Historians of modern times may puzzle over an unlikely connection between railways and French cultural landmarks. Just as Arrival of a Train at La Ciotât brought the film experiments of the Lumière brothers to public notoriety in 1895, so trains started people talking about another breakthrough, in 1948. Railway Study by Pierre Schaeffer (1910-95) is, arguably, a piece of music, but unlike Benjamin Britten’s Night Mail 12 years earlier, it does not use conventional instruments to impersonate the rhythms and energy of the steam engine. Instead, for the first time, the locomotive sounds themselves are the raw material; recorded, juxtaposed, often transformed, but above all abstracted.
“I have coined the term musique concrète” - Schaeffer’s term stays in French in anglophone countries in homage to its originator - “for this commitment to compose with any noise or musical sound. I am seeking direct contact with sound material.” Thus began a series of innovative works using ambient sources as building blocks for what now, sidestepping the interminable arguments about what we dare call “music”, tends to be called sound art: the Spinning Tops Study, Suite for 14 Instruments, Variations on a Mexican Flute and Symphony for a Man Alone.
No sooner are there new frontiers than people seek to map them, and besides making musique concrète Schaeffer was one of the first to attempt to codify it. The result was the landmark work A la Recherche d’une Musique Concrète, first published in 1952 but not available in English until the publication of this translation by John Dack and Christine North. Along with Schaeffer’s Treaty on Musical Objects (1966), the work presents the breathless findings of someone immersed in the ramifications of something entirely new.
In the first two parts, Schaeffer recounts his discoveries in diary form (although to what extent the entries are constructed, or at least revised, after the fact is unclear); in the second part we read of some initial attempts at a “theory of concrete music”, and even today many of the questions he raises - such as how to produce a score for, and how to analyse, electroacoustic music - have yet to receive satisfactory answers.
Is Schaeffer’s work now largely a historical curiosity, important because of the work to which it led, like Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine that James Watt improved on? Deeply connected to new technical means as it is, the early stages of any fresh line of development almost always carry over existing ways of thinking. We find Schaeffer, admittedly, thinking about structures and textures using terms employed for hundreds of years, whether an “accelerando by solo locomotive” or “tutti of coaches”. One striking impression that emerges from reading this book, however, is that his work merits a perspective with greater nuance. Like most creators aware of the creative and conceptual restrictions of their historical location, we find Schaeffer time and again seeking a way to transcend them.
If there is any false step here, it lies not in Schaeffer’s original material or in the translation but in the dust-jacket blurb. “Schaeffer”, we are earnestly told, in the manner of a music technology student discovering that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings, “has…become increasingly relevant to DJs and hip-hop producers”. Whatever we feel about Schaeffer’s historical importance versus his continuing artistic relevance, he does not need any hipster approbation. We need to stop apologising for art music. In 1991, Teddy Riley used environmental sounds in the loops he made for Michael Jackson’s song Jam - and there are countless more recent examples within hip hop - but he had no need for cool points by saying that his procedures were pioneered by an 81-year-old French guy over in Aix-en-Provence.
In Search of a Concrete Music
By Pierre Schaeffer
Translated by John Dack and Christine North
University of California Press, 244pp, £48.95 and £19.95
ISBN 9780520265738 and 65745
Published 8 January 2013