The Great Opening Up of Music

By Joel Chadabe
February 5, 2006

On February 26 and 27, at the Frederic Loewe Theater in New York City, Electronic Music Foundation in collaboratrion with the New York University Interactive Arts Performance Series presents Paris/New York, two concerts by composers of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales in Paris. But what is the Groupe de Recherches Musicales? Arts Electric asked Joel Chadabe to tell the story.

Pierre Schaeffer in 1952

Music today, music that we hear every day, contains such a variety of sounds and so much excellent technology that one could easily imagine that music has always been like this. But in fact, "the great opening up of music to all sounds", as I call it, was the most significant musical innovation of the 20th century. The Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) played and continues to play an important role.

Formed by Pierre Schaeffer in 1958 in Paris, with Luc Ferrari, Iannis Xenakis, François Bayle, and several other composers, GRM has through the years recast the revolutionary ideas associated with musique concrète into current technologies. This exhibit at The EMF Institute site, shows some of the founding composers in 1964:

Some GRM composers

In 1966, Bayle became GRM's director. In 1974, he created the acousmonium, a loudspeaker orchestra designed to project sound in space through multiple loudspeakers.

François Bayle and the acousmonium

Also in the 1970s, Bayle supervised the early development of sound transformation software and, in the early 1980s, his group created one of the first digital synthesizers. GRM Tools, a prize-winning package that is widely used today by music professionals throughout the world, was a major result of those developments. Read, for example, this account, published as a user story at the GRM Tools site, of how GRM Tools was used in The Matrix:

The Art & Excellence of Danetracks

Daniel Teruggi had joined GRM in the early 1980s and played an important part in the design of the digital synthesizer as well as in the development of GRM Tools. When François Bayle retired in 1997, Teruggi became director. He has supervised the ongoing development of new software and launched several major research projects.

But what is musique concrète? How did the Groupe de Recherches Musicales get started?

How did the great opening up of music to all sounds happen? It happened in several steps through the 20th century. As early as 1914, Luigi Russolo, flying the Futurist banner, built the so-called intonarumori (noise players), boxes that contained various mechanisms that gurgled, hissed, growled, crackled, and generally produced noises, and that were 'played', as if they were instruments, by turning cranks. For a glimpse of the intonarumori, see this exhibit at The EMF Institute site:


In 1924, George Antheil, an American composer living in Paris, wrote Ballet Mécanique, scored for player pianos, human-played pianos, percussion, electric bells, siren, and three airplane engines. The music can in fact be heard on this EMF Media CD, produced by Paul Lehrman, described here at CDeMusic:

Ballet Mécanique

In 1937, John Cage saw what was coming. He said that "the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard ... " In 1939, in Imaginary Landscape #1, Cage used variable-speed turntables. And many many compositions throughout his career used recordings or other electronic means to bring a wide variety of sounds into the concert hall. In 1979, for example, in Roaratorio, he included all of the sounds that James Joyce mentioned in Finnegans Wake. The music can be heard on this recording, described here at CDeMusic:


And in April 1948, Pierre Schaeffer, a radio engineer and announcer for Radiodiffusion Franaise (RF, the French national radio), got an idea. He wrote: "Certainly the idea of a concert of locomotives is exciting. Sensational!" And on May 3, he took a radio sound truck to a switching yard at Batignolles, a suburb of Paris, and recorded the sounds of locomotives. Schaeffer used a direct-to-disk method of recording, the only technology available to him at the time, and 'edited' by playing back the disks simultaneously, taking excerpts on the fly, and mixing them down onto a master disk. He called the composition Etude aux Chemins de Fer (Railroad Study). It was the first recorded collage of sounds. And he later named the approach 'musique concrète' to signify that a composer using this method was working concretely with sounds rather than working abstractly with symbols for sounds, as in writing notes in a musical score. Here is a brief mp3 excerpt from Etude aux Chemins de Fer:

Etude aux Chemins de Fer (excerpt)

Schaeffer then composed four more studies using a variety of sounds, musical and non-musical, including piano, percussion, toy top, saucepan, canal boat, words, and harmonica sounds. The five studies were broadcast as Concert de Bruits (Concert of Noises) on October 5, 1948, and it was so favorably received that RF allowed Schaeffer to hire two assistants, Pierre Henry as a composer and Jacques Poullin as an engineer. The first result of this new team was the creation of a major work of musique concrète called Symphonie pour un Homme Seul (Symphony for One Man Alone), which was first performed in March 1950, by manipulating turntables and mixers.

Poullin designed and built several instruments for processing sound. Following that first performance of the Symphonie ..., Poullin built the pupitre d'espace (space desk) for projecting sound throughout a concert space. Tape recorders had become available in 1950 and Poullin built two special recorders, the Phonogène for variable speed and pitch (shown above), and the Morphophone with multiple heads for delays and desynchronization effects. Schaeffer's complete musical works are available on this CD, as described at CDeMusic:

Pierre Schaeffer: Musical Works

In 1951, Schaeffer established a studio that he called the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète. Many composers worked in that studio, among them Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Schaeffer and Henry finished the first version of Orphée, a musique concrète opera. First performed in Paris in 1951, it was reworked and performed again as Orphée 53 at Donaueschingen in 1953. The Donaueschingen performance was not a success. As Pierre Henry said, "There was a riot. Everyone in the room was against it. They shouted. They made more noise than the loudspeakers ..."

Not because of the riot, Schaeffer then worked for several years on various broadcasting projects in the French colonies in Africa. When he returned to Paris in 1957, he resolved to establish a new research studio with a new direction and a new group of composers.

And that, in 1958, was the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM).

© 2006