Pierre Schaeffer: Sound Is The Vocabulary Of Nature

It is this year’s theme for submitting recordings to the Hilltown New Music Festival.

I felt an immediate urge to respond: “That’s dogmatic nonsense, Mr Schaeffer”. Then I reminded myself of the infamous out-of-context Stockhausen quote about the Nine Eleven Attacks … and I looked a little deeper into interviews with Schaeffer. His view of Nature appears to be philosophical and quite different from my own mainly scientific approach to understanding the World.

I see mathematics as the “language” of Nature. To indicate that I have not yet explored this analogy in any great depth, I enclosed “language” in quotation marks. I use it merely as a figure of speech. Mathematics holds the key to understanding what goes on around me… but it may not “really be” a language. Strictly speaking, a language needs a vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and semantics.

In the context from which this year’s Hilltown theme quote was taken, he compares the way in which noises are articulated and defined to the way words are well defined in a dictionary. He then goes on to say that the world of music opposes the world of sound. This is very different from my own view, and the view of most (but not all) of the musicians whose work I follow: “Make sounds, and discover that you are making music” and “anything that can make a sound can be used as a musical instrument”. To Schaeffer, making music is about navigating a course between noises and instruments.

An article in the December 1986 issue of Electronic Musician magazine illuminates what he means a little further: “You have two sources for sounds: noises, which always tell you something — a door cracking, a dog barking, the thunder, the storm; and then you have instruments. An instrument [only] tells you la-la-la.”

Even though I believe that my own way of thinking is more contemporary and relevant, I say: It has been a tasty bite of Food For Thought, and, while looking up the context of the Hilltown theme quote, I gained some interesting insight into the mind of one of the pioneers of what I am trying to do.

So, will I explore my own notion that mathematics is the “language” of nature any further, in order to get rid of those quotation marks? Not now, anyway. My ideas are quite well formulated inside my own mind, and the quotation marks are o.k. for now. I’d rather  get on with making music.

(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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2 Responses to Pierre Schaeffer: Sound Is The Vocabulary Of Nature

  1. C54 says:

    I’ve often thought Schaeffer opened more doors than his slightly, one-dimensional viewpoints (as soundbites) ever suggested. His influence on cinema sound-design is one example. But, his “An instrument [only] tells you la-la-la.” is pretty laughable! John Cage immediately came to mind.

    Thanks for reminding me to revisit those early, musique concrete masters, Berkus!

  2. robin says:

    Very nice. I agree that you should keep the quotations, keep things in suspension and refuse completion or the lock-down of definition.

    Meanwhile, it must be said that Schaeffer was not much of a thinker, and spent much of his life trying to categorize and contain what was not to be contained. This is not to diminish his very real contributions in the practical arena. But he said a lot of random crap.

    Thanks for your comments!