Sunday, November 11, 2007

case study: pierre schaeffer

One solution to the conceptual problem posed by musique concrète, namely, what methods or principles should be used for the organization of found sounds into music, was offered by Pierre Schaeffer in his Cinq études de bruits, 1948.

Schaeffer founded musique concrete with this effort and his study of the sounds of trains, Étude aux chemins de fer, is widely recognized as the first piece of musique concrète.

In the '40s, Schaeffer worked as a technician for Radiodiffusion Française, and developed there a lab for using the new technology to experiment with sounds. In many ways, Schaeffer was more an engineer than an artist, and his experimentation was driven more by the possibilities opened up by the new technology than an aesthetic vision. It is fitting that here, at its inception, the conceptual problem of musique concrète is already at the forefront of its practioners' thoughts. As Michel Chion wrote in 1982 (as reprinted in the liner notes to the definitive CD release of Pierre Schaeffer's works):

Even at that time, [Pierre Schaeffer] was occupied with finding a basis for understanding and defining what was both an empirical and rigorous method for proceeding, even when the incongruity of that approach to music fascinated and horrified him at the same time. His own deeply felt ambivalence for the music that he invented became one of the dominant characteristics of his creativity and thought.

Schaeffer's solution to the conceptual problem in the Étude aux chemins de fer was a combination of method and principle. The method was Schaeffer's construction of the first sampler. He recorded a number of various sounds produced by trains and pressed them onto records, some in "closed grooves" such that the sound would loop indefinitely. Record players were arranged such that they could be triggered by different switches or keys. The composer (or performer), then could "play" the various sounds by pressing keys in the desired pattern (+ holding for the desired length of time, adjusting speed, etc.). The principles were twofold: improvisation and theme and variations. The former was a necessity in this uncharted musical territory, while the latter was one of the old standbys of Western music, but one sufficiently abstract that it could be applied in the new domain.

Nevertheless, the question of how presents itself: if a variation on a theme within the traditional Western framework constitutes a modulation to a different key, an insertion of additional notes within the chord progression, or a varying of the rhythmic structure, how should one vary the parameters of sounds with no key, chord progression, or rhythmic structure in the traditional sense? Doubtless, it was this dilemma that underlay the frustration and ambivalence of Schaeffer himself. We investigate some subtle solutions to this problem in our next case study.

Pierre Schaeffer's Étude aux chemins de fer: