Pierre Schaeffer’s In Search of a Concrete Music (À la recherche d’une musique concrète) has long been considered a classic text in electroacoustic music and sound recording. Now Schaeffer’s pioneering work—at once a journal of his experiments in sound composition and a treatise on the raison d’être of “concrete music”—is available for the first time in English translation. Schaeffer’s theories have had a profound influence on composers working with technology. However, they extend beyond the confines of the studio and are applicable to many areas of contemporary musical thought, such as defining an ‘instrument’ and classifying sounds. Schaeffer has also become increasingly relevant to DJs and hip-hop producers as well as sound-based media artists. This unique book is essential for anyone interested in contemporary musicology or media history.
In Search of a Concrete Music
Need for the implicit. From the ski tow to the noise piano. Wherein the autodidact feels guilty. Wherein chance nevertheless comes to his aid. On the merit of accepting evidence, after denying it. That it is no longer the same. That the most general musical instrument possible is not inconceivable.
1948. January. Sometimes when I write I am envious of more intense modes of expression. Writing is always making explicit at the expense of other things. Mystery is sacrificed, and consequently truth and so everything. At these moments I am overwhelmed by a longing for music that, as Roger Ducasse says, "he likes because it does not mean anything."
February. The change of scenery makes me forget the weight on my mind. Without memories, without worries, I can feel stirrings deep within me. Ideas are seeking outlets other than words: Ta ra ra ra boom-whistlings-the snow-gusts of perfect fullness of sound-no will to conclude. On the windswept plateau, right at the top of the ski tow, iron hooks turn around the wheel, having scraped the frozen snow away. The whirligig of this mechanism injures the frost-crystal. Yet these things must, of necessity, be in harmony. A heterogeneous universe torments us. People today return to nature in bouts of ski tows, half-tracks, Kandahar ropes, superlight alloys. Thus, perfectly equipped, chrome-shod, asbestos-gloved, nylon-clad, they sample the immaculate mountain air. They are caught between two fires that burn and freeze them simultaneously. I must find a way to express this.
March. Back in Paris I have started to collect objects. I have a "Symphony of noises" in mind; after all, there has been a symphony of psalms. 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. It is charming that an administrative system should be concerned with birdcalls and should regularize their acquisition on an official form, duly recorded.
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. Some wrangles with the Administration and, not without signing several authorizations, I take them away.
I take them with the joy of a child coming out of the loft with his arms full of embarrassing, albeit useless, things and not without a powerful sense of my ridiculousness, guilt even.
April 1. We shall better understand the unease of the concrete musician if we compare his intentions and his means. This, for example, is what we find in his notes:
On a rhythmic ostinato, occasionally interrupted by a logarithmic rallentando, superimposition of circular noises; cadence of pure noises (?). Then fugue of differential noises. Conclude with a series of beatings with alternating slack and tight sounds. The whole thing to be treated as an andante. Don't be afraid of length, or slowness.
April 3. The objects are now put away in a cupboard in the Studio d'Essai (Experimental Studio). I need a metronome. The one that was sent to me does not beat in time, nor do the ones that followed. It is incredible how much a metronome can lack a sense of rhythm!
April 4. Sudden illumination. Add a component of sound to noise, that is, combine a melodic element with the percussive element. From this, the notion of wood cut into different lengths, of approximately tuned tubes. First attempts.
April 5. My bits of wood are pathetic. I need a workshop. It's already bad enough trying to cut them to different lengths and from various materials. Afterward, they have to be arranged so that they can be played easily. I'm up against the problem of the piano again. By "noise piano" I mean the pile of materials that are crammed into the studio. Regular visitors to the Studio d'Essai, who are no longer surprised by my eccentricities, now think I am a nuisance. I have been coveting the workbench in the workshop for a week. I'm asking for it to be moved out. It's sturdy and doesn't vibrate. I can nail all sorts of supports to it. I arrange my little bells and a row of bicycle horns on it.
I'm still not sure about these preparations.
April 7. Second illumination. All these clumsy bits of wood constitute a lesson in things; they are nothing other than resonators tuned to half wavelengths: they are fixed at a "node," and an "antinode" vibrates at their free end. My truancy comes to a sudden end; I am led back into the classroom: first lesson in acoustics and music theory. The Conservatory and the Faculty give me a poor mark.
Let us take the experiment as far as it will go. I need organ parts, not "a noise-piano." I go to Cavaillé-Coll and Pleyel. There I find parts of an organ destroyed in the bombing. I return with a truckload of "thirty-two footers" and tongued reeds. My originality will be not to play them like an organist but to hit them with a mallet, detune them perhaps. The war had already taken this on.
April 12. I need some helpers for my increasingly laborious trials. One of them blows into the two largest pipes, which are pleasantly only a "small tone" apart. (We laugh a lot at this expression, small tone or large semitone-as you please.) The second helper, armed with two mallets, covers with great difficulty an octave of xylophonic recumbent effigies. A third is in charge of the little bells. I compose a score of several bars. We rehearse, make mistakes, begin again, record. The result is woeful.
