Pierre Schaeffer: icon, inventor of Musique Concrète.

This is the most refreshing thing I have read in a long time. Its actually very liberating.

I have been studying Pierre Schaeffer, his works and his words for a while now. He is the pioneer of the famous Musique Concrète, a new post-war music that begins with sound recordings and applies structural form (i.e. cuts up / re-orders / glues back together) to achieve a finished sound work. I find his work historically and conceptually interesting, but musically un-listenable, and … frankly … utterly un-inspiring. Give me Aphex Twin any day.

Pierre Schaeffer, and his early text “Traité des objets musicaux” (treatise on musical objects) and reveared in the discourse of Electro-acoustic music. Pierre Schaeffer holds status of more than pioneer. Yet in an interview  (from recommended records quarterly magazine, volume 2, number 1, 1987,) he rejects his own musical oeuvres:

TH: I have the impression that in the ’40s and ’50s you were optimistic about the outcomes of your musical project. Was there a particular moment when you underwent a general change in your relationship to this project?

Pierre Schaeffer: I must say honestly that this is the most important question you have asked me. I fought like a demon throughout all the years of discovery and exploration in Musique Concrete; I fought against electronic music, which was another approach, a systemic approach, when I preferred an experimental approach actually working directly, empirically with sound. But at the same time, as I defended the music I was working on, I was personally horrified at what I was doing. I felt extremely guilty. As my father, the violinist, used to say, indulgently, What are you up to, my little chap? When are you going to make music? And I used to say – I’m doing what I can, but I can’t do that. I was always deeply unhappy at what I was doing. I was happy at overcoming great difficulties – my first difficulties with the turntables when I was working on ‘Symphonie pour un homme seul’:: – my first difficulties with the tape-recorders when I was doing ‘Etude aux objets’ – that was good work, I did what I set out to do – my work on the ‘Solfege’ – it’s not that I disown everything I did – it was a lot of hard work. But each time I was to experience the disappointment of not arriving at music. I couldn’t get to music – what I call music. I think of myself as an explorer struggling to find a way through in the far north, but I wasn’t finding a way through.

TH: So you did discover that there was no way through.

PS: There is no way through. The way through is behind us.

TH: So it’s in that context that we should understand your relatively small output as a composer after those early years?

PS: I was very well received. I had no social problems. These
successes added to my burden of doubt. I’m the opposite of the
persecuted musician. In fact I don’t consider myself a real musician. I’m in the dictionary as a musician. It makes me laugh. A good researcher is what I am.

Thankyou, Pierre, for expressing how I feel about your music, which is that it is unlistenable.

[Addendum. Of coure, this post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Just because Pierre Schaeffer rejects his earlier theories does not mean that they are not still very relevant nor insightful. At a minimum, I think that Schaeffer’s notion of ‘playing’ with technology is still, at least in experimental electronic music, the predominant form of musical form (as opposed to composition). That’s worth a post in itself: playing (as in searching as you go, during a performance) as opposed to composing). ]

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