Musique concrète (French for "concrete music" or "real music") is a form of electroacoustic music that utilises acousmatic sound as a compositional resource. The compositional material is not restricted to the inclusion of sonorities derived from musical instruments or voices, nor to elements traditionally thought of as "musical" (melody, harmony, rhythm, metre and so on). The theoretical underpinnings of the aesthetic were developed by Pierre Schaeffer, beginning in the late 1940s.
Initial tools of musique concrete
In 1948, a typical radio studio consisted of a series of shellac record players, a shellac record recorder, a mixing desk, with rotating potentiometers, a mechanical reverberation, filters, and microphones. This technology made a number of limited operations available to a composer (Teruggi 2007):
Shellac record players: could read a sound normally and in reverse mode, could change speed at fixed ratios thus permitting octave transposition.
Shellac recorder: would record any result coming out of the mixing desk.
Mixing desk: would permit several sources to be mixed together with an independent control of the gain or volume of the sound. The result of the mixing was sent to the recorder and to the monitoring loudspeakers. Signals could be sent to the filters or the reverberation unit.
Mechanical reverberation: made of a metal plate or a series of springs that created the reverberation effect, indispensable to force sounds to ‘fuse’ together.
Filters: two kinds of filters, 1/3 octave filters and, high and low-pass filters. They allow the elimination or enhancement of selected frequencies.
Microphones: essential tool for capturing sound.
The application of the above technologies in the creation of musique concrete led to the development of a number of sound manipulation techniques including (Teruggi 2007):
Sound transposition: reading a sound at a different speed than the one at which it was recorded.
Sound looping: composers developed a skilled technique in order to create loops at specific locations.
Sound-sample extraction: a hand-controlled method that required delicate manipulation to get a clean sample of sound. It entailed letting the stylus read a small segment of a record. Used in the Symphonie pour un homme seul.
Filtering: by eliminating most of the central frequencies of a signal, the remains would keep some trace of the original sound but without making it recognisable.
Microphone: for capturing sounds and also for magnifying scarcely audible sound sources.
The first tape recorders start arriving at ORTF in 1949; however, their functioning was much less reliable than the shellac players, to the point that the Symphonie pour un homme seul, which was composed in 1950–51, was mainly composed with records, even if the tape recorder was available (Teruggi 2007, 216). In 1950, when the machines finally functioned correctly, the techniques of musique concrete were expanded. A range of new sound manipulation practices were explored using improved media manipulation methods and operations such as speed variation. A completely new possibility of organising sounds appears with tape editing, which permits tape to be spliced and arranged with an extraordinary new precision. The ‘axe-cut junctions’ were replaced with micrometric junctions and a whole new technique of production, less dependency on performance skills, could be developed. Tape editing brought a new technique called ‘micro-editing’, in which very tiny fragments of sound, representing milliseconds of time, were edited together, thus creating completely new sounds or structures (Teruggi 2007, 217).
Development of novel devices
During the GRMC period from 1951-1958 time Schaeffer and Jacques Poullin developed a number of novel sound creation tools including a three-track tape recorder, a machine with ten playback heads to replay tape loops in echo (the morphophone), a keyboard-controlled machine to replay tape loops at twenty-four preset speeds (the keyboard, chromatic, or Tolana phonogène), a slide-controlled machine to replay tape loops at a continuously variable range of speeds (the handle, continuous, or Sareg phonogène), and a device to distribute live an encoded track across four loudspeakers, including one hanging from the centre of the ceiling (the potentiomètre d’espace) (Palombini 1999).
The chromatic phonogene.
Speed variation was a powerful tool for sound design applications. It had been identified that transformations brought about by varying playback speed lead to modification in the character of the sound material:
Variation in the sounds' length, in a manner directly proportional to the ratio of speed variation.
Variation in length is coupled with a variation in pitch, and is also proportional to the ratio of speed variation.
A sounds attack characteristic is altered, whereby it is either dislocated from succeeding events, or the energy of the attack is more sharply focused.
The distribution of spectral energy is altered, thereby influencing how the resulting timbre might be perceived, relative to its original unaltered state.
The phonogene was a machine capable of modifying sound structure significantly and it provided composers with a means to adapt sound to meet specific compositional contexts. The initial phonogenes were manufactured in 1953 by two subcontractors: the chromatic phonogene by a company called Tolana, and the sliding version by the SAREG Company (Poullin 1999). A third version was developed later at ORTF. An outline of the unique capabilities of the various phonogenes can be see here:
Chromatic: The chromatic phonogene was controlled through a one-octave keyboard. Multiple capstans of differing diameters vary the tape speed over a single stationary magnetic tape head. A tape loop was put into the machine, and when a key was played, it would act on an individual pinch roller / capstan arrangement and the tape played at the specified speed. The machine worked with short sounds only (Poullin 1999).
