Organizing Sounds: Musique Concrete, Part I


I.               Musique Concrete and the emergence of electronic music

Musique Concrete is nothing new. It was pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer and his team in the early 1940’s at the Studio d’Essai de la Radiodiffusion Nationale, an experimental studio created initially to serve as a resistance hub for radio broadcasters in occupied France, in Paris. While Musique Concrete might not be anything new today, at the time however, it represented a major departure from the traditional musical paradigms. By relying entirely on recorded sounds (hence the name “concrete”, as in ‘real’) as a means of musical creation, Schaeffer opened the door to an entirely new way of not only making, but also thinking music. It represented a major push towards a number of new directions.

Timbre was all of a sudden an equally important musical dimension as pitch had been up until then, something that composers like Edgard Varese had long been thinking and writing about. It also paved the way for the emergence of new compositional forms and strucutures. As Pierre Boulez pointed out in “Penser la musique aujourd’hui”, musical structures were traditionally perceived by the listener as a product of the melody. By removing the melody altogether, and working instead with sound objects, Schaeffer became a bit of an iconoclast. As he himself pointed out in his “Traité des objects musicaux”, the composer is never really free. The choice of his or her notes is based upon the musical code that he himself and his audience have in common. When Musique Concrete was invented, the composer had moved one step ahead of his audience, and was, to some extent, liberated.

One of the earliest pieces of the genre, and perhaps the most famous to this day is Schaeffer’s own “étude aux chemins de fer”, where the composer mixed a number of sounds recorded from railroads such as engines, whistles and others, in order to create a unique, and truly original composition.

You can listen to the piece here:

By today’s standards, the techniques used by the pioneer of the genre were rudimentary at best, yet they were, and remain, crucial tools of electronic music creation to this day. By taking a look at these techniques, and applying them to a computer music language such as Csound, we can not only gain a better understanding of this pivotal moment in music history, but also deepen our knowledge of sound and composition.

II.            Concrete Techniques

The early composers of Musique Concrete mostly worked with records, tape decks, tone generators, mixers, reverbs and delays. Compared to the tools available to the computer musician today, it’s a rather limited palette indeed. This however forced the composer to be much more careful in the selection of the source materials, mostly recordings of course, and far more judicious with the use of the processes to be applied. Using recordings as the main source of sounds confronts the composers with decisions early on in the compositional process, which will have profound consequences on the final piece.

1.     Material Selection

While perhaps a bit reductive, the compositional process could be thought of as the selection and combination of various materials. When working with sound objects, the selection process is maybe even more crucial.

It could easily be argued that this process begins at the recording stage. If you happen to be recording your own material, the auditory perspective you chose will have a profound impact on the outcome of the sound. As Jean-Claude Risset pointed out in the analysis of his 1985 piece “Sud”, the placement and choice of the microphone will hugely change the sound itself. For instance, placing the microphone very close to the source will have a magnifying effect on the sound, while moving it back a bit will give a broader view of the context within the sound is recorded, allowing more ambient sounds and atmospheres to seep in. This is something audio engineers have been very aware of for a long time, but that often gets overlooked by computer musicians. I’m quite fond of small microphones, such as Lavalier mics for instance, which allow the engineer to place them in places where a traditional microphone will not fit, very close to the sound source. This makes for some very interesting results. For instance, a lav mic placed right below a rotating fan will make it sound like a giant machine, shaking and rattling as if it were 60 feet tall inside a giant wind tunnel. As always, experimentation and careful listening is key.

If you are working with already recorded material, an interesting approach is to work with different sounds, but that evoke similar emotions. This approach was favored by the American composer Tod Dockstader, who in his 1963 piece “Apocalypse” used a recording of Gregorian chant as a vocalization to the slowed down sound of a creaky door opening and closing.  Dockstader came from a post-production background, and perhaps it is no accident that Schaeffer had a background in broadcasting and engineering as well.

You can listen to an excerpt of Apocalypse here:

This technique, of using very different sounds that evoke similar or complementary emotions, is also often used by film sound designers.

Star Wars’ sound designer Ben Burtt often speaks of this in his process. By working with familiar sounds, combining them in unexpected ways and putting them to picture, he has been able to create some of the most successful and iconic sounds in the history of film.

2.    Sound techniques and manipulations

While the technology available to the pioneers of musique concrete was fairly primitive, composers managed to come up with a number of creative methods for sound manipulation and creation. A non exhaustive but comprehensive list of these would include:

–       Vari-speed: changing the speed of the tape to change the pitch of the sound.

–       Reversal: playing the tape backwards

–       Comb Filtering: by playing a sound against a slightly delayed version of itself various resonant frequencies are brought in or out.

–       Tape loops: in order to create loops, and grooves out of otherwise non rhythmic material, composers would repeat certain portions of a recording.

–       Splicing: to change the order of the material, or insert new sounds within a recording

–       Filtering: to bring in or out different frequencies of a sound and change its quality and texture

–       Layering: Either done by recording multiple sources down to a new reel or by mixing them in real time via a mixing board.

–       Reverberation, delay: used to create a sense of unity, or fusion between sound sources coming from different origins, and a great way of superimposing a new sense of space on an existing recording.

–       Expanded-compressed time: by slowing down, or speeding up then reversing the direction of a sound.

