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Musique concrète (French pronunciation: [myzik kɔ̃.kʁɛt], meaning "concrete music")[nb 1] is a form of musique expérimentale (experimental music (Palombini 1998, 542)[not in citation given]) that exploits acousmatic listening, meaning sound identities can often be intentionally obscured or appear unconnected to their source cause. It can feature sounds derived from recordings of musical instruments, the human voice, and the natural environment as well as those created using synthesizers and computer-based digital signal processing. Compositions in this idiom are not restricted to the normal musical rules of melody, harmony, rhythm, metre, and so on. Originally contrasted with "pure" elektronische Musik (based solely on the production and manipulation of electronically produced sounds rather than recorded sounds), the theoretical basis of musique concrète as a compositional practice was developed by Pierre Schaeffer, beginning in the early 1940s. From the late 1960s onward, and particularity in France, the term acousmatic music (musique acousmatique) started to be used in reference to fixed media compositions that utilized both musique concrète based techniques and live sound spatialisation.
In 1928 music critic André Cœuroy wrote in his book Panorama of Contemporary Music that "perhaps the time is not far off when a composer will be able to represent through recording, music specifically composed for the gramophone" (Cœuroy 1928, 162). In the same period the American composer Henry Cowell, in referring to the projects of Nikolai Lopatnikoff, believed that "there was a wide field open for the composition of music for phonographic discs." This sentiment was echoed further in 1930 by Igor Stravinsky, when he stated in the revue Kultur und Schallplatte that "there will be a greater interest in creating music in a way that will be peculiar to the gramophone record." The following year, 1931, Boris de Schloezer also expressed the opinion that one could write for the gramophone or for the wireless just as one can for the piano or the violin (Battier 2007, 190). Shortly after, German art theorist Rudolf Arnheim discussed the effects of microphonic recording in an essay entitled "Radio", published in 1936. In it the idea of a creative role for the recording medium was introduced and Arnheim stated that: "The rediscovery of the musicality of sound in noise and in language, and the reunification of music, noise and language in order to obtain a unity of material: that is one of the chief artistic tasks of radio" (Battier 2007, 193).
In 1942 French composer and theoretician Pierre Schaeffer began his exploration of radiophony when he joined Jacques Copeau and his pupils in the foundation of the Studio d'Essai de la Radiodiffusion nationale. The studio originally functioned as a center for the Resistance movement in French radio, which in August 1944 was responsible for the first broadcasts in liberated Paris. It was here that Schaeffer began to experiment with creative radiophonic techniques using the sound technologies of the time (Palombini 1993, 14).
The development of Schaeffer's practice was informed by encounters with voice actors, and microphone usage and radiophonic art played an important part in inspiring and consolidating Schaeffer's conception of sound-based composition (Dack 1994, 3–11). Another important influence on Schaeffer's practice was cinema, and the techniques of recording and montage, which were originally associated with cinematographic practice, came to "serve as the substrate of musique concrète." Marc Battier notes that, prior to Schaeffer, Jean Epstein drew attention to the manner in which sound recording revealed what was hidden in the act of basic acoustic listening. Epstein's reference to this "phenomenon of an epiphanic being", which appears through the transduction of sound, proved influential on Schaeffer's concept of reduced listening. Schaeffer would explicitly cite Jean Epstein with reference to his use of extra-musical sound material. Epstein had already imagined that "through the transposition of natural sounds, it becomes possible to create chords and dissonances, melodies and symphonies of noise, which are a new and specifically cinematographic music" (Battier 2007, 191).
Perhaps earlier than Schaeffer conducting his preliminary experiments into sound manipulation (assuming these were later than 1944, and not as early as the foundation of the Studio d'Essai in 1942) was the activity of Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh. As a student in Cairo in the early to mid-1940s he began experimenting with "tape music" using a cumbersome wire recorder. He recorded the sounds of an ancient zaar ceremony and at the Middle East Radio studios processed the material using reverberation, echo, voltage controls, and re-recording. The resulting tape-based composition, entitled The Expression of Zaar, was presented in 1944 at an art gallery event in Cairo. El-Dabh has described his initial activities as an attempt to unlock "the inner sound" of the recordings. While his early compositional work was not widely known outside of Egypt at the time, El-Dabh would eventually gain recognition for his influential work at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the late 1950s (Holmes 2008, 156–57).
Following Schaeffer's work with Studio d'Essai at Radiodiffusion Nationale during the early 1940s he was credited with originating the theory and practice of musique concrète. The Studio d'Essai was renamed Club d'Essai de la Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (Anon. n.d.) in 1946 and in the same year Schaeffer discussed, in writing, the question surrounding the transformation of time perceived through recording. The essay evidenced knowledge of sound manipulation techniques he would further exploit compositionally. In 1948 Schaeffer formally initiated "research in to noises" at the Club d'Essai (Palombini 1993, 14) and on 5 October 1948 the results of his initial experimentation were premiered at a concert given in Paris (Chion 1983). Five works for phonograph (known collectively as Cinq études de bruits—Five Studies of Noises) including Etude violette (Study in Purple) and Etude aux chemins de fer (Study of the Railroads), were presented.
By 1949 Schaeffer's compositional work was known publicly as musique concrète (Palombini 1993, 14). Schaeffer stated: "when I proposed the term 'musique concrète,' I intended … to point out an opposition with the way musical work usually goes. Instead of notating musical ideas on paper with the symbols of solfege and entrusting their realization to well-known instruments, the question was to collect concrete sounds, wherever they came from, and to abstract the musical values they were potentially containing" (Reydellet 1996, 10). According to Pierre Henry, "musique concrète was not a study of timbre, it is focused on envelopes, forms. It must be presented by means of non-traditional characteristics, you see … one might say that the origin of this music is also found in the interest in 'plastifying' music, of rendering it plastic like sculpture…musique concrète, in my opinion … led to a manner of composing, indeed, a new mental framework of composing" (James 1981, 79). Schaeffer had developed an aesthetic that was centred upon the use of sound as a primary compositional resource. The aesthetic also emphasised the importance of play (jeu) in the practice of sound based composition. Schaeffer's use of the word jeu, from the verb jouer, 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' (Dack 2002).
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