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Schaeffer ...

Schaeffer and his ideas (theories?) have been an on-again / off-again topic in electroacoustic composition and analysis circles for a long time. No general resolution.

I first encountered the ideas and materials in 1969, mostly through my composition teacher Istvan Anhalt who had visited Schaeffer to get some clarification on the ideas. Anhalt was shown a room with reels of tape and a filing card cabinet (for those who don't know what this is ... http://absolutestockphoto.com/albums/userpics/10007/normal_Absolute_7_5788.jpg ). His questions went unanswered. He remained sceptical (as am I).

I've spent about 35 years trying to figure out what he was talking about and while I have used some of the ideas in teaching ea composition and ea analysis, I have found it useful in only a rudimentary kind of way.

How? As expressed in his writings, Schaeffer seems to have had little knowledge or understanding of psychoacoustics. It was largely through the "difference in our hearing" that I started reading in psychoacoustics and linguistics in the early 1970s. My readings continued to point away from the Schaefferian model. I continued to find too many 'ambiguities' and unresolvable issues.

Of late (while trying to translate him), it became clear to me that he conflates the metric with the psychometric.

An 'objet sonore' is, IMV, neither an object, nor sounding; it is a perceptual / conceptual structure, and as such does not 'exist'.

Like (IMV) spectro-morphology, this an interesting idea, but the context and limitations need a fuller understanding. "Sounds that transform in time" seems to propose that temporal processing is continuous and linear. Maybe for most people, but sadly, not for me.

Schaeffer does not seem to plumb the depths of the 'yin/yang' (complementarity aspects) of gesture<->texture. Neither gesture nor texture 'exist' (IMV); they are models for handling sonic events. Being perceptual, their nature is able to change from one listening to another.

A 'sound event' can be "heard" at many levels simultaneously, given perceptual acuity (and training if necessary). In my own analytic work I move towards a deep perception / understanding of 'small' elements, and construct models outwards from very simple / basic elements. As one student said, it's simple, it just isn't easy. (An example of this is the class I give where we spend over an hour on the first seven seconds of one channel of one moment of Stockhausen's Kontakte.)

At first, the perception lends itself to a 'mass structure' analysis. Using a spectrogram and bandpass filter it is possible to start to isolate some of the larger constituent parts. This 'isolated listening' (segregation) is then re-presented within the context of the larger sound (re-integration). This 'element' becomes 'streamed', and aspects of its 'identity' are noted.

These are ideas and concepts formalized in ASA and other areas of perceptual psychometrics. Schaeffer invites the concept of 'naive listening' (echoes of Rousseau and The Noble Savage ... a search for the past glories of French culture?). His work fits into (IMV) the philosophical realm of theories on art rather than the more technical aspects of auditory perception and the development (training?) of acute and robust listening skills.

Your distance will likely vary on this issue as we have all walked different roads in our search for a greater light.



Montreal, QC
2006 - II - 23

Date:    Wed, 22 Feb 2006 09:35:41 -0500
From:    James Wright <jawright@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Subject: Schaeffer translation

I began to work on a translation of Schaeffer's landmark treatise at McGill in the late 80s, but, with other fish to fry at the time, I set it aside and have never been able to return to it. Certainly no English translation existed at the time. I would be thrilled (but surprised) to learn that an English translation is now available.

Of related interest: Michel Chion also published a valuable little book titled Guide des objets sonores, dedicated to Schaeffer, his mentor.

Best - J. Wright

James K. Wright, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
School for Studies in Art & Culture (Music)
1125 Colonel By Drive (A939, Loeb Building)
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada  K1S 5B6
Ph.: (613) 520-2600 (ext. 3734)