Prepare yourselves for a hot new book report. Today, I’ll be discussing In Search of a Concrete Music, by Pierre Schaeffer. The back cover describes it as having a “profound influence on composers working with technology,” and being “increasingly relevant to DJs and hip-hop producers”. We shall see. First, more about Mr. Schaeffer.
About the Author
Pierre Schaeffer was a French polymath born in 1910. His range of knowledge extended from telecommunications engineering to radio broadcasting to music to writing. He was quite different from the previous two authors I’ve reviewed – Jacques Attali and Theodor Adorno – in that the politics of music were not his focus (although he was politically active in other areas, such as participating in the French Resistance during WWII, and subsequently protesting nuclear proliferation during the Cold War). His work was very technical and analytical, and dealt with the construction of music. Inasmuch as he was philosophical about his undertaking, his concern was how people might come to understand music outside of their preconceptions of its source.
Schaeffer was the developer of “musique concrète,” and the development thereof is the subject of “In Search of a Concrete Music”, which he published in 1952 after four years of experimentation with the nascent genre. Apparently, the book was only translated to English in 2012, and thus we have a first-class ticket on Pierre Schaeffer’s wild ride.
About the Book
“In Search of a Concrete Music” is divided into four sections. The first two, taking up about half of the book, are a series of journal entries Schaeffer wrote about his laboratory of sorts at Studio d’Essai, a radio broadcasting station that he directed. He also talked about his travels of Europe and interactions with musicologists, artists, and others as he tried to introduce them to his work at Studio d’Essai. He cataloged thousands of sound samples and made numerous recordings, and by 1950 had begun presenting these recordings to the public, to mixed reactions.
I found this part of the book extremely dull, and in fact it took me nearly a year to get through it (reading on-and-off) before finally reaching the somewhat more interesting remainder only weeks ago. The problem with Schaeffer’s journal entries is that “the search for a concrete music” was tedious and mostly a matter of trial and error. Each journal entry was essentially “we got a bunch of acoustic and electronic equipment together, made a lot of noise, played the recording back, and were not satisfied,” or sometimes “I showed my latest composition to an artist friend, and he misunderstood it.” I found that it got old quickly. Incidentally, Schaeffer found living through the experience to be even more arduous.
In part 3 of the book, Schaeffer explains the ideology and justification for his experiments. He uses many analogies and parallels to describe what concrete music actually is, why he believes it should be developed, and what he hopes for its future.
Part 4 is the most technical section of the book, in which Schaeffer lays out a framework for concrete music.
What is “musique concrète,” anyway? It is creating music by isolating “sound objects” from the medium that produces them (e.g. an instrument), so that there are no limitations on what can be done.
As long as we stay with ordinary instruments and the usual symbolism, the formal and material development of music will necessarily be limited to combinations of instruments and combinations of notes.
The name “concrete” derives from the fact that concrete music is designed to be the lowest-level method for composition. Schaeffer emphasizes that it is not “abstract music” like Stravinsky’s serialism, because even abstract music finds itself caged by the capacity of its instruments or the framework of contemporary music theory based on that capacity.
Even at that explanation, I found myself confused. Thankfully, part 4 of the book provides several diagrams illustrating what Schaeffer is talking about. Before I confuse things suddenly, it should be noted that “sound objects” (being any extraction of audio material, be it a sample or otherwise) are drilled down further to what he calls “complex notes”.
A classical musical note represents three values: pitch, duration, and timbre. These variables are not enough to fully capture the nuances of sound, and thus a “complex note” is needed to fill in the missing information. Complex notes operate on three planes: the melodic plane, dealing with the change in pitch over a duration; the dynamic plane, dealing with change in volume over a duration; and the harmonic plane, dealing with the change in volume over different pitches. Below is a graphic demonstrating a complex note:
I will explain the concept a bit further using the framework that Schaeffer provides in the last section of the book:
The Melodic Plane – this plane is describing how the pitch develops over the course of a note. There are three simple properties of pitch and four complex ones. The simple ones are as follows: the pitch can be stable for the entire note, it can rise/descend, and it can take up a large/small amount of the frequency spectrum over its duration. Complexly, it can vibrate (e.g. violin vibrato), it can be spun – meaning it “develops very rapidly within a fairly limited margin during the course of the note” (e.g. ukelele), it can be scintillating (rapid changes between perceptible notes and noise), or it can be pure noise.
The Dynamic Plane – this plane deals with three aspects of a note’s manifestation: the attack (onset of the note, e.g. plucked string), continuation (the time that the note remains perceptibly constant), and decay (how the note ends; with resonating instruments it will usually decay slowly). There are may ways to influence these three parameters, and with the advent of digital music production, tampering with them is increasingly common.
The Harmonic Plane – this plane represents the frequency spectrum engaged by the given note. Also known as timbre, it can be poor (utilizing only one or very few frequencies) or rich (using many frequencies at different amplitudes) — alternately, thick (broad band of contiguous frequencies) or thin (small band of contiguous frequencies). It also has the property of “color,” being: brilliant (large number of harmonics, and amplitude tapers slowly across them), bright (small number of harmonics, slow amplitude taper), or dark (few harmonics, rapid amplitude drop after first harmonic).
Essentially, every sound capable of existing can be classified as a complex note (or set of complex notes), and in concrete music, you take these notes and make music without concern with what ought to be physically possible. Indeed, even the origin of the sounds you choose to use does not matter. You could couple an extraction from a car horn with the sound of an E-string on the guitar. Indeed, although digital audio workstation technology was nonexistent during Schaeffer’s experiments, he predicted that one day you’d be able to generate any complex note that you wanted or needed without making a recording at all.
Interestingly, Schaeffer chose to close the book by saying that he was retiring from concrete music, because it took up too much of his time and energy to develop. He wanted to focus on his writing, and he believed that the next generation of artists would be able to take what he started and run with it, and furthermore that the as-of-yet nonexistent computer (he called it cybernetics) would open the gates to a concrete music of infinite possibilities.
I am certain that popular music has glossed over any dream that Schaeffer might have had for the progression of music as an art, and I am not sure if even avant-garde or experimental music has fully achieved what concrete music claimed to be about. Sure, there is a lot of pure noise and other nonsense out there, but that isn’t the type of music that Schaeffer made during his experiments.
Indeed, the most surprising discovery of all is that after reading his book, and listening to one of his compositions, I actually liked it.