The Birth of Musique Concrète, part one

I guess I first heard the term “Musique Concrète” when reading and watching videos about The BBC Radiophonic Workshop in my quest to learn about the origins of experimental electronic music. I thought I had a pretty good handle on what that meant – using tape to turn sound into a physical (concrete) form, and then manipulating, duplicating, and arranging the pieces of tape into a composition by cutting, splicing, and layering. Of course I wondered why it was that a french term was applied to such endeavors, but I didn’t think too much about it at the time because I was just enamoured with the work of Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram.

As I got further into learning about that legacy, and also about how the advent of recorded media shaped the Avant Garde and Experimental movements, the phrase “Musique Concrète” kept appearing and was finally attached to two names I had heard before, but didn’t yet grasp the significance of: Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Now I was sufficiently intrigued to dig into the origin of the phrase.

While engaged in the subsequent web searches (rabbit hole), I discovered that Pierre Schaeffer had written a book in 1952 wherein he had coined the phrase “Musique Concrète” and documented his journey into the development of such, and that there was an english translation available. I will be quoting a bit from this book, In Search of a Concrete Music (A la recherche d’une musique concrète).

Studio d’Essai was established at Radiodiffusion Nationale in 1943 by Pierre Schaeffer in conjunction with the University of Paris. The studio became the French center of resistance radio during WWII. By the liberation of Paris in 1944, Pierre Schaeffer had produced 100 hours of programming to celebrate the event.

By 1948 Schaeffer was using the studio for composition rather than radiophonics. He was trying to find a way to break free of traditional instrumentation and 12 tone notation altogether. He began gathering whatever he could find to make sounds. The first two parts of the aforementioned book are in journal form. Schaeffer writes:

“I go to the sound effects department of the French radio service. I find clappers, coconut shells, klaxons, bicycle horns. I imagine a scale of bicycle horns. There are gongs and birdcalls…I take away doorbells, a set of bells, an alarm clock, two rattles, two childishly painted whirligigs. The clerk causes some difficulties. Usually, he is asked for a particular item. There are no sound effects without a text in parallel, are there? But what about the person who wants noise without text or context.

To tell the truth, I suspect that none of these objects will be of any use to me. They are too explicit.”(p.4)

During this time, Schaeffer had gathered some musicians and a composer to employ some instruments and children’s toys in the creation of “Etude aux tourniquets” He was disappointed at first with this venture, as the notation didn’t yeild an interesting sounding composition. He admits “I had a great difficulty in obtaining a short score from Gaston Litaize, out of friendship rather than real enthusiasm.” He had suggested that the tourniquets (french noisemakers with cranks on top) and the kalimbas be played in such a manner as to bring out their stranger qualities rather than trying to make them more musical. He said “Gaston Litaize wanted to impose order on everything, and the objects had resisted. The performance itself smacked of the baton, the ruler of strictly measured playing. Gazelles die like this, behind bars.” (p.17) Later he would re-work this recording using new techniques and produce the version available to this day.

By April, 1948, Schaeffer had moved his experiments from the workbench to the sound booth. Still feeling like the sounds from his collected objects would disappoint him, he began recording their sounds onto shellac discs. Magnetic tape recorders were not yet available to him. His second day in the booth he was recording bells. One of the recordings started to late to catch the attack of the initial strike. He wrote “Whithout it’s percussion the bell becomes an oboe sound. I prick up my ears. Has a breach appeared in the enemy ranks? Has advantage changed sides?” Two days later he was recording more bells sans attack and he realized he could change the sound further. He wrote: “if I compensate for the drop in intensity with the potentiometer, I get a drawn-out sound and can move the continuation at will. So I record a series notes made this way, each one on a disc.” (p.7)

In May of 1948 Schaeffer takes a “mobile sound unit” (still using shellac discs) to Batingnolles Station to begin recording locomotives, collecting source material for “Étude aux chemins de fer”. It is during this period that he writes “I have coined the term Musique Concrète for this commitment to compose with materials taken from ‘given’ experimental sound in order to emphasize our dependence, no longer on preconcieved sound extractions, but on sound fragments that exist in reality and that are considered as discrete and complete sound objects, even if and above all when they do not fit in with the elementary definitions of music theory” (p.14)

And there it was I realized that my previous idea of what Concrete Music was was overly simplistic. Isolating the bits of sound to be used as “sound objects” turns a sound into a thing—a thing to be used with other such things or otherwise instrumentation to make a musical composition. So my reference to the physical substrate—disc or tape—had not included the conceptual concreteness of the piece of sound itself, removed from all reference to its origination or previous intent.

“Étude aux chemins de fer” became the first piece in a collection entitled Cinq études de bruits (Five Noise Studies). On October 5th, 1948 all 5 pieces were Broadcast as Concert de bruits on RTF (French national radio and television broadcasting organization): “Étude aux chemins de fer”, “Étude aux tourniquets”, “Étude violette”, “Étude noire”, “Étude pathétique” Schaeffer was surprised by the apount of letters he recieved giving positive feedback.

It is important to note that at some point in all this experimentation, Jaques Poullin, sound engineer,and later, inventor becomes an essential participant in the development of Musique Concrète, although it is not revealed to me in my research thus far exactly when.

In 1949 Schaeffer and Poullin began working on Symphonie pour un homme seul, something that Schaeffer had been concieving for a while. The uncertainty of the project, due to the fact that its fruition would rely on techniques not yet developed for equipment not yet invented, made it very hard to keep the interest of fellow musicians who would be needed for practice and eventually performance. Until Pierre Henry showed up, that is. Henry, composer, pianist, orchestral percussionist of note, took to Concrete Music directly and became co-composer of Schaeffer’s symphonie as well as co-founder of Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GMRC) along with Schaeffer and Poullin. They were invited to perform the first live concert of Musique Concrète at the École Normale de Musique de Paris and that is where Symphonie pour un homme seul, as Shaeffer said “in a—too—long version with twenty-two sequences lasting lasting fourty-five minutes” (p.60) was debuted. That was March 18th, 1950.

Shortly after, while Schaeffer attended a lengthy conference in Italy, Henry who, Schaeffer said, “had discovered in himself a sort of turntable genius” (p.69) completed two more important works: Concerto Des Ambiguïtés, Musique sans titre. 1951 would see the two Pierres collaborating on Orphée and the establishment of Musique Concrète as a genre was by this time clear and lasting.

Part Two will include some addendums to this article, some otherwise interesting trivia and an exploration into the technologies and inventions employed to bring Musique Concrète to fruition.

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