has a particular and important role to play? I don't know whether this is entirely correct, but I sense that, at the moment when you came into music, around 1948, you were a non-specialist of this kind...
PS: Yes. But chance alone doesn't explain why a non-specialist gets involved in an area he doesn't know about. In my case there were double circumstances. First of all, I'm not completely unknowledgeable about music, because I come from a family of musicians: my father was a violinist and my mother was a singer. I did study well - theory, piano, cello, etc, so I'm not completely untrained. Secondly, I was an electroacoustic engineer working for the French radio, so I was led to study sound and what's called 'high fidelity' in sound. Thirdly, after the war, in the '45 to '48 period, we had driven back the German invasion but we hadn't driven back the invasion of Austrian music, 12-tone music. We had liberated ourselves politically, but music was still under an occupying foreign power, the music of the Vienna school.
So these were the three circumstances that compelled me to experiment in music: I was involved in music; I was working with turntables (then with tape-recorders); I was horrified by modern 12-tone music. I said to myself, 'Maybe I can find something different... maybe salvation, liberation, is possible.' Seeing that no-one knew what to do anymore with DoReMi, maybe we had to look outside that... Unfortunately it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside DoReMi... In other words, I wasted my life.
The first piece of "musique concrete," composed by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948 out of sounds produced by trains.
TH: We'll certainly have to come back to that. Right now, I want to ask you if you think that there is an inherent connection between what seem to be simultaneous developments; that, on the one hand, there is the crisis of traditional music - 12-tone and so forth - and on the other, there are the new possibilities offered by technology, possibilities of opening up new continents of sound. Sometimes this seems to me to be merely a matter of luck. At other times it seems that there must be an inherent reason...
PS: I would answer that this luck is deceptive. First, it doesn't surprise me that traditional music has experienced a kind of exhaustion in the 20th century - not forgetting that many musicians started to look outside the traditional structures of tonality. Debussy was looking at 6 note scales, Bartok was exploring mode; tonality seemed to be exhausted.The impressionists, Debussy, Faure, in France, did take a few steps forward. Then, after the impressionists, we have a period of rigour, of barbarity, a period seeking to re-establish something more solid. This is epitomised in the Vienna school. At this point the Vienna school was also inspired by scientific ideas, by a rigour coming from a discipline which wasn't music but an algebraic equation.
François Bayle, Pierre Schaeffer, Bernard Parmegiani at GRM in Paris, 1972
So it seems that one of two things can happen in a period of high technology; either, technology itself seems to come to the rescue of art - which is in a state of collapse - (that was my starting point, Musique Concrete with the tape-recorder, now electronic music, etc), or it's the ideas of technology, ideas from mathematics, ideas with a scientific aura, or real scientific ideas given an unreal relevance to an art which is seeking its discipline - its ordering principles - outside itself instead of within the source of its own inspiration. This coincidence of a music which is debilitated and failing and a glorious, all-conquering science is what really characterizes the 20th century condition.
Marshall McLuhan et Pierre Schaeffer (INA, 1973)
What did I try to do, in this context, in 1948? As Boulez said, extremely snidely (he's a pretentious boy, a kind of musical Stalinist... I'm an anarchist myself), it was a case of 'bricolage'. (Note: This French noun has no direct equivalent in English, but is close to the adjective 'makeshift'; and the idea of improvising new uses for things originally meant for something else) I retain this term not as an insult but as something very interesting. After all, how did music originate? Through bricolage, with calabashes, with fibres, as in Africa. (I'm familiar with African instruments). Then people made violin strings out of the intestines of cats. And of course the tempered scale is a compromise and also a bricolage. And this bricolage, which is the development of music, is a process that is shaped by the human, the human ear, and not the machine, the mathematical system.
