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This is probably one of the more obscure music styles, and some of you may not even consider it as a style of music. Music or not music, it is a form of art that I am interested in making.

I am a rock musician and only know very few good examples of avant-garde music and musique concrète, such as The Beatles' Revolution 9. My brother and I both like how this kind of music sounds, and after having played music with more convenient instruments for over a decade, we've been wanting to try things with tape recorders and sound samples instead. Note that, as my brother said, we are not looking to create bad music and call it avant-garde; we want to make actual, half-decent musique concrète (or at least have a good time trying). Specifically we want to compose and record music, but later on we may also want to try performing it live.

Are there any good tips on how to start out completely from scratch? The do's and don'ts, maybe even some articles that take you by the hand and guide you through the steps of creating a concept and successfully conveying that through musique concrète... anything that could be helpful to a musician who is completely uneducated about this kind of music.

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I think your question can be answered somewhat as-is, but you may have a little better luck by clarifying what exactly you are trying to do. Are you wanting to compose? Perform? Record? All of the above? Also, "avant-garde" is not exactly a style. It sounds like you might be talking about musique concrète, but I'm not entirely sure. –  Andrew Jun 24 '13 at 19:16
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You're right, @Andrew. Musique concrète is indeed a better description of what I'm looking for. Also, we're indeed looking to compose and record it mostly, and perhaps perform it later on in the future if we end up really liking what we're doing. I'll edit my post. –  Lee White Jun 24 '13 at 19:24
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I think this question has potential here if you narrow its scope. Consider starting here and finding a more specific question to ask in order to build on this "starting-point" idea, specifically for the type of music you are attempting to compose and record. For now, I'm voting to reopen because: 1) You are new here, 2) Your question can be edited to be quite good, 3) Potentially-good questions should be encouraged, especially from new users, and 4) I despise unilateral closures. –  Andrew Jun 24 '13 at 22:10
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@Andrew, I second that the question should be reopened. When it has been narrowed down a bit, I'll have a lot to say. –  oberdada Jun 30 '13 at 18:51
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@oberdada And I look forward to reading it! Do you think that it would be possible to edit/narrow the question specifically so that you can provide your answer? Closures/now "on hold" questions can be a bit discouraging for the original author, so if we can provide a little help, that might be a good thing. –  Andrew Jun 30 '13 at 22:04

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Let's first define Musique Concrète as:

Music crafted from the manipulation of recorded sounds.

You can find more in-depth definitions here and here.

Where to start?

Before we can manipulate sounds, we need to record them. Grab a mic and start recording whatever sound you find interesting. Falling stones, water, voices, rain, cars, wood, strings, metals, anything goes.

Here you can be as pedantic as you can or want. If you don't know much about mics and recording, just grab any mic and record without thinking too much about it. If you know a thing or two about recording and mics (or want to learn), you might want to take your time and experiment with different types of mics (condenser, dynamic, ribbon, different diaphragm sizes, etc) and different recording techniques (position, orientation, maybe stereo techniques like X-Y, ORTF, Blumlein, Mid-Side).

If you don't have a mic you can always use sample libraries, videos, songs, any other source of pre-recorded audio. Recording your sounds opens more possibilities of expressiveness and is a lot of fun, so some people avoid using sounds that were not recorded by them.

Now that you have some sounds, you want to manipulate them.

Magnetic Tape

This is how and where it all started. Analogue tape recorders provide us with some options to manipulate sound, like playback direction, speed-pitch, and cut-paste specific parts of the tape into other regions.

There are other not so obvious tools, like using magnets or substances (or whatever you can think of) to physically alter the tape, inducing interesting (and sometimes unpredictable) changes to the sound.

Samplers

Sound manipulation in digital flavor. The options are somehow similar to the analogue tape recorders, plus whatever extra a specific sampler is provided with. The options include playback direction, speed-pitch, loop, filters, LFOs.

