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Musique concrète

4 February 2011

The wikipedia definition for electroacoustic music is “music resulting from the manipulation of recorded or generated sound.” This describes everything currently available in the iTunes store, and thus is not a useful definition. Instead, it is music that is historically or artistically linked with past experimental electornic music, such as happened with Musique concrète in Paris or Elektronische Musik in Cologne.

Musique concrète was devised by Pierre Schaeffer, who presented the first ever concert of this new type of music in 1948 with five short pieces called cinq études de bruits (Five Noise Studies). He was influenced by the futurists and used recordings of sounds and noises. We listened to one of these: Etude Aux Chemins de Fer, which used sounds recorded from trains.

The first pieces of Schaeffer were produced using disks, as he did not yet have access to tape. He did have quite a lot of access to advanced studio gear of the time, as he was working for Radio France (RTF).

In 1949, he started to collaborate with Pierre Henry, another RTF employee, and they created a piece called Symphonie pour un homme seul (Symphony for a man alone). They were supported by RTF in this and had better access to technology and began to process the sounds. They split their sounds into two categories: human and non human.

In 1952, Schaeffer wrote a treatise on sound objects. A sound object is the sound itself, not the instrument that produced the sound or the tape that holds it, but the vibrations in the air. He proposed that sounds have several properties, by which they can be categorised:

  • Mass – which is the spectral dimension
  • Dynamics
  • Timbre
  • Melodic profile – spectral changes over time
  • Grain – irregularities (like film grain)
  • Pace

It would be possible to do a sort of concrete serialism with these properties, but he was not an adherent of serialism. An essential part of Musique Concrète was that the musical form was derived from the sound material, rather than sounds being put into a pre-existing structure.

He proposed something he called “acousmatics,” where the sound object is a thing itself, divorced from the context that produced it. He also put forth the idea of reduced listening, where the listener hears only the sounds and not the imagined source.

We discussed whether this was possible and some of you said that if you listened to a sound repeated enough, like if you were working on it, it gradually lost its associations, but this doesn’t tend to happen without repetition. Trevor Wishart notes that psychological research shows that humans have a strong tendency to assign sources from sounds.

Radio France was very keen on Musique concrète and funded Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète, which eventually turned in to Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), which still exists now.

In 1952, Stockhausen when to Paris to study and did some short studies in Schaeffer’s studio. Then he went back to Germany and was involved with the WDR studio in Cologne, which opened in 1953. There was a major rivalry between Paris and Cologne. The Germans were doing Elektronische Musik, which was largely additive synthesis.

However, in 1964, Stockhausen did some experiments with recording sounds and processing them. He used a tape recorder, a filter and a tamtam (a gong). He tried using different kitchen implements on the tamtam while holding a microphone very close to it. Meanwhile, an engineer was adjusting a filter and recording the sounds Stockhausen was making on the tamtam. When they played back the tape the were amazed at the sounds they had gotten.

Stockhausen then wrote a score for different sorts of sounds he hoped could be gotten from a tamtam and wrote a trio for a percussionist, a microphonist and somebody to adjust the filtering. The piece was played live with all three persons on stage. He wrote, “The microphone is no longer a passive tool for high fidelity reproduction: it becomes a musical instrument influencing what it is recording.”

This piece was called Mikrophonie and is on a CD in the library, which you should listen to. It is also the basis for Task 1, which is discussed below.

Another piece that uses very close miccing is Concrete PH by Xenakis, which used microphones stuck in with burning coals and embers. He created this piece for the Philips Pavillion at the 1958 Worlds Fair, something discussed in much greater detail in week2.

More Recent Musique concrète

In 1970, French composer, Luc Ferrari did a piece called Preque Rien (Almost Nothing), using recordings of a day at the beach. He overlaps the sound events to create a compressed picture of what the day sounded like. This piece is on a CD in the library and you should listen to it.

In 1989, New Zealand composer, Annea Lockwood did a piece called Soundmap of the Hudson River, which records sound samples from the very start of the Hudson river to where it empties into the Atlantic by New York City.



  • Homles, Thom, . 2008. Electronic and Experimental Music Third Edition. Routledge: New York. (p 45-78 and p 91-100)
  • Cox, C. & Warner, D. 2004. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Continuum: New York.(Chapter 14, p.76, Acousmatics, by P. Schaeffer)
    • Task 1

      You use close microphone placement and tape transformations of the sort available in the 1950s (forwards, backwards, sped up, slowed down, cut up, plate-style reverb) to explore quiet, hidden sounds. For example, by scratching or striking metallic objects, plucking the teeth of a comb, etc.

From → Electroacoustic

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