–       Panning: allowing the composer to place the sound within a stereo or multichannel environment

–       Analog Synthesis: Although the genre was based on recorded sounds mostly, composers sometimes inserted tones and sweeps from oscillators in their compositions.

–       Amplitude modulation: Often done by periodically varying the amplitude of a sound or applying a different amplitude envelope over it.

–       Frequency Modulation: Although frequency modulation as a synthesis technique was discovered long after the beginnings of tape music, vibrato was a well-known technique long before then.

In the next installment of this article, we will look at practical ways to apply these techniques to Csound, and create our own musique conrete etude. In the meantime I encourage you to listen to more music by the composers mentioned above, and as always, experiment, experiment, experiment.

Organizing Sounds: Sonata Form

When working with Csound, or in the computer music genre in general, organizing the sounds and grooves we create into finished compositions can sometimes be a bit tricky, or perhaps more difficult than when working with more traditional musical material. We don’ t always, if at all, deal with melodic, harmonic or rhythmic material in the classic, Western, sense of these terms. Therefore we sometimes lack a framework, or context within which to develop our material from ideas to complete pieces. In this series of articles we will discuss various approaches to composition and form specific to the context of electronic and computer music and explore various approaches to the organization of musical data.

Whether we think or ourselves as artists, composers, sound designers or researchers, we all at some point are confronted with this issue. But working with new media, and cutting edge techniques does not mean we should forget our legacy, and the issue of form is certainly not a new one. A tried and true classic is the Sonata form, which as we shall see, can be of tremendous help.

“I alter some things, eliminate and try again until I am satisfied. Then begins the mental working out of this material in its breadth, height and depth.” — Ludwig van Beethoven

I. The Sonata Form

The word Sonata comes from the Italian suonare, ‘ to sound’ , which implied music to be ‘ sounded’ through instruments, distinct from cantata, a piece to be sung. While it is difficult to establish with certainty when the Sonata form was invented, it became very popular in the 18th century as the predominant form used in instrumental music.

A sonata consists of three sections:

1. Exposition
2. Development
3. Recapitulation

Traditionally, composers will introduce two opposing or complimentary themes in the exposition, the first theme establishes the home key and a transitional bridge leads us to the second theme, often in the dominant key.

The development tends to vary in format and length, but is used to build tension, or interest by developing the themes in the exposition along with new material. Traditionally the development begins the key the exposition ended, only to go through a number of modulations while building up melodic complexity before going onto the last part of the development: the retransition, a section often in the dominant key intended to prepare us for the next section and the return to the tonic.

The recapitulation is a modified version of the exposition, which follows a similar structure, theme 1, bridge, theme 2 and coda, but some variations are introduced to differentiate it from the exposition. The main purpose of the recapitulation is to release the tension from the development and bring a sense of closure and continuity.

Or in condensed form:

AB – C – AB’

As it turns out, the sonata form is still very much alive today, even and perhaps especially in electronic music, which tends to put less of a focus on vocals and is therefore ideally suited to the form.

II. Case Study: Digitalism

Let’ s take a listen to the track ‘ Idealistic’ by the band Digitalism released on their album Idealism on May 9th 2007. The German duo has enjoyed worldwide success and this track is fairly representative of their work.

‘Idealistic’ by Digitalism:


It is also, a perfect example of the sonata form being used in electronic music.

1. Exposition

The track opens with a strong beat, supported by a steady guitar riff and soon after an abrasive bass line is introduced (bar 9 or 0:21 into the track) which goes on until 0:59, when a keyboard riff is introduced underneath the beat at first but alone soon thereafter during the breakdown at 1:06. After being stated a few times, vocals are then brought in at 1:25 at which point the main elements of the piece have been all introduced. By the time the next section begins, at 1:50, the band starts developing them.

2. Development

The development begins with a paired down version of the first riff, adding rhythmic complexity to the drum beat and bass line riff, until after being hinted at a few times before that point, the keyboard riff comes back in full at 2:22. The two themes are played together until 2:52, when a new variation is introduced, this time it is a play between the vocals and a simplified version of the keyboard riff, which goes on until 3:05 when they stop and only the beat and the bass holding a single note come in. This is the retransition, tension is built up also by introducing shortly after a busy hi-hat pattern in the main beat until 3:20 which marks the beginning of the recapitulation.

3. Recapitulation

The recapitulation begins with much like the exposition only this time the bass line comes in before the guitars, introduced at 3:35, supported by additional sound design elements. The keyboard riff is hinted at many times as a motif that comes in at the end of the four bar phrases until the end of the track, at 4:04 where everything drops out except for the guitar riff before stopping altogether at 4:13.

III. In Closing

There is a lot of information to be found on line on the Sonata form in great detail, and while I encourage you to look it up and find out as much as you can, we’ re not too concerned with the details here, as a lot of it simply wouldn’ t apply to what we’ re doing. The basic ideas behind the Sonata form and how themes are introduced and developed however is still as relevant today than it was 300 years ago, and provides us with a solid frame of reference to structure and organize our ideas. Keep in mind that you can apply this form not only to musical themes and ideas, but also to elements of a composition such as dynamics, timbral development, rhythmic elements etc… The possibilities are literally endless.

Synthesis Fall 2010