Musique Concrète – Pioneering Electronic Music – Part1

Marc HenshallCulture & Industry8 Comments

Introduction to Musique Concrète

During World War Two the first tape recorder was used by the Nazi propaganda machine to broadcast material edited using a dextrous razor blade. The arrival of these machines into the rest of Europe after the war came as quite a shock and persuaded Britain to develop their own machines based on the German design.  Although initially developed for the BBC, it was the enthusiastic amateur and experimenter who often saw the real potential for tape recorders as a tool to creatively change the nature of recorded sound.

One source of this creativity came from French composer Pierre Schaeffer, with the help of RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française), who gave Schaeffer and his colleagues an opportunity to experiment with recording technology and later on, tape manipulation. His new techniques soon became known as Musique Concrète among artistic circles.

The idea behind Musique Concrète is that the composer begins with a set of “concrete” sounds and arranges them into a piece of music. This concept means that the composer is not limited by traditional musical instrumentation and theory. They can, in fact, collect any sound that appeals to them and use it in the realisation of a final piece of music.

Étude aux chemins de fer, by Pierre Schaeffer, is widely recognised as the first piece of Musique Concrète, and it was Schaeffer’s work, in particular, which pioneered in defining the style.

Musique Concrète can often be misunderstood as simply referring to music made entirely of naturally occurring sounds, and not containing instrumental and human input. While this plays a major factor in Schaefer’s early development of the style, it should generally be viewed in a slightly broader sense than this. In reality, and more accurately, the style embraces new sensibilities of musical expression and restructures the framework of everyday sounds in a way that does not rely on the traditional use of musical characteristics.

Before the age of recorded sound, composition meant the reproduction of written musical notation. In particular, a specific array of timbres such as instruments, for example, were assumed, as well as a particular tonal system. On the other hand, Musique Concrète breaks down the structured production of traditional instruments at their roots in an attempt to compose and structure music from the bottom up.

Technology and Development of Musique Concrète

In 1948, the typical radio studio consisted of a series of shellac record players, a shellac record recorder, a mixing desk with rotating potentiometers, a mechanical reverberation, filters, and microphones for recording. These machines offered Schaeffer and his colleagues a limited amount of creative options in which to define the characteristics of early Musique Concrète. Schaeffer began by using these early technologies to compose music consisting of a series of successive sound extracts. Schaeffer found that the issue with this method was that the composition drew particular attention to repetitive and overly familiar characteristics of the sounds. Schaeffer later concluded that using sounds that retained a significant proportion of their tonal characteristics had created the problems of association. He attempted to overcome this by experimenting with the effect of playing recordings at different speeds.

After his first piece of music (Étude aux chemins de fer) Schaeffer composed a series of short Etudes, which would see him re-assess the role of natural instruments, study their characteristics, and apply appropriate electronic procedures such as reversing or playing sounds at different speeds to create new music. This time, Schaeffer found that his early transformation techniques still failed to alter the complex characteristics of sound sources, and concluded that they failed to produce anything new. Therefore, he began to examine sounds on a more micro level in an attempt to expand the range of transformation techniques. He examined the details of their characteristics such as attack, timbre, and the body of a note, for example.  He found it was possible to remove the familiarity of musical instruments by techniques such as removing the attack of the recorded sound. For example, Schaeffer discovered that if a record malfunctions and causes a loop within the sustained resonance of a sound and not during the attack, it could change the musical characteristics of the sound entirely. Schaeffer would then go on to develop and experiment with these principles in his piece, Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul, which made heavy use of record loop manipulation.

In 1951, the RTF provided Schaeffer with a new purpose-built studio, which saw the introduction of the tape recorder and opened up a wide range of possibilities. The tape machine made the manipulation of media, and procedures such as speed variation and looping much easier than previously possible. A completely new compositional procedure was born. Small bits of tape could be edited together, creating whole new sounds and structures.  From here on technological advancements in tape machines and synthesis continued to extend the sound manipulation techniques available.

