A guide to Pierre Schaeffer, the godfather of sampling
Nearly 50 years before DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing was hailed as the first album made entirely of samples, a French broadcaster envisioned a music made solely from pre-recorded loops.
Sampling, and even to an extent turntablism, can be traced back to the recording experiments of Pierre Schaeffer. An engineer, writer, composer, philosopher, musicologist, educator and acoustician, Schaeffer is one of the most influential figures in modern music, known for pioneering a radical innovation in 20th century music: musique concrète.
After receiving a degree in radio broadcasting, the young Schaeffer began working as an engineer at France’s public broadcaster Radiodiffusion française (RDF) in 1936. Soon after, sparked by an interest in radio art, the theories of Italian Futurist thinker Luigi Russolo, and the use of recorded sound in cinema, Schaeffer convinced the RDF to grant him permission to begin experiments in music research and technology (formally called “research into noises”).
In 1942, Schaeffer officially founded his first studio at the RDF, the Studio d’Essai, later renamed Club d’Essai. It was here, equipped with mixers, a direct disc cutting lathe, and a library of sound effects, that the composer lay the groundwork for what would later be termed musique concrète. The most pivotal moment in Schaeffer’s career, however, came in 1949 when he met Pierre Henry, a classically trained composer with whom he would go on to co-found the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC, later GRM), the first studio designed specifically for electroacoustic music.
Over the next 10 years, the two composers would change the face of music forever. Apart from their countless aesthetic innovations, they achieved many technical successes, pioneering the use of magnetic tape by splicing and looping, and introducing several new inventions: a three-track tape recorder, a 10-head delay and loop machine (the morphophone), a keyboard-controlled device capable of replaying loops at various speeds (the phonogene), and several amplification systems used for spatial experimentation with sound.
Composers would no longer be bound to written scores and notation – their music could exist solely as recordings
Schaeffer, who was an outspoken anti-nuclear activist, once asked, “Why should a civilization which so misuses its power have, or deserve, a normal music?” By rethinking the foundations of music-making, he produced an art form that was anything but normal — a music that aimed to merge art with science, composition with engineering. His ideas turned conventional music theory on its head. Traditionally, composition moved from the abstract to the concrete — from concept and written notes to actual sounds. Schaeffer’s approach reversed the process, beginning instead with fragments of sound—field recordings of both natural and mechanical origin—which were then manipulated using studio techniques.
One of the more profound consequences of Schaeffer’s inversion of the compositional process was that composers would no longer be bound to written scores and notation. Their music could exist solely as recordings, without need for players or instruments to actualize them. Even among other experimental and avant-garde musics of the time, notably the “elektronische Musik” being produced by Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne, Schaeffer’s approach represented a radical shift. Because any sound could now be repurposed for the sake of music-making, the possible combinations of timbres, rhythms, instruments, voices and harmonies became virtually infinite.
“After the war, in the ‘45 to ‘48 period, we had driven back the German invasion but we hadn’t driven back the invasion of Austrian music, 12-tone music,” reflected Schaeffer, who had participated in the French resistance. “We had liberated ourselves politically, but music was still under an occupying foreign power, the music of the Vienna school.”
Dissatisfied with the state of music at the time, Schaeffer sought to create a new musical language which divorced sounds from their sources, thereby reducing music to the act of hearing alone — what he called “reduced listening.” Take, for example, a field recording of a train moving along its tracks. At face value you’d simply note the sound of a train; beyond that realization, listeners wouldn’t give it much more thought. Schaeffer, however, realized that there was a rich vein of musicality hidden within such seemingly mundane sounds: snippets of complex rhythms, unique timbral characteristics, tonal peculiarities, strange and interesting textures. Our perception of these qualities, he recognized, was hindered by the associations and references that sounds carry. The trick was to find a way to hide the associations in order to bring the musical qualities of those sounds to the forefront.
