Vol. 34 Issue 1 Reviews
Évelyne Gayou, editor: Polychrome Portraits 14: Pierre Schaeffer

Softcover, 2009, ISBN 978-2-86938-210-7, 171 pages, € 9, color plates, contributors' biographies; available from GRM Institut National de l'Audiovisuel, Maison de Radio France, 116 avenue du Président Kennedy, 75220 Paris cedex 16, France; telephone (+33) 01-5640-2988; electronic mail grm@ina.fr; Web www.ina.fr/grm/polychromes/.

Reviewed by Thom Blum
San Francisco, California, USA

Book CoverThis book has it all: a fertile and fantastic time in history, a protagonist who is enigmatic and paradoxical yet is a powerhouse thinker-doer of the time. He is gifted, having heightened organizational skills and showing artistic talents at a young age.  He enlists and attracts scores of people from diverse walks of life, and they participate in his many plans.  Some of these same participants are the narrators of the story, each one revealing another piece of the jigsaw puzzle until the big picture, our central character, emerges. The chapters reveal remarkable results (and tolls) that are achieved, despite the bureaucratic elephants our hero must coax up the hill. 

As a natural observer and scientist, the central character puts forth hypotheses, and he does the research required to prove them true or false.  He takes it hard when he is convinced that an hypothesis has failed, however, this only adds a certain mythic quality to the character.  And, he never stops striving for the next goal.

The ways in which the authors of this episodic biography relate their experiences of Pierre Schaeffer—his personality, his plans and actions, his organizations, and the influences he had and continues to have—make this compact collection of 23 previously unpublished essays an engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable read.

The essays can be divided into two, sometimes overlapping, groups: those that describe various aspects of the man (e.g., his youth, his observations, missions or goals, activities, relationships), and those that focus on his effects (e.g., his influence on the chapter's author or the author's organization, and/or on music research, communications, or current technologies). Each of the essays express a warm and personal point of view. Two chapters are most notable in this respect, the mementos by his daughter and his wife. And perhaps most valuable, especially to those who do not read the French language, this collection is published in English, thanks to the Insitut national de l'audiovisuel (Ina), editor-in-chief, Évelyne Gayou, who also served as interviewer for four of the essays, and expert English translations provided by François Couture.     

Space does not permit synopses of many of the 23 essays, so details drawn from representative chapters will have to suffice.  The diversity of the essays attests to the man's diversity.  Indeed, his plurality -- his complex personality, interests, and experiences -- is a prominent theme of the collection. 

The memento, “My Father... With His Smile So Sweet,” written by his daughter Marie-Claire Schaefer, is a sentimental and tender survey of her father's paradoxical interests, careers, and approach to life. The chapter begins with some simple facts, for example, that he was born in Nancy, France, on 14 August 1910, to two music teachers. He died on 19 August 1995. His mother's deep faith in God and his father's probing and skeptical nature forged in him a moral code that spurred him to seek truth, beauty, and goodness. She then describes his contradictory life through a series of questions and answers:

Was he a spiritual man or simply an 'honest man'? A man of reflection or a man of action? A paradoxical man if there ever was one, a man that beckoned analysis as much as synthesis, weirdly specialized and of general interest all in one.  Visionary, moralist, occasionally anarchist, provoking at times, traditional at others, depending on his efficiency.  A talent scout, an inventor of new institutions that would beat the elephantine administrations at their own game, at best serving as the pilot fish....  A-political and a Resistance fighter.  Enfant terrible or choirboy?  A revolted man or a senior clerk of the State?  The extraordinary thing is that he was simultaneously this and that. (p. 142)

Out of respect for her father—and some fears that her memory would fail her—the body of her essay consists of scores of quotes from her father's notebooks, diary, interviews, and lectures, carefully translated into English. Ms. Schaeffer hand-picked these samples and wrote the connective paragraphs to illuminate her father's rich, multifaceted, multidimensional character. A few examples, drawn from the shorter quotes, whet the appetite:

Notebook question: At the Service de la Recherche, we are making the same programs as our friends working in other departments, except that we are trying to turn these shows into analytical material and to analyze our own actions as we produce them. So we are trying to dispel the mystery of communication. (p. 144)

Perspective:  Research is not about getting there, as people often urge me to, but about starting off. (p. 144)

[Interdisciplinary] point of view:  What this society needs the most is people with a double culture, not what I call hemispheric people who know only half the world: science or humanities, as we say. (p. 144)

