Pierre Schaeffer

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Pierre Schaeffer
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Pierre Henri Marie Schaeffer

(1910-08-14)14 August 1910
Nancy, Lorraine, France
Died19 August 1995(1995-08-19) (aged 85)
Aix-en-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhône, France
OccupationComposer, musician, writer, engineer, professor, broadcaster, acoustician, musicologist, record producer, inventor, entrepreneur, cultural critic
Years active1942–1990
GRMC/GRM, INA, Phonurgia Nova, Philips, Disques Adès, EMF, Prospective 21e Siècle

Pierre Henri Marie Schaeffer (English pronunciation: /pˈɛərˈhɛnrməˈrˈʃfər/ ( Loudspeaker.svg listen ), French pronunciation:  [ʃɛfɛʁ] ; 14 August 1910 – 19 August 1995) [1] was a French composer, writer, broadcaster, engineer, musicologist, acoustician and founder of Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète. His innovative work in both the sciences—particularly communications and acoustics—and the various arts of music, literature and radio presentation after the end of World War II, as well as his anti-nuclear activism and cultural criticism garnered him widespread recognition in his lifetime.


Amongst the vast range of works and projects he undertook, Schaeffer is most widely and currently recognized for his accomplishments in electronic and experimental music, [2] at the core of which stands his role as the chief developer of a unique and early form of avant-garde music known as musique concrète. [3] The genre emerged in Europe from the utilization of new music technology developed in the post-war era, following the advance of electroacoustic and acousmatic music.

Schaeffer's writings (which include written and radio-narrated essays, biographies, short novels, a number of musical treatises and several plays) [1] [3] [4] are often oriented towards his development of the genre, as well as the theoretics and philosophy of music in general. [5]

Today, Schaeffer is considered one of the most influential experimental, electroacoustic and subsequently electronic musicians, having been the first composer to utilize a number of contemporary recording and sampling techniques that are now used worldwide by nearly all record production companies. [2] His collaborative endeavors are considered milestones in the histories of electronic and experimental music.


Early life and education

Schaeffer was born in Nancy in 1910. [3] His parents were both musicians (his father a violinist; his mother, a singer), [5] and at first it seemed that Pierre would also take on music as a career. However his parents discouraged his musical pursuits from childhood and had him educated in engineering. [2] He studied at several universities in this inclination, the first of which was Lycée Saint-Sigisbert located in his hometown of Nancy. Afterwards he moved westwards in 1929 to the École Polytechnique in Paris [3] [6] [7] and finally completed his education in the capital at the École supérieure d'électricité, in 1934. [7]

Schaeffer received a diploma in radio broadcasting from the École Polytechnique. [8] He may have also received a similar qualification from the École nationale supérieure des télécommunications, although it is not verifiable as to whether or not he ever actually attended this university. [8]

First experimentations and work in broadcasting and engineering; marriage and fatherhood

Later in 1934 Schaeffer entered his first employment as an engineer, briefly working in telecommunications in Strasbourg. [7] [9] In 1935 he began a relationship with a woman named Elisabeth Schmitt, and later in the year married her and with her had his first child, Marie-Claire Schaeffer. [7] He and his new family then officially relocated to Paris where he joined the Radiodiffusion Française (now called Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française; French for "French Radio and Television Broadcasting") in 1936 and began his work in radio broadcasting and presentation. [6] It was there that he began to move away from his initial interests in telecommunications and to pursue music instead, combining his abilities as an engineer with his passion for sound. In his work at the station, Schaeffer experimented with records and an assortment of other devices—the sounds they made and the applications of those sounds—after convincing the radio station's management to allow him to use their equipment. This period of experimentation was significant for Schaeffer's development, bringing forward many fundamental questions he had on the limits of modern musical expression. [6]

Schaeffer presenting the Acousmonium. Psconcer.jpg
Schaeffer presenting the Acousmonium.

