Technology as composition tools: Early Music Concrete

After the war, radio stations were limited by the available technology of the day. 

  • Shellac record players: were able to change speed ratios which could give the sound a transposed effect ( octave)
  • Mixing desk: this made possible volume  (gain) control  of sound, where several sources could be mixed together, and then sent onto a recorder and on to the speaker system. These early mixers for radio sometimes had filters or reverberation units
  • Shellac recorder:  was able to  record from the mixing desk 
  • Mechanical reverberation: this was usually made from metal plate or metal springs, and was used primarily to fuse the sounds together
  • Filters: usually Hi and low pass filters, which allowed or eliminated selected sound frequencies
  • Microphones: early microphones such as ribbon type 

This available technology allowed for discoveries in sound manipulation techniques such as: 

  • Sound transposition: which allowed for reading sound at a different  speed to that which it was recorded at
  • Sound looping: which involved creating loops at specific locations of a recording, but needed some technical skill to operate this function
  • Sound sample extraction: letting the stylus on the gramophone only reading a small segment of the recording (sampling)
  • Filtering: by eliminating the central frequencies of the sound signal by using the Hi pass or Low pass filters, some element of the original sound recording could be maintained

Pierre Schaeffer: Music Concrète historical context

During the second world war, Pierre Schaeffer joined Studio d’Essai de la Rediffusion Nationale, a resistance French radio station.  During his time at the radio station, Schaeffer developed his sound based knowledge through microphone set up and voice recordings, he was also influenced by cinema, and recording montage.

At the same time as Schaeffer was working on developing his sound practice, Halim El- Dabh  an Egyptian composer  was a student  in Cairo, where he was experimenting with tape music  using a wire recorder to record an ancient zaar ceremony, which he processed at the Middle East Radio studio, where he used: reverberation, echo, voltage controls, and re Recording. The recording was presented at an art gallery event in  1944, but  due to  the ongoing WWII (1 Sep 1939 – 2 Sep 1945)his work was not known outside Egypt,  although in later years  he did gain recognition for his influential work at Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre in the late 1950s.

Pierre Schaeffer: Étude aux chemins de fer, and Music Concrète

Music Concrète, began in the early 1940s in France. The term Music Concrète,  relates to a compositional practice that was initiated by Pierre Schaeffer (pictured in the image below). 

Pierre Schaeffer Image 
 at the phonogène – a multi-speed, keyboard-controlled tape player

Music Concréte  uses recorded sounds, which are often manipulated or modified through the application of audio effects or tape manipulation (for tape splicing – see image below).  

IMAGE controlled attack and delay by tape cutting Judd, 1961, p,58
Controlled Attack and Delay by Tape Cutting (Judd, 1961, p.58)

Whilst most electronic producers / composers today would use these techniques through their Digital Audio Workstation software, those preferring a more hands on approach, can  still utilise the effects of tape manipulation using the above splicing guide if they have access to the equipment. Before magnetic tape became a stable format, Schaeffer used shellac players, as early tape players,  weren’t reliable enough to utilise until 1950. At this time,  speed variation was added to the range of sound manipulations available for early sound art performers.  

Tape editing (micro-editing/ tape splicing) now  became a possibility in the editing process resulting in the manipulation of  sounds  in new ways through rearrangement. This allowed for  extremely small pieces of tape to be edited together in a way that completely changed the structure of the original recordings.

Through this process of manipulation, Schaeffer found he could make his original sound sources  unrecognisable, and so these techniques become an important feature of Electronic Music creation for him and formed a part of his professional practice. Judd (1961, p.15) considers, Electronic Engineering also a part of the creation of “… Electronic Music and Music Concrète”, as it “… makes it possible to manipulate and transform sound and finally control the production of music”, furthermore, Judd (ibid) puts forward the notion that, “… electronic reproduction offers numerous possibilities of practical importance, most of which lie in the electronic circuits of the apparatus”. 

