A radical new approach to composition



One thought on “A radical new approach to composition

  1. Shortly after the release of Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday in the summer of 1953, Paris was hit with a massive strike that paralyzed municipal services, including trains moving in and out of the city. Parisians unable to leave town that August during the height of the summer season had Tati’s film as a vicarious substitute, and it seems safe to say that for some, this groundbreaking comedy was the better option.

    Part slapstick, part social satire, Tati depicted in hilarious microcosm an uptight nation unable to relax. Unlike the seaside hijinks contained within Jacques Henri Lartigue’s incomparable photographs, Tati’s shoreside inn-mates are a crabby bunch, incapable of leaving their workday rhythms behind. In the words of André Bazin, we’re witness to “…a feebly whirling duration turning back on itself, like the cycle of the tides… a conventional pleasure more rigorous than office time.”

    In the years immediately preceding the film’s release, fellow countryman Pierre Schaeffer was sounding out his own hierarchical inversion by way of a radical new approach to composition called musique concrète; here, the staves of traditional musical notation were jettisoned in favor of working directly with the sounds of the world recorded onto shellac disk and magnetic tape. These and other pioneering methods were intended to “…open music up to all sounds”, sending pitch-perfect conservatory-trained performers running in the other direction.

    Some years before, as Goran Vejvoda and Rob Young have recalled, Schaeffer had engineered the radio broadcast announcing the Liberation of Paris by Allied forces. Embedded in that program of news, music, and patriotic readings were coded signals agreed upon beforehand that, in a relay of sonic joy, directed parish priests to set their carillons ringing. It’s lovely to imagine this moment—seemingly straight out of a film Tati might later make—as one the director would carry with him for many years to come.

    In the period following his Liberation broadcast, Schaeffer experienced his own, recounting in a 1984 interview with Tim Hodgkinson that, “I was horrified by modern 12-tone music. I said to myself, ‘Maybe I can find something different… maybe salvation, liberation is possible.’ Seeing that no-one knew what to do any more with Do-Re-Mi, maybe we had to look outside of that…”

    Jean-Christophe Thomas has written that musique concrète, “maintains a unique way of hesitating between poetry, literature, and sound art”; I would add that there’s a bit of cinema there as well. Sadly though, Schaeffer in the end felt as confined as his listeners by having been “born in Do-Re-Mi”, and the impossibility of “distancing oneself from the dramatic.” In later years he expressed doubt that his compositions could be rightfully considered as music: “Unfortunately it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside DoReMi… In other words, I wasted my life.”


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