Politics and television: Viewers must be seen from the start as responsible and intelligent people.  Yet, the whole world is doing the opposite.  Once and for all, it has been decided that the viewer is trite and that he must be distracted to be neutralized. That is the American technique of the rating.  Big numbers rule.  The more receivers you have, the more you want to talk to everyone at once.  However, the truth lies in the opposite:  the more receivers you have, the more you need to diversify audience types.  Your goal can't be to anesthetize them all! (p. 148)

What's left:  I believe in science insofar as it allows many to measure the scope of his ignorance. So I say I believe in everything we don't know. This is not esoterism. I am simply convinced that the man of today—much more than his predecessors—has the certitude of the enormous scale of his ignorance. Acknowledged ignorance leads to imagination. And imagination is what takes you back to the passionate exploration of What's Left. (p. 152)

Some of the authors of this collection worked closely with Schaeffer. Others worked under his direction within one of his research and production programs.  Some of the authors, such as Jean-Claude Risset, Francis Coupigny, or Jean-Michel Jarre, worked with him at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), in music creation and music research programs. Others, like Claude Guisard, worked with Schaeffer at the Service de la Recherche (within the ORTF), in content and presentation renewal programs for radio or television. Other authors who are included, such as John Dack and Réjean Beaucage, are currently working in universities and other institutions where Schaeffer left his mark, and where his methods and research models are practised today. 

In his essay, “A 20th century Silex,” François Bayle writes poetically of his mentor, catalyst, benefactor, and fatherly friend. The final sentence of his brief memento reads, “He should be studied from every possible angle” (p. 85). Mr. Bayle chooses the metaphor of silex to represent the propellant-like nature of Schaefffer, with whom he and other musician-researchers, such as Luc Ferrari, Ivo Malec, Bernard Parmegiani, and Guy Reibel studied, conducted researched, proposed new tools, and created works in the late 1950s. He frames the early days at the Service de la Recherche (inside the ORTF) as follows:

I suddenly remember these groups, the smoky and feverish sessions of which Schaeffer was the center of interest; Schaeffer who, in his pathetic-sounding voice, had us, all individual idiots, bowling over under blows of his agile “quadrumanous” reasoning, swinging from branch to branch, like those gibbons whose efficient acrobatics he admired like a form of rhetorics. (p. 84)

Later in the essay he describes Pierre Schaeffer, the iconoclast: “Like few others (Cage, Xenakis), Schaeffer enters the Temple (cracks can be seen on its walls, the works of the bombs and explosions of Technology) baggage-less, like a burglar; and he finds the Great Priests unarmed and disoriented” (p. 85).

Most who read this collection will know at least some essentials about Pierre Schaeffer, the composer, inventor of musique concrète, music theorist, and author of the Traité des Objets Musicale. What readers of this collection will learn is that the fuel powering Pierre Schaeffer was his passion to understand human communication and the devices that enable it, or what he preferred to call  “communication machines.” The communication machine, by Schaeffer's definition, very much includes the human within the circuit. Terms such as “media” or “communication device” do not. Because he was first and foremost an ethicist, his theoretical and applied research into communication placed Man at the center of the communication circuit. 

In the essay “Plural and Singular,” by Jocelyne Tournet-Lammer, we learn something of Pierre Schaeffer's earlier (1956) pioneering steps into publicly owned, operated, and programmed radio.  In this case, his explorations resulted in the first successful radio communication system in Africa. Jocelyn Tournet-Lammer writes:

He was convinced of the political and cultural roles of radio, and that is why he started working on the implementation of a true communications network in Africa. This time, he was determined to create a radio that would be close to the people, made by the people, and attuned to the people's issues… Thus, Sorafom was born. For Pierre Schaeffer, this adventure lasted four years. For the people he brought in with him, it went on for many more. (p. 160)

As early as the mid-1950s Schaeffer was already writing that the survival of the human race depended on communication machines that would enable cooperative, many-to-many networks. In his essay “Pierre Schaeffer: Current Ideas About the Media,” Jacques Perriault, professor of Information and Communication at Université de Paris X,  explains that Schaeffer was more interested in what he called “specific networks of social communication,” mechanisms that would permit n-way communication and cooperation between individuals or groups having shared interests and needs—in other words, the democratization of the media.

Through Mr. Perriault's essay, as well as the testimonials by Marie-Claire Schaeffer and Roger Cochini, we see that Schaeffer presaged not only the Internet but also the popular vehicles of communication currently referred to as “social networks” (e.g., FaceBook, MySpace, etc.).   

Pierre Schaeffer's entire career and, in fact, musique concrète itself, was born in the 1940s and 1950s, from his insistence that radio be renewed and reshaped into a thought-provoking, versus thought-numbing, forum. Mr. Perriault also explains that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, after Schaeffer had essentially rejected as invalid his hypotheses leading to musique concrète, his focus returned to research and programming for radio and television.    

