Readings — From the April 2013 issue

Little Bang Theory

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From In Search of a Concrete Music, by composer Pierre Schaeffer (1910–95), published last year for the first time in English by University of California Press. Published in French in 1952, the book collects Schaeffer’s journals and other writings about his musique concrète, which he created by manipulating recorded sounds. Translated from the French by Christine North and John Dack.

february 1948

I can feel stirrings deep within me. Ideas are seeking outlets other than words: Ta ra ra ra boom — whistlings — the snow — gusts of perfect fullness of sound — no will to conclude. On the windswept plateau, right at the top of the ski tow, iron hooks turn around the wheel, having scraped the frozen snow away. The whirligig of this mechanism injures the frost-crystal. Yet these things must, of necessity, be in harmony. A heterogeneous universe torments us. People today return to nature in bouts of ski tows, half-tracks, Kandahar ropes, superlight alloys. Thus, perfectly equipped, chrome-shod, asbestos-gloved, nylon-clad, they sample the immaculate mountain air. They are caught between two fires that burn and freeze them simultaneously. I must find a way to express this.

march

I go to the sound-effects department of the French radio service. I find clappers, coconut shells, klaxons, bicycle horns. I imagine a scale of bicycle horns. There are gongs and birdcalls. It is charming that an administrative system should be concerned with birdcalls and should regularize their acquisition on an official form, duly recorded.

I take away doorbells, a set of bells, an alarm clock, two rattles, two childishly painted whirligigs. The clerk causes some difficulties. Usually he is asked for a particular item. There are no sound effects without a text in parallel, are there? But what about the person who wants noise without text or context?

To tell the truth, I suspect that none of these objects will be of any use to me. They are too explicit. I take them with the joy of a child coming out of the loft with his arms full of embarrassing, albeit useless, things, and not without a powerful sense of my ridiculousness, guilt even.

april 3

I need a metronome. The one that was sent to me does not beat in time, nor do the ones that followed. It is incredible how much a metronome can lack a sense of rhythm!

april 4

Sudden illumination. Add a component of sound to noise — that is, combine a melodic element with the percussive element. From this, the notion of wood cut into different lengths, of approximately tuned tubes. First attempts.

april 5

My bits of wood are pathetic. It’s already bad enough trying to cut them to different lengths. Afterward, they have to be arranged so that they can be played easily. I’m up against the problem of the piano again.

april 7

I go to Cavaillé-Coll and Pleyel. There I find parts of an organ destroyed in the bombing. I return with a truckload of “thirty-two-footers” and tongued reeds. My originality will be not to play them like an organist but to hit them with a mallet, detune them perhaps. The war had already taken this on.

april 12

I need some helpers for my increasingly laborious trials. One of them blows into the two largest pipes, which are pleasantly only a “small tone” apart. (We laugh a lot at this expression, small tone or large semitone — as you please.) The second helper, armed with two mallets, covers with great difficulty an octave of xylophonic recumbent effigies. A third is in charge of the little bells. We rehearse, make mistakes, begin again, record. The result is woeful.

april 15

I am trying to construct an automatically vibrating metal strip (like a doorbell) that I can bring into contact with various sound bodies. In this way I get a mode of attack from these bodies, which superimposes the noise and rhythm of the attack on the sound. The results are profoundly monotonous. Furthermore, all these noises are identifiable. As soon as you hear them, they suggest glass, a bell, wood, a gong, iron . . . I’m giving up on music.

april 19

By having one of the bells hit I got the sound after the attack. Without its percussion the bell becomes an oboe sound. I prick up my ears. Has a breach appeared in the enemy ranks? Has the advantage changed sides?

april 21

If I cut off the sounds from their attacks, I get a different sound; on the other hand, if I compensate for the drop in intensity with the potentiometer, I get a drawn-out sound and can move the continuation at will. So I record a series of notes made in this way, each one on a disc. By arranging the discs on record players, I can, using the controls, play these notes as I wish, one after the other or simultaneously. Of course, the manipulation is unwieldy, unsuited to any virtuosity; but I have a musical instrument. A new instrument? I am doubtful.

april 22

Once my initial joy is past, I ponder. I’ve already got quite a lot of problems with my turntables because there is only one note per turntable. With a cinematographic flash-forward, Hollywood-style, I see myself surrounded by twelve dozen turntables, each with one note. It would be, as mathematicians would say, the most general musical instrument possible. Is this another blind alley, or am I in possession of a solution whose importance I can only guess at?

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