Musique concreté
Musique concreté

text: Aleksandra Wróbel,
architecture student at Technische Universiteit Delft

graphic: Agnieszka Kępa
architecture student at Cracow University of Technology

reading time: around 10 min

The technological development of the twentieth century raised the question of how the classical music created so far would evolve and what its new definition would be - the emergence of previously unknown recording devices that took away the voice of traditional performers gave great opportunities to manipulate both the sound and his pickup. Also, the space understood so far as the place of performing the song has become a complementary element in the process of shaping the musical composition.

1. M. Libera, Prawie nic, Glissando 12/2007. trans. Author

2. Ibid.

According to the French philosopher Michael Chion, the new trend - musique concrète - is a constant movement between composing and listening, and the sound is no longer a musical notation, but an event - a performance that focuses on non-musical sounds. Because there are no natural sounds in it, you can't talk about falsifying authentic sound - everything is a creation. The definition assumes that any type of sound can be the starting point for a composition. It was about adopting those that were formerly considered useless, non-musical. The material of musique concrète are the sounds of the surrounding world: human voice, wind noise, murmur, animal sounds, the sound of sea waves, the noise of machines in their original or electronically processed form. Musique concrète draws attention to the essence of sound in isolation from its source, revealing the compositional potential in the sounds themselves. The world is becoming a new orchestra, which is a macrocosmic musical composition, and the performer is every entity that makes a sound.

The pioneer of concrete music was Luc Ferrari, who records his work Presque Rien no 1 with a statically set microphone while traveling from France to Dalmatia. The microphone recorded the banal sounds of everyday life such as the singing of birds or a passing truck, and the subsequent, extremely restricted montage gave the impression of communing with some kind of sound reality intact by the composer. 1 Ferrari did not focus on recording a specific sound or a specific sound, but allowed them to combine in the composition as they appear in nature - in almost social relations in which he then sought a specific creation. 2

The work can also be read as an attempt to present society as an image built from individual sound plans that materialize in the eyes of the recipient, included in the entire performance; the sense of hearing and sight together make up one rich and consistent experience of the sound journey shown by Ferrari.

This is not music! - Pierre Scheaffer, a great creator of concrete music, expressed on the subject of Presque Rien no 1, for whom its pure form does not tolerate the presence of a sound source. The recording of reality in which you can easily recognize the voice, steps or a passing car is not an art, but a reconstruction of the existing state in which space can be seen.
In his composition Etude aux chemins de fer from 1948, Scheaffer recorded the sounds of a train and then manipulated them rearranging a whole range of sounds and, as a consequence, receiving a song called the first musique concrète song.
It is characterized by a total lack of relation to time (unlike Ferrari), it also gives unexpected combinations of sounds creating a unique musical composition.
Pierre Henry was a student and then a close associate of Schaeffer, fascinated by the possibility of interpreting noise into music. Examples of his pioneering works in collaboration with Scheaffer are Symphonie pour un homme seoul and Orphée 53, which is the first work of concrete music of an orchestral character.
His work later evolved into an experiment (after collaboration with Scheaffer, who was a conservative in music theory), giving rise to electronic music. His album Messe pour le Temps Présent, including the song Jerks, is a combination of electronic music and light music and remained at the top of the charts for two months.
Although many critics accused Henry of moving away from creating high art in honour of commercialism, his works have undoubtedly expanded the group of recipients of musique concrète and put them in confrontation with conscious listening to the surrounding reality.

The manifested detachment of sound from its source was also included in a different way that connects the conflict between Ferrari and Scheaffer. Chris Watson's project - Outside the circle of fire is a recording from African tropical forests, where the author records wild animals in their natural environment. Recordings of a resting cheetah or hippo are completely devoid of sounds of the presence of the recorder, thus creating an extremely intimate relationship between the listener and the environment, and giving him the opportunity to completely penetrate the exoticism of the local landscape. It would seem that this is the creation of reality analogous to the case of Presque Rien no 1, but they share a fundamental difference: Watson in a very conscious way chose the environment for recording sounds, because he knew that this is a completely strange situation for the recipient - the listener who had never had a chance to experience it before, so although the sounds correspond to a specific situation (as in Ferrari's), the sound reception is completely Scheafferian - without the information contained in the title, the listener has no idea about the source of the sound.

