Listening…:: Musique concrète

BEK 11.11.2009 13.0011.11.2009 15.00


Trained as a radio-engineer rather than musician, Schaeffer’s method of composition bore a closer resemblance to cinematic montage than it did to traditional musical composition.

The development of musique concrete was facilitated by the emergence of new music technology in post-war Europe. Access to microphones and magnetic tape recorders (created in 1939), afforded by an association with the French national broadcasting organization, at that time the Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, gave Schaeffer and his colleagues an opportunity to experiment with recording technology and tape manipulation.

In 1951 Schaeffer, along with the engineer Jacques Poullin, and composer-percussionist Pierre Henry, established the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (Research Group on Concrete Music) at RTF in Paris, establishing the first purpose-built electroacoustic music studio. It quickly attracted several notable composers including Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgar Varese, Iannis Xenakis, Michel Philippot, and Arthur Honegger. The Groupe de Recherches Musicales de l’Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (GRM) was formed in 1958 by Schaeffer, François Bayle, Iannis Xenakis, Luc Ferrari, and others to continue Schaeffer’s research in working with recorded sounds.

Schaeffer called his new music “musique concrète”, in contrast with traditional “musique abstraite”, which passed through the detours of notation, instrumentation, and performance. Like many post-war French intellectuals, Schaffer was attracted to the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, founder of “phenomenology”. Phenomenology disregards the traditional philosophical distinctions between “subject” and “object”, “appearance” and “reality” and instead attempts simply to describe the contents of experience without reference to its source or subjective mode (e.g. dreaming, waking, etc.). In the case of sound, for example, instead of distinguishing sounds with references to their sources (the sound of a guitar, the sound of a violin), phenomenology attempts to “reduce” (separate or distill) signal from source, and to restrict itself to describe the differences among sounds themselves. This way Schaeffer introduces the concepts of “acousmatic listening” and the “sonorous object”.


P. Schaeffer: Acousmatics. Ch. 14 in Audio Culture. Readings in modern music, ed. by C. Cox and D. Warner.

Recommended further reading

Michel Chion: Guide des Objets Sonores (1983). English translation.


Excerpts from works by Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry and others.

Recommended further listening

Archives GRM (5 CD Box – 2004)
La Ville by Pierre Henry (Audio CD – 1999)
Interieur Exterieur by Pierre Henry (Audio CD – 2000)


About Listening to Donald Judd

Sound is becoming an integrated part of contemporary artistic practices. Artists working with sound are relating to and crossing the boundaries between contemporary fine arts, sound art, sound in the arts, contemporary music, popular music, experimental music, electronic music and more, all with their particular and interweaving histories and discourses.

This course will encourage an increased awareness and appreciation of the different perspectives, when listening to sound and music as well as through the development of a language for discussing sound and music.

We will meet for 1-2 hours at regular intervals (approx. every 2-3 weeks) to listen to, discuss and analyze a selection of works spanning the history of sound art as well as contemporary and popular music, combined with collective readings of selected relevant texts.

The course is a collaboration between BEK and Bergen National Academy of the Arts.