Pierre Schaeffer  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Pierre Henri Marie Schaeffer (August 14, 1910August 19, 1995) was a French composer, noted as the inventor of musique concrète and author of Étude aux chemins de fer (1948).

The term musique concrète is often misunderstood as referring to simply making music out of "real world" sounds, or sounds other than those made by musical instruments. Rather, it is a wider attempt to allow new ways of musical expression. Traditionally, (classical / serious) music starts as an abstraction, musical notation on paper or other medium, which is then produced into audible music. Musique concrète strives to start at the "concrete" sounds, experiment with them, and abstract them into a musical composition.

The importance of Scaheffer's work with musique concrète is threefold from the contemporary point of view.

  • He developed the concept of including any and all sounds into the musical vocabulary. At first he concentrated on working with sounds other than those produced by traditional musical instruments. Later on, he found it was possible to remove the familiarity of musical instrument sounds and abstract them further by techniques such as removing the attack of the recorded sound.
  • He was among the first to manipulate recorded sound in the way that it could be used in conjunction with other such sounds in the making of a musical piece. This could be thought of as a precursor to contemporary sampling practices.
  • Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of play (in his terms, jeu) in the creation of music. Schaeffer's idea of jeu comes from the French verb jouer, which carries the same double meaning as the English verb play: 'to enjoy oneself by interacting with one's surroundings', as well as 'to operate a musical instrument'. This notion is at the core of the concept of musique concrète.

Schaeffer was born in Nancy. His parents were both engineers, and at first it seemed that Pierre would also take this as a career. He studied at the École Polytechnique and after a stint as a telecommunications engineer in Strasbourg from 1934, he found a job in 1936 at Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF) in Paris. It was there that he began to experiment with recorded sounds, convincing the radio station's management to let him use their equipment. He tried playing sounds backwards, slowing them down, speeding them up and juxtaposing them with other sounds, all techniques which were virtually unknown at that time. His first completed piece as a result of these experiments was the Étude aux chemins de fer (1948) which was made from recordings of trains.

By that time, Schaeffer had founded the Jeune France group, which had interests in theatre and visual art as well as music. In 1942, he co-founded the Studio d'Essai (later known as the Club d'Essai), which played a role in the activities of the French resistance during World War II, and became a centre of musical activity afterwards.

In 1949, Schaeffer met Pierre Henry, and the two founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) which received official recognition from ORTF in 1951. They gave him a new studio, which included a tape recorder. This was a significant development for Schaeffer, who had previously had to work with turntables to produce his music. Schaeffer is generally acknowledged as being the first composer to make music using magnetic tape. His continued experimentation led him to publish A la recherche d'une musique concrète (The Search for a Concrete Music) in 1952, which was a summation of his working methods up to that point.

Schaeffer left the GRMC in 1953, but reformed it in 1958 with Luc Ferrari and François-Bernard Mâche as the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM).

With the founding of the Service de Recherche de l'ORTF in 1960, of which he was made director, Schaeffer began to wind down his compositional activities in favour of sound research and teaching. One of his last pieces came in 1959, the Etudes aux Objets. In his new post, he continued to conduct his research into the sonic properties of objects, publishing an important work on the subject, Traité des objets musicaux, in 1966. In it, he attempts to classify all sound objects (objets sonores, sounds perceived as entities; NOT to be confused with sound-producing physical objects) producing by dividing their characteristics into seven categories, which he called mass; dynamic; harmonic timbre; melodic profile; mass profile; gain; and inflection. Up to now no English translation of this massive work has appeared, although Konrad Boehmer has translated large parts of the work into Dutch.

Schaeffer took a number of teaching posts, including an associate professorship at the Paris Conservatoire from 1968 where he taught electronic composition. Towards the end of his life, he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. He died in Aix-en-Provence.

Œuvre littéraire

Son oeuvre littéraire, au travers de romans, d'essais ou de nouvelles, retrace des passages de sa vie mais aussi révèle ses doutes sur la nature humaine et les institutions qu'elle crée.

  • Chez d'autres éditeurs
    • A la recherche d’une musique concrète, Paris : Seuil, 1952
    • Vers une musique expérimentale, Paris : Richard-Masse, 1957.
    • Traité des objets musicaux, Paris : Seuil, 1/1966, 2/1977.
    • La musique concrète, 1967, coll. "Que sais-je ?", PUF
    • « Musique et acoustique », Le Monde, 16 mars 1967.
    • Pierre Schaeffer par Sophie Brunet et Pierre Schaeffer, 1970, éd. Richard Masse
    • L'avenir à reculons, 1970, ed. Casterman
    • Entretiens avec Pierre Schaeffer par Marc Pierret, 1969, éd. Pierre Belfond
    • De la musique concrète à la musique même, 1977, Rééd., Québec : Mémoire du Livre, 2002.
    • Excusez-moi, je meurs (1981), ed. Flammarion
    • Prélude, choral et fugue (1981), ed. Flammarion
    • Guide des objets sonores, Pierre Schaeffer et la recherche musicale par Michel Chion, 1983, coéd. Buchet/Chastel & INA/GRM
    • Faber et sapiens (1986), ed. Pierre Belfond
    • Sur les traces de Pierre Schaeffer par Jocelyne Tournet-Lammer, 2006 , éd. La documentation française & lNA




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