In these experiments, Pierre tried playing sounds backwards, slowing them down, speeding them up and juxtaposing them with other sounds, [10] all techniques which were virtually unknown at that time. [6] He had begun working with new contemporaries whom he had met through RTF, and as such his experimentation deepened. Schaeffer's work gradually became more avant-garde, as he challenged traditional musical style with the use of various devices and practices. A unique variety of electronic instruments—ones which Schaeffer and his colleagues created, using their own engineering skills—came into play in his work, like the chromatic, sliding and universal phonogenes, François Bayle's Acousmonium and a host of other devices such as gramaphones and some of the earliest tape recorders. [10]

Beginnings of writing career

In 1938 Schaeffer began his career as a writer, penning various articles and essays for the Revue Musicale, a French journal of music. His first column, Basic Truths, provided a critical examination of musical aspects of the time.[ citation needed ]

A known ardent Catholic, Schaeffer began to write minor religiously-based pieces, and in the same year as his Basic Truths he published his first novel: Chlothar Nicole — a short Christian novel. [11]

Club d'essai and the origin of musique concrète

The Studio d'Essai, later Club d'Essai, was founded in 1942 by Pierre Schaeffer at the Radiodiffusion Nationale (France). It played a role in the activities of the French resistance during World War II, and later became a center of musical activity.

Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète

In 1949, Schaeffer met the percussionist-composer Pierre Henry, with whom he collaborated on many different musical compositions, and in 1951, he founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) in the French Radio Institution. [12] This gave him a new studio, which included a tape recorder. This was a significant development for Schaeffer, who previously had to work with phonographs and turntables to produce music. [13] Schaeffer is generally acknowledged as being the first composer to make music using magnetic tape. His continued experimentation led him to publish À la Recherche d'une Musique Concrète (French for "In Search of a Concrete Music") in 1952, which was a summation of his working methods up to that point. His only opera, Orphée 53 ("Orpheus 53"), premiered in 1953. [14]

Schaeffer left the GRMC in 1953 and reformed the group in 1958 as the Groupe de Recherche Musicale[s] (GRM) (at first without "s", then with "s").

In 1954 Schaeffer founded traditional music label Ocora ("Office de Coopération Radiophonique") alongside composer, pianist and musicologist Charles Duvelle, with a worldwide coverage in order to preserve African rural soundscapes. Ocora also served as a facility to train technicians in African national broadcasting services. Today, it is still run by Duvelle.

Over the years, Schaeffer mentored a number of students who went on to have successful careers in their own right including Éliane Radigue, and the young Jean Michel Jarre. His last "etude" (study) came in 1959: the "Study of Objects" (Etudes aux Objets).

Later life and death

Schaeffer became an associate professor at the Paris Conservatoire from 1968 to 1980 after creating a "class of fundamental music and application to the audiovisual." [1]

In the aftermath of the 1988 Armenian earthquake, the 78 year old Schaeffer led a 498-member French rescue team to look for survivors in Leninakan, and worked there until all foreign personnel were asked to leave. [15]

Schaeffer suffered from Alzheimer's disease later in his life, and died from the condition in Aix-en-Provence in 1995.[ citation needed ] He was 85 years old. He is buried in Delincourt in the very nice and green Vexin region (55 minutes from Paris) where he used to have his countryside property.[ citation needed ]

Schaeffer was thereafter remembered by many of his colleagues with the title, "Musician of Sounds".[ clarification needed ]


Musique concrète

Schaeffer often created his "concrete music" with real-world sounds. The notable Railroad Study (French: "Etude aux chemins de fer"), for instance, featured recordings of the noises made by trains running along railroad tracks. Steam Locomotive.jpg
Schaeffer often created his "concrete music" with real-world sounds. The notable Railroad Study (French: " Étude aux chemins de fer "), for instance, featured recordings of the noises made by trains running along railroad tracks.

Sound is the vocabulary of nature.

