Pierre Schaeffer was born in Nancy on 14 August 1910 into a family of musicians. He began his studies at the Lycée Saint Sigisbert Saint Léopold in his native city, before gaining admission in 1929 to the École Polytechnique, then the École Supérieure d’Électricité et des Télécommunications in Paris, where he obtained a diploma in 1934. An engineer working for the regional telecommunications management in Strasburg, and then, in 1936, for the Direction of French radio and television, he followed parallel music studies with Claude Arrieu and Nadia Boulanger until 1943.
In 1940 Pierre Schaeffer was requisitioned by the Vichy government for taking part in the production of patriotic broadcasts. It was then that he founded Radio Jeunesse, a flagship for the Jeune France movement, an official body he founded in collaboration with Emmanuel Mounier and Alfred Cortot. Suspected of having been infiltrated by Gaullists, this movement was dissolved in March 1942. He was then appointed head engineer for the State Radio in charge of ‘personnel enhancement’, Pierre Schaeffer founded and directed the Studio d’Essai, for training and radiophonic experimentation. The Studio d’Essai took part in the activities of the Resistance until the liberation of Paris in 1944, the year in which Pierre Schaeffer was appointed director general of the radio. His sound suite, Cantate à l’Alsace, was played as early as 1945 by the Orchestre de la Radiodiffusion Française, which thus became one of the first pieces to performed on the airwaves of a now free radio.
In 1946 Pierre Schaeffer was appointed director of artistic services then of television programmes. Wanting to ensure cooperation between television and radio, he opposed the trade unions and was then dismissed. Despite this, taking advantage of his experience at the Studio d’Essai, he began to reflect on the nature itself of music faced with new technologies. He discovered the musical interest of repetition, thanks to the imprisonment of one second of a sound generated by the accidental scratching of a record turning at 78 rpm. After several repetitions, the listener forgets the origin of the sound and listens to this ‘sound object’ in itself (the closed groove experiment). Pierre Schaeffer then inadvertently took a fragment of the sound produced by a bell after attack and reiterated it through the technique of the closed groove; he modified its dynamic and noticed that the resulting sound was similar to that of a flute or oboe. He then noticed the upsetting of the laws of acoustics with regard to tone-colour. This was the birth of musique concrète: it is based on pre-existent sound material comprising sounds recorded in front of a microphone, be it noise or instrumental sound. The sons are then modified, manipulated, transformed, juxtaposed in studio.
In 1948 Pierre Schaeffer composed five ‘studies’ made up of collages and noises recorded on tape, assembled under the overall title of Cinq études de bruits. The Étude au chemin de fer was composed from collages and variations in speed of recordings of steam locomotives.
In 1949 he met Pierre Henry and founded with him, within French radio, the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (1951). The two men collaborated in the composition of many works, including the Symphonie pour un homme seul (1949-50) and Orphée 53 (1953), an opera premiered in Donaueschingen, based on a technique of noise processing that led to a new approach to music focussed on sound as an object in itself. As an engineer, Pierre Schaeffer made his own tools for his research and his music. The ‘phonogène’, with magnetic tape enabling manipulation of the speed of the tape or transposition, was thus created in 1951.
Ever active on the radio, Pierre Schaeffer made himself available, at his own request, to the ministry of French overseas territories in order to develop local radio networks and in 1956 he became managing director of the Sorafom (Société de Radiodiffusion de la France d'Outre-mer). From 1957 on, he devoted himself once more to his studio and to musical research. The Groupe de Musique Concrète became the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) in 1958 and was used for all the experiments and discoveries that were to be formalised in the Traité des objets musicaux (1966).
In 1960 he entrusted the direction of the GRM to François Bayle and founded the research service of the ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française), directing it until 1974. From 1960 onwards Pierre Schaeffer no longer composed in order to devote himself to research in the domain of music but also in that of audiovisual communication. At the Paris Conservatory he ran a seminar on experimental music as applied to the audiovisual (1968-1980). His important theoretical work – including notably À la recherche d’une musique concrète (1952) and Vers une musique expérimentale (1957), together with his long career at French radio and television (1935-1974) enabled him to surpass the technical and æsthetic aspects of communication and perceive its political and social role in contemporary civilisation: Machines à communiquer 1, Genèse des simulacres (1970) ; Machines à communiquer 2, Pouvoir et Communication (1972).
In 1974, after the dissolution of the ORTF and its reconstruction into two societies: the SFP (Société Française de Production) and the TDF (Télédiffusion de France), Pierre Schaeffer managed to save the archive service and that of professional training, regrouping them into INA (Institut National de l'Audiovisuel). He became a member of the Haut Conseil de l'Audiovisuel before retiring in 1975, abandoning his activities as a consultant, a teacher and a musician. An eclectic personality, he then devoted himself to a career as a writer and novelist, a career begun as early as 1938 with his first novel Clotaire Nicole. His literary works include Excusez-moi, je meurs (1981), Préludes, chorales et fugues (1983).
Officier de la Légion d'Honneur, Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Grand Officier de l'Ordre National du Mérite, engineer, polytechnician, man of the radio, composer, inventor of musique concrète, essayist, researcher, novelist, talented experimentalist, rewarded by the prize of the Académie Charles Cros (1967), the Sacem Grand Prix for composers (1976) and the MacLuhan Prize for communication (1989), Pierre Schaeffer died in Paris on 19 August 1995.