This same essay describes another of Schaeffer's experiments in n-way social networking. Antelim, a successful project that he established in the 1970s, was a radio-based communication machine permitting group exchanges between sailors at sea and their wives.  

In “Pierre Schaeffer's Legacy and the Atelier de Création Radiophonique,” author Philippe Langlois surveys the trail of media-related organizations whose missions and paths were crafted and shepherded by Schaeffer. These include his first and formative Groupe Jeune France, followed by the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF), Service de la Recherche (within the ORTF),  Studio d'Essai, and the Groupe de Recherches Musique Concrète (GRMC), which was renamed Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) . He describes his own position, since 2002, as co-producer/coordinator of France Culture's Atelier de Création Radiophonique (ACR). Here they continue and advance Schaeffer's interdisciplinary approach to radio research and experimental productions, working with authors and poets, sound artists and sound engineers, visual artists (i.e., set designers, painters, filmmakers, actors, directors, and so on) who want to better understand or create radiophonic pieces. Following the model established by Schaeffer, the author works with a team. They produce and present 40 unique programs a year. The essay's punchline, however, is that in 1969, Schaeffer had teamed up with Alain Trutat, radio director, and Jean Tardieu, writer, to create experimental theater and opera specific to radio through the same ACR and France Culture. And we learn that this was where Schaeffer mounted La coquille et planètes, for which he wrote the libretto, with music by Claude Arrieu. Mr. Langlois’s essay paints fervent times, past and present, and the reader learns of one more organization, established by Pierre Schaeffer, that took root and is still evolving.

As soon as I received this Polychrome Portrait of Pierre Schaeffer I was excited by the prospect of getting the authors' summaries of Schaeffer's seminal, and still untranslated, music theoretical works, Traité des objets musicale and Solfège de l'objet sonore. I had attempted some 25 years ago to study these works but found it  impossible to interpret, even with a tutor supplementing my second-year knowledge of French. The tutor, a graduate student in French literature, struggled with Schaeffer's writing, saying it was fraught with obscure idioms and was nearly impenetrable. Fortunately, the essay “Music Theory by Sonic Objects,” by Rolf Inge Godøy, does indeed provide a very brief but excellent synopsis of crucial concepts from the Traité. Schaeffer's perceptual and experiential approach to analyzing (“reduced listening”), describing, and then classifying sounds into his taxonomy of  “typomorphologies” is explained with examples, giving the reader a quick but direct feel for the driving concepts behind musique concrète. Several other essays in the collection, including those by François Delalande and the more personal, entertaining, and revealing one by Beatriz Ferreyra, also delve into the theory, research practices, and terminology of musique concrète. These will provide the reader with a key that unlocks at least a few of the treasures that are obscured by the language of the original texts. 

In his brief but essential essay, “Inheriting the GRM,” Daniel Teruggi sketches his early musical experiences in his birthplace, Argentina. Mr. Teruggi's hometown music teacher was Enrique Gerardi, who had been an intern at the GRM in the early1960s. The author was inspired by the examples of musique concrète that his teacher played for him, and he was determined to make his way to the GRM someday. In 1978, at the advice of Guy Reibel, Mr. Teruggi applied and was accepted into a two-year study program hosted by the GRM. After completing the course and reluctantly deciding he must return to his native Argentina, François Bayle offered him an assistant teaching position. Thus began his career within the GRM, which culminated 17 years later with the inheritance, from Mr. Bayle, of the Groupe's directorship. The second half of his essay describes the missions and philosophies of the GRM. Mr. Teruggi subtly addresses a criticism lodged by some that the Groupe has veered too far from its original purposes. He says:

Pierre Schaeffer is the reason the GRM exists and the father of the first ideas that drove it… These ideas were not immutable. They changed even during Pierre Schaeffer's time, and they have been considerably enriched since then, through the multiple contributions of other thinkers and researchers who have worked in this new experimental field. Pierre Schaeffer stamped his “style” on the GRM, and every director after him has done the same.

This brings us to another recurring theme of the collection, the question: “How will Pierre Schaeffer's legacy survive and persist?” Several essays stress that this survival depends on the continued discovery and archiving of Schaeffer's works, as well as the teaching of his methodologies. There is also a repeated call for translations of his writings and recorded lectures. 

It would be a grave oversight not to mention the recent English translation, by John Dack and Christine North, of Michel Chion's Guide to Sound Objects. Pierre Schaeffer and Musical Research, which has recently been made available, free of charge, through the ElectroAcoustic Resource Site (EARS) (www.ears.dmu.ac.uk).    