Schaeffer’s work anticipated everything from The Bomb Squad to hauntology and vaporwave
After considerable struggle, the details of which Schaeffer documented in a series of journals, published in English as In Search of a Concrete Music, he discovered that he could modify and transform his field recordings through the manipulation of turntables, acetate records, filters and magnetic tape, thereby rendering their original context, form, and ultimately their source unrecognizable. Without these techniques the history of music production — particularly hip-hop and electronic music — would look very different.
As Jean-Michel Jarre, a former student of Schaeffer’s, put it in 2007: “Back in the ‘40s, Schaeffer invented the sample, the locked groove — in other words, the loop […] It was Schaeffer who experimented with distorting sounds, playing them backwards, speeding them up and slowing them down. He was the one who invented the entire way music is made these days.”
Schaeffer’s influence stretched far beyond his contemporaries (Olivier Messiaen, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez all drew inspiration from his theories), and today it’s hard to find recorded music in any genre, on any continent, that his ideas and methods haven’t touched. Emphasizing texture and juxtaposition over traditional elements like melody, harmony and rhythm, Schaeffer’s collage-like works anticipated everything from the patchwork physicality of The Bomb Squad to the archival impulses of hauntology and vaporwave.
Schaeffer’s work was initially met with considerable hostility; the first musique concrète broadcasts pieces were criticized as un-musical, unlistenable—just “noise”. Even today, nearly 70 years later, his music can feels challenging, disorienting, even threatening. Presented in chronological order, the 10 compositions in this guide offer an introduction to the theories, techniques and ideas Schaeffer developed over his lifetime. Listeners can derive much pleasure from zooming in on the fine details, but in many respects Schaeffer’s work is at its most compelling when viewed as a system of interlocking components.
‘Etude aux chemins de fer’
Acousmatic listening was a pillar of Schaeffer’s theories. The term refers to the pedagogy of Pythagoras, who would lecture to his students from behind a veil to ensure that no visual cues distracted them from his teaching. Similarly, Schaeffer defined acousmatic as “referring to a sound that one hears without seeing the causes behind it.” This idea of hearing without seeing—listening without reference—was the primary focus of Schaeffer’s early research. In ‘Etude aux chemins de fer’, the very first musique concrète composition, we hear the composer wrestling with the concept, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.
An afternoon spent recording six train engines at Batignolles station in Paris secured a varied sample of noises: the jangling cadence of trains on the track, bird-like whistles, the pant of exhausts. Schaeffer’s journals capture his enthusiasm for his recordings and show his fascination with recording sound for sound’s sake, over and above any desire to compose or manipulate them: “Why shouldn’t they broadcast three minutes of ‘pure coach’ telling people that they only need to know how to listen, and that the whole art is in hearing? […] How much I prefer them in their raw state, rather than in the state of vague composition (decomposition).”
During his work on ‘Etude aux chemins de fer’ Schaeffer discovered some of his most trusted techniques for transforming field recordings into pieces worthy of acousmatic listening. Slowing the recordings down to half-speed, repeating them in a loop, rearranging their fragments at odd angles — all these techniques showed promise at isolating what Schaeffer called the “in-itself-ness of the sound”. The resulting music is a portrait of a strange mechanical wilderness, the machines communicating back and forth like newly awakened fauna, alienating and inviting in equal measure.
While most traces of the trains themselves were done away with, Schaeffer couldn’t help but envision an ideal scenario where the trains’ footprint was completely erased; he offered something of a motto for musique concrète in the process: “I hope that one day there will come together an audience that prefers the theoretically less rewarding sequences, where the train must be forgotten and only sequences of sound color, changes of time, and the secret life of percussion instruments are heard.”
Also known as ‘Etude aux casseroles’ (Saucepan Study), ‘Etude pathétique’ is the final and most accomplished installment in Schaeffer’s first collection of musique concrète pieces, Cinq études de bruits (Five Studies of Noises). The night before departing on a business trip, frustrated with his lack of progress, Schaeffer decided to fit in one last studio session. During this final session, he found a record lying around the studio containing a monologue by French actor Sacha Guitry, which was interrupted every so often by the nagging cough of the recording’s script supervisor. With this raw material, Scheffer decided to apply his musique concrète techniques to the human voice.
