Pierre Schaeffer: an interview with the pioneer of musique concrete. Second Part
by Tim Hodgkinson, 2 apr 1986
TH: So new music is impossible?
PS: Yes, a music which is new because it comes from new instruments, new theories, new languages. So what's left? Baroque music. Has it struck you that the music which is regarded as the most sublime in western civilization, which is the music of Bach, is called baroque? (Note: In the French language, the term 'baroque' has the meaning 'roughly put together' -- as well as the meaning we have in English of that theatrical, excessive, late Renaissance style.) Bizarre. Even its contemporaries called it baroque. Bach lived in a moment of synthesis, in terms of the instruments, the theory -- tempered scale, etc. -- and was putting everything together. He was taking from the middle ages, from the new developments in the instruments of his time, from the Italians, and he made a music which was so clearly made up of bits and pieces that it called itself baroque. Simultaneously traditional and new. And this applies today; it will be when our contemporary researchers abandon their ludicrous technologies and systems and 'new' musical languages and realize that there's no way out of traditional music, that we can get down to a baroque music for the 21st century.
Electronic music studio, PierrevSchaeffer - Jacques Poullin, 1951
Such a music has been prefigured in popular music - not that I rate it very highly. Jazz, rock, etc, the music of 'mass' culture, and I'm not talking about good jazz, the marvelous negro spirituals which are completely traditional, but the kind of utility-music which is widely used for dancing, making love, etc; this is a baroque music, a mixture of electricity and DoReMi...
TH: So there is nothing essentially relevant in the fact that the world we live in is changing and that we might need to express new or different things about it?
PS: The answer is that the world doesn't change.
TH: There is no progress?
PS: There is no progress. The world changes materially. Science makes advances in technology and understanding. But the world of humanity doesn't change. Morally, the world is both better and worse than it was. We are worse off than in the middle ages, or the 17th and 18th centuries, in that we have the atomic menace. It's ridiculous that time and time again we need a radioactive cloud coming out of a nuclear power-station to remind us that atomic energy is extraordinarily dangerous. So this shows the imbecility, the stupidity of mankind. Why should a civilization which so misuses its power have, or deserve, a normal music?
TH: Well, if you are committed to music, you try to reach, to encourage, the good in people, whatever that is...
PS: That could be wishful thinking. I'll bring in Levi-Strauss, who has said again and again that it's only things that change; the structures, the structures of humanity, stay the same - and the uses we make of these things. On this level we are just like the caveman who makes a tool out of a flint, a tool for survival, but also a deadly weapon: we haven't changed at all. The world has just got more dangerous because the things we use have got more dangerous. In music there are new things, synthesisers, taperecorders, etc., but we still have our sensibilities, our ears, the old harmonic structures in our heads we're still born in DoReMi - it's not up to us to decide. Probably the only variations are ethnological. There are the different musical cultures, the music of ancient Greece, for example, in so far as we can know it, the music coming from the Hebrews into the Gregorian chant, the music of India, China, Africa, these are the variations, and it's all DoReMi...
TH: Are you pessimistic about the future of this variation - in the sense that there is a cultural imperialism which is destroying the local musics of the world and replacing them by a kind of central music which is driven forward by industrial and political power?
PS: I'm very aware of what you're talking about as I was involved with the radio in Africa in the same period as I was doing Concrete - I was doing both at the same time. I was deeply afraid that these vulnerable musical cultures, - lacking notation, recording, cataloging, and with the approximative nature of their instruments - would be lost. I and my colleagues were beginning to collect African music. At the radio there is a small department run by Mr Toureille, who has very courageously for 17 years systematically sent out expeditions to gather authentic African musics and released them on record.
TH: The problem is that the records are bought in Europe and not in Africa. It's hard to see how you can regenerate the music in its own context. In fact, we can accuse ourselves of appropriating it. There is this ambiguity in that we are in a meta-cultural position with the entire cultural geography and history of the world laid out for our pleasure. Do you think this situation brings about a lack of a sense of the real value of culture and cultural artifacts? Many people listen to ethnic musics from all over the place. Does this leaping about in space and time affect the quality of the listening?
PS: Well I don't think we can answer this question of value ultimately, but we can recognize the fact that civilizations are mortal. In music there are, unfortunately, two principles at work. There's the principle of barbarity. The fact that western civilization invaded these autochthonous people entwined with their ancient local cultures - this was certainly barbarous, if not entirely heedless. Barbarians always think of themselves as the bringers of civilization. The western barbarity was turntables, the radio, etc.
Then there's the principle of economics which is that bad money gets thrown after good. So if barbarity is the triumph of force, bad money is the triumph of economy - in a metaphoric sense...
TH: I'd like to turn now to the idea that, scattered all over the world, probably in tiny garrets rather than in expensive state-of-the-art studios, there are people busily cutting up bits of tape, making loops, experimenting with tape-recorders, and I would like to ask you if you have anything you would specially want to say to these people.
PS: Well, first I can't pass the buck to them. I started all that. I think they have the great satisfaction of discovering the world of sound. The world of music is probably contained within DoReMi, yes; but I'm saying that the world of sound is much larger than that. Let's take a spatial analogy. Painters and sculptors are concerned with spaces, volumes, colours, etc, but not with language. That's the writer's concern. The same thing is true with sound. Musique Concrete in its work of assembling sound, produces sound-works, sound-structures, but not music. We have to not call music things which are simply sound-structures...