TH: It seems to me that there are several possible attitudes to the machine. There is something which we can trace to a kind of puritan tradition, where the machine represents a kind of purification, or perfection, which we in ourselves cannot achieve, and is therefore an escape from the human. Then there is another point of view which retains a humanist perspective and sometimes a kind of projection of human qualities onto the machine, and which is in any case a more complex and a more doubting relationship... I would place the Futurists, for example, in this second point of view. Looking at the history of Musique Concrete, there sometimes seems to be a symmetry, with sound on one side and system on the other, with Musique Concrete taking the side of sound. Within this duality, would you agree that Musique Concrete embodies a more humanist position?
PS: Yes, of course. You mention symmetry, and I would like to take this term as a very good way of looking at this. But what symmetry? I think we are speaking of a symmetry between the sound world and the music world. The sound world is natural -- in the sense where this includes sound made by sound-producing instruments -- the Rumori generators, Concrete, etc. -- the sound of the voice, the sounds of nature, of wind and thunder, and so forth. So there is, within the human ear, as it developed over millions of years, a great capacity for hearing all this sound. Sound is the vocabulary of nature. When we hear the wind, the wind says 'I'm blowing'. When we hear water, the water says 'I'm running'... and so forth. Noises have generally been thought of as indistinct, but this is not true. In the 17th century people thought of noises as unpleasant -- but noises are as well articulated as the words in a dictionary. Opposing this world of sound is the world of music, the world of musical entities, of what I have called 'musical objects'. These occur when sounds bear musical value. Take a sound from whatever source, a note on a violin, a scream, a moan, a creaking door, and there is always this symmetry between the sound basis, which is complex and has numerous characteristics which emerge through a process of comparison within our perception. If you hear a door creak and a cat mew, you can start to compare them -- perhaps by duration, or by pitch, or by timbre. Thus, whilst we are used to hearing sounds by reference to their instrumental causes, the sound-producing bodies, we are used to hearing musical sounds for their musical value. We give the same value to sounds emanating from quite different sources. So the process of compaaring a cat's mew to a door creak is different from the process of comparing a violin note to a trumpet note, where you might say they have the same pitch and duration but different timbre. This is the symmetry between the world of sound and the world of musical values.
TH: What is musical value for you exactly?
PS: The best analogy is with language -- since we talk of musical languages. People who share the same language, French or Chinese or whatever, have the same vocal cords and emit sounds which are basically the same, as they come from the same throats and lungs. So this is a sound world. But the same sounds have linguistic values and this makes them different. These linguistic values derive from their role within a system. In the same way, musical value is inseparable from the idea of system.
But how does this bear on the question of the machine in our contemporary world -- which is really a different question from the question of symmetry? We could say that the machine has had two quite different, even antagonistic, impacts on our modern world. There is the romantic, romanesque, illusionist tendency which proposes a biology of the machine, which is rather what the Italians (Futurists) were about; it goes back to the storms and the murmuring forests of romanticism, the pastoral symphony, the representation of nature in music.
But of course as machines now constitute nature, music now needs machines to represent this nature; our forests and countrysides _are_ machines... But there is another, quite opposite, tendency, which sees machines as the means not only of producing sound but also of musical values themselves. Many researchers, well understanding the pre-eminent importance of musical value, turned to the physicists. Their values were now frequencies, decibles, harmonic spectra. With electronics they could get direct access to all this and have really precise and objective musical values. But then -- another symmetry, this time a really disturbing one.
When you build a farcical machine for rumori with things rubbing against each other -- like the Italians -- lead shot in a d rum, etc, you don't hurt a fly, it lasts 10, 20 years -- it's circus, quite harmless little sound effects. But when you stick generations of young musicians, as is happening today, in front of synthesisers -- I don't mean the ones for commercial music, but the really precise ones, where you have one control for the frequency, another for the decibels, another for the harmonic spectrum -- then you're really in the shit... [Laughter]
TH: What then should one want to do with music? Accepting the need for musical values is one thing, but how do you choose?
PS: You have to remind musicians of what Dante wrote over the Gates of Hell: Abandon hope all ye who enter here...
TH: But if you stay outside?
PS: Well then you don't have any music. If you enter, if you want to make music, you must abandon hope. Of what? Of making a new music.
from recommended records quarterly magazine, volume 2, number 1, 1987
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