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Pierre Henri Marie Schaeffer (pronounced ; August 14, 1910 – August 19, 1995) was a Frenchmarker composer, writer, broadcaster, engineer and informal polymath of the 20th century. His innovative work and 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 a wide array of appraisal in his lifetime.

Of the vast assortment of works and endeavors undertaken by him, Schaeffer is most widely recognized for his accomplishments in electronic and experimental music, the epitomy of which was his role as the chief developer of musique concrète, a unique and early form of avant-garde music that emerged in Europe during the mid-1900s. His writings (which include written and radio-narrated essays, biographies, short novels, a number of musical treatises and several plays) are often oriented towards his development of the genre, as well as the theoretics and philosophy of music in general.

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. His collective endeavors are considered milestones in the histories of electronic and experimental music.


Early life & education

Schaeffer was born in Nancymarker, in 1910. His parents were both musicians (his father a violinist; his mother, a singer), and at first it seemed that Pierre would also take on music as a career. However during his childhood his parents forbade his musical pursuits and rather opted for him to become educated in engineering. He studied at several universities in this inclination, the first of which was Lycée Saint-Sigisbert – located in his hometown of Nancy. Afterwards he went north to the École Polytechniquemarker in Parismarker and finally completed his education in the capital at the École supérieure d'électricitémarker (i.e. Supélec).

Engineering, broadcasting & early experiments

In 1934 Schaeffer entered his first occupation as an engineer, briefly working in telecommunications in Strasbourgmarker. He then moved back to Paris to join the Radiodiffusion Française (now Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) in 1936 and began his work in French radio. It was there that he began to defy his initial notions on telecommunications, and instead chose to pursue music by 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 coercing the radio station's management to allow him to use their equipment. This experimentation at Radiodiffusion Française was a point of significant influence on him, intriguing Schaeffer with many of his initial questions on the limits of modern musical expression.

Schaeffer presenting The Acousmonium.

In the experiments, Pierre tried playing sounds backwards, slowing them down, speeding them up and juxtaposing them with other sounds, all techniques which were virtually unknown at that time. He had began working with new contemporaries whom he had met through RTF, and as such his experimentation deepened. Schaeffer's work gradually became more avante-garde, as he challenged traditional music style with the use of various devices and practices. A unique variety of electronic instruments—ones which Schaeffer and his colleagues created, in use of his and other early French experimentalist's experience as engineers—came into play with his work, like the chromatic, sliding and universal phonogenes, Francois Bayle's Acousmonium and a host of other devices such as gramaphones and some of the earliest tape recorders. He also used standard electronic keyboards of the time, such as the Moog.

Beginnings of writing career

In 1938 Schaeffer began his work in writing, penning various articles and essays for the Revue Musicale, a French journal of music. His first column, Basic Truth, provided a critical examination of musical aspects of the time.

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

Club d'essai & the origin of musique concrète

By that time in his life, Schaeffer had founded the Jeune France association (now defunct; not to be confused with La Jeune France), which had interests in theatre and the visual arts, as well as music. In 1942, he created the Studio D'Essai (later known as the Club D'Essai), which played a role in the activities of the French resistance during World War II, and later became a center of musical activity. It was from D'Essai that he successfully recorded his first work, which itself appeared on Dix Ans D'Essais Radiophoniques Du Studio Au Club D'Essai: 1942-1952, a compilation of his personal concrète, along with many other artists' experimental pieces, released later in his life – 1953. The compilation has since become valued as a notable publication of the experimental music genre.

With the rise of nuclear power after World War II, Pierre became a notable aficionado of the anti-nuclear movement, one of the main factors associated with his personal life, other than his work in the field of music.

Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète

In 1949, Schaeffer met the percussionist-composer Pierre Henry, with whom he collaborated with on more than several different musical compositions, and in 1951, he founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) in the French Radio Institution. 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. 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.

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"), where he briefly mentored the young Jean Michel Jarre, among other students. His last "etude" (study) came in 1959: the "Study of Objects" (Etudes aux Objets).

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.

In 1988, Schaeffer appeared in a New York Times article on the 1988 Spitak earthquakemarker. Schaeffer had led a 498-member rescue team in Leninakanmarker to help find survivors in the aftermath of the quake.

Later life & 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." He suffered from Alzheimer's disease later in his life, and died from the condition in Aix-en-Provencemarker in 1995. He was 85 years old.

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


Influences on music

The modern industrial and, to a certain extent, New Age music scenes attribute much of their influence to musique concrète, the brainchild of Schaeffer himself. As well, Schaeffer is considered by many electronic and experimental musicians to have been a profound part of the development of those musical genres. His contribution has been compared to the likes of Luigi Russolo, Robert Moog, Edgard Varèse and others. Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music features sound samples by Pierre Schaeffer, as well as Iannis Xenakis and the aforementioned Varèse (two of his contemporaries).

Pierre's aforementiond 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.

Musique concrète

The term musique concrète (French for "real music", literally "concrete music") can be misunderstood as simply referring to music made from "real-world" audibles or other naturally occurring sounds that do not include an instrumental/human interface. While this aspect of musique concrète is a major factor according to how Schaeffer had developed it, it should predominantly be seen as a term describing more than simply the recording and manipulation of everyday noises. In a broader sense, the phrase embodies new sensibilities of musical expression and entails a reconceptualized framework for the long-established "organized" sound of the world, one that does not rely on familiar descriptors of rhythm and timbre, or tone and tempo. 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 at 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 literature

The writers Martial Robert and Carlos Palombini have mentioned Schaeffer frequently in their works, and have penned a number of books on or referring to his life and legacy. Schaeffer being a writer himself, he coauthored several works with a number of his colleagues, such as Sophie Brunet, Marc Pierret and Michel Chion, among others. Today Schaeffer's work is still being published, albeit without translations from French and primarily in France itself. Only a single work was transliterated into English, The Old Man and His Movements (1964) — a short story based upon the teachings of Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff.

Many of Schaeffer's works have become rarities. As recently as 2006 a coauthored work of his, Sur les traces de Pierre Schaeffer, was published post-mortem.


Today, in his honor, the Qwartz Electronic Music Awards has named several of their past events after Schaeffer. Pierre himself had been 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.

Composition Year(s) Recorded
Concertino Tuner 1948
Five Studies of Noises 1948
Study for Piano and Orchestra 1948
Continuation for Fourteen Instruments 1949
Variations on a Mexican Flute 1949
Whatchamacallit in C 1950
The RAI Bird 1950
Symphony for One Man Alone 1950
Orpheus 51 or the Whole Lyre 1951
The Thawed Words 1952
Masquerage 1952
Scenes of Don Juan 1952
Orpheus 53 1953
Film Score for "The Sahara Today" 1957
Continuo 1958
Study of Paces 1958
Study of Animated Sounds 1958
Study of Objects 1959
Scene Music for Phèdre 1959
Night of the Railroads 1959
Cameroonian Simultaneous 1959
Olga's Aura 1962
Theory of the Acoustic Object 1967
The Fertile Trièdre 1975
Word and Music 1982
Pierre Schaeffer: The Musical Works 1990

Broadcasted 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:

  • The Shell Filled With Planets, 1944
  • Cantata to Alsace, 1945
  • An Hour of the World, 1947
  • From Claudel to Brangues, 1953
  • Ten Years of Radio Essays by the Studio at Club Essay: 1942-1952, 1955

Selected bibliography

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)

  • Tobias (1939)
  • Secular Games (1946)


Further reading


External links

Official sites


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