Pierre Schaeffer

The term musique concrète (French for "real music", literally "concrete music"), was coined by Schaeffer in 1948. [16] Schaeffer believed traditionally classical (or as he called it, "serious") music begins as an abstraction (musical notation) that is later produced as audible music. Musique concrète, by contrast, strives to start with the "concrete" sounds that emanate from base phenomena and then abstracts them into a composition. The term musique concrète is then, in essence, the breaking down of the structured production of traditional instruments, harmony, rhythm, and even music theory itself, in an attempt to reconstruct music from the bottom up.

From the contemporary point of view, the importance of Schaeffer's musique concrète is threefold. He developed the concept of including any and all sounds into the vocabulary of music. At first he concentrated on working with sounds other than those produced by traditional musical instruments. Later on, he found it was possible to remove the familiarity of musical instrument sounds and abstract them further by techniques such as removing the attack of the recorded sound. He was among the first musicians to manipulate recorded sound for the purpose of using it in conjunction with other sounds in order to compose a musical piece. Techniques such as tape looping and tape splicing were used in his research, often comparing to sound collage. The advent of Schaeffer's manipulation of recorded sound became possible only with technologies that were developed after World War II had ended in Europe. His work is recognized today as an essential precursor to contemporary sampling practices. Schaeffer was among the first to use recording technology in a creative and specifically musical way, harnessing the power of electronic and experimental instruments in a manner similar to Luigi Russolo, whom he admired and from whose work he drew inspiration.

Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of "playing" (in his terms, jeu) in the creation of music. Schaeffer's idea of jeu comes from the French verb jouer, which carries the same double meaning as the English verb play: 'to enjoy oneself by interacting with one's surroundings', as well as 'to operate a musical instrument'. This notion is at the core of the concept of musique concrète, and reflects on freely improvised sound, or perhaps more specifically electroacoustic improvisation, from the standpoint of Schaeffer's work and research.

Influences on music

In 1955, Éliane Radigue, an apprentice of Pierre Schaeffer at Studio d'Essai, learned to cut, splice and edit tape using his techniques. She then went on to work as an assistant to Pierre Henry in 1967. However, she became more interested in tape feedback and began working on her own pieces. She composed several works (Jouet Electronique [1967], Elemental I [1968], Stress-Osaka [1969], Usral [1969], Ohmnht [1970] Vice Versa, etc [1970]) by processing the feedback between two tape recorders and a microphone. [17]

Pierre's aforementioned student in GRM, Jean Michel Jarre, went on to great international success in his own musical career. Jarre's 1997 album, Oxygene 7-13, is dedicated to Schaeffer. Pierre Henry also made a tribute to the man, composing his Écho d'Orphée, Pour P. Schaeffer alongside him for Schaeffer's last work and second compilation, L'Œuvre Musicale. His other notable pupils include Joanna Bruzdowicz, Jorge Antunes, Bernard Parmegiani, Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux, Armando Santiago, Elzbieta Sikora.Pierre Schaeffer distanced himself – voluntarily – from the musical universe in the early 1980s after criticizing the avant-garde of the 1950s, which intended to break with tradition. Contrary to this view, Schaeffer returns to music when he recognizes the virtuoso Otavio Henrique Soares Brandão as his most faithful disciple, who under his guidance performed a reading of his work "Traité dos Objets Musicaux". This reading aims to create an innovative piano and musical instrumental technique, which does not break with tradition. Pierre Schaeffer writes four fundamental texts about this recognition

Apropos of the transcription pour piano by Otavio Brandão from Pierre Schaeffer's “Étude aux Objets”, In program of Soares Brandão's concert at Maison de l'Amérique Latine (Paris January 9, 1988). “Réponse à Otávio”, In text of the program of the concert performed by Soares Brandão at Salle Pleyel in honor of the 80 years of Pierre Schaeffer (January 12, 1990). DECLARATION DE PIERRE SCHAEFFER SUR IBIS ET OTAVIO SOARES BRANDÃO (Paris le 13/09/1990) Declaration by Pierre Schaeffer (Porte Parole) https://issuu.com/ibisfsb/docs/textes_de_pierre_schaeffer_sur_ohsb

Many rap albums, such as It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy and 3 Feet High And Rising by De La Soul take ordinary sounds and use them to create a finished product. [18]


Today, in his honor, the Qwartz Electronic Music Awards has named several of its past events after Schaeffer. Pierre himself was a prize winner at the awards more than once.