The resulting montage is haunting: a splintered call-and-response between Guitry’s lines (“On your lips, on your lips”) and the throaty cough, backed by a ghostly soundscape of accordion and harmonica fragments, snippets of Balinese music, echoing piano, the chug of canal boats, and the sound of spinning tin cans (the last of which opens and closes the piece). As he tells it, ‘Etude pathétique’ took Schaeffer only minutes to complete, yet he instantly recognized that it was the best of his early works. Considering how chopped-and-screwed vocal samples now dominate popular and experimental music alike, ‘Etude pathétique’ was one of the very first pieces of music to reveal the seductive and malleable quality of the sampled human voice.
Futurism in whatever form, from literature to film to music, has always been infatuated by the marriage of man and machine; of technology finally assimilated into flesh. When Schaeffer and Henry collaborated on their first large-scale work (Symphonie pour un homme seul), they too put the human body on the chopping block. The fourth movement in what’s widely considered the first masterpiece of musique concrète, ‘Erotica’ features a female voice made vulnerable to the angular edits of Schaeffer’s studio techniques.
Wrapped in a pulsing, grainy skin, ‘Erotica’ is a piece that really does seem to breathe, with flashes of contorted laughter and libidinal yelps colluding to mysterious effect. ‘Erotica’ showed how recording technology could do more than simply alter or mangle human forms; it can also, in its own disorienting way, expose and undress them.
The YouTube comments for ‘Apostrophe’ are fascinating. A random sample: “This disturbs me greatly”; “I listen to crazy noisy stuff but I have to say that made my head hurt!”; “I want this to play at my funeral”; “Oneohtrix!!!”; “Drifting along in this empty void”; “This is fuckin awesome”. It’s testament to its timeless strangeness that ‘Apostrophe’, a piece that debuted over 60 years ago, can still generate such lively conversation, even among listeners whose parents weren’t even born when it first appeared.
Schaeffer’s own sense of discovery, and the excitement that went with it, can still be detected in this music. Much like the rest of Symphonie pour un homme seul, ‘Apostrophe’ uses the human voice in many un-human ways, transforming it at various points into a percussive device, a blaring horn, even an organ-like groan. Injected with violent left-turns and startling eruptions, ‘Apostrophe’ is a study in texture and asymmetrical lines, seemingly delighting in magnifying its own uneven fissures and roughened angles.
When Schaeffer and Henry’s Orphée 53, the first musique concrète opera, debuted at the Donaueschingen Festival in October 1953, it offended and puzzled listeners in equal measure, while deepening the ideological rift between musique concrète and elektronische Musik. Based on Christoph Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Euridice, Orphée 53 is a highly visual and uncompromisingly surreal masterstroke that still stands as one of the genre’s highlights.
Comprised of monstrous bellows, crunchy harpsichord, thunder, engine growls, swarming bees, sensual spoken word, and god knows what else, Orphée 53 sidesteps much of musique concrète’s innate playfulness and humor in favor of large, ethereal landscapes and discomfiting sound design. More than anything that came before it, Orphée 53 solidified musique concrète’s cultural impact, insuring that no discourse on the history of the avant-garde would be complete without mention of Schaeffer’s ambitious new art form.
‘Etude aux sons animés’
If we ever receive an extraterrestrial response to the Voyager’s Golden Record, it might sound like this, one of Schaeffer most unsettling compositions. From the cybernated whines that open the piece, sounding like mechanical insects or malfunctioning satellites, to the final howl at the end, ‘Etude aux sons animés’ never fails to set teeth on edge.
‘Etude aux sons animés’ is something of a transitional piece when looking at Schaeffer’s work from afar; you can begin to hear the germs of his more tightly ordered later works, yet here we still have remnants of the gritty film and blurred edges that marked his initial forays into musique concrète.
