Experiments in Music Research: Reassessing Pierre Schaeffer’s Contributions to Music and Sound Studies

Experiments in Music Research
Reassessing Pierre Schaeffer’s Contributions to Music and Sound Studies
9 December 2016
Department of Music, University of Birmingham

The Traité des objets musicaux (Treatise of musical objects) is the central theoretical text for the loosely-defined ‘acousmatic’ school of composers that spun off from Pierre Schaeffer’s quarter century of research for the French public broadcaster, first as director of the Groupe de recherche de musique concrète (GRMC), and later with the Groupe de recherche musicale (GRM). Now, fifty years after its original publication, Schaeffer’s work is finally beginning to appear in English translation. At the same time, his carefully wrought meta-language for the relationship between human listening and musical sound is increasingly being tested as a conceptual resource for musicology and sound studies more generally. For all his notoriety, however, it is remarkable how little critical attention has yet been paid to the anatomy and genealogy of Schaeffer’s thought. Engagement with Schaeffer’s ideas, in English especially, has been unevenly focused on a small portion of his eclectic conceptual repertoire, and mostly written from a microscopic perspective that favours putting his system to work over understanding its historical and intellectual implications. Meanwhile, histories of experimental and electronic music have typically emphasized Schaeffer’s work as an engineer and composer over the theoretical project which he considered his highest achievement.

A closer reading of the Traité complicates such reductions. The book is both a prolegomenon to experimental composition, and an exploration of the implications of a musical pluralism brought about by an expanding global mediascape. His concern was not simply with studying listening as a phenomenon or with prescribing specific listening practices, then, but with repositioning listening as the foundation of all musical discipline: from the savoir faire of his solfège, to the analytical attention of his ‘music research’. Any critical reevaluation of Schaeffer’s work should thus be situated not only in relation to the history of electronic music, but also in relation to the history of musical listening and its representation in musicology and sound studies.

This one-day conference invites new critical readings of Pierre Schaeffer’s work. Its goal is to reassess the position of Schaeffer’s theory in the history of musicology and sound studies, its proximity to contemporary concerns in the study of listening and auditory culture, and the implications of engaging with its terminology and epistemology outside of the acousmatic tradition. While previous Schaeffer scholarship has largely maintained a prescriptive focus on the composition and reception of musique concrète, this conference seeks to amplify the dialogue between Schaeffer’s theory and other disciplines. It is timed to precede the appearance of the English translation of the Traité, and will thus set the agenda for future research in the field.

Possible topic areas include, but are not limited to:

  • the Traité des Objets Musicaux as a historical document
  • the Traité, the GRM, and acousmatic music as cultural institutions
  • comparative readings of Schaeffer’s theory with that of his contemporaries
  • critical re-readings of the Traité’s taxonomies
  • Schaeffer’s work as a media personality, novelist or essayist
  • Schaeffer’s philosophy of science and technology
  • the Traité as an analytical or compositional resource for non-acousmatic repertoire
  • Schaeffer and the theory of interdisciplinarity
  • Schaeffer’s work from the perspective of music psychology and cognitive science
  • Schaeffer’s work from the perspective of ethnomusicology and auditory culture studies
  • applications of Schaeffer’s ideas to the cinema and visual media
  • language, speech, and semiotics in the Traité

Abstracts of up to 300 words should be sent to Patrick.Valiquet@rhul.ac.uk by 30 September 2016. The conference will take place in the Department of Music at the University of Birmingham on 9 December 2016, and will be free to attend. A limited number of small travel stipends are available for doctoral students and early career researchers. Please indicate your intention to apply for a stipend when you submitting an abstract. Selected presenters will be invited to contribute to a collection of essays to be published after the conference.

Experiments in Music Research is presented in collaboration with the Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre, University of Birmingham, and with the support of the Institute of Musical Research, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Organizing Committee:
Dr Patrick Valiquet, Institute of Musical Research
Dr Scott Wilson, University of Birmingham

Comments are closed.