An important aspect of musique concrète is also paying attention to the space, which significantly distorts and affects the reception of a given sound.
An example is an ephemeral work created by Alvin Lucier I am sitting in a room:

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have. 3

The above text is the instruction spoken at the very beginning of the performance by the author sitting in the Room. His voice is registered and then played back from the same place. Then the recording of the recording is played and so consistently for 45 minutes of the song - each time the sound becomes less and less readable, because each recording is "added" to the sound of the resonating room and the noise produced by the recording and playback tool. This finally leads to a completely abstract composition in which the initially semantically received sound is replaced by the oscillation of high and low tones.

The song is a kind of manifesto about the author's voice, which is once spoken to him by the recording medium; the reproduction process also shows the paradox of space: when the text was first spoken, it was not heard in any way - the author admits that he is in the room, but this is only a thesis in support of which no arguments are heard. Only when playing the recording of the spoken text does the room reveal its physical presence and with each subsequent reproduction gradually takes over the audio power of the voice until it is completely illegible.
The performance presented shows that space always responds to every human action that takes place in it, and that its response largely models its meaning.
In contrast, space never reacts to its visual presence, which manifests only through intermittent or reflected light or as shadows and mirroring. Turn off the sound source and the space will speak.

3. [15.12.2019]

4. B. Blesser, L. Ruth-Salter, Spaces speak, are you listening?, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2006, p.180, trans. Author.

Space in nature

A space that modifies both the reception and performance of specific music can also be understood in the context of a fragment of nature that has been adapted for the purpose of concert space, but unlike the version created by man - this natural acts as a still living organism that is not silence, but it generates sounds consciously combined with the musical composition. An example is the Jeita underground stalactite cave next to Beirut, in which Karlheinz Stockhausen performed several of his postmodern compositions in 1969: unlike in traditional concert halls, the audience was located 80 meters from the orchestra, so that the natural acoustics of the cave dominated the reception of direct sound creating total and multisensory music effect. The peculiar interior in which the sound resounded for a long time keying between the rocks 'forced' the performers to adapt their performance to the existing acoustics of the place, thus creating a song with an unprecedented sound. The climate prevailing in the cave meant that the music had a mysterious, even prehistoric climate, whose unrealistic performance brushed with the science-fiction climate. 4

A broader understanding of nature that modifies not only the sound channel between the performer and listener, but also introduces distortions within the musicians themselves were presented in R. Murray Schafer's song Music for Wilderness Lake: Dawn and Dusk (1979). The song was written for twelve trumpeters divided into two groups - one on the shore of the lake and the other - on a floating platform in the middle.
Choosing the dawn and dusk time to perform the song was aimed at using the effect of thermal air inversion above the water surface, which allows the sound to spread over a long distance, which significantly affects the size of its transformations in proportion to the distance from the recipient, as well as the amount of added 'on the way' sounds of nature. Thanks to this, the musicians performing the composition alternately become an audience for themselves, which in connection with the temporary wind turbulence and the sounds of the second group significantly influenced the perception of the part that is just resonating, and thus - the subsequent fragments played and the performance of the entire song.

5. articles%20pages/soundwalking.html [dostęp: 15.12.2019].

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.


The theoretical base of musique concrète and understanding the role that space plays in it can also be transferred to the field of ​​everyday life and constitute a key element in the context of understanding and (attentive) listening of the surrounding city. One of such examples are soundwalks - sound walks, i.e. experiencing a fragment of urban space in the form of a walk in order to consciously listen to the elements that make up its sound landscape. Hildegard Westerkamp is a pioneer in this field - a Canadian composer, artist and researcher in the field of acoustic ecology, who in 1974 published a description presenting the ideas of soundwalk and instructing how to fully experience it. 5

At the beginning of her description, the author points out that the experience of confronting with conscious listening can be painful or even depressing, because too many loud and senseless sounds demanding interpretation fall into the ear, and listening cannot be turned off in any way (like this is possible with the sense of sight and closing the eyelids), it is also impossible to control what will be heard.

