2015 brings with it the usual flurry of events to celebrate composers’ anniversaries. This year, the birthday celebrations are for Scriabin, with 2015 marking 100 years since his birth; Nielsen and Sibelius, who both turn 150; and Arvo Pärt, a comparatively youthful 80. However, there is another figure who is significant in his absence from the spotlight, despite having died just 20 years ago. For a figure who has left such a huge legacy, particularly for composers working in film, TV or electronic music, Pierre Schaeffer’s outsider status seems puzzling.
Schaeffer began his career working in French national radio, before circumstance allowed him to turn the equipment to different ends. With the airwaves jammed during World War II, Schaeffer embarked on his first radiophonic experiments. Although his oeuvre also encompassed sonic experiments and experimental music, it is for musique concrete that Schaeffer is remembered. For this reason, his studio attracted some of the leading lights in composition: Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and even Olivier Messiaen. (Legend has it that Messiaen’s only musique concrete creation, Timbres durées of 1952, utilised a flushing toilet as one of its sound sources. Listen here.)
But just what is musique concrète? Imagine a sonic collage comprised of recorded sounds, and you won’t be far off. Originally, the genre was restricted to recordings of instruments, voice and the natural environment, but it later began to incorporate synthesised sounds. Given the nature of the sonic material, the meanings of terms such as ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’ are either greatly stretched or become redundant. Not only was Schaeffer responsible for the initial experiments which formed the basis of the genre, but also for formalising musique concrete as a compositional practice.
Schaeffer’s contribution to the genre was two-pronged: not only did he create a number of classic works himself (alone or in collaboration; see below), but he also established a theoretical framework for those approaching the genre. As well as painstakingly documenting his work, he also wrote numerous treatises which make fascinating reading. Schaeffer’s work provides a fascinating way to trace the history of sound: early in the 1950s, the introduction of the magnetic tape opened up a whole new world of possibilities, while the spatialisation of sound proved no less revelatory.
Progressive as his sonic experiments were, many did not consider Schaeffer’s work to be music. While debates on Stravinsky, 12-tone composition and Messiaen continued to play out in post-war France, he occupied a strange position. However, his compositions operate under musical principles: in his diaries, Schaeffer talks of rhythm and texture. His works explored the possibilities of a whole new branch of music, one which has inspired generations of composers since.
The legacy left by Schaeffer is much broader than this brief resumé might suggest: outside of the studio, he played a major part in establishing radio networks across North African territories. He also founded the Ocora music label to preserve African soundscapes and train technicians from numerous national broadcasting services across the continent. As musician, technician and thinker, Schaeffer certainly deserves celebration in 2015.
Pierre Schaeffer, Cinq études de bruits (1948)
Pierre Schaeffer & Pierre Henry, Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950)
Pierre Schaeffer & Pierre Henry, Orphée 53 (1953)
Pierre Schaeffer, Étude aux sons animés (1958)