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What Is It? Musique Concrète

A recorded sound can be the truth, a lie, or a domesticated animal. It is reality preserved, with an infinite potential for manipulation. A click of the mouse can mutate any sound into something unrecognizable and alien–an abomination to the natural world. Blame it on the French. And God bless them for it.

Most of the electronic musicians you read about in this magazine use studio techniques that are rooted in musique concrète, a nearly 60-year-old art form first explored in Parisian studios after World War II. Musique concrète, essentially, is the manipulation of recorded sounds, subsequently tweaked to the point at which the listener has little or no idea of their origins. It is a practice as basic as sampling a breakbeat or rhythmically scratching a record, or as elaborate as stitching together hundreds of sounds into a collage. Sounds are often caught in the wild via portable audio recorders; in keeping with Cagean philosophy, anything can be musical. As sound artist Janek Schaefer puts it, musique concrète “was the most profound liberation of sound and one of the greatest developments in the 20th century musical landscape.”

Musique concrète was born by accident in Paris’ Studio D’Essai, when radio engineer Pierre Schaeffer scratched a record and caused a stylus to repeat a sound in what’s now known as a locked groove. He coined his discovery musique concrète (or “concrete music”), where sounds could be divided into blocks for artistic rearrangement. Schaeffer later built tape machines and studio gear that mutated, stretched, deformed, and shot new life into the mundane sounds of clanging pots, passing trains, orchestras tuning up, and women singing.

Numerous French artists soon took Schaeffer’s lead. Pierre Henry injected great camp into the genre with his epic recording of door- and breathing noises, “Variations for a Door and a Sigh.” Edgar Varese built a netherworld where rehearsing singers, engines, and other striking sounds meshed with ghostly electronic noises in his masterwork, “Poème Électronique.” Luc Ferrari documented a visit to an Italian town in “Presque Rien.”

“I’m always impressed with the ways in which concrete sound can express ideas and ultimately enliven the ears,” says Room40 label owner and artist Lawrence English. English recently produced the compilation Airport Symphony, where artists like Fennesz and Tim Hecker remixed his field recordings from Australia’s Brisbane Airport.

The late Schaeffer once lamented that there were too many possibilities unexplored in musique concrète. Even in our digital age, there is still much work to be done. “There is no one instrument to play musique concrète,” Schaeffer wrote. “This is the major difficulty. Instead, one must imagine an enormous machine, of a cybernetic type, capable of carrying out millions of combinations, and we haven’t reached that point yet.”

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