Cinq Études de Bruits (Pierre Schaeffer)
(Five Noise Studies)
1. Étude aux chemins de fer (Railway Study)
This first study was not Schaeffer ’s first attempt. But with it he took the bull by the horns, or rather he took on the train in all its “concreteness”. The means put into action are virtually those of a film shoot – transportation of substantial sound recording equipment to the Batignolles train station in Paris and the mobilization of several locomotives along with their railwaymen.
There is a lot to be said about the choice of trains for this first adventure. With their spinning wheels, don’t these machines resemble turntables, giving voice to and amplifying noise they do not make (supposedly transparent concerning the sound they emit) and deployed in space over rails resembling the confining spiral grooves of records…
“This rough and naïve study is the primitive precursor par excellence where one can feel the breakthrough of the essential audacity of the discovery of musique concrète”. That said, Schaeffer rapidly decided to qualify his undertaking as a “false good idea”. That was because the sounds of trains are just as magnificent and spectacular as they are difficult to construct musically. The score, or at least the predictive plan he wanted to follow, produced nothing worth keeping. “The most monotonous train varies constantly. It never plays in rhythm”, he wrote. Re-listening to each sequence in the studio, he nevertheless puts up with its “magical power ”, which forces him to “subject himself” to listening until the end, “as monotonous as it may be”. These studies being at first intended for the radio, he was tempted to broadcast “three minutes of «pure freight car» while warning people they just needed to know how to listen.” But he refused to give in. (It was Luc Ferrari who would later move in that direction, that of music labelled “anecdotal”). For Schaeffer, music meant construction.
He noticed for example that the repetition of certain sound cells (by way of looping) is the first step towards the sought-after abstraction. Abstraction which is in his eyes the only guarantee of a veritable “entrance into music”. In nature nothing ever repeats identically. As long as the train is recognizable, as long as “signifying predominates […], it is literature and not music.”
And yet the piece remains an inextricable mixture of railway “literature” and musical abstraction – and therefore a sort of monster in the eyes of its creator. “Because of their appeal to the «general public», I didn’t dare to get rid of those dramatic sequences [those where the train is identified as train] but I secretly hoped that an audience would come together who preferred the sequences, theoretically less rewarding, where one must forget the train to only hear sequences of sound colour, changes in rhythm, the secret life of percussion.”
Here is how the composer presented the piece in programme notes at the time: “The train theme is freely treated in a first section, making use of numerous forms of rhythmic development. The first part appears a bit like a theme and variations; then comes the second part that voluntarily distances itself from the anecdotal character of the sounds but is nevertheless constructed from the same elements. Finally a coda evokes the initial theme.“
2. Étude aux tourniquets (Whirligig Study)
Compared to the preceding study, étude aux tourniquets is “poor ” in regards to the means put into play: a few lamellophones (sansas), a set of bells, a xylophone and “whirligigs” – “an orchestra of miniscule toys”. Its construction, a bit stiff, evokes a music box, and its sonority suggests some imaginary gamelan. One can identify effects of slowing down and speeding along beside processes of looping and rhythmic ostinati.
Once again a preliminary score was written, with the assistance of Gaston Litaize. Schaeffer followed it scrupulously, executing a first version of the study. “The result is pathetic”. All the charm of the sonorities of the sound sources was destroyed by imposing the bar line. This first version was then taken and reworked by montage, transposition and mixing – in other words, “concretely” – without the least respect for the initial score. The result is the piece we know today, “a radioactive isotope of the preceding version”. Conclusion to the adventure: “Concrete manipulation creates new forms”.
3. Étude violette (Study in Violet)
Looking for a coherent sound universe from the point of view of timbre, Schaeffer turned to the piano. This study and the following have “for sole sound source the noises and sounds that can be drawn from a piano”. On a purely anecdotal level, it is worth noting that the necessary sound material was recorded at the piano by Pierre Boulez.
It seems that there was originally a single long study from which two excerpts were detached, the first baptized Étude violette, the second Étude noire.
From Schaeffer ’s programme notes, “The technique of the «closed groove» is the foundation for this composition; it consists in isolating sound or rhythmic fragments in different tempos and different registers, leading to construction where diverse processes come into play – reverberation, sound played backwards, etc.”
4. Étude noire (Study in Black)
From Schaeffer ’s notes, “a rhythmic first movement […] follows a melodicallyslow movement, then a return to rhythmic variations once again broken by a slow motif where the resources of three contrasting tessituras are exploited. The study ends with a rhythmic return evoking the initial tempo”.
5. Étude aux casseroles, dite «pathétique» (Saucepan Study, also known as «Pathétique»)
This final study is the most successful. It isn’t “rough-hewn” like the others, remarked Schaeffer. It nevertheless called for the least work; it’s the least deliberate. But without the earlier stubbornness, perhaps it would never have come into being? It is in fact the “real” Railway Study. Here everything is rumbling rotation and drive. Everything goes into it, comes together and finds its bearings, like a train that in its rolling sings the disparate landscapes it crosses: small craft, cows, flowering apple trees, water tank, houses, wagon rolling backwards, solitary tree, dog, child on a swing, etc, etc.
As for the double title – pathétique and aux casseroles– it is pure Schaeffer! “Pathétique” evokes the Romantic repertory and programme music. And the work is in its own way in fact a poignant plummet into the abyss. But how can one take such music seriously – composed by chance, constituted of trivial objects? So it gets decked out with this name “casserole”, which in French means the pots and pans themselves. It proclaims the piece’s native triviality, even if uses no real kitchen utensils, but only the “rolling tin can” which opens and closes the piece.
Here is how Schaeffer tells the story of the piece’s conception: “There were always old abandoned records cluttering the studio. The one I chanced upon contained Sacha Guitry’s precious voice intoning, Sur tes lèvres, sur tes lèvres… (On your lips, on your lips). But the recording had been interrupted by the script-girl coughing, explaining why the record had been scrapped. I appropriated it. On another turntable I played the very peaceful rhythm of a respectable barge, and on the other two turntables, whatever happened to be at hand – an American recording of accordion or harmonica, a Balinese recording. Then followed an exercise in virtuosity on the four potentiometers and the eight on/off switches.
Fortune favours the innocent. The so-called Saucepan Study […] came about in a couple minutes – just enough time to record it”.
“In the four preceding studies, one notices that the development leaves much to be desired and that the crescendo is clumsy, the editing awkward. But in Étudeaux casseroles, the barge from the French canals, the American harmonica and Balinese priests miraculously set to obeying the gods of the turntable – a gifted ensemble, economical with its effects. And when, alternately, the insistent Sur tes lèvres intervenes (three times), peppered with coughing, listeners invited to a first hearing are rightfully amazed at a composition that is so clever, so harmonious, so definitive. Thus are the classics of musique concrète born”.
text: Régis Renouard Larivière © INA GRM