‘Etude aux allures’
A badland of drones, cavernous delays and sparse percussive skeletons, ‘Etude aux allures’ is the closest to ambient listening that Schaeffer ever came. Originally conceived as the sonic accompaniment to a visual short by artist Raymond Hains, its prodding minimalism is a suitable fit with Hains’ undulating geometric graphics; images of brittle wastelands and cavernous dugouts come to mind when making your way through the piece.
The details of these imagined landscapes are made ever more real and immediate given Schaeffer’s manipulation of the acoustic field: sounds attack with aggression but linger with persistent fades, consistently moving in and out focus like film dissolves.
As we move into Schaeffer’s later works, the first thing to notice is an improvement in fidelity owing to Schaeffer’s transition from acetate discs to magnetic tape. There’s less mud and opacity, less gray; the colors are purer and more defined. There’s now more room for individual samples to breathe and to make themselves known. The tactility in a piece like ‘Objets multipliés’ is astonishing, as if objects are being held directly to your ear: pans rattles and clank against your eardrum, while metallic needles nestle up to your auditory cortex.
As abstract as his later material is, Schaeffer also employed some western classical music tropes. For example, the five-movement ‘Etude aux objets’ (in which ‘Objets multipliés’ is the third) opens with ‘Objets exposés’, which functions like a typical opening movement by introducing the themes that subsequent installments will expand upon. Though a certain energy and naive charm is lacking in ‘Etude aux objects’ when compared to earlier sets like ‘Études de bruits’, there’s no denying that Schaeffer’s techniques are otherwise improved in nearly every facet. Spatial experimentation with sound, carefully measured acoustical nuance, attention to the finest details—Schaeffer only seemed to get better with age.
The theories and methods behind musique concrète were always strictly antithetical to electronic music. The genre’s materials were physically sourced from the world; its processes and approaches hands-on by design. “I am seeking direct contact with sound material, without electrons getting in the way,” Schaeffer said. All of which is to say that Le Trièdre Fertile (from which ‘Strette’ comes) should not exist — it’s an entirely electronic piece of music.
Using prepared electronic sounds courtesy of pupil Bernard Dürr, Schaeffer goes about dismantling and reconfiguring them into brilliant, glossy structures — remaking his musique concrète anew. Cool, cleanly delineated lines are juxtaposed with electro-gurgles and flighty squiggles, creating a retro-futuristic mood that’s somehow both kitsch and prescient, evoking artificial intelligence and scenes of far-flung space travel. It’s hard to believe that a man approaching 70 constructed ‘Strette’; it radiates such wide-eyed optimism and youthful spark.
Though the tones and colors glitter, the way they’re arranged is distinctly claustrophobic. Alarm-like oscillations raise the intensity one moment, while dense ripples crest and break the next — the relief had in these moments demonstrates Schaeffer’s brilliance with sound design. Whether the result of compromise or just a carefree last hurrah, ‘Strette’ shows Schaeffer, a man nearing the end of his career, in fine form – musique concrète be damned.
One of Schaeffer’s last works, ‘Bilude’ is a synthesis of piano and tape which quotes Bach’s ‘Prelude in C Minor’ and subjects it to a series of playful edits. The tempo remains intact, but the piece’s timbres are altered, touches of reverb are added intermittently, and entire segments are transposed with blocks of concrète samples: the clip-clop of hooves, the swoosh of brush bristles, gurgling water, snapping staplers and more are all pasted into Bach’s original composition (the train whistles from Schaeffer’s first musique concrète composition even reappear at 1:34). The effect is both silly and illuminating.
Part of The Well-Tempered Clavier, ‘Prelude in C Minor’ is a piece that’s translatable on any keyboard instrument, and Schaeffer seems to be playing with that idea here. It’s as if he’s using the piece to point out the fundamental differences between classical music and musique concrète – namely, that while classical music can be adapted across many different instruments, musique concrète’s sound objects are intrinsically unique.
The same sentiment is explicitly referenced by Schaeffer in his text In Search of a Concrete Music: “In classical music a do is a do whatever its situation in the tessitura. In concrete music a sound, generally “complex,” cannot be separated from its situation in the sound spectrum. It is part of its quality; nothing can be superimposed, divided, transposed.”