Pierre Schaeffer: L’Oeuvre Musicale

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Paris, France, 1952
Courtesy GRM

Pierre Schaeffer, a radio engineer and announcer at Radiodiffusion Francaise (RF), began to explore research in sound and radio in the early 1940s.In 1948, he launched a new approach to music, which he called musique concrete. He described it in 1957 as the composition of “materials taken from an existing collection of experimental sounds … using fragments of sound existing concretely and considered as sound objects defined and whole …”

Schaeffer’s first musique concrete work was an assemblage of sounds of train wheels, engines, and whistles, entitled ‘Etude aux Chemins de Fer’ (Railroad Study). It was broadcast on RF, and was followed by several more studies that year. Soon, he hired a team of assistants, including Pierre Henry, who became his musical collaborator. Their joint work, ‘Symphonie pour un Homme Seul’ (Symphony for One Man Alone, 1950) was publicly heard in the first live concert of musique concrete, that year. Maurice Bejart choreographed the work, in 1955.

The following year, Schaeffer established the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrete, a studio outfitted with new tape recorders he designed to meet the genre’s unusual technical needs. Composers, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Darius Milhaud, and Pierre Boulez created works in the studio. Schaeffer continued to compose and he began to articulate a theory of sound objects. After Henry’s departure, in 1958, Schaeffer established a new studio, Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), with Luc Ferrari, Iannis Xenakis, and others. At Schaeffer’s urging, GRM soon became part of the newly formed Institut National Audiovisuel (INA), a section of Office de Radio Television Francaise (ORTF), in which he directed Le Service de la Recherche (The Research Service) from 1960 to 1975.

His musical activities during the years 1960 – 1975 were devoted largely to writing, including the completion of his major work, Traite des Objets Musicaux (1966), in which he defined his concepts of focussed listening and the sound object. Schaeffer briefly continued composing during the late 1970s, and ten years later, Pierre Henry completed a work based on an earlier collaboration. It received a performance in 1989. Pierre Schaeffer died in 1995.