Sound Objects: Pierre Schaeffer’s “In Search of a Concrete Music”

By Daniela CascellaApril 3, 2013

In Search of a Concrete Music by Pierre Schaeffer

CHAPTER 17 of composer Pierre Schaeffer’s In Search of a Concrete Music, titled “From the Object to Language,” opens with a quote from the poet and critic Paul Valéry:

Looking at this seashell, in which I seem to see evidence of “construction” and, as it were, the work of a hand not operating by “chance,” I wonder: Who made it? [...] And now I strive to find out how we know that at a given object is or not made by a man?

In 1948, Schaeffer also found himself confronted by an array of new and puzzling objects — “sound objects,” in his case — and, like Valéry, he wondered painstakingly about their origin, form, context, and implications. The sound objects in question resulted from a number of experiments Schaeffer carried out at the Studio d’Essai — which he founded in 1942 at Radiodiffusion nationale, the French national broadcasting organization, where he’d been working as a broadcaster since 1936 — that had led to the development of what came to be known as musique concrète: a form of music no longer determined by the traditional parameters of score and performance, but by the use of sounds recorded from natural sources, separated from their origin and manipulated. In Schaeffer’s words:

I have coined the term Musique Concrète for this commitment to compose with materials taken from “given” experimental sound in order to emphasize our dependence, no longer on preconceived sound abstractions, but on sound fragments that exist in reality and that are considered as discrete and complete sound objects, even if and above all when they do not fit in with the elementary definitions of music theory.

Initially, Schaeffer employed the sound of trains and bells; he soon moved on to producing sounds with a variety of objects, from metal scraps to whirligigs, recording and processing them, therefore preventing the listeners from identifying their sources. Musique concrète also explored the material possibilities of recorded sound: locked grooves and the looping, reversal, and variable of magnetic tape. This was the birth of a new way of making music, and it called for a new way of thinking and writing about it, and of listening.

In Search of a Concrete Music, published in French in 1952 and now translated for the first time into English by Christine North and John Dack, contains the bulk of Schaeffer’s attempts to find a language adequate to the new musical possibilities to which he had helped give birth. Back to the riddle of Valery’s seashell; while the hypothesis that the sound object might have something to say in and of itself is a crucial possibility for Schaffer, he intimates at other times that it requires human interpretation: “I explain this object through my own means, I make it for the first time every time I listen, therefore it is made by man.” In probing the tension between the sound object and the listening subject, Schaeffer comes to terms with the thorny questions of authorship and originality raised by musique concrète, proposing a methodology that shifts from the composer as individual to the studio as collective and brings the act of listening to the fore.

Structured as journals covering 1948–49 and 1950–51 respectively, the first two parts of the book chronicle Schaeffer’s experiments and findings alongside their theoretical implications. These explorations are accompanied by a growing awareness that concrete music was the result of a collective endeavor (an important part of the book is devoted to collaborator Pierre Henry’s invaluable contribution to its development) as well as a radical reinvention of the role and nature of the composer as sound engineer: “We are craftsmen,” he writes. “I am seeking direct contact with sound material […] I am first and foremost a technician.” The book takes shape from the conflict between Schaffer’s exhilaration at Studio d’Essai’s radical discoveries, and his doubts about their consequences for making, thinking, and experiencing music. On one hand, he appears entirely driven by his work in the studio; on the other, his anxiety is palpable and his narrating voice is bewildered — at times bordering on the utterly scared — by the implications of something so new he cannot grasp it, even as he makes it happen. Schaeffer’s prose, translated masterfully by North and Dack, captures these uneven rhythms of intuition and perplexity, and his imagination and wit as he sets his observations not only against official and unofficial histories of music, but against contemporary art, poetry, and science. The sense of excitement is evident:

I can feel, as if it were quivering in my memory, the whole drama of these last three years of experimentation […] The miracle of concrete music is […] things begin to speak by themselves, as if they were bringing a message from a world unknown to us and outside us.

Throughout these pages, we are confronted with the thrill of a discovery and the riddle of naming it; in this sense, the whole book might be read as an inquiry on language. The first journal entry, dated January 1948, opens: 

Sometimes when I write I am envious of more intense modes of expression. Writing is always making explicit at the expense of other things. Mystery is sacrificed, and consequently truth, and so everything.

There couldn’t be a better introduction to Schaeffer’s paradoxical modus operandi, since this disavowal of writing is followed by its reinstatement: over 200 pages of words, torn between the impulse to define (“A heterogeneous universe torments us […] I must find a way to express this”) and assertions such as “No will to conclude.” For Schaeffer, concrete music is neither representational nor expressive. The separation of sounds from their sources introduces “an object that no longer has to express itself,” hence his stated conflict with writing about the sound object, articulated in words that voice all the contradictions and complexities in his thoughts. Schaeffer’s most extreme statements — “we must say good-bye to any sign of intelligence, any resemblances, any known words, any notes, any conventional figures, and so to any form of language” — place him at the edge of a new territory, where any reference seems to fail.

In an essay published around the same time as Schaeffer’s book, “Literature and the Right to Death” (in The Work of Fire, 1949), Maurice Blanchot wrote: “Literature begins at the moment when literature becomes a question.” The same could be said of musique concrète, and Schaeffer’s constant interrogation of the adequacy of “the language of music” — or any language at all — to his “little sound creatures” reflects preoccupations similar to Blanchot’s. Just as the latter would eventually arrive at the notion of text as a nonrepresentational récit — “not the narration of an event, but that event itself, the approach to that event, the place where that event is made to happen” — Schaeffer would organize his new sounds into études, “incantations that had no reference to anything,” detaching them from any external framework of legitimization such as the score, and demanding that they be heard as objects that exist without having to express any particular content.

