In 1948 Paris, history was made. Pierre Schaeffer, a French
radio broadcaster, working for the Radiodiffusion-Television
Francaise (RTF), created the first electronic music studio. With
a multitude of microphones, phonographs, variable speed tape
recorders and sound effect records he created a new art form,
musique concrete, and with it a world of new music opened up --
the world of electronic music.
Electronic music can be divided into three categories:
Musique concrete, Synthesizer music, and Computer music. Musique
concrete was the first type to be created. It involves using the
found sounds in nature, distorted in various ways, to create
music. Live, it becomes an exercise in mixing together
unexpected sounds into some sort of form while studio musique
concrete uses complex tape manipulations to create the effect.
Synthesizer music and computer music as of late are meshing
together with the advent of MIDI. Music of these types involve
sounds created by a synthesizer and computer respectively, and
have now become an integral part of most current music today.
Musique concrete can be created two different ways, both
with widely varying techniques of creation. Recorded musique
concrete uses tape, phonographs, and various other pieces of
equipment available in the studio. It is created by recording
various sounds on tape and modifying them in some way. This can
be achieved by playing the tape back at various speeds, making a
tape loop of the sound, playing the tape backwards, stretching the
tape, or simply splicing short segments of tape together. What
results is a alteration of the sound in new and unique way.
Sounds can then be pasted together and overlayed to create a
'song'. Live musique concrete cannot use all the techniques of
it recorded form. It usually consists of enormous amounts of
microphones placed in various places around the performing hall
and half a dozen variable speed phonographs all feeding into a
series of mixers and filters, which in turn feed the various
amplifiers driving a multitude of speakers scattered throughout
the hall. In either form, musique concrete creates a unique form
of music that takes the ear strangely.
Though not created until 1948, musique concrete has a long
history before that of composers trying to add noise to their
compositions to break free from conventional music. One of the
first of these composers was Luigi Russolo. In conjunction with
Balilla Pratella, he created an orchestra of Bruituers, or noise
making machines. Encased in large boxes, these made a variety of
grunts and hisses that became part of his 'Art of Noises'
concerts in Milan, 1914. He used his bruituers to accompany
traditional music and combine with it in new ways.
After Russolo came Darius Mihaud, who began to experiment
with changing the speeds of records to get new sounds. Meanwhile
Respighi was having a phonograph playing nightingales along with
an orchestra in his Pines of Rome in 1924. In 1927, Antheil was
experimenting with noise in ballet. Using car horns, airplane
propellers, saws, and anvils, he wrote his Ballet Mechanique.
All the while approaching was the one discovery that could make
such compositions infinitely easier to create. In 1935,
Allgemeine Elektrizitaets Gesellschaft invented the tape
recorder, the crucial technological advancement needed for
musique concrete to be realised.
It was soon after this, in 1948, that Pierre Schaeffer
developed his studio and began to experiment with musique
concrete. Some of his first pieces include Etude aux Chemins de
Fer, Etude aux Tourniquets, Etude au Piano I, and Etude aux
Casseroles, which used sounds ranging from locomotives to
whistling tops to spinning pan covers. In 1951 a group was
created by the R.T.F. to research this new form of music and le
Groupe de Recherches Musicales was formed, headed by Pierre
Musique concrete in the beginning was fairly limited.
Though a broad range of sounds were used overall, only a few
types of sounds were used for each composition. Some
compositions in fact had only one sound source. The music
created sounded very spacy and eerie. Feeling, as might it
should, very futuristic. The composition usually used long drawn
out notes, often very low in frequency. There was very little
sense of a rhythm; the music just seemed to flow and evolve, and
even this, very slowly, creating a very long composition length.
It followed a form similar to some of the new age music being
created today and probably was a predecessor of new age music.
As musique concrete evolved, it became more varied. More
rhythm and emotion was added to pieces as they got faster and
more complex. In 1965, John Cage, a famous American composer who
had been doing such experimental work for quite some time,
performed Variations IV live at the Fiegen/Palmer Gallery in Los
Angeles. For the work he set up a series of microphones and
phonographs which he mixed together into one final composition.
The creation that evolved was closer to the musique concrete of
today. Using snippets from conversation going about the hall,
from outside on the street, and from various records, both
classical and modern, he created a sound that wasn't eerie, but
During the fifties and sixties musique concrete became the
rage. Musique concrete was being written for film, ballet, and
various new multi-media presentations such as Edgar Varese's Poem
Electronique which used four film projectors, eight projection
lanterns, six spot lights, six ultra-violet lights, fifty
electric lamps to represent stars, and hundreds of fluorescent
lamps in various colours. At the 1958 Brussels World Fair Iannis
Xenakis created Concrete P-H II for the Philips Pavilion, which
was to be played through 400 loudspeakers positioned within the
structure of the building.
What happened after the sixties is hard to say. Musique
concrete seems to have gone asleep for a while. Composition
ceased and interest in it as a contemporary musical form died.
Recently though, in the late eighties, musique concrete has been
revived in various forms.
In the original spirit of musique concrete, Negativeland
creates song with found sound. Though now modernised and no
doubt easier to manipulate and create, it retains many of the
characteristics of musique concrete of the sixties. What
Negativland has done though, is to expand their music beyond the
simplicity of older musique concrete. They've added synth behind
the sounds as well as lyrics on top to create a unique form of
musique concrete that tells a story, however pointless.
More importantly, musique concrete is invading modern
musical forms. One of the most significant of these is
industrial music. A music based on a hard driving beat, much
similar to that of industrial machinery, it makes a grand use of
sampled sounds in its composition, sometimes as lyrics to the
song, sometimes as part of the music.
With the increased use of digital technology, adding such
'found' sounds into songs is becoming simple. Even popular music
has been adding various sampled sounds into their music. Musique
concrete is becoming reborn in a various new forms that prove to
be very exciting in the coming years. Beyond Negativeland and
the various industrial groups lies unventured electronic
territory. A territory musique concrete created and will no
doubt play an integral part in exploring.