Sliding: The sliding phonogene (also called continuous variation phonogene) provided continuous variation of tape speed using a control rod (Poullin 1999). The range allowed the motor to arrive at almost a stop position, always through a continuous variation. It was basically a normal tape recorder but with the ability to control its speed, so it could modify any length of tape. One of the earliest examples of its use can by heard in Voile d’Orphee by Pierre Henry (1953), where a lengthy glissando is used to symbolise the removal of Orpheus's veil as he enters hell.
Universal: A final version called the universal phonogene was completed in 1963. The device's main ability was that it enabled the dissociation of pitch variation from time variation. This was the starting point for methods that would later become widely available using digital technology, for instance harmonising (transposing sound without modifying duration) and time stretching (modifying duration without pitch modification). This was obtained through a rotating magnetic head called the Springer temporal regulator, an ancestor of the rotating heads used in video machines.
The three-head tape recorder
This original tape recorder was one of the first machines permitting the simultaneous listening of several synchronised sources. Until 1958 musique concrete, radio and the studio machines were monophonic. The three-head tape recorder superposed three magnetic tapes that were dragged by a common motor, each tape having an independent spool. The objective was to keep the three tapes synchronised from a common starting point. Works could then be conceived polyphonically, and thus each head conveyed a part of the information and was listened to through a dedicated loudspeaker. It was an ancestor of the multi-track player (four then eight tracks) that appeared in the 1960s. Timbres Durees by Olivier Messiaen with the technical assistance of Pierre Henry was the first work composed for this tape recorder in 1952. A rapid rhythmic polyphony was distributed over the three channels (Teruggi 2007, 218).
This machine was conceived to build complex forms through repetition, and accumulation of events through delays, filtering and feedback. It consisted of a large rotating disk, 50 cm in diameter, on which was stuck a tape with its magnetic side facing outward. A series of twelve movable magnetic heads (one each recording head and erasing head, and ten playback heads) were positioned around the disk, in contact with the tape. A sound up to four seconds long could be recorded on the looped tape and the ten playback heads would then read the information with different delays, according to their (adjustable) positions around the disk. A separate amplifier and band-pass filter for each head could modify the spectrum of the sound, and additional feedback loops could transmit the information to the recording head. The resulting repetitions of a sound occurred at different time intervals, and could be filtered or modified through feedback. This system was also easily capable of producing artificial reverberation or continuous sounds (Teruggi 2007, 218).
Pierre Henry using induction coils to control sound spatially.
Early sound spatialisation system
At the premiere of Pierre Schaeffer's Symphonie pour un homme seul in 1951, a system that was designed for the spatial control of sound was tested. It was called a "relief desk" (pupitre de relief, but also referred to as pupitre d'espace or potentiomètre d'espace) and was intended to control the dynamic level of music played from several shellac players. This created a stereophonic effect by controlling the positioning of a monophonic sound source (Teruggi 2007, 218). One of five tracks, provided by a purpose-built tape machine, was controlled by the performer and the other four tracks each supplied a single loudspeaker. This provided a mixture of live and preset sound positions (Poullin, 1957). The placement of loudspeakers in the performance space included two loudspeakers at the front right and left of the audience, one placed at the rear, and in the centre of the space a loudspeaker was placed in a high position above the audience. The sounds could therefore be moved around the audience, rather than just across the front stage. On stage, the control system allowed a performer to position a sound either to the left or right, above or behind the audience, simply by moving a small, hand held transmitter coil towards or away from four somewhat larger receiver coils arranged around the performer in a manner reflecting the loudspeaker positions (Teruggi 2007, 218). A contemporary eyewitness described the potentiomètre d'espace in normal use:
One found one’s self sitting in a small studio which was equipped with four loudspeakers—two in front of one—right and left; one behind one and a fourth suspended above. In the front center were four large loops and an “executant” moving a small magnetic unit through the air. The four loops controlled the four speakers, and while all four were giving off sounds all the time, the distance of the unit from the loops determined the volume of sound sent out from each.
The music thus came to one at varying intensity from various parts of the room, and this “spatial projection” gave new sense to the rather abstract sequence of sound originally recorded. (Gradenwitz 1953)
The central concept underlying this method was the notion that music should be controlled during public presentation in order to create a performance situation; an attitude that has stayed with acousmatic music to the present day (Teruggi 2007, 218).
