Born in Nancy, France, 1910, Pierre Schaeffer († 1995) is told to be the Father of musique concrète and one of the pioneers in the use of electronic technologies.
Being a technician who had studies at the Polytechnic School in Paris, he was not originally a musician and he used to work as an engineer and broadcaster at the Radiodiffusion Television Francaises (RTF). In 1942, Pierre Schaeffer started a studio for the science of musical acoustics at the RTF, experimenting with phonograph turntables and a large library of sound effect records. During his experiments with turntables, Schaeffer discovered a technique to create loops, making the needle go back to the same position. At the same time, he started working with the isolation of naturally produced sounds, which was the beginning of musique concrete which was working with natural sounds recorded and played back in a musical context.
In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer started a series of experiments on the timbre, attack and decay of percussive instruments by recording bell tones and using a volume control between the mike and cutter to eliminate the attack. Interested in the creation of banks of pre-recorded sounds that could be manipulated from an instrument, he created the Phonogene, a keyboard that could transpose a loop in 12 distinct steps , which was an predecesor of Mellotron. Schaeffer used this device in his composition “Concert for Locomotives”, playing samples of trains. Later he began to play records at different speeds, affecting the amplitude envelopes of the sounds.
In 1949, Schaeffer worked on the “Symphonie pour un Homme Seul” in which all of the sounds were created by the human body, along with the composer Pierre Henry, who was asigned by the RTF to help in Schaeffer’s investigations. This was one of the most important works in early musique concrète, which was performed in 1950 in Paris using a PA system, several turntables, and mixers.
In 1951, RTF provided Pierre Schaeffer with a new studio and he began his first experiments in spacial sound, using several speakers and also co- founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrete where other composers where involved such as Pierre Henry, Olivier Messiaen and his pupils Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and George Barraque.
Pierre Schaeffer’s legacy to the music was also his study of classification and definition of the musical syntax, classifying aspects of the sound and creating definitions like length, complexity, extracts, manipulation, transmission, modulation, etc. These characteristics were published in his book “The Search for a Concrete Music” in 1952.
Pierre Schaeffer died in 1995 at the age of 85. His work has been highly influencial in some of the most brilliant composers from the 20th Century. He has also influenced several generations of electronic musicians, including Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre or Steve Reich.