Schaeffer, whilst working at the radio station, saw a more “… expansive aesthetic purpose for these captured snippets of the sound environment, rather than them being mere theatrical props” (Stubbs, 2018, p.80-1), as this access gave him, “… rare access to an array of equipment for storing and assembling the looped sounds he collated, which ranged from snatches of vocal and orchestral work to a welter of everyday objects”,  among which was a “ …direct disc-to disc cutting lathe” (ibid).  

According to Stubbs (ibid),  Schaeffer, imagined an entire orchestra of turntables, each playing a single note. Schaeffer, first used turntables and then tape recorders,  once they became commercially available. When tape machines  appeared, this then opened up possibilities for  Schaeffer and the development of  Music Concrète. Taylor (2001, p.42), regards music concrète  as a “.. kind of ‘found object’ works”, and today we would consider this composition  form as  sound sampling, sound art, or  sound collage. 

Music Concrète uses sounds from musical instruments,  such as: the human voice,  the natural environment, synthesizers and computer generated  digital content. Most noticeably in this style of music composition,  there appears to be no musical rules for melody, harmony rhythm and metre, which seem not the focus of the constructed piece.  And so, this type of composition can be best described as Sound Art.

In 1948, the first composition in the style of music concrete, composed by Pierre Schaeffer was produced from the sounds produced by trains. By utilising sound as the primary source of composition, Schaeffer, utilised new emerging technologies in  post war  Europe.   Working with microphones, magnetic tape recorders  and phonograph Radiodiffusion Television Francaise (his employer), allowed Schaeffer and his colleges (Luc Ferrari, Beatriz Ferreyra, Francois -Bernard Mâche, Iannis Xenarkis, Bernard Parmegiani, and Mirelle Chamass – Kyrou) the opportunity to experiment.

Schaeffer was one of the  first to recognise that the envelope of a sound can  affect the way in which it is heard and perceived by the listener. As a feature of this new sound movement,  Scheaffer wanted to create Laws about the “… nature of the sound object and reduced listening”,  and also to remove residual sound that might affect sound quality of the recording (Taylor, 2001 pp.59-60). Sonnenschein (2001, p.58),  informs that foley and cartoon were developing parallel to Music Concrète at this time in history, and that many instruments can be played with “… extended techniques”. Whereas Judd (1961, p.68-9), considers techniques for electronic music and Music Concrète to be similar, he puts forward the notion that Music Concrète is often confused with electronic music, which he informs started in Germany, where they were concerned with “… the electronic manufacture of sounds built up from basic tones”, whereas, Music Concrète  makes use of real everyday sounds which are “modified by tape manipulation and electronic treatment, where compositions can also include instruments”.  

Bibliography

Ableton (2019)   Pierre Schaeffer at the phonogène – a multi-speed, keyboard-controlled tape player IMAGE  [Online]. Available at: https://www.ableton.com/en/blog/grm-past-present-and-future-experimental-music/?utm_source=2019-12-18-grm-holiday-gift&utm_medium=email&utm_term=l10-std-suite&utm_content=header&utm_campaign=editorial+newsletter&&sc_src=email_6679488&sc_lid=321985784&sc_uid=SelHnkVfEo&sc_llid=27868&sc_eh=136a83ccadf4ce221  [Accessed: 18 December 2019]. 

Judd, F.C. (1961) Electronic Music and Music Concréte. London: Foruli Classics. 

Sonnenschein, D. (2001) Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema.   Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.

Stubbs, D. (2018) Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music. London: Faber and Faber.

Taylor,D.( 2001) Strange Sounds: Music Technology & Culture. New York: Routledge.

La Monte Young: Influences on modern music

John Cale of the Velvet underground, was a student of La Monte Young, and through Youngs association with Andy Warhol became the house band at The Factory. 