TH: Is it not enough for a sound-work to have system, for it to become
PS: The whole problem of the sound-work is distancing oneself from the dramatic. I hear a bird sing, I hear a door creak, I hear the sounds of battle; you start to get away from that. You find a neutral zone. Just as a painter or sculptor moves away from a model, stops representing a horse, or a wounded warrior, and arrives at the abstract. A beautiful sculptural form, as beautiful as an egg, a greenhouse, a star. And if you continue this abstracting movement, you get to the graphics of the forms of letters in written language. And-in music you get to music. There's thus a gradation between the domain of raw sound, which starts by being imitative, like the representational plastic arts, and the domain of language. Between, there's a zone of gradation which is the area of 'abstract' in the plastic arts, and which is neither language nor model, but a play of forms and materials.
There are many people working with sound. It's often boring, but not necessarily ugly. It contains dynamic and kinaesthetic impressions. But it's not music.
TH: But what is the exact moment at which something becomes music?
PS: This is a difficult question. If you had the complete answer you'd be a prophet. The traditional testimony is that a musical schema lent itself to being expressed in sound in more than one way. An example is that Bach sometimes composed without specifying the instruments: he wasn't interested in the sound of his music. That's music, a schema capable of several realisations in sound. The moment at which music reveals its true nature is contained in the ancient exercise of the theme with variations. The complete mystery of music is explained right there. Thus a second. a third a fourth variation were possible, which all kept the single idea of the theme. This is the evidence that with one musical idea you can have different realisations.
TH: Do you listen to rock music?
PS: My 18-year-old daughter listens a lot downstairs, so I hear what comes under her door. It's enough.
TH: I was thinking that rock music is also a music that's essentially engaged with technologies, in the sense that it grew up with the recording technology and the means of mass-producing discs.
PS: What strikes me is the violence of the sound, a violence which seems to be designed to reach not only the ear but also the gut. In a certain way this seems to function as a drug. Real music is a sublime drug, but you can't really call it a drug because it doesn't brutalise, it elevates. These two characteristics of rock, the violence of the sound and the drug-function, revolve on the basis of a musical formula which is impoverished. This doesn't interest me. I feel rather that it indicates a nostalgia amongst today's young people, a desire to revert to savagery, to recover the primitive. At this time, who can blame them? The primitive is also a source of life. But the musical means seem sad and rather morbid. It's a dishonest primitive because it's reached through technological sophistication. It's a cheat.
TH: But do you recognize in it the techniques of Concrete, for example in the idea of production, as the term is used in the recording industry, this conceptualization of the difference between sound source and process, between source and manipulation - where the producer can regard the recorded sound as simply raw material for a process of radical transformation, but of course, more often than not, with the aim of making a successful commodity? Would you allow any kind of humanist potential where the empiricism, the bricolage of rock, is not totally subordinated to commerce?
PS: Well we've already mentioned pessimism, and I must say that I do judge these times to be bad times. We seem to be afflicted by ideologies - often, entirely incompatible ones. Thus, the ideology of scientific rigour and at the same time the ideology of chance; ideologies of power, technology, improvisation, facility -technology with which to replace inspiration. If I compare that to jazz for example in its historically fecund period, the extraordinary fruition of American music at the point where the European DoReMi was suddenly seized upon by the blacks for the production of expressive forms... this was sublime. Now if you think that, decades later, this bloated, avaricious and barbarous culture, brutalised by money and machines and advertising, is still living off this precious vein... well, you have to admit that some periods are simply vile, disgusting, and that this is one of them. The only hope is that our civilization will collapse at a certain point, as always happens in history. Then, out of barbarity, a renaissance.
TH: Some of what you were saying about rock music reminded me of Adorno's essay on jazz, the regressive, nostalgic function, and so forth. Yet you find jazz, in its great period, sublime.
PS: But primitive American jazz was very rich, it wasn't very learned, but it was richly inventive, in ways of expressing into sound, in its
voicings; what I really admired, when I was there the first time, after the liberation, in the '50s, were the operettas - Carmen Jones,
excellent music, I can't remember the titles, but great music - Gershwin of course...
TH: I have the impression that in the '40s and '50s you were optimistic about the outcomes of your musical project. Was there a
particular moment when you underwent a general change in your relationship to this project?
PS: I must say honestly that this is the most important question you have asked me. I fought like a demon throughout all the years of discovery and exploration in Musique Concrete; I fought against electronic music, which was another approach, a systemic approach, when I preferred an experimental approach actually working directly, empirically with sound. But at the same time, as I defended the music I was working on, I was personally horrified at what I was doing. I felt extremely guilty. As my father, the violinist, used to say, indulgently, What are you up to, my little chap? When are you going to make music? And I used to say - I'm doing what I can, but I can't do that. I was always deeply unhappy at what I was doing. I was happy at overcoming great difficulties - my first difficulties with the turntables when I was working on 'Symphonie pour un homme seul':: - my first difficulties with the tape-recorders when I was doing 'Etude aux objets' - that was good work, I did what I set out to do - my work on the 'Solfege' - it's not that I disown everything I did - it was a lot of hard work. But each time I was to experience the disappointment of not arriving at music. I couldn't get to music - what I call music. 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.
TH: So you did discover that there was no way through.
PS: There is no way through. The way through is behind us.
TH: So it's in that context that we should understand your relatively small output as a composer after those early years?
PS: I was very well received. I had no social problems. These successes added to my burden of doubt. I'm the opposite of the
persecuted musician. In fact I don't consider myself a real musician. I'm in the dictionary as a musician. It makes me laugh. A
good researcher is what I am.
TH: Did your time in Africa have any particular relevance to changes
in your attitudes to music?
PS: No. I had always been very interested in music from Asia, Africa,
America. I considered that music should be tracked down over the whole
surface of the planet.
TH: I think we've said enough.
PS: Yes, I think we've said a lot.
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