The first rule of soundwalk is careful listening - otherwise many delicate and quiet sounds may not be caught from under the layer of all-encompassing noise.
The walk with Westerkamp begins with listening to your own body; breath, voice and steps on the pavement determine the first dialogue with the space, which responds with sounds of a specific acoustics.

Try to move
Without making any sound.
Is it possible?

Sound is inseparable for every experience of space; the human body creates the smallest, personal sound layer in it. The next step is to leave the intimate zone and hear what builds the background.

Lead your ears away from your own sounds and
listen to the sounds nearby.
What do you hear? (Make a list)

A walk with Westerkamp seems to be an early school class of looking at the city through the sense of hearing. The subsequent sounds she enumarated - from the list she created - show the tremendous wealth of what you can hear and which certainly did not notice those who tried to make such a list for the first time.

Repeating What else? the author aims to motivate the recipient to constantly listen to the space again to define what is still going on in it.

8. articles%20pages/soundwalking.html [15.12.2019].

9. R. Murray Schafer, The soundscape, w: J. Sterne, The Sound Studies Reader, wyd. Routledge, Abingdon, 2012, p.96, trans. Author.

At this stage, consciousness has recorded sounds that occur individually, but in the environment, they are always part of a larger composition, which is why the author proposes to re-construct them and listen to the whole as one larger composition created by several different instruments. She asks a question about favourite sounds in order to put them together in a new composition, which compared to the previous one will allow you to think about how you can change the existing sound landscape of the city by redesigning the spaces creating it.

Westerkamp also emphasizes that the walk is an attempt to rebuild the lost relationship of the listener with the surrounding nature and shows the multisensory depth of experiencing the city. Unfortunately, the more and more common practice occurring in cities is the replacement of walking for passing by, which completely changes the experience of perceiving the city from auditory to purely visual, because what is resounding at a given moment is detached from its visual content.
Cities are full of acoustic hints that - on many levels - are important for our existence: we must listen to our cities as primitive people listened to their forests. 8

Conscious listening - consciously staying in the city, brings a great potential not only for the listener himself, who will be able to analyse what sounds make up his immediate surroundings, but also for emerging urban spaces that can be consciously designed in to get the desired melody line. It will also help in answering the question posed by R. M. Schafer, whether the sound landscape of the city is a determined composition, not subject to any transformation, or can it be the people who are its composers, performers and main responsible giving them form and beauty? 9

Full Bibliogrphy:

1. P. Cusac, Soundscape. The Journal of Acoustic Ecology 1, 2/2000.
2. C. Cutler, O muzyce popularnej. Pisma teoretyczno-krytyczne, tłum. I. Socha, Wydawnictwo Zielona 3. Sowa, 1999.
4. U. Jorasz, Słuchając, czyli kontredans akustyki ze sztuką, Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu im. A. Mickiewicza, Poznań, 2010.
5. M. Kapelański, Koncepcja pejzażu dźwiękowego (soundscape) w pismach R. Murraya Schafera, Instytut Muzykologii Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 1999.
6. R. Losiak, R. Tańczuk, Audiosfera Miasta, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, Wrocław, 2012.
7. T. Misiak, Kulturowe przestrzenie dźwięku, Bogucki Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Poznań, 2013.
8. M. Olejniczak, T. Misiak, Sposoby słuchania, Państwowa Szkoła Wyższa Zawodowa w Koninie, Konin, 2017.
9. R. M. Schafer, Muzyka środowiskowa, tłum. D. Gwizdalanka, Res Facta nr 9, 1982.
10. R. M. Schafer, The Soundscape. Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Destiny Books, Rochester, Vermont, 1994.
11. A. Stanisz, Audiografia i de-wizualizacja antropologii w badaniu miejskiej Audiosfery, Instytut Etnologii i Antropologii Kulturowej UAM, in: [15.12.2019].
12. J. Sterne, The Sound Studies Reader, wyd. Routledge, Abingdon, 2012.
13. K. Topolski, Dźwiękowiska | Soundplay, Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Łaźnia, Piła, 2013.
14. S. Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, New York, 2010.
15. H. Westerkamp, Soundwalking, in: [15.12.2019]. K. Wrightson, An Introduction to Acoustic Ecology, w: Soundscape. The Journal of Acoustic Ecology 1, 1/2000.