It's useful to know what types of samplers you have available that can achieve whatever you have in mind. If you are not experienced on this area, try to start with something very simple (like Ableton Live's Simpler), then something more complete (like Native Instrument's Battery or Kontakt), then something more exotic (like sampling/playback tools provided by SuperCollider, Reaktor, or Pure Data).

Granular Synthesis

Samplers evolved. Here the recorded sound is divided in many little parts called grains. These grains can be manipulated independently.

One very interesting implication is that we can now manipulate speed and pitch independently. You might know this by "elastic audio", or "time stretching", or whatever proprietary name that specific algorithm received. This is what pitch-correction tools, like Auto-Tune or Melodyne, use.

The array of manipulation options gets pretty big here. From granular panning (where you assign each individual grain a specific space in the mix) to granular clouds (where every grain is modulated in many ways, like pan, pitch, time, timbre, amplitude).

Different granular tools will give you different options. Native Instrument's Absynth has granular options as oscillator, sampler, and effect. More explicit granular manipulation can be found in synthesis environments (SuperCollider, Pure Data, MAX), at the cost of more complexity.

Scanned Synthesis

A very low frequency waveform is scanned. The scanning functions turn that slow wave into one with audio frequencies we can hear. A unique feature of scanned synthesis is its emphasis on the performer's control of timbre. Timbre and pitch can be controlled independently.

Some systems will let you use a sample as the scanned waveform. One example is Native Insruments' Skanner, where two oscillators scan a sample. The speed of the scanning is what gives the pitch to the sound, and the timbre is influenced by the sample.

You can find more about Scanned Synthesis here.

And beyond

Have fun, go crazy with sound manipulation. You'll discover new tools and new techniques as you go on.

One thing I like to do is re-record sounds manipulating the speaker and the environment. Maybe placing the face of the speaker in the floor, while recording whatever gets out of it inside of a wood box. Maybe put something in the speaker's cone, something that will affect it mechanically.

Maybe use a carbon microphone. Maybe manipulate the sound using vinyl (very easy to do in this day without actually creating a physical vinyl using tools like Traktor or Serato). Try stuff with all the mediums available.

Make some music with it

You might want to mix together some of these sounds and modulations, carving something musical. DAWs are the obvious choice here, but I recommend you something non-linear like Ableton Live or Bitwig Studio.

There are no specific musical patterns or styles, and compositions in this idiom are not restricted to the normal musical rules of melody, harmony, rhythm, metre and so on.

In short

Record and manipulate sounds, make music with them.

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There are portable recording devices that aren't very expensive and still give quite good results. Then you don't have to worry about external mic's and so on. Zoom, Tascam and Roland all have portable recorder product lines. Starting out with just using your mobile phone is a good way to get started though. –  Meaningful Username May 13 at 9:06
    
+1 for those videos! The original Dr Who theme, especially. –  Lee Kowalkowski May 13 at 10:59
    
Short answer: Find a sample you like, and start messing with it. –  dwjohnston May 14 at 1:11

My foray into Musique Concrète will give you one thing to perhaps NOT do.

While I was studying electronic music back in school in 1982 I came up with what looked like a very interesting term project. I had a reel-to-reel tape of Randy Newman's "Gonna Take Off my Pants", which I proposed to use as the basis for my composition, primarily because someone had made me a present of the tape. Suffering badly from student syndrome in those days, I had taken about 12 weeks of the 15-week semester to come up with my idea.

I bought a magnetic cartridge needle, such as are used in vinyl record turntables, and some wire. Other materials were an old upright piano, a large pair of ElectroVoice speakers, and a Crown tape deck. The piano was in a room next to the studio room, with a soundproof wall between them and various jacks to run wiring back and forth.

I first mounted the tape on the tape deck. I then lugged the speakers in front of the upright piano, wiring the tape deck output to the speakers. I tested; I now had the song booming at the wires under the piano. I then wired the magnetic cartridge back to the jack in the wall, and taped its needle to one of the ribs of the sounding board in the back of the piano. I pushed down the damper pedal with a block of wood to leave the wires open. Finally, I went to the jack on the studio side of where I had wired the cartridge output, and ran a wire from that jack to some auxiliary speakers in the studio. I wanted to hear what I got before I started putting it on tape.

