Musique for the sick and afflicted

As I wait for the N train at Kings Highway, I try to pay attention to the unique sounds of my subway stop. It’s an outside stop, so already I have a different palette of noise to choose from. I hear seagulls (I’m just stops away from Coney Island), pigeons having sex overhead, conversations in Chinese, construction, traffic, and headphones blaring next to me. I often want to capture these moments of sound and document them as history. I never know what will happen 500 years from now: Will seagulls be around, or pigeons, or Asians in Bensonhurst?

Pierre Schaeffer, a French telecommunications engineer in the 1940s, had some of these same thoughts. His use of manipulated field recordings (cut, spliced, slowed down, played backwards) presents history in a different way. It accentuates everyday sounds and reveals nature as one of the greatest musical instruments. With no traditional instrumentation, his recordings are a breath of fresh air. One of his first compositions used field recordings of trains. He dubbed these pieced-together sounds musique concrète, which literally means “concrete music.”

Pierre Schaeffer

Pierre Shaeffer presents musique concrète

I stumbled across Pierre Schaeffer a few weeks ago when I was lying in bed with strep throat. I had nothing but cough suppressant, Wikipedia, and Soulseek to pass the time. I read countless interviews and listened to online samples of his work. I noticed the transformation of musique concrète over time as he worked with different musicians like classically trained Pierre online casino Henry and Luc Ferrari. Their work blurs the line between noise, composition, and everyday sound. These recordings actually made being sick tolerable! I don’t think I’ve found better music to listen to while on dextromethorphan.

Pierre Henry

Pierre Henry

Most of the recordings I’ve heard are from L”oeuvre Musicale, my favorites being “Étude aux casseroles” (“Study with Baking Pans”), “Etude aux Tourniquets” (“Study with Whirligigs”), and “Etude Violette” (“Study Violet”). The other day at Virgin, I passed through the French section and saw the Pierre Henry box set Mix 01.0. Lucky for me it was marked down from $70.99 to $3.75. I guess there’s not a high demand for Pierre Henry, but what a find. After listening to his box set, I’ve decided Henry’s work might be more accessible than Shaeffer”s. He even crossed over to popular music, working with acts like Spooky Tooth and the Violent Femmes.

Even better than listening to the sounds of my subway stop is listening to Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry while at my subway stop. I wonder what they could have done with the 6 train at Union Square?

11 responses to “Musique for the sick and afflicted”

  1. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Nathan,

    I love stuff like this! It reminds me of some other things I really like, too. There’s Matmos’s “A Chance to Cut . . .”, which is sampled and processed sounds of surgical procedures. (My favorite track, probably just for the name, is “California Rhinoplasty.”)

    Also, you might want to check out Christof Migone. He’s a sound performance artist who has put out a number of projects with found and created sound. The one I know best is “Crackers,” which is sampled knuckle and joint cracks. The one I want to get is called “South Winds,” a ‘fart fantasia’. (Yes, a fart fantasia.)

    Also, you might want to look into Maxime de la Rochefoucauld, who creates music-making automatons and performs symphonies with them, triggering them from a control box with inaudible frequencies. His “Automates Ki” record is really very interesting.

    On an even different track there’s sound poetry, my favorite and best known performer of which is Jaap Blonk. He’s absolutely amazing to see live. His records are really good, too, especially “Flux de Bouche.” He’s on some cryptic-sounding ‘hiatus’ right now, probably resting his vocal chords. Seriously, if you ever see him you’ll know why he might have to take a year off now and then and still be able to talk. Let’s hope he comes back. If you ever get the chance, go see him.

    Thanks for the post!


  2. Tim Wager says:

    Hey, the comment counter didn’t register my comment. Testing, testing. 1, 2, 3.

  3. tim — the software sometimes holds up comments with links in them. no worries, though. they just hang out in a “to be moderated” folder until one of us sees them waiting.

  4. I always wanted to get high on Robo D but I couldn’t ever get past that awful taste.

  5. celia says:

    “I never know what will happen 500 years from now: Will seagulls be around, or pigeons, or Asians in Bensonhurst?”

    What an interesting thought. I’ve never quite considered this. And what a smoking deal on the boxed set!! Thanks for the great post.

  6. JaneAnne says:

    Lane! Did I never tell you about my roommate in Provo (the year before I moved to NYC) who was addicted to Robo D? She actually picked it up on her mission from her companion. Yeah, lovely. Anyway, when she lived in our house she’d already had two DUIs while high on cough syrup, and was attending meetings at the Alano club, but she kept relapsing. We could always tell because after downing a few bottles of the stuff she would feel guilty and then make herself throw up, leaving pink specks around the toilet. Even better, huh? She eventually ended up going into rehab (again) and leaving her TV and various toys chez nous. Now that’s my kind of roomie.

  7. Nathan Waterman says:

    thanks tim for the great links! has a great musique concrète compilation currated by a boston dj named frederic yarm.

    robo eww, nasty stuff, but beats coughing all night long.

  8. Well JaneAnne the first time I met Fred Tommaselli I introduced myself with the line “Utah has the highest prescription drug abuse rates in the nation.” And he responded “Yeah Mormons. They can party with the best of ’em.”

  9. Madeline says:

    i enjoyed this post muchly, nate, i’m sure it’ll cross my brain in the next morn an cause me to open my ears to the surrounding soundtrack even more than i normally do….it reminds me of how i tend to visually take in everything, like the flashing brown walls outside the scratched windows, or the awkward turning an positioning of the last cart when its slowly making its way through the place. an my favorite, the various scenarios an characters i never fail to see when staring at a blotched pattern or stain on the floor. the floor. that’s the best.

    *love those links tim!

  10. Tim Wager says:

    If you liked those links, I just found a great little video of Jaap Blonk doing one of his pieces. It gives you a taste of what it’s like to see him perform. Watching him makes me feel funny all over, highly aware of my surroundings. . . both very tense and oddly relaxed at the same time.

    Here’s the link:

  11. ok, tim. that is the weirdest thing i’ve ever seen. or close to it.

    i think you led me to a new art form as well: audio/visual mashup. i was listening to WFMU while his piece was playing, and it was hard to tell which sounds were his and which were coming from the radio webstream.