Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures

School of Music

Music Research Seminar: John Dack

Pierre Schaeffer

Pierre Schaeffer, Musique Concrète and the Instrument

Lecture Theatre 1, School of Music

The speaker is Dr John Dack (Middlesex University)


The Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) was the ‘inventor’ of musique concrète. For many years this was his sole legacy. However, I believe his five-stage ‘Programme de la recherche musicale’ (PROGREMU) should be acknowledged as an important example of how a theoretical system can result from electroacoustic practice. Schaeffer claimed that the first two stages of PROGREMU (Typology and Morphology) could classify and describe any sound regardless of source. Furthermore, he proposed that the remaining, admittedly more speculative, stages of Characterology, Analysis and Synthesis could be used to groups sounds into ‘families’, determine their ‘directional tendencies’ and create new sounds as necessary. My talk will give a summary of PROGREMU emphasizing Schaeffer’s relationship with the sound source in general and the ‘instrument’ in particular.

The fetishization of technology was disapproved of by composers at the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM). Indeed, according to Michel Chion: ‘le studio n’est pas un instrument’. Nevertheless, Schaeffer initially thought he could develop a musical ‘instrument’ to facilitate musique concrète compositional practice. The technical solution was the phonogène. This was, in effect, an analogue sampler which produced groups of sounds from a single recording by accelerating or decelerating the playback speed of a tape loop. The lack of perceived homogeneity between sounds led to the abandonment of the phonogène other than for basic sound transformation. Schaeffer concluded that ‘instrumental’ homogeneity should be based on the perception of common features of sounds from any source. Thus, the concept of a musical ‘instrument’ was re-assimilated in virtual rather than physical terms. The advantage of ‘virtual’ instruments (Schaeffer called them ‘pseudo-instruments’) is that they challenge the unity of traditional instruments and encourage the emergence of new sound families or ‘genres’ to use Schaeffer’s terminology. In acousmatic music ‘genres’ do not occupy fixed areas of the sound universe: they can fragment and re-configure and even provide examples for composers who choose to employ traditional instrumental resources. I will refer to texts by Schaeffer which I have translated with my colleague Christine North in order to explain this subtle relationship between musique concrète and the ‘instrument’.

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