Terry Riley’s In C, ‘the founding work of the musical movement called minimalism’ (Carl, 2009, p.4), is written out on a single page of score that consists of 53 isolated units. It is intended for group performance, during which each member is to repeat one of the 53 aforementioned modules at will. Each performer is free to move on to the next module whenever he/she wishes, and the essence of the music as a whole is derived from the harmonies that superimposed modules give rise to.
Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux Chemins de Fer [Study on Railways], which ‘is widely recognized as the first piece of musique concrète’ (Horus Kemwer, 2007, para.2), exhibits recordings of trains that have been spliced, manipulated, and then structured in a way similar the method exhorted by classical convention.
When analysing any Schaeffer work, it is useful to align what one is hearing with some of Schaeffer’s musical philosophies. In his work Solfège de l'objet sonore he illustrates one of these musical philosophies by presenting to the listener two realisations of a small excerpt from Bach’s Musical Offering, one from a harpsichord (which is marked ‘Schaeffer's Bach Commentary Part 1’ on the accompanying CD), and the other from an orchestra (which is marked ‘Schaeffer's Bach Commentary Part 2 on the accompanying CD) (The reader should note that on the original tape, Schaeffer reads out his writings after each musical excerpt finishes. These narrations have been deliberately removed, as the points he puts forward will be covered in the following). Schaeffer (1967) as translated by Reibel (2005), points out that ‘we become aware of the fact that one dimension is missing from the conventional score, that of “timbre”’ (p.17). This statement falls in line with the distinction Schaeffer famously drew between codified musical notation and physical vibrations that enter the ear, a labour he achieved by naming the former ‘Musique Abstraite’, and the latter ‘Musique Concrète’ (Emmerson, 2013).
Further examination of his contemplations reveals a less than positive view towards the former technique of musical synthesis. His selection of words such as ‘the gap’, ‘thoery’s simplistic reply’, ‘serious deficiency’, ‘quasi-mathematical’ and ‘fails’ (Schaeffer and Reibel, 2005, p.16-17) clearly indicates Schaeffer’s haughtily derisive outlook on the classical notation system. It could thus be deemed sensible to infer that, within the context of his Etude aux Chemins de Fer, Schaeffer’s pursuit of a method of making permanent his musical ideas in a manner that encapsulated ‘timbre and intensity’ (Schaeffer and Reibel, 2005, p.17) was motivated by a wish to express his compositional intentions with greater accuracy.
This fervent desire stands in stark contrast to the principals behind Terry Riley’s In C that leave a great deal to the will of the performer. A large portion of the writing within the somewhat misleadingly titled ‘Performing Directions’ page are simply invitations...