“Schaeffer@Köln.de,” by Marcus Erbe and Jan Simon Grintsch, recalls the chasm that formed in the 1950s between the perceptual-based composition approach of Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète and the rule-based, serialist approach of his German counterparts. The former rejected electronically-generated sound in favor of electronically-captured acoustic or “natural” sound, while the latter embraced the “pure” sounds of function generators. This divide between Schaeffer and the Cologne New Music going public became unavoidable when Orfée 53, an opera by Pierre Henri and Schaeffer, was performed in 1953, and Herbert Eimert wrote his cold response to musique concrète, as well as what he believed were Schaeffer's “undefined theories that could neither be demonstrated musically nor analytically” (p. 26). It was shortly after that response was published that Schaeffer stopped composing and practically renounced his music theories. But as this essay informs us, it is water under bridge since the 2002 writing and endorsement of the accord and agreement-of-cooperation by Christopher von Blumröder and Daniel Teruggi, University of Cologne's Department for Contemporary Music and the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, respectively. The resolution of past differences has resulted in concerts, lectures, and classes in Cologne, focusing on musique concrète and the underlying theories developed by Pierre Schaeffer. 

Like other essays in the collection, this one stresses the impossibility of understanding Schaeffer if his writings are left untranslated.We learn how the two groups are now overcoming the hurdle of studying Schaeffer's Traité by using English translations that accompany GRM's 3-CD release of the Solfège de l'objet sonore. Armed with the sound examples and accompanying notes, in English, groups of University of Cologne students study and discuss this material over an entire term. As the authors point out, today the Solfège is practically the only way for non-Francophones to get a handle on Schaeffer's thoughts.

Curiously the most comprehensive review of Pierre Schaeffer's evolution appears in the final essay, “Plural and Singular,” written by Jocelyne Tournet-Lammer.  Ms. Tournet-Lammer was chief of research projects, first at the ORTF's Service de la Recherche then at the Ina. After the demise of the ORTF, in 1974, she followed Pierre Schaeffer through his various audiovisual programs and projects. Her chapter takes us on an entertaining, albeit brief, tour through the twists and turns of Schaeffer's artistic youth, in which he authored plays, poems, and songs. She describes his natural organizational talents,which were revealed early on, recalling the Rover Scouting Crew and its newsletter, L´Etoile filante, that he established when he was only 20. She walks us through his initial professional career, when he quickly ascended from a technician for France's national Post, Telegraph and Telephone company to director of Jeune France, a pro-youth popular culture movement. At this stage of his development, his mid-twenties, he was already showing his interdisciplinary, cross-pollinating inclinations, founding the Studio d'Essai and drawing on the varied talents of ex-Jeune Francemembers, whom he recruited to work on new research in broadcasting. Their mission was to reveal the power of the microphone and recording resources. This resulted in the production of high-quality, experimental and alternative radio programming. 

The body of Jocelyne Tournet-Lammer's essay traces Pierre Schaeffer's later organizational posts, associations, and projects he conducted with various artists working in numerous media, his driving philosophies, and his vision.  It is an inspiring adventure, to say the least. But the most remarkable section of her essay is its ending, in which she describes and invites the reader to explore Schaeffer's continuous relevance to each of the fields in which he participated, including music research, communications theory and practice, artistic creation and production, and education. She outlines a curriculum consisting of 40 specific papers and audio-visual presentations by or about Pierre Schaeffer. These, she maintains, will enable readers to further explore and carry forward his accomplishments and the questions that he raised. Like some other authors in this collection, she points out that “the 'resurrection' of Schaeffer's work must also take place outside France” (p. 163). And, therefore, it is crucial that his writings and verbal documents be collected and translated into as many languages as possible but, at the very least, into English, German, and Spanish.

Taken as a whole, this collection of essays describes the work Pierre Schaeffer did during his lifetime. For the most part, they are non-technical. While the collection gives the reader access to some specifics about Schaeffer's Solfège, for example, the information is conveyed in the context of the man's life experience. In other words, musique concrète is only one of many stops along this tour. Surprises abound. For many of us, these unique vignettes provide the clearest picture yet of their multifaceted subject and his times. And, they also connect us to our own time; the way things have evolved and what's ahead. The collection is both reflective and projective. It is without question a polychromatic portrait.

Editor’s Note: The French version of Pierre Schaeffer: Portraits Polychromes (No. 13) comes with a 4-CD set of recordings that document Schaeffer’s career. The recordings are primarily spoken-word: lectures, radio broadcasts. They cover much of his career, from underground radio on the eve of the liberation of Paris in 1944 to a radio program featuring Schaeffer from 1978. All of the recordings are in French.