The Coupigny synthesiser and Studio 54 mixing desk
Pierre Schaeffer at the Studio 54 desk adjusting a Moog, the Coupigny is in the row below.
After the longstanding rivalry with the "electronic music" of the Cologne studio had subsided, in 1970 the GRM finally created an electronic studio using tools developed by the physicist Enrico Chiarucci, called the Studio 54, which featured the "Coupigny modular synthesiser" and a Moog synthesizer with VCA (Gayou 2007, 208). The Coupigny synthesiser, named for its designer François Coupigny, director of the the Group for Technical Research (Battier 2007, 200), and the Studio 54 mixing desk had a major influence on the evolution of GRM and from the point of their introduction on they brought a new quality to the music (Teruggi 2007, 220). The mixing desk and synthesiser were combined in one unit and were created specifically for the creation of musique concrete.
The design of the desk was influenced by trade union rules at French National Radio that required technicians and production staff to have clearly defined duties. The solitary practice of musique concrete composition did not suit a system that involved three operators: one in charge of the machines, a second controlling the mixing desk, and third to provide guidance to the others. Because of this the synthesiser and desk were combined and organised in a manner that allowed it to be used easily by a composer. Independently of the mixing tracks (twenty-four in total), it had a coupled connection patch that permitted the organisation of the machines within the studio. It also had a number of remote controls for operating tape recorders. The system was easily adaptable to any context, particularly that of interfacing with external equipment (Teruggi 2007, 219).
Before the late 1960s the musique concrete produced at GRM had largely been based on the recording and manipulation of sounds, but synthesised sounds had featured in a number of works prior to the introduction of the Coupigny. Pierre Henry had used oscillators to produce sounds as early as 1955. But a synthesiser with parametrical control was something Pierre Schaeffer was against, since it favoured the preconception of music and therefore deviated from Schaeffer's principal of ‘making through listening’ (Teruggi 2007, 219). Because of Schaeffer's concerns the Coupigny synthesiser was conceived as a sound-event generator with parameters controlled globally, without a means to define values as precisely as some other synthesisers of the day (Teruggi 2007, 219–20).
The development of the machine was constrained by several factors. It needed to be modular and the modules had to be easily interconnected (so that the synthesiser would have more modules than slots and it would have an easy-to-use patch). It also needed to include all the major functions of a modular synthesiser including oscillators, noise-generators, filters, ring-modulators, but an intermodulation facility was viewed as the primary requirement; to enable complex synthesis processes such as frequency modulation, amplitude modulation, and modulation via an external source. No keyboard was attached to the synthesiser and instead a specific and somewhat complex envelope generator was used to shape sound. This synthesiser was well-adapted to the production of continuous and complex sounds using intermodulation techniques such as cross-synthesis and frequency modulation but was less effective in generating precisely defined frequencies and triggering specific sounds (Teruggi 2007, 220).
The Coupigny synthesiser also served as the model for a smaller, portable unit, which has been used down to the present day (Battier 2007, 200).
Schaeffer presenting The Acousmonium.
In 1966 composer and technician Francois Bayle was placed in charge of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales and in 1975, GRM was integrated with the new Institut national de l'audiovisuel (INA - Audiovisual National Institute) with Bayle as its head. In taking the lead on work that began in the early 1950s, with Jacques Poullin's potentiomètre d’espace, a system designed to move monophonic sound sources across four speakers, Bayle and the engineer Jean-Claude Lallemand created an orchestra of loudspeakers (un orchestra de haut-parleurs) known as the Acousmonium in 1974. An inaugural concert took place at the Espace Pierre Cardin in Paris with a presentation of Bayle's Experience acoustique (Gayou 2007, 209).
The Acousmonium is a specialised sound reinforcement system consisting of between 50 and 100 loudspeakers, depending on the character of the concert, of varying shape and size. The system was designed specifically for the concert presentation of musiques concrete based works but with the added enhancement of sound spatialisation. Loudspeakers are placed both on stage and at positions throughout the performance space (Gayou 2007, 209) and a mixing console is used to manipulate the placement of acousmatic material across the speaker array, using a performative technique known as sound diffusion (Austin 2000, 10-21). Bayle has commented that the purpose of the Acousmonium is to "substitute a momentary classical disposition of sound making, which diffuses the sound from the circumference towards the centre of the hall, by a group of sound projectors which form an ‘orchestration’ of the acoustic image" (Bayle 1993, 44).
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