Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pierre Schaeffer

Each fall, I teach a freshman seminar at The College of New Jersey titled, "Music and the Natural World." TCNJ's freshman seminars are each a semester long, and designed to expose students to interesting research and scholarly pursuits across disciplines. Topics range widely and include lots of topics that might spark the interest of recent high school grads, while giving them an entry to scholarship.

The course is a gas and I'm looking forward this fall. We read essays and articles in philosophy, musicology, physics and biology, ancient history … And we listen to a wide range of music, most of it outside the Western classical canon.

One figure we talk about each semester is Pierre Schaeffer and his work in musique concrète. So I was delighted to find this online article posted on the Vinyl Factory site that has an annotated listening guide, with complete works, as well as a good overview of his early career. The line between Schaeffer's work and sampling and hip-hop seems plain and straight to me, but my students have a harder time seeing it. Having this explanation in hand may help.

Plus there's a lot of stuff here I hadn't heard before. Spending part of my afternoon listening to the creepy and beautiful 1953 opera Orphée 53.

A separate work by Schaeffer colleague Pierre Henry, written the same year and on the same subject, Le Voile de Orphée II, features the first recorded use of the phonogene, shown above. A precursor of the simpler Mellotron, it featured multiple tape heads and a one-octave keyboard controller that could create a wide range of effects using prerecorded tape. The phonogene is mentioned in the Vinyl Factory article as one of the technological innovations created by Schaeffer and Henry in their time at the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète.