Musique Concrete

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 Schaeffer.

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 rather exciting.

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.