Musique Concrète : all sounds can lead to music

A little history


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When did it all start?


It isn’t really possible to say when the notion of music first started.  Cavemen may well have stamped their feet, clapped their hands, used a couple of stones to tap-out a beat, even experimented with strange hollering noises as some very primitive form of singing [after all, even in the digital age, your voice is still by far the most powerful musical instrument available to you!].  There was no means to record sound in pre-historic times; we can only guess at what they were doing.


We certainly know that music existed well before the days of the printing press, and we can track the development of musical instruments from pipes, percussion, early stringed instruments and pianos to the guitars and keyboards we know today; in the Western world we can easily trace the development of what might be termed traditional instrumental music.

The big bang

Things really started to change in the middle of the twentieth Century [around 1948] when a couple of French musicians [Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer] started to play with recorded sounds.  They quickly realised that recordings, first on 78rpm shellac disks, and later on quarter-inch analogue tape, allowed them to do things they could not do before.  They could speed sounds up; they could slow them down; they could make them louder or quieter; they could repeat a sound, cut pieces out of it, filter it ... - and then, they could do the whole lot again playing the sound backwards. 


So they could take concrete sounds; sounds from real life objects: the rattle of a saucepan lid, the rush and roar of a railway engine, a baby crying, the ring of a knife tapping a wine glass - they could use any sound from real life - and turn it into music. 


Once you had learnt how to cut and edit tape using a razor blade; once you had the patience to sit for hours, recording, altering tape speed, re-recording, cutting, sorting, joining tiny pieces of tape to make your finished work; once you had wasted a few hours getting two [or three] mechanical tape recorders to start at the same time, you could get your music to sound something like you wanted.

Roll forward ...

Roll forward, and enter the digital era:

Now we can have a recording studio on a PC or Macintosh workstation; we can edit those sounds on-screen.  Not only are our fingers safe from the razor blade, and we don’t have to work with a desk-full of pieces of tape that fly everywhere every time someone opens the door or you sneeze; but also we can now do things with our sounds which the two Pierres could only dream about.


We can

We can even go back to the stone age, and record wild hollerings in the studio, and then modify these to become part of something much more sophisticated.


Where did it all start?

In Europe

It all started in the late 1940s, when analogue tape recorders of a good quality began to be available to musicians and researchers.  Two musicians, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were working for ORTF - the French equivalent of Britan's BBC.  They began to explore ways of changing the sounds they recorded on 78s, and later on tape.  This was something completely new.  Schaeffer first used the term Musique Concrète in 1948, based on the idea being that concrete, abstract sounds were used like building blocks to build a piece of music.

The Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète [GRMC - Musique Concrète Research Group] was formed shortly afterwards.  GRMC had the first specialist recording studio dedicated to such work ...

At about the same time, a German composer, Karheinz Stockhausen, and others were also experimenting in Cologne.  They were among a number of musicians around Europe and beyond who began to see that the gramophone and tape recorder were the start of something new in the world of musical composition.

In Britain

Around 1957 a couple of Studio Managers in the BBC Drama department, Daphe Oram and Desmond Briscoe, recognised the need for the BBC to have a facility to make unusual and unreal sound effects to add a new dimension to drama, both on television and on Radio.  In 1958 the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was formed.  It wasn't long before the Workshop was also delivering a whole new genre of music for TV and radio.

In the four decades that followed, some of the most poineering advances in musical creativity were inspired there.  Among many bands and artists to be directly inspired by some of the workshop's composers are acts including: The Beach Boys; The Beatles; Pink Floyd; and, more recently, Sonic Boom.

The Radiophonic Workshop's musique concrète was used for programmes as diverse as: dramatic stories set in the Sahara; Sir David Attenborough's explorations of natural history; funny sound effects for comedians like The Goons; theme tunes and backing music for schools' TV programmes; and a vast amount of work for Doctor Who.

Notable composers who worked at the BBC RWS over the years included: Daphne Oram, Dick Mills, Maddelena Fagandini, Brian Hodgson, Delia Derbyshire, John Baker, David Cain, Malcolm Clark, Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb, Elizabeth Parker.

Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson were also involved in work outside the BBC - notably The White Noise [An Electric Storm] with David Vorhaus; music for the ITV series The Tomorrow People [also with Vorhaus]; and the development of one of the first synthesizers, the EMS VCS3, working with Peter Zinovieff. 

Add to this a vast number of pop and rock bands who have been manipulating sounds to surprise their listeners, or maybe to make them wonder "How the heck do they get that sound?" and you can begin to see why musique concrète can be a life-long profession, as well as a fascinating hobby.

We're not going to give a more detailed history here; there's plenty out there on the Web already.  The Musique Concrète page on Wikipedia is a good place to start - and [as of January 2011] seems to have been updated by someone who knows their phonographs from their tape recorders! 


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