Pierre Schaeffer (1910 – 1995) is considered to be the founder of musique concrète. Trained as a radio engineer instead of a composer, he saw in the invention of radio, tape recorders and phonographs the potential for a new experience of sound, seperated from it’s source allowing sounds to have their own existence. He coined the term „sound object“ (objet sonore), that paved the way for a new kind of perception, the „acousmatic listening“. Unfortunately Schaeffer’s theories are not translated in english (at least I didn’t found something, if anybody know…), there are only excerpts in the book audio culture and some scattered writings on the net. I’ll try to round up his ideas from what I found, to make myself a bit more accustomed to his thinking and why other theorists try to find ways beyond those concepts, as in the book Sonic Experience or in Andy Hamilton’s Aesthetics & Music.

For Schaeffer, the „sound object“ is an intentional representation of a sound. With the rise of new audio technologies the „sound object“ recorded on magnetic tape or phonograph (or every other medium that followed after on) is not indicating to a sound source such like: this is the sound of a violin or of a guitar, rather the „acousmatic experience“ refers to sounds that one hears without seeing the causes behind it. Acousmatics were the disciples of Phytagoras who demanded them to listen to his teachings while he was hidden behind a curtain, without seeing him, only hearing the voice of their master. The acousmatic experience reduces sounds to the field of hearing alone. The attention shifts away from the physical object that causes the auditory perception back towards the content of the perception. Schaeffers insights were inspired by the progress of recording technology, he claims that the playback of a sound recording through loudspeaker immediately performs the acousmatic reduction: the recorded sound is without its original cause. By removing sounds from the flux of causality the sound object is irreducible to a physical core, and therefore can be studied in a specialtity untill then unimagined. The new mode of listening enables the listener to construct a taxonomy of sounds, capable of organising and classifying the entire sound universe. Hearing itself becomes the origin of the phenomenon to study. Schaeffer was very much influenced by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, who layed out a philosophy that Schaeffer could apply on his concept of „sound objects“.

In the words of Jonty Harrison, “acousmatic music on the whole continues the traditions of musique concrete and has inherited many of its concerns. It admits any sound as potential compositional material, frequently refers to acoustic phenomena and situations from everyday life and, most fundamentally of all, relies on perceptual realities rather than conceptual speculation to unlock the potential for musical discourse and musical structure from the inherent properties of the sound objects themselves – and the arbiter of this process is the ear.“ The term “acousmatic” used to imply that the sounds are selected for their sonic qualities only, without reference to whatever produced them. Today the concept appears a bit strict and hermetic: relying on perceptual realities rather than conceptual speculations seems to reject a wider context or political issues. Ambrose Field expressed his reserve concerning Schaeffers concept of “sound objects”: “by compartmentalising real-world sounds into objects and suggesting that listeners might focus their attention solely on the timbral activity within a sound, Schaeffer had effectively invented the electroacoustic equivalent of the note.” The “sound object” then would be without any specific meaning, as the musical note is without. The acousmatic experience of sounds excludes it literal qualities. Andy Hamilitons objections towards the acousmatic thesis comprise its neglection of the importance of timbre, space and virtuosity. He instead proposes a twofold thesis embracing a literal as well as a metaphorical dimension to musical experience, thus bringing back the sensuous pleasure in sounds that was excluded by the acousmatic perception. In the case of singing, he suggests, the experience can become threefold: “one can listen non-acousmatically to the voice, attend to its musicality acousmatically, or focus on the meaning of the words”. Nevertheless Pierre Schaeffers role in modern music history is eminent: sound art is mostly negotiating his concept of acousmatic listening, deliberate or not (in performances of Francisco Lopez this is most evident…), and as a composer he prefigures today’s music producer, an amateur explorer working directly with the sound material.

Further reading in PDF-format here and here.

Last not least: there is a nice video excerpt of his piece Treatise on Musical Objects: