You might take it for granted that any sound you sample can be used as music, but this wasn't always the case. Although musicians have used noise in music for nearly a century, the wholesale appropriation of the entire soundscape through the recorded medium can be traced to the work of one man: Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995). Schaeffer was a broadcast engineer, a composer and a theorist (as well as a member of the French resistance during World War II) whose profound influence on electronic music can be felt by anyone using loops, turntables or mixers. First and foremost, Schaeffer introduced the concept of musique concrète, a compositional technique that makes exclusive use of recorded sounds from the real world.
Schaeffer knew that he was not the first to compose music using prerecorded material. As soon as the flat phonograph record was introduced, composers and artists — notably John Cage, Paul Hindemith and members of the German Bauhaus movement — began experimenting with the medium. This included using variable-speed phonographs, playing records backward, introducing distortion during playback and adding scratches to a disc's surface to create repeating patterns. However, Schaeffer attempted to base a new music solely on “fragments of sound existing concretely.” In 1948, he created the premiere work of musique concrète, Ètude aux chemins de fer (Railroad Study), the first of his Cinq ètudes de bruits (Five Noise Studies), in which he recorded the sounds of trains for the express purpose of creating a musical piece with them.
The sounds used in those early works were recorded straight to acetate disc; magnetic tape was not widely available at the time. In addition, the early concrète pieces were performed — rather, mixed — live: A number of turntables were used simultaneously to play the various records, and the result was sent through a mixer to a disc-cutting lathe over the airwaves. Consequently, musique concrète helped bring about a radical aesthetic change in which a musical composition could exist solely as a recording rather than as a score waiting to be performed.
In 1949, Pierre Henry (who went on to work with experimental rock groups in the '60s, '70s and '80s) joined Schaeffer as a collaborator, and, together, they created a body of important works. These include the seminal Symphonie pour un homme seul (Symphony for One Man Alone, 1950), which used sounds created with the human body, and the musique concrète opera Orphée (1951).
In 1951, Schaeffer acquired his first tape recorders, including a couple of variable-speed devices called Phonogènes, as well as the multiheaded Morphophone, which offered delay- and reverblike effects. He also conceived the pupitre d'espace, a multichannel playback system. These technologies — along with the techniques of splicing, looping and filtering — allowed him to mold sound as never before.
Schaeffer founded the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), a research group that survives to this day, in 1958. Two years later, he started Le Service de la Recherche (The Research Service), which eventually became the l'Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (Ina). (You may recognize these acronyms, Ina-GRM, as the team behind the outrageous software effects processors known as the GRM Tools.)
As a music theorist, Schaeffer wrote prolifically about the nature of sound and perception. His most important theoretical work is the Traité des objets musicaux (Treatise on Musical Objects, 1966), with audio examples released as Solfège de l'objet sonore (Music Theory of the Sound Object; reissued by Ina-GRM in 1998). Although many of the examples sound somewhat dated, the recording documents Schaeffer's influential research. To hear Schaeffer's purely musical works, check out the exceptional three-CD set L'oeuvre musicale, which includes his earliest concrète works. Both collections have detailed booklets (with English translations) and are available from www.cdemusic.org.