Five key works by La Monte Young

B flat  Dorian blues  (1963)[Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNdgv0Yxyi0

Pre Tortoise Dream Music (1960-4)[Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4t1Sl_gYHuw

The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys 1964 [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Km0LKiGs_8g

Dream House Part 1 (1974)[Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlCg_2pK1oM

The Well Tuned Piano (1987) [Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nU8UHQLQ0Qs

La Monte Young: The sonic signature of the practitioner in their genre of electronic music

The Dream House sound and configuration

Even though the Dream House is based on minimalistic principles, there are reported to be thirty- five speakers  (McCroskey, n.d.) , which produce …

“  … precise and various effects of the configuration of the room on the standing waves are unplanned, as aleatory as the quite pronounced whirs and eddies formed by any motion, any disturbance of  the air. But the multifaceted form of the (currently) thirty-five speaker construction is the principal reason it changes hallucinogenically with every minute shift in  perspective and why the tones freeze in place as long as one is perfectly still while the slightest gesture will startle forth unnameable, wildly plumed melodies from the luxuriant harmonic foliage.”

La Monte Youngs first composition,    Dream  Chord  was developed out of individual pitches. Trio for strings in 1958, becomes the first composed minimalist piece. The composition is made entirely of sustained notes, but doesn’t seem to impress or gain recognition then from his fellow students or teachers. The visual representation of the musical score (see image below)  shows La Monte Youngs composition style at this time. 

La Monte Young Trio for Strings Visual Score

These long tones of D#, C# and D natural were held for a very long time. This work later inspired the  developed four pitches : G# + A and F# + D   and their frequencies, which in later works become his dream chord:

G# 1… 50H               A 1… 55Hz               F# 2… 92Hz             D 3…146Hz

However, The Second Dream (from the recording Dream House 78′ 17″ ),  is made with four pitches  F, Bb, B,C according to McCroskey (n.d.). The sustained tones of the oscillators, came about with La Monte Youngs interest in intonation, vibration, time, cycles and rhythm  sensation  in a single pitch.  Commentating on this phenonium, McCroskey (ibid)  puts forward the notion that , “…Young has been able to create a sense of profound continuity, of an enduring, eternal and expanding Moment”, where   “… the otonal form of just intonation, in which all the tones are derived as overtones of a single fundamental”, “… strive for a condition of “timelessness” in co existence with  “each tone participates in an enveloping drone that is the result of repetition on an “atomic” level.” 

Drones feature in many of  the musical compositions of La Monte Young, even in his minimalist period (see image below). However, he found that these notes could only be held as long as the performer could physically play them.  

La Monte Young Composition 1960 #7

Alternately,  using electronic components as instrumentation, Young’s long-in-process electronic drone music  was possible. 

 

Grimshaw (2011), in his book The Ideology of the Drone, explains how   …“the development of Young’s mystical persona coincided with several important musical developments, including: his creation of The Four Dreams of China, his adoption of just intonation or ratio-based tuning, his involvement in the psychedelic scene, and his study with North Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath. Particular attention is paid to The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys and the activities of The Theatre of Eternal Music”.

Young, “the godfather of minimal music is still performing at 79, and since few recordings exist of his work, his live performances are more essential than ever” Colter Walls (2015). As it seems, Young is only interested in  “putting out masterpieces”, and has been developing The Well Tuned Piano for “more than a quarter-century, refining his performance to its final state: a six-hour DVD that includes Zazeela’s light-installation work, and which is also currently out of print’ (ibid).

Bibliography

Colter Walls, S. (2015) La Monte Young: I’m only interested in putting out masterpieces  [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jul/30/la-monte-young-dia-chelsea-exhibit  [Accessed: 10 December 2019].

Grimshaw, J. (2011) The Ideology of the Drone:La Monte Young the Mystic [Online]. Available at: https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199740208.001.0001/acprof-9780199740208-chapter-0003  [Accessed: 06 December 21019].

McCroskey, S.  (n.d)  DREAM ANALYSIS  [Online]. Available at:  http://www.melafoundation.org/mccroske.htm [Accessed: 06 December 2019].

 Negrão, M. (2009) Oscillations_X Drone Presentation and Research:  Oscillations X : DRONE, Slide 31 of 89  [Online]. Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/20020/soundspace-oscilations-x-drone [Accessed: 10 December 2019].