May 6, 2013  

Book Review  

Pierre. Schaeffer. In Search of a Concrete Music. Trans. Christine North and John Dack. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012.

By Anders Larsson 

Pierre Schaeffer’s In Search of a Concrete Music was originally published in 1952 with the French title A la recherché d’une musique concrete.  While clearly not a new work, Christine North and John Dack’s important translation, titled In Search of a Concrete Music, brings new life to Schaeffer’s work by making it available for the first time to an English-speaking audience.  Until now, English speakers interested in Schaeffer’s groundbreaking work had to be content with tantalizing --but brief--references, usually made by scholars who either know French or were themselves referencing someone who knows French.  At long last, even those who don’t understand French can enter (albeit through the lens of translation) the challenging and prophetic world of Pierre Schaeffer and his pioneering “Concrete Music”.  Though the entire book is devoted to exploring and explaining this type of music, it can be roughly defined as the recording, organizing, altering, and editing of everyday sounds.  North and Dack write in the introduction that English books on electronic music “rarely situate [Schaeffer’s] complex and subtle theoretical system within the broader sweep of the history of ideas (x).  In this first, thoughtful translation, they remedy this by presenting Schaeffer’s prophetic ideas within their proper context of 20th Century music, art, and philosophy.

            Prophecy is indeed a key element to Schaeffer’s work, and arguably an advantage held by Schaeffer’s English-speaking audience over those who have been familiar with his work for decades.  In Search of a Concrete Music is an alarmingly accurate time capsule.  Schaeffer’s notoriety in his homeland, coupled with his obscurity elsewhere, presents an unanswerable chicken and egg scenario: Is Schaeffer relatively obscure outside of France (compared to contemporaries like American John Cage) because his greatest work—until now—has remained un-translated, or has his work remained un-translated because he is seen as a relatively obscure figure?  The advantage we have here is that we get to experience Schaeffer’s world without preconceptions.    This overdue translation illuminates how influential Schaeffer’s work has been to areas as far-reaching as 20th Century music, Complexity Theory, and even the technique of the modern DJ.  The back cover of this edition claims that Schaeffer “has …become increasingly relevant to DJS and hip-hop producers as well as sound-based media artists”.  This formulation is a good one: it suggests the influence of a Schaeffer’s work on producers, DJs, and others under the umbrella of “sound-based media artists”, while not going so far as to claim that they would be interested in wading through 221 pages of his explorations and musings.  Ultimately, we will see that this book’s audience must be one interested in exploring broad connections between technology, music theory, French philosophy, performance, abstract painting, poetry, and 20th Century Music. 

Schaeffer’s In Search of a Concrete Music is written as a three-journal exploration of what he himself dubbed “Concrete Music”. (14) Besides his work in Concrete Music, however, Schaeffer was also a skilled writer of fiction, essays, and books (ix).  It seems unlikely that what we are reading here is a day-to-day journal in the truest sense, but rather a carefully constructed pseudo-journal showing the blood, sweat, tears, and fruits of four years’ worth of reflecting, composing, recording, and performing his groundbreaking music.  Every chapter contains an italicized, rapid-fire introduction.  Sometimes these introductions verge on poetry, while other times they take on the form of a Schaeffer-like montage, extracting events from time and giving them new –often cryptic-- form.  In Chapter 7, for example, Schaeffer writes:

Our actions follow us.  Red labels.  Important indications.  Should we envy men of other ages?  Fissures of randomness.  Congratulations and red tape.  Future plans.  A classical epilogue.  A Greek philosopher beside a concrete sea. (59)         

 Few journal entries throughout the entire book are detailed recollections of a particular day.  Many entries are general feelings, goals, and obstacles experienced during month-long periods.   These contributions to his journal follow classic diary form.  The second entry Schaeffer writes, for instance, begins: 

“February.  The change of scenery makes me forget the weight on my mind” (3)Other journal entries allow Schaeffer to engage in a sort of solo dialectic.  He concludes the first of two entries on May 16 with “My characters are in search of a scenario.  Making them one will be the least of my worries.  The problem is elsewhere.”  (96) Later that same day, however, he immediately follows that entry with another, which begins, “Basically, I’m telling a lie.  The theme of Orphée is of utter importance to me.”  (96) In this way, Schaeffer often anticipates or responds to self-criticisms and well as those of his contemporaries.    

Other journal entries allow Schaeffer to engage in a sort of solo dialectic.  He concludes the first of two entries on May 16 with “My characters are in search of a scenario.  Making them one will be the least of my worries.  The problem is elsewhere.”  (96) Later that same day, however, he immediately follows that entry with another, which begins, “Basically, I’m telling a lie.  The theme of Orphée is of utter importance to me.”  (96) In this way, Schaeffer often anticipates or responds to self-criticisms and well as those of his contemporaries.    

