IS THERE ANY ESCAPE FROM NOISE?
In our machine dominated age there is hardly any escape from noise. Even in the most remote wilderness outpost planes will fly overhead to disrupt the sound of the wind in the trees and the birds in the wind. In the city it is so much part of the background we have to tune in to the noise in order to notice it because we’ve become adept at tuning it out. Roaring motors, the incessant hum of the computer fan, the refrigerator coolant, metal grinding at the light industrial factory down the street, the roar of traffic on I-75, the beep of a truck backing up, these and many other noises are all part of our daily soundscape.
Throughout human history musicians have sought to mimic the sounds around them, the gentle drone of the tanpura, a stringed instrument that accompanies sitar, flute, voice and other instruments in classical Indian music, was said to mimic the gentle murmur of the rivers and streams. Should it be a surprise then, that in the nineteenth and twentieth century musicians and composers started to mimic the sounds of the machines around them? In bluegrass and jazz there are a whole slew of songs that copied the entrancing rhythms of the train. As more and more machines filled up the cities is at any wonder that the beginnings of a new genre of music –noise music- started to emerge? Is it any wonder, that as acoustic and sound technology progressed, our music making practices also came to be dominated by machines.
THE ART OF NOISES
And just what is music anyway? There are many definitions from across the span of time and human culture. Each definition has been made to fit the type, style and particular practice or praxis of music.
In his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises the Italian Futurist thinker Luigi Russolo argues that the human ear has become accustomed to the speed, energy, and noise of the urban industrial soundscape. In reaction to those new conditions he thought there should be a new approach to composition and musical instrumentation. He traced the history of Western music back to Greek musical theory which was based on the mathematical tetrachord of Pythagoras. This did not allow for harmony. This changed during the middle-ages first with the invention of plainchant in Christian monastic communities. Plainchant employs the modal system and this is used to work out the relative pitches of each line on the staff, and was the first revival of musical notation after knowledge of the ancient Greek system was lost. In the late 9th century, plainsong began to evolve into organum, which led to the development of polyphony. Until then the chord did not exist, as such.
Russolo thought that the chord was the "complete sound." He noted that in history chords developed slowly over time, first moving from the "consonant triad to the consistent and complicated dissonances that characterize contemporary music." He pointed out that early music tried to create sounds that were sweet and pure, and then it evolved to become more and more complex. By the time of Schoenberg and the twelve tone revolution of serial music musicians sought to create new and more dissonant chords. These dissonant chords brought music ever closer to his idea of "noise-sound."
With the relative quiet of nature and pre-industrial cities disturbed Russolo thought a new sonic palette was required. He proposed that electronics and other technology would allow futurist musicians to substitute for the limited variety of timbres available in the traditional orchestra. His view was that we must "break out of this limited circle of sound and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds." This would be done with new technology that would allow us to manipulate noises in ways that never could have been done with earlier instruments. In that, he was quite correct.
Russolo wasn’t the only one thinking of the aesthetics of noise, or seeking new definitions of music. French Modernist composer Edgar Varèse said that “music is organized sound.” It was a statement he used as a guidepost for his aesthetic vision of "sound as living matter" and of "musical space as open rather than bounded". Varèse thought that "to stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise", and he posed the question, "what is music but organized noises?" An open view of music allows new elements to come into the development of musical traditions, where a bound view would try to keep out those things out that did not fit the preexisting definition.
Out of this current of noise music initiated in part by Russolo and Varese a new class of musician would emerge, the musician of sounds.
MUSICIAN OF SOUNDS
Fellow Frenchmen Pierre Schaeffer developed his theory and practice of musique concrète during the 1930s and ‘40s and saw it spread to people such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, the founders of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, F.C. Judd and many others in the 50’s. Musique concrète was a practical application of Russolo’s idea of “noise-sound” and exploration of expanded timbres possible through then new studio techniques. It was also a way of making music according to the “organized sound” definition and was distinct from previous methods by being the first type of music completely dependent on recording and broadcast studios.
In musique concrète sounds are sampled and modified through the application of audio effects and tape manipulation techniques, then reassembled into a form of montage or collage. It can feature any sounds derived from any recordings of musical instruments, the human voice, field recordings of the natural and man-made environment or sounds created in the studio. Schaeffer was an experimental audio researcher who combined his work in the field of radio communications with a love for electro-acoustics. Because Schaeffer was the first to use and develop these studio music making methods he is considered a pioneer of electronic music, and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. These recording and sampling techniques which he was the first to use and practice are now part of the standard operating procedures used by nearly all record production companies around the world. Schaeffer’s efforts and influence in this area earned him the title “Musician of Sounds.”
Schaeffer, born in 1910, had a wide variety of interests throughout his eighty-five years on this planet. He worked variously across the fields of composing, writing, broadcasting, engineering, and as a musicologist and acoustician. His work was innovative in science and art. It was after World War II that he developed musique concrète, all while continuing to write for essays, short novels, biographies and pieces for the radio. Much of his writing was geared towards the philosophy and theory of music, which he then later demonstrated in his compositions.
It is interesting to think of the influences on him as a person. Both his parents were musicians, his father a violinist, and his mother a singer, but they discouraged him from pursuing a career in music and instead pushed him into engineering. He studied at the the École Polytechnique where he received a diploma in radio broadcasting. He brought the perspective and approach of an engineer with his inborn musicality to bear on his various activities.
