Hello and Good Morning!
It’s been a little while, but today I wanted to share the beginnings of contemporary acousmatic music.
First of all, what is acousmatic music? The term acousmatic comes from the greek akusma that means “a thing heard”. This type of methodology was first known to be used in ancient greek education, where the teacher or master would be hidden behind a curtain so that the students only heard his voice, but were’nt able to see the teacher (eventually as the students grew in knowledge and experience, they would finally be able to learn face to face). In other words, an acousmatic medium is when you hear something but don’t see the source.
Nowadays we are all experiencing this at all time. Radio, portable music devices and movies are some examples of situations where we have an Acousmatic listening experience. But this had to start somewhere, right?
The radio. Probably the most important invention of mankind. Thanks to the radio we have wireless networks, cable, internet and so on and so forth, but it had also major implications on the way music was made, heard and shared. After profound research and experiences, the first commercial radio was built in 1894 by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi. A little after the invention of the first phonograph in 1877. (The phonograph was indeed the first medium to experience an acousmatic situation, but only the radio made it available for the general public and inspired research that landed in the technology we have today.)
It was 1942 in Paris when the engineer and broadcaster Pierre Schaeffer started to experiment with all those devices and tape machines that were used in the Radiodifussion Nationale, where he worked. Little did he know that he was the first drop of water in the humongous ocean of experimental and electronic music that was yet to come. He started to record on tape, then sliced it and then glued it back together on different parts. He took the end of a tape and pasted it with its beginning, creating loops. He also discovered that by changing the speed of the tape machine, the sound with be higher or lower in pitch. This experiments were the precursor to what he called Musique Concrète.
Musique Concrète is, as Schaeffer defined, the procedure of composing music using and manipulating recorded sounds. This sounds could be anything, from train sounds, to human voice, to urban sounds or even traditional musical sounds. As you may imagine, the repercussions of this new way of making music were big. In an post-war era where serialism and neo-romantism were arising, here came this french guy and made some noise. That was not very well received by most of the public, but a lot of composers in the quest for new ways of music making surely rose their ears.
Although this composing procedure sounds like just a cool thing to do, Schaeffer actually theorized and wrote a lot about this type of music and the implications that came with it. Two of his most acclaimed and important works to this day is are the Solfège de l’objet Sonore and Traité des objets musicaux. In these, he suggest a new way of listening in which the sound exists by itself, not conditioned or determined by a source. For example, if you listen to a car passing by, it’s not the image of a car that matters, but how does the sound of the motor sounds like, how does it behave, how the texture of the sound is, if it is a constant sound, or a varying one, etc. If you have the chance or opportunity of reading his work I do recommend to do so. There are several youtube videos about it so take advantage of that!
There are many things to be said about Schaeffer’s work and the musique concrète, that will surely be talked about here in the future. For now I leave you with one of the earliest pieces of Musique Concrète called Étude aux Chemins de Fer. In this piece, composed in 1948, Schaeffer works with sounds of trains, whistles and voices. The piece is part of the Cinq Étude de Bruits.
Thank you and have a good day!