Schaeffer’s journals chronicle not only the day-to-day frustrations of his work in the recording studio (“As soon as I come into the studio, a sort of nausea takes hold of me. Vast amounts of material, and extreme difficulty in either linking it together or making it develop”) but also deeper uncertainties. After the initial radio broadcast of Concert of Noises on October 5, 1948, which presented the first five completed works of this new art, he writes:

I was like a child who has taken the growl out of his teddy bear, pulled out his dolly’s eyes, and smashed his clockwork train. I had to admit that I had invented amazing techniques for destruction but that every attempt at synthesis fell to bits in my hands. […] The paradox was that for two years I had been practising concrete music but without having yet discovered it […] I was a prisoner of my closed grooves.

In the third part of the book, entitled “The Concrete Experiment in Music” and dated 1952, the distinctiveness of Schaeffer’s prose, always on the edge between breakthrough and breakdown, emerges in full. It is worth quoting some representative passages at length:

I have no theory to put forward, no new musical system. I feel as if I have, almost as a trespasser, entered new attics in this ancient dwelling. I do not know, and doubtless I will not know for some time yet, if these attics are inhabitable, whether they are a temporary prison cell or will be apartments of the future. At least I have tried to enable my reader to follow me, not through dogmatism shored up with endless arguments, but in a practical way clarified by anecdotes. 

Outside the dominant, no salvation. Except if somewhere else, in other phenomena not linked with the degrees of pitch of sounds, a new form of communication is found, a new aspect of the secret correspondence between the cosmos and man. […] To abandon the hope of finding pleasures, emotions, sadness, or joy comparable to those of the dominant universe. Perhaps this will be a new asceticism, with thorny, and possibly dizzying, pathways toward other, less comfortable, heavens.

If the earlier journals were chronicles of discoveries juxtaposed with fragmented theoretical enquiries, this concluding section reflects on individual issues more systematically, though from a variety of angles. Schaeffer is at his most daring and torn here, as he struggles to place his music in relation to tradition while also asserting its groundbreaking potential, and draws parallels between musique concrète and scientific experiments that build on previous knowledge. “In music,” he writes, “certain ‘revolutions’ did not mark a renewal. They explored an unknown planet.” The notion of music as research rather than an expressive art challenges any notion of originality: “The result is an experiment, not an intention […] This situation is paradoxical. Comic and tragic.”

At the core of this section, Schaeffer illustrates and probes his understanding of music as a relationship between subject and object, “a gap, a no man’s land where nobody ventures,” reducible neither to the score nor the performance. For Schaeffer, listening itself is a deep inquiry into this transitional zone, one that both embraces the otherness of the sound object and brings it back to the human experience of hearing, which is inevitably tied to time, and to the changing states of mind of each listener:

An experimental method in music means listening: first of all, all the time, before, during, after. Because the object is strange, courage lies in going on to define its humanity and beauty, in seeking reassurance not by pursuing the kilometric path, the white pebbles of measurement, but because we have used our taste, made a choice. 

One of the most far-reaching implications of Schaeffer’s reasoning, which is still being worked out in contemporary discourse about art that takes sound as its medium, is the repositioning of the act of listening as central to a new way of making and experiencing music without recourse to external systems of reference. “The object forces us to listen to it, not by reference, but just as it is, in all the reality of its substance,” he writes. “As it doesn’t say much, and certainly not what we would like it to say, once we have heard it, it makes us fall silent. In this silence we perceive new disturbances.” 

Toward the end of “The Concrete Experiment in Music,” Schaeffer cautions himself: “Most of all I dread […] that an excess of intellectualism not tempered by instinct might produce effects that will themselves trigger anguish, and anguish alone.” Just a few pages later, however, comes the book’s fourth and final section, “Outline of a Concrete Musical Training,” in which Schaeffer does exactly what he has vehemently argued against up to that point, compiling, with researcher André Moles, “Twenty-five Initial Words for a Vocabulary,” a lexicon that blatantly contradicts his previous claims about the freedom of the newly discovered sounds by locking them up in the constraints of a rigid system with just the “excess of intellectualism not tempered by instinct” he resists elsewhere. Somehow, the groove is locked, and we are confronted once again with sound’s resistance to language. As a reader, I can no longer imagine the sounds of concrete music when Schaffer begins to systematize: between “performance procedures” and “planes of reference”; between “static spatialization,” “manipulations,” “transmutation,” and “transformation”; I am stuck in the details of classification. The exhilarating vortex of words and the confusing chaos of possibilities that reflected the newly discovered sounds in earlier sections are irrevocably lost.

A premonition of this anticlimactic glossary might be found in the first part of the book, where Schaeffer asks: “Why do we always do the opposite of that we like doing? Because, unable to achieve it fully, we try to attain it through indirect, ambiguous means.” Are these last 40 pages yet another paradoxical attempt at listening through nomenclatures? Do they merely demonstrate, once again, the incommensurability of sound and writing? Is the newfound obsession with terminology yet another effort to capture sound, only to be eluded by its inevitable outflow into the time of human listening? Or like the severed, still-singing head of Orpheus, who appeared in Schaeffer and Pierre Henri’s opera Orphée 53 (which combined “live” and prerecorded sound sources), should this final section be cut off from the rest by contemporary readers, leaving a body of words that still speaks and bleeds on our own thoughts today? These questions might be rhetorical; but then, the whole of In Search of a Concrete Music stands out as a masterpiece in the rhetorical traffic between making music and writing about it, between sounds and words.


LARB Contributor

Daniela Cascella is a London-based Italian writer. She is the author of En abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction (Zero Books, 2012). Visit Daniela at her site and her blog


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