OBITUARY:Pierre Schaeffer

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The Independent Online
In the world of Pierre Schaeffer, experimentation and entertainment were synonymous; any division between the avant-garde and the everyday simply did not exist. Schaeffer was perhaps best known internationally as the inventor of musique concrete, among the most radical innovations of 20th-century music, but in France he was better loved as the originator of the Shadocks, a cartoon series still adored by every Gallic thirtysomething.

Born to a musical family in Nancy, Schaeffer mastered a technical understanding of radio early, working as an engineer for Telecom before setting up his own sound studio in 1943 when he began the series of radiophonic experiments that continued all his life. That same year he created a typical early work with La Coquille a Planetes, an eight-part series of fantastical sound battles between a voice and various monsters.

After the war he launched musique concrete with such masterpieces as Concert de Bruit (1948) and Symphony for a Single Man (1950), composed of real human noises, which became a ballet by Maurice Bejart and something of an international scandal. If this genre of musical innovation, with its emphasis on radio technology and primitive recording equipment, now seems painfully dated, its offspring are still very much with us whether in the "scratching" of Hip Hop DJs or the "ambient house" of Aphex Twins. The work of those such as Schaeffer in France and David Tudor in America vanished from high culture only to emerge in a rougher, more vital state in a range of popular music.

Whilst working for ORTF (Office Radio Television Francaise) Schaeffer expanded his experiments with electronic noise in an attempt to create a veritable lexicon of all possible sounds, their sonic frequencies and their physiological effects on the human ear. In 1966 he published a book, Traite Des Objets Musicaux, which tried to evaluate a whole range of sonic effects, to reconcile the traditional world of occidental instruments with sounds created in the rest of the world by accident or human design.

In 1960 Schaeffer set up a research centre for ORTF, in which capacity he created the animated characters the Shadocks. Small birdlike beasts with serrated beaks, the malevolent Shadocks were accompanied by a range of comic, indecipherable noises, from shattering glass to mumbles and shrieks. Despite this enormously successful series and the equally renowned programme Les Contours, Schaeffer's research bureau was always under threat. When in 1974 ORTF was broken up into various other television chains, Schaeffer's laboratory was abandoned along with its vital archives, which he rescued at the last moment to create the INA (Institut National de Audio Visuel).

Whether the image of his Shadocks hard at work with their mechanical pumps (for some reason Shadocks were continually pumping) or a concerto created with just the sound of a creaking door, Schaeffer's imagination and wit were a continual delight.

Adrian Dannatt

Pierre Schaeffer, composer, inventor: born Nancy 14 August 1910; died Aix-en-Provence 19 August 1995.