While the sound produced by the large square wooden pipe is curious, varying (according to whether it is struck at different places, on different supports), the score is pathetically inadequate. I now feel as if I'm going backward. I can hardly tolerate the deference that surrounds me. What do they want from me and these trials when I am so deeply convinced that I'm going down a blind alley?
April 15. I retain only two or three curios from these trials: a vibrating metal strip that you can bring into contact with any object. It then produces a "knocking noise." Dampen the vibration of a crystal glass, a bell, with your fingernail, or cardboard, or a piece of metal, and you mingle noise, sound, a rhythm.
Conversely, I am trying to construct an automatically vibrating metal strip (like a doorbell) that I can bring into contact with various sound bodies. In this way I get a mode of attack from these bodies, which superimposes the noise and rhythm of the attack on the sound. The results are profoundly monotonous.
Furthermore, all these noises are identifiable. As soon as you hear them, they suggest glass, a bell, wood, a gong, iron ... I'm giving up on music.
April 18. You can't be in two places at once. I must choose between the Studio and the sound booth. This is where I finally took refuge. A window protects me from the Studio. I am among the turntables, the mixer, the potentiometers. I feel vaguely reassured. I operate through intermediaries. I no longer manipulate sound objects myself. I listen to their effect through the microphone. Which amounts to burying my head in the sand, since the microphone only gives the raw sound with some secondary effects and qualitatively adds nothing. However, the sense of security that I feel in the sound booth gives me strength to continue these experiments for some days more, even though I now expect nothing from them.
April 19. By having one of the bells hit I got the sound after the attack. Without its percussion the bell becomes an oboe sound. I prick up my ears. Has a breach appeared in the enemy ranks? Has the advantage changed sides?
April 21. If I cut off the sounds from their attacks, I get a different sound; on the other hand, 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 of notes made in this way, each one on a disc. By arranging the discs on record players, I can, using the controls, play these notes as I wish, one after the other or simultaneously. Of course, the manipulation is unwieldy, unsuited to any virtuosity; but I have a musical instrument. A new instrument? I am doubtful. I am wary of new instruments, ondes or ondiolines, what the Germans pompously call "elektronische Musik." When I encounter any electronic music I react like my violinist father, or my mother, a singer. We are craftsmen. In all this wooden and tin junk and in my bicycle horns I rediscover my violin, my voice. I am seeking direct contact with sound material, without any electrons getting in the way.
April 22. Once my initial joy is past, I ponder. I've already got quite a lot of problems with my turntables because there is only one note per turntable. With a cinematographic flash-forward, Hollywood style, I see myself surrounded by twelve dozen turntables, each with one note. Yet it would be, as mathematicians would say, the most general musical instrument possible.
Is it another blind alley, or am I in possession of a solution whose importance I can only guess at?
April 23. This time I am thinking in the abstract: science and hypothesis ... Say, an organ with each key linked to a turntable that would have appropriate discs put on it as required; let's suppose that the keyboard of this organ switches on the record players simultaneously or one after the other, at the moment and for the length of time desired, by means of a mixer switch with "n" commands; in theory we get a mother instrument, capable of replacing not only all existing instruments but every conceivable instrument, musical or not, whether or not their notes are at given pitches in the tessitura. For the moment, this instrument is entirely in my imagination, but, to a certain extent, it can be realized. In any case, as, for practical and economic reasons, it cannot be realized soon, it can act as a working hypothesis, the framework for a theory. What a blessing a scientific education is! Without means of experimentation you are allowed, for a time, to carry on with the experiment purely through the imagination. So for a time I am playing this most general piano possible in my mind-an instrument for encyclopedists. Isn't this the century for a new encyclopedia?
End of April. I spend these days in a state of half belief. If you invent, you must get a patent. A half smile: can you patent an idea? It seems you can.
I experiment tirelessly. It is surprising to note how the same process carried out endlessly and in different ways never entirely exhausts reality: there is always more to be learned, and always some unexpected outcome takes us by surprise. For the principle is everything.
I shall go over what has happened.
Where does the invention come from? When did it occur? I reply unhesitatingly: when I interfered with the sound of the bells. Separating the sound from the attack was the generative act. The whole of concrete music was contained in embryo in this inherently creative act with sound material. I have no particular memory of the moment when I made this recording. At first the discovery remained unnoticed. I give thanks for my stubbornness. When you persist against all logic, it's because you're expecting something from a chance event that logic couldn't have foreseen. My merit is that I noticed the one experiment among a hundred, apparently just as disappointing as the others, which provided a way out. I also needed the boldness to generalize.
Besides, very often we don't get anything from revelations that come from experimental accident. Here is an example: everyone has played sound backward. It's a strange phenomenon, and we sometimes get surprising effects from it. But, as far as I know, no one has ever drawn general conclusions. No one has ever considered sound played backward as musical material that can be constructed and structured. Yet sound played backward already doubles, at least a priori, the number of known instruments. The musical community doesn't care; however, for twenty years the experiment has been taking place every day.
Of course, the experiment only pays off if it gives rise immediately to experimentation: piano chords played backward are only interesting subject to certain conditions. Then you can get organ sounds, or peals of bells from the piano. The instrumentalist is then no longer the winner of the Prix du Conservatoire but the sound engineer.