I was expecting to hear all sorts of piano-string-related artifacts, along with some possibly recognizable snatches of the original song. Unfortunately, what I got was pretty much an exact reproduction of the original! I also got a C for the project. :)

Thinking about this now, I can say that the reason for this is that the sound board of the piano simply picks up whatever vibrations are in the air. If you are blasting the rock tune at the board, that will be much louder than any sympathetic vibrations of the strings, so the tune is all you will hear. If I were going to do this again, I would first try running the tune at a very low volume, very close to the strings, and then amping up the signal from the cartridge to see if the strings were a bigger component of the whole.

I'd recommend a listen to Jon Appleton's stuff. Here are two examples: Chef D'Oeuvre and Times Square Times Ten

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I LOVE musique concrete (or tape music, or acoustmatic music or electroacoustic music - whatever we call it these days. To begin just play - in fact play or 'jeu' was an concept of the original musique concrete theorists. Play w/sound, be at play w/sound. Edit, layer, put effects on.

Also - go listen to the greats. Pierre Henrys Psyche Rock (it will sound familliar to you), Apocolypse by Tod Dockstader and anything by Matmos who once made a dance album from the sounds of plastic surgery.

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Since this question was finally reopened, I'll try to respond to it. Before giving any specific advice, a comment on the term musique concrète will be necessary.

With a more traditional understanding, we may think of music as made up of pitches organised into melodies and harmonies in some rhythmic pattern that can be notated in a score. This is an abstract approach to music, in the sense that the notes in the score can be rendered into several different concrete forms depending on the articulation, timbre and what instrument is used. Musique concrète is concerned with the richness of a particular performance or recording rather than the generalities of the score.

Musique concrète, as introduced by Schaeffer, is a historical genre that arose in opposition to elektronischer Musik, an opposition that reflects the concrete/abstract distinction. Schaeffer stressed listening as the most important methodological tool of composition and criticised his collegues in the Cologne studio for being more occupied with pre-structuring material and composing a "musique à priori" without caring too much about whether these composed structures were audible or not. Later, Schaeffer himself would prefer the term experimental music. The philosophy and stylistic approach of musique concrète lives on today under the term acousmatic music, or is absorbed into electroacoustic music.

Now, to rephrase the question, how do you compose music in the spirit of musique concrète? Since it is both a historical genre and a movement that comes with its own philosophy, I recommend studying both the music and the writings. Look up the early music of Pierre Henry and his collaborations with Schaeffer, Bernard Parmeggiani, Ilhan Mimaroglu and others. The theory is exposed in Schaeffer's magnum opus Traité des objets musicaux (an English translation by John Dack is waiting to be published), Solfège des objets musicaux, and Chion's Guide des objets sonores. More recent writings by Trevor Wishart and Denis Smalley are also highly recommended.

As for practical tools, the second most important after your ears is a sound editor. Cut and splice operations are almost all that is needed when you have gathered some good recordings, but of course there are no limits to how much processing you can apply.

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I'm a huge fan of music concrète as well; one of my favorites is Richard Trythall's Omaggio a Jerry Lee Lewis, which is a great manipulation of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On". (The score being included in the video is a great bonus.)

It's equally possible to do this using a more modern workflow. Basically, you need a set of tools and processes that will let you take recordings and manipulate them in terms of edits, speed, and direction. I've used Audacity very successfully for this.

It has excellent speed controls (variable and constant) built in; it is very good for tight edits and mag-tape-style chop and reassemble editing, and can reverse clips as well. High-pass, low-pass and notch filters are all included, and of course you can add other effects - high, low, or medium tech - quite easily as well.

This piece is an example of using Audacity for music concrète manipulation of a Bach string quartet that I did for the Disquiet Junto.

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