Legacy and Influence

Pierre SchaefferMany people would argue that Musique Concrète is simply a collection of meaningless processed noises with no real musical substance. But it could also be argued that Schaeffer was simply using the best tools available to him at the time in an attempt to create something genuinely new and exciting. It could be easy to pass his compositions off as meaningless, but it should be noted that early Musique Concrète was fundamental in the development and influence of future musical genres. The following are some case examples of genres and tracks with clear Musique Concrète influences:

Psychedelic & Progressive Rock

Although predominately guitar based, these genres often took influence from the tape manipulation effects of high art genres like Musique Concrète. Some examples include:

The Beatles – Tomorrow Never Knows – Perhaps one of the most important tracks, in terms of introducing Musique Concrète techniques into popular music. Experimental tape loops and studio effects would become ever more popular and eventually become common in the 1970’s with progressive rock artists.

The Beatles – Revolution 9 – A track that was intentionally influenced by concrète techniques such as tape looping and manipulated sounds. In fact, John Lennon is said to have had regular contact with Karlheinz Stockhausen – an early electronic composer – who has worked with Musique Concrète including some work within Pierre Schaeffer’s 1950’s studio.

Pink Floyd – Money: It’s hard to Imagine Pink Floyd creating the tape loops heard at the being of this track, without the pioneering efforts of Pierre Schaeffer and of course the introduction of such techniques into popular music by the Beatles before them.

Industrial

Industrial music was a style that aimed to create music in the context of late industrial society and increasing alienation from nature. Artists would utilise industrial noises as a rhythmic backbone made from tape loops and later on, samplers. Some examples include:

Throbbing Gristle – Discipline

Laibach – Vier Personen

Collage/Plunderphonics

Born directly out of Musique Concrète, collage music is a highly controversial genre of electronic music that involves unashamedly sampling other people’s music or media to create new tracks. Some examples include:

The Evolution of Control Committee – Rocked By Rape

The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu – Whitney Joins the Jams

John Oswald – Dab

Changing The Musical Landscape

So far, we have established that many people would view Musique Concrète as artistic fluff with no content. But we have also established that many essential 20th-century artists have been directly influenced as a result of the pioneering efforts before them. So arguably, Musique Concrète should be credited as essential groundwork for much of the music we listen to today. It was because of pioneers like Schaeffer and Pierre Henry that people began to question traditional musical sensibilities and explore a broader range of techniques in search of something original. They were daring to use sources that had until that point, not been viewed as musical at all, and in the words of Schaeffer himself:

“Noises have generally been thought of as indistinct, but this is not true.”

Had the people involved in musique concrete not dared to be different, the musical landscape of the 20th century might have been quite different indeed. The Beatles may never have moved beyond 60’s 3-minute pop songs, progressive rock might not have happened. And, in a more modern context, the sampling and scratching techniques of rap and hip-hop might never have taken off. Throughout the 20th century and beyond, our perception of what music is has changed dramatically. The beginnings of this change – and indeed electronic music as a genre – can arguably be traced back to Musique Concrète. Therefore, in the eyes of many, Musique Concrète pioneered a sonic revolution that changed our perception of musicality & production forever.

Conclusion

We have managed to establish some of Musique Concrète’s influence on popular music, but there remains a distinct barrier and contrast between the two, which leaves one to ask: what is the difference between high art genres and popular music. But more importantly, where and how have the two managed to meet in genres such as Progressive Rock and Industrial?

Chiefly, the difference can often be put down to the context in which the musical content is presented to the listener. For example: take the noisy samples of industrial music, which on their own just sound like the early stages of a Musique Concrète piece. However, load these sounds into a sampler, give them rhythm, and you have something of superior commercial merit.

Consequently, we have a musical style that is viewed in very close relation to Musique Concrète but is perceived by listeners to be of greater commercial value. Thus, we can see that by simply giving noises structure and rhythm, we can transform high art foundations into something more digestible. In essence, this is exactly what groups like Pink Floyd and The Beatles were doing: Taking Concrète techniques and applying them to a commercial formula.

pierre-schaeffers-bookSo on one hand we can see how Musique Concrète was – in the scheme of things – simply experimentation. But on the other hand you don’t have to go much further before you end up with something of real musical and social importance. Making Musique Concrète, very historically important indeed.

Look out for part 2 of this article, which looks at re-creating a Musique Concrète piece using 21st century production techniques – in this case we will be using Logic.

Alternatively, to read more about Musique Concrète from the pioneering man himself, pick up a copy of Pierre Schaeffer’s In Search of a Concrete Music (À la recherche d’une musique concrète), which has recently been transcribed into English.

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