Nearly 50 years before DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing was hailed as the first album made entirely of samples, a French broadcaster envisioned a music made solely from pre-recorded loops.
Sampling, and even to an extent turntablism, can be traced back to the recording experiments of Pierre Schaeffer. An engineer, writer, composer, philosopher, musicologist, educator and acoustician, Schaeffer is one of the most influential figures in modern music, known for pioneering a radical innovation in 20th century music: musique concrète.
After receiving a degree in radio broadcasting, the young Schaeffer began working as an engineer at France’s public broadcaster Radiodiffusion française (RDF) in 1936. Soon after, sparked by an interest in radio art, the theories of Italian Futurist thinker Luigi Russolo, and the use of recorded sound in cinema, Schaeffer convinced the RDF to grant him permission to begin experiments in music research and technology (formally called “research into noises”).
In 1942, Schaeffer officially founded his first studio at the RDF, the Studio d’Essai, later renamed Club d’Essai. It was here, equipped with mixers, a direct disc cutting lathe, and a library of sound effects, that the composer lay the groundwork for what would later be termed musique concrète. The most pivotal moment in Schaeffer’s career, however, came in 1949 when he met Pierre Henry, a classically trained composer with whom he would go on to co-found the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC, later GRM), the first studio designed specifically for electroacoustic music.
Over the next 10 years, the two composers would change the face of music forever. Apart from their countless aesthetic innovations, they achieved many technical successes, pioneering the use of magnetic tape by splicing and looping, and introducing several new inventions: a three-track tape recorder, a 10-head delay and loop machine (the morphophone), a keyboard-controlled device capable of replaying loops at various speeds (the phonogene), and several amplification systems used for spatial experimentation with sound.
Schaeffer, who was an outspoken anti-nuclear activist, once asked, “Why should a civilization which so misuses its power have or deserve, a normal music?” By rethinking the foundations of music-making, he produced an art form that was anything but normal — a music that aimed to merge art with science, composition with engineering. His ideas turned conventional music theory on its head. Traditionally, composition moved from the abstract to the concrete — from concept and written notes to actual sounds. Schaeffer’s approach reversed the process, beginning instead with fragments of sound—field recordings of both natural and mechanical origin—which were then manipulated using studio techniques.
One of the more profound consequences of Schaeffer’s inversion of the compositional process was that composers would no longer be bound to written scores and notation. Their music could exist solely as recordings, without the need for players or instruments to actualize them. Even among other experimental and avant-garde music of the time, notably the “elektronische Musik” being produced by Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne, Schaeffer’s approach represented a radical shift. Because any sound could now be repurposed for the sake of music-making, the possible combinations of timbres, rhythms, instruments, voices, and harmonies became virtually infinite.
“After the war, in the ‘45 to ‘48 period, we had driven back the German invasion but we hadn’t driven back the invasion of Austrian music, 12-tone music,” reflected Schaeffer, who had participated in the French resistance. “We had liberated ourselves politically, but the music was still under an occupying foreign power, the music of the Vienna school.”
Dissatisfied with the state of music at the time, Schaeffer sought to create a new musical language which divorced sounds from their sources, thereby reducing music to the act of hearing alone — what he called “reduced listening.” Take, for example, a field recording of a train moving along its tracks. At face value you’d simply note the sound of a train; beyond that realization, listeners wouldn’t give it much more thought. Schaeffer, however, realized that there was a rich vein of musicality hidden within such seemingly mundane sounds: snippets of complex rhythms, unique timbral characteristics, tonal peculiarities, strange and interesting textures. Our perception of these qualities, he recognized, was hindered by the associations and references that sounds carry. The trick was to find a way to hide the associations in order to bring the musical qualities of those sounds to the forefront.