We also get the sense that Schaeffer has a better idea where he is headed with his musical exploration than he lets on.  Feelings of confusion and frustration run throughout many of Schaeffer’s entries, and yet by the time of publication, just four years later, he is furnishing us with tables, charts, and glossaries to aid in the understanding of this complex work.  I’m not suggesting that Schaeffer’s learning curve wasn’t a rapid one, or that he was in any way deceiving his audience.  Schaeffer had a dramatic flair, however, and my feeling is that he enjoyed chronicling his search for Concrete Music almost in the form of a mystery novel.  In place of Philip Marlow he has inserted himself as the detective looking for answers.  And instead of the decadent back alleys and Spanish style homes of 1940s Southern California, Schaeffer’s sleuthing is done in Parisian sound booths. 

In the old mysteries, the detective was often still perplexed as the story drew perilously near an end.  In such cases, it was generally understood that it was time to gather everyone under one roof (usually a lavish dinner party), throw out some reckless insinuations, and hope the guilty party revealed their identity.  In Schaeffer’s case, we swap the dinner party for the concert hall in hopes of smoking out the true identity of Concrete Music.  The second journal is concluded with the particularly enlightening 7th chapter, which documents the performance of and reception to history’s first concrete music concert.   Schaeffer’s program notes are included here, and provide us with a more succinct formulation of his artistic vision.  Schaeffer addresses sampling (a musical term it appears he may have coined in this work), found art, and criteria for deciding when something is in fact art when he writes:

“…for there to be music, all that is needed is that a relationship be established between subject and object, and the initial act in music is willed hearing, i.e., selecting from the chaotic hubbub of sounds a sound fragment that one has decided to consider. “(66)

He rounds off the second journal with references to information theories and emergent states (66), both contributing to the prophetic nature of his work.  These, coupled with his references to Cybernetics (108), position Schaeffer as an intellectual prophet of Complexity Theory.  It’s not difficult to see the connection between Complexity studies and Schaeffer’s music, with its interest in technology and human collaboration. 

But what about this thing called Concrete Music?  Is this the focus of In Search of a Concrete Music?  I’ll leave that question to those who treat themselves to a reading of this fascinating work, but I will point to the title, itself a reference to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  Schaeffer never explicitly addresses the reference, though it seems he may have seen his work as a sequel to the title.  After all, Concrete Music finds time that was lost, concretizes it, and thus saves it.  Schaeffer creates order in the world by replacing the traditional soundscape of the classical orchestra with altered recordings of trains, coughs, chanting, birdcalls, hammering, and accordions.  He argues that anything in our world can become music if we will it to be and organize it as such.   He writes, “Saving the world means giving form, creating the existent snatched from nothingness” (65). The scope of Schaeffer’s vision, in other words, extends far beyond Concrete Music or any kind of music for that matter.  His alchemistic tool of choice here for understanding the cosmos happens to be music, but his background and ultimate aim lies beyond its realm. Schaeffer’s intellectual tour makes stops at abstract painting, cinema, and 20th Century French philosophy.  Familiarity with these disciplines --as well as healthy doses of music theory--are helpful in entering Schaeffer’s world, but by no means necessary. 

But what about this thing called Concrete Music?  Is this the focus of In Search of a Concrete Music?  I’ll leave that question to those who treat themselves to a reading of this fascinating work, but I will point to the title, itself a reference to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  Schaeffer never explicitly addresses the reference, though it seems he may have seen his work as a sequel to the title.  After all, Concrete Music finds time that was lost, concretizes it, and thus saves it.  Schaeffer creates order in the world by replacing the traditional soundscape of the classical orchestra with altered recordings of trains, coughs, chanting, birdcalls, hammering, and accordions.  He argues that anything in our world can become music if we will it to be and organize it as such.   He writes, “Saving the world means giving form, creating the existent snatched from nothingness” (65). The scope of Schaeffer’s vision, in other words, extends far beyond Concrete Music or any kind of music for that matter.  His alchemistic tool of choice here for understanding the cosmos happens to be music, but his background and ultimate aim lies beyond its realm. Schaeffer’s intellectual tour makes stops at abstract painting, cinema, and 20th Century French philosophy.  Familiarity with these disciplines --as well as healthy doses of music theory--are helpful in entering Schaeffer’s world, but by no means necessary. 

21st -century readers should be advised that for all his prophetic thinking, Schaeffer was a man of his time and place.  North and Dack address the balancing-act of translating 1950s language in the translator’s introduction (xii).  In this translation, they chose to keep male-centric formulations and “hope that readers will accept this characteristic as giving a sense of period to the text” (xii).  Potentially offensive language related to “other cultures and peoples” (xii), on the other hand, necessitated sensitive translation in their opinion. Their endeavor to adjust what might strike modern ears as insensitive or biased language while still maintaining the overall integrity of Schaeffer’s work is admirable and successful. 

Profound and prophetic as it is, the broad scope of Schaeffer’s book ensures it is not for everyone.  The DJ may be astounded by Schaffer’s use of turntables, but be completely uninterested in abstract painting.  The French philosophy buff may relish exploring subject/object interaction, but get little from Schaeffer’s explanations of music notation, and so on.   In Search of a Concrete Music, however, will certainly find a new and appreciative readership in the ranks of musicians, artists, philosophers, historians, and art culture aficionados throughout the English-speaking world in the coming years.