All of Schaeffer's musical compositions (concrète or otherwise) were recorded before the advent of the CD, either on cassettes or a more archaic form of magnetic tape (therefore the term "discography" cannot be appropriately used here; rather his music in general). Mass-production for his work was limited at best, and each piece was, by Schaeffer's terms, intended to be released foremost as an exposé to the masses of what he believed was a new and somewhat revolutionizing form of music. The original production of his marketed work was done by the "Groupe de Recherches Musicales" (a.k.a. GRM; now owned and operated by INA or the Institut national de l'audiovisuel ), the company which he initially had formed around his creations. Other music was broadcast live (Pierre himself being notable on French radio at the time) and/or done in live "concert". Some individual tracks even found their way into the use of other artists, with Pierre's work being fronted in mime performances and ballets. Now after his death, various musical production companies, such as Disques Adès and Phonurgia Nova have been given rights to distribute his work.

Below is a list of Schaeffer's musical works, showing his compositions and the year(s) they were recorded.

Broadcast narratives

Apart from his published and publicized music, Schaeffer conducted several musical (and specifically musique concrète-related) presentations via French radio. Although these broadcasts contained musical pieces by Schaeffer they cannot be adequately described as part of his main line of musical output. This is because the radio "essays", as they were appropriately named, were mainly narration on Schaeffer's musical theories philosophies rather than compositions in and of themselves.

Schaeffer's radio narratives include the following:

Selected writings

Schaeffer's literary works span a range of genres, both in terms of fiction and non-fiction. He predominantly wrote treatises and essays, but also penned a film review and two plays. An ardent Catholic, Schaeffer wrote Chlothar Nicole (French: Clotaire Nicole; published 1938)—a Christian novel or short story—and Tobias (French: Tobie; published 1939) a religiously-based play.


Novels and short stories
  • Chlothar Nicole (1938)
  • The Guardian of The Volcano (1969)
  • Prelude, Chorale and Fugue (1981)
  • Tobie (1939)
  • Secular Games (1946)


  • Traité des objets musicaux (1966)
  • Solfège de l'objet sonore (1967)
  • America, We Ignore You (1946)
  • The Non-Visual Element of Films (1946)
  • In Search of a Concrete Music (1952)
  • Music and Acoustics (1967)

Related Research Articles

Electronic music is music that employs electronic musical instruments, digital instruments, or circuitry-based music technology in its creation. It includes both music made using electronic and electromechanical means. Pure electronic instruments depended entirely on circuitry-based sound generation, for instance using devices such as an electronic oscillator, theremin, or synthesizer. Electromechanical instruments can have mechanical parts such as strings, hammers, and electric elements including magnetic pickups, power amplifiers and loudspeakers. Such electromechanical devices include the telharmonium, Hammond organ, electric piano and the electric guitar.

Musique concrète is a type of music composition that utilizes recorded sounds as raw material. Sounds are often modified through the application of audio effects and tape manipulation techniques, and may be assembled into a form of montage. It can feature sounds derived from recordings of musical instruments, the human voice, and the natural environment as well as those created using synthesizers and computer-based digital signal processing. Compositions in this idiom are not restricted to the normal musical rules of melody, harmony, rhythm, metre, and so on. It exploits acousmatic listening, meaning sound identities can often be intentionally obscured or appear unconnected to their source cause.

Luc Ferrari Musical artist

Luc Ferrari was a French composer of Italian heritage and a pioneer in musique concrète and electroacoustic music. He was a founding member of RTF's Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRMC), working alongside composers such as Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry.