Schaeffer got his first telecommunications gig in 1934 is Strasbourg. The next year he got married and the couple had their first child before moving to Paris where he began work at Radiodiffusion Française (now called Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, RTF). As he worked in broadcasting he started to drift away from his initial interests in telecommunications towards music. When these two sides met he really began to excel.
After convincing the management at the radio station of the alternate possibilities inherent in the audio and broadcast equipment, as well as the possibility of using records and phonographs as a means for making new music he started to experiment. He would records sounds to phonographs and speed them up, slow them down, play them backwards and run them through other audio processing devices, and mixing sounds together. While all this is just par for the course in today’s studios, it was the bleeding edge of innovation at the time.
With these mastered he started to work with people he met via the RTF. All this experimentation had as a natural outgrowth a style that leant itself to the avant-garde of the day. The sounds he produced challenged the way music had been thought of and heard. With the use of his own and his colleagues engineering acumen new electronic instruments were made to expand on the initial processes in the audio lab, which eventually became formalized as the Club d’Essai, or Test Club.
In 1942 Pierre founded the Studio d'Essai, later dubbed the Club d'Essai at RTF. The Club was active in the French resistance during World War II, later to become a center of musical activity. It started as an outgrowth of Schaeffer’s radiophonic explorations, but with a focus on being radio active in the Resistance on French radio. It was responsible for the first broadcasts to liberated Paris in August 1944. He was joined in the leadership of the Club by Jacques Copeau, the theatre director, producer, actor, and dramatist.
It was at the Club where many of Schaeffer’s ideas were put to the test. After the war Schaeffer had written a paper that discussed questions about how sound recording creates a transformations in the perception of time, due to the ability to slow down and speed up sounds. The essay showed his grasp of sound manipulation techniques which were also demonstrated in his compositions.
In 1948 Schaeffer initiated a formal “research in to noises” at the Club d'Essai and on October 5th of that year presented the results of his experimentation at a concert given in Paris. Five works for phonograph (known collectively as Cinq études de bruits—Five Studies of Noises) including Etude violette (Study in Purple) and Etude aux chemins de fer (Study of the Railroads), were presented. This was the first flowering of the musique concrete style, and from the Club d’Essai another research group was born.
GRM: Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète
In 1949 another key figure in the development of Musique Concrète stepped onto the stage. By the time Pierre Henry met Pierre Schaeffer via Club d’Essai the twenty-one year percussionist-composer old had already been experimenting with sounds produced by various objects for six years. He was obsessed with the idea of integrating noise into music, and had already studied with the likes of Olivier Messiaen, Nadia Boulanger, and Félix Passerone at the Paris Conservatoire from 1938 to 1948.
For the next nine years he worked at the Club d'Essai studio at RTF. In 1950 he collaborated with Schaeffer on the piece Symphonie pour un homme seul. Two years later he scored the first musique concrète to appear in a commercial film, Astrologie ou le miroir de la vie. Henry remained a very active composer and scored for a number of other films and ballets.
Together the two Pierres were quite a pair and founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) in 1951. This gave Schaeffer a new studio, which included a tape recorder. This was a significant development for him as he previously only worked with phonographs and turntables to produce music. This sped up the work process, and also added a new dimension with the ability to cut up and splice tape in new arrangements, something not possible on a phonograph. Schaeffer is generally acknowledged as being the first composer to make music using magnetic tape.
Eventually Schaeffer had enough experimentation and material under his belt to publish À la Recherche d'une Musique Concrète ("In Search of a Concrete Music") in 1952, which was a summation of his working methods up to that point.
Schaeffer remained active in other aspects of music and radio throughout the ‘50s. In 1954 he co-founded Ocora, a music label and facility for training broadcast technicians. Ocora stood for the “Office de Coopération Radiophonique”. The purpose of the label was to preserve via recordings, rural soundscapes in Africa. Doing this kind of work also put Schaeffer at the forefront of field recording work, and in the preservation of traditional music. The training side of the operation helped get people trained to work with the African national broadcasting services.
His last electronic noise etude was realized in 1959, the "Study of Objects" (Etudes aux Objets).
For Pierre Henry’s part, two years after leaving the RTF, he founded with Jean Baronnet the first private electronic studio in France, the Apsone-Cabasse Studio. Later Henry made a tribute to composing his Écho d'Orphée.
A CONCRETE LEGACY
usique remains concrete. Schaeffer had known of the “noise orchestras” of his predecessor Luigi Russolo, but took the concept of noise music and developed it further by making it clear that any and all sounds had a part to play in the vocabulary of music. He created the toolkit later experimenters took as a starting point. He was the original sampler. In all his work he emphasized the role of play, or jeu, in making music. His ide of jeu in music came from the French verb jouer. It shares the same dual meaning as the English word play. To play is to have two things at once: to make pleasing sounds or songs on a musical instrument, and to engage with things as way of enjoyment and recreation. Taking sounds and manipulating them, seeing what certain processes will do to them, is at the heart of discover and play inside the radiophonic laboratory. The ability to play opens up the mind to new possibilities.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 edition of the Q-Fiver.
If you enjoyed this article please consider reading the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.