Pierre Schaeffer was a radio engineer, broadcaster, writer and biographer. Pierre Henry was a classically trained composer. Together, these two French collaborators initiated a revolution in music that brought electronic technology into the mainstream of classical music. The art form they brought into the world was the "concrete music": recorded electronic music that could contain all sounds.
Schaeffer graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris in 1931 and continued his studies in electrical engineering and telecommunications. He later took an apprenticeship as an engineer at the Paris facility of the French National Radio and Radiodiffusion-Television Françaises (RTF), leading to a full-time job as a technician and broadcaster.
Working at RTF gave him the access to the extensive radio equipment, including turntables, mixers, microphones, and lathes for direct plate pressing. He also had at his disposal a large archive of sound effects records owned by the studio and routinely used for radio productions. In 1944 he became involved in the production of the eight-part radio opera series La Coquille à planètes. Although an audio engineer by profession, Schaeffer grew up in a musical family and was increasingly aware of the musical possibilities of the audio recording technique. For opera production, he used a variety of non-musical sounds in audio editing transmitted by radio. He undertook most of the technical work himself, learning to work with turntable technology. In one part of the opera, Schaeffer combined noise and music in a more open way. He later explained that this experience of manipulating recorded sounds revealed "the interest that led to concrete music."
After the war, in 1947, Schaeffer met the sound engineer Jacques Poullin, who became his close associate in the design of specialized audio equipment for a radio studio. In January 1948, Schaeffer was ready to use gramophone technology in a series of five compositions, collectively known as Etudes de bruits. He worked on them all year long and premiered them on the radio on October 5, 1948. These were the first completed concrete music pieces, a term Schaeffer coined to describe the use of sound objects from nature, the "concrete" sounds of the real world. They were the opposite of the "musical objects" of the tonal music, the source of which was an abstract value system produced in the mind.
Etudes de bruits were composed exclusively in the gramophone technology. Schaeffer used the following equipment to make them:
• Lathe device to press the record with the final mixes
• Four turntables
• Four-channel mixer
• Audio filters
• Reverberation chamber
• Portable recording system
• Sound effects from the radio station library and newly recorded sounds
The composing of the musique concrète piece began with the sound material itself, and not with a concept that the composer had outlined earlier, e.g. in form of a score. The material preceded the construction. The sounds were then processed and edited by the composer until they were recorded in their final structure. This approach to composition was almost the opposite of traditional music, which begins with a predetermined structure, which is then completed by the composer. Not all tape compositions were composed this way, but this approach was favored by Schaeffer in his work.
The success of the Etudes attracted composer Pierre Henry to the studio; he joined Schaeffer and Poullin in their work in 1949. In 1951, after some more successful experimental work and broadcasts, RTF donated funds to establish the world's first audio studio devoted exclusively to the electronic music production: Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM). Tape recorders, audio signal generators, filters, and other audio equipment were fitted to replace record presses and turntables.
Now that tape recorders were available, Schaeffer and Poullin set to work on the design of some new audio recording and editing tools. By 1951, in addition to the necessary audio signal generators and filters, they equipped their studio with:
• Three-track tape recorder.
• Morphophone, ten heads tape machine to play loops and create echo effects.
• Tolana Phonogène, a keyboard controlled tape machine designed to play loops. It had twenty-four preset speeds that could be activated using the keyboard.
• Sareg Phonogène, version of the Tolana Phonogène variable speed loop machine.
• Potentiomètre d'Espace, playback controller for distributing sound to four speakers.
While Schaeffer and Poullin were still fascinated by electronic gadgets, Henry's presence in the studio brought to the work a sense of musicality that Schaeffer's collages lacked. At the same time, Schaeffer's engineering mind was forced to develop an empirical approach to "noise" music making. Like Luigi Russolo before him, he classified sonic "objects" into several categories:
• Alive elements (including voices, animal sounds)
• Modified or "prepared" instruments
• Conventional instruments
Symphonie pour un homme seul (Symphony for a Lonely Man, 1949–50) was the first major collaboration between Schaeffer and Henry. While the twelve-part work has undergone many revisions over the years, the original recording, composed using phonographic machines, was striking and ambitious, even by today's standards. It was based primarily on two categories of sounds defined by composers as:
1. Human sounds (breathing, voice fragments, screams, humming, whistling)
2. Inhuman sounds (steps, knocking on the door, drums, prepared piano, orchestral instruments).