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Spectres #01 – Composing Listening

(p. 1-5)

1° The production of sounds by electronic means is of no musical interest. These instruments, whose only conceivable use is to imitate classical instruments (and what would be the point?) must beware of extending their possibilities into the domain where acoustic instruments cannot go: the systematic variation of timbres, the absolute control of dynamics, the extension of tessitura.
2° The use of prepared or exotic instruments as a supplement to the classical means of obtaining those sounds we know as musical, is of no interest. Apart from the fact that these sounds, whose purity is highly dubious, disturb our habits of listening, we have made up our minds to compose and to listen only to music made possible by the Western luthiery that has been perfected for centuries now, let us say since Bach.
3° The means of acceleration, slowing, superimposition, montage, and reverse playback offered by recording processes are of no interest, nor are artificial filters and reverberations: these are gadgets built by engineers, useful only for making soundtracks for cartoons.
4° Nor is there any interest to be had from the production of complex sonorous objects made out of sounds or noises, whether musical or not, through a combination of all of the above techniques, practiced systematically under the name of musique concrète, and perfected by the use of specialized devices such as the phonogène (chromatic or continuous), the morphophone, the multitrack tape recorder, etc.
5° As for consideration of the three-dimensional sonic space into which, consciously or not, any music (direct or recorded) must be projected, this is a minor phenomenon that should not be regarded as of any importance, whether it is static—pertaining to the origin of fixed sounds—or kinetic—pertaining to the potential movement of sounds within the space of reception. To these remarks on the means of producing sounds, combining them with each other, and making them heard, we must add, for the sake of completeness, some further negative propositions:
6° Music, which is contained entirely within the symbols of music theory, must exclude the consideration of any sonority which, being too complex or unusual, would escape this system of notation and, by virtue of this, could not be properly indicated in a score accessible to traditionally trained musicians and which could be officially deposited with the S.A.C.E.M.
7° The problem of musical composition is to be posed only in preconceived terms. The composer is capable of imagining all possible sounds, all desirable combinations, without recourse to sonic experimentation. Similarly, he is quite able to imagine all of their psychophysiological effects outside of any actual sensory experience.
8° In particular, it is through a purely theoretical approach, not by way of experimental gropings, that the composer can coax new forms out of new instruments. The modern composer, who now seldom writes “for the instrument”, is conscious that with the help of electronics he no longer needs to bother himself at all with the means of execution, which are neither a boon nor a constraint.
9° Finally, the musical work exists in itself, as unheard, and the auditor must be considered as a non-participant in the genesis of the work (or at least in its raison d'être). He is only the witness, limited to the sole capacity to accept or reject it

In an important article published in Revue musicale in 1957, Pierre Schaeffer ironically enumerates the postulates of a certain conservatism, one that denounces the futility of any experimental approach and rejects any significant paradigm shift in music—despite the advent of sound recording and its general acceptance.
Schaeffer's reductio ad absurdum, written sixty years ago now, testifies to two things: on one hand that, at the time of writing, it was already intellectually impossible to act as if nothing had happened, and on the other hand that the issues discussed then are still the subject of lively debate today. Times have changed, of course, and the concrète approach has developed further, has diversified, sedimented, fragmented, and has become established, as happens with any mode of thought, any significant new artistic approach.
But the deeper questions that motivated this approach are still fertile, and should be explored in the light of current practices and ways of thinking, aided by the contributions made by new sensibilities, new approaches, all of which resonate with and unfold out of those same propositions that Pierre Schaeffer defended so astutely in 1957 by playing devil's advocate, all the better to denounce stubborn conservatism.
This book has been conceived as both a prism and a manual. Following the “traditional” arc of electroacoustic composition (listen—record—compose—deploy— feel), each of the contributions collected together here focuses in on a personal aspect, a fragment of that thrilling territory that is sonic and musical experimentation. Although the term “experimental music” may now be understood as referring to a genre, or even a particular style, we ought to hold on to the original use of this term, which was based more on an approach than on any particular aesthetic line to be followed. The experimental is first and foremost a spirit, the spirit of the exploration of unknown territories, a spirit of invention which sees musical composition more as a voyage into uncertain territories than as a selfassured approach working safe within the bosom of fully mapped out and recognized lands.
We hope that this collection of texts will diffract the rays of this experimental spirit into as many domains, territories, and sensibilities as there are authors and creators; our ambition is that it should inspire the reader in his or her own research, whether as an artist or simply as a human, groping around, as we all are, in a world that is increasingly inaccessible, dissimulated by all the procedures that tell us how to look at it, how to listen to it, how to describe it, and how to feel it.

The editors

1 Pierre Schaeffer, « Vers une musique expérimentale », in La Revue musicale, vers une musique expérimentale, n° 236, Paris, Richard-Masse, 1957, p. 11-12.

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