Electroacoustic music is a genre of Western art music in which composers use technology to manipulate the timbres of acoustic sounds, sometimes by using audio signal processing, such as reverb or harmonizing, on acoustical instruments. It originated around the middle of the 20th century, following the incorporation of electric sound production into compositional practice. The initial developments in electroacoustic music composition to fixed media during the 20th century are associated with the activities of the Groupe de recherches musicales at the ORTF in Paris, the home of musique concrète, the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, where the focus was on the composition of elektronische Musik, and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City, where tape music, electronic music, and computer music were all explored. Practical electronic music instruments began to appear in the early 1900s.

Acousmatic music is a form of electroacoustic music that is specifically composed for presentation using speakers, as opposed to a live performance. It stems from a compositional tradition that dates back to the introduction of musique concrète in the late 1940s. Unlike musical works that are realised using sheet music exclusively, compositions that are purely acousmatic often exist solely as fixed media audio recordings.

Michel Chion is a French film theorist and composer of experimental music.

Surrealist music is music which uses unexpected juxtapositions and other surrealist techniques. Discussing Theodor W. Adorno, Max Paddison defines surrealist music as that which "juxtaposes its historically devalued fragments in a montage-like manner which enables them to yield up new meanings within a new aesthetic unity", though Lloyd Whitesell says this is Paddison's gloss of the term. Anne LeBaron cites automatism, including improvisation, and collage as the primary techniques of musical surrealism. According to Whitesell, Paddison quotes Adorno's 1930 essay "Reaktion und Fortschritt" as saying "Insofar as surrealist composing makes use of devalued means, it uses these as devalued means, and wins its form from the 'scandal' produced when the dead suddenly spring up among the living."

Pierre Henry French composer

Pierre Georges Henry was a French composer, considered a pioneer of musique concrète.

Éliane Radigue French electronic music composer (born 1932)

Éliane Radigue is a French electronic music composer. She began working in the 1950s and her first compositions were presented in the late 1960s. Until 2000 her work was almost exclusively created with the ARP 2500 modular synthesizer and tape. Since 2001 she has composed mainly for acoustic instruments.

Experimental music is a general label for any music that pushes existing boundaries and genre definitions. Experimental compositional practice is defined broadly by exploratory sensibilities radically opposed to, and questioning of, institutionalized compositional, performing, and aesthetic conventions in music. Elements of experimental music include indeterminate music, in which the composer introduces the elements of chance or unpredictability with regard to either the composition or its performance. Artists may also approach a hybrid of disparate styles or incorporate unorthodox and unique elements.

Symphonie pour un homme seul is a musical composition by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, composed in 1949–1950. It is an important early example of musique concrète.

Cinq études de bruits is a collection of musical compositions by Pierre Schaeffer. The five études were composed in 1948 and are the earliest pieces of musique concrète, a form of electroacoustic music that utilises recorded sounds as a compositional resource.

Beatriz Mercedes Ferreyra is an Argentine composer, lives and works in Hameau de Hodeng, France.

Marc Battier is a composer and musicologist.

The Konkrete Etüde is the earliest work of electroacoustic tape music by Karlheinz Stockhausen, composed in 1952 and lasting just three-and-a-quarter minutes. The composer retrospectively gave it the number "15" in his catalogue of works.

The Studio d'Essai, later Club d'Essai, was founded in 1942 by Pierre Schaeffer, played a role in the activities of the French resistance during World War II, and later became a center of musical activity.

Nicolas Vérin is a French composer and professor of music. His many influences, from jazz to electronics, from American to French music, give him an unusual style, apart from the main trends of French contemporary music, combining energy and subtleness.

French electronic music, a panorama of French music that employs electronic musical instruments and electronic music technology in its production.


Diamorphoses is the first electroacoustic composition by greek composer Iannis Xenakis. It was created between 1957 and 1958 and is considered a masterpiece in several academic books on history of electroacoustic music.

Sound diffusion is a performance practice in the field of acousmatic music. According to composer and theorist Denis Smalley, it describes the "projection and the spreading of sound in an acoustic space for a group of listeners" during a concert. These concerts can be seen as acoustic recitals without performers, where sound is exclusively generated by loudspeakers. In many cases, the sound diffusion is performed by the composer themselves, whose task it is to integrate and interpret the music within the concert space.


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