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‘Sound was an end in itself’: Early documentary sound and the prefiguring of musique concrete

Cox, Geoffrey (2016) ‘Sound was an end in itself’: Early documentary sound and the prefiguring of musique concrete. University of Leeds. [Dataset]

This item is part of the Alternative Histories of Electronic Music collection.

Dataset description

Shortly before his death in February 1972, John Grierson, the ‘father’ of documentary (and inventor of the term), sardonically remarked that ‘of course the French are always finding phrases and discovering terms for things…when I was in Cannes, invited by Jean Cocteau, to hear this amazing new world of musique concrète, I laughed if I did not sneer because it’s something we’d been all playing with a long time before, maybe twelve years’ (Sussex 1975: 207). The work of the British documentary movement which he oversaw in the 1930s and early 1940s is testament to this with Walter Leigh’s title music for the GPO Film Unit’s 6.30 Collection (1934) orchestrated for an ensemble made up of everyday objects and a trumpet, Benjamin Britten working alongside Alberto Cavalcanti, ‘imagining a kind of musique concrète’ in the scores and sound design for Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936) (Mitchell 1981: 83), and Humphrey Jennings’ ‘symphony of sound, evocatively blending all kinds of music, the natural sounds of the city’ in Listen to Britain (1942) (Aldgate and Richards 1994: 226). By way of Grierson, the work of the British documentary movement was informed by Russian documentary filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov who as early as 1916 created a ‘laboratory of hearing’ declaring ‘the need to enlarge our ability to organize sound…to transcend the limits of ordinary music. I decided that the concept of sound included all of the audible world’ (Kahn 1999: 140). Technological limitations at the time made his idea all but impossible but he eventually realised them in his first sound film, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Don Basin (1930), of which Charlie Chaplin said that he would never have imagined that ‘these mechanical sounds [the rhythmic sounds of Stalinist industry] could be arranged to sound so beautiful. I regard it as one of the most exhilarating symphonies I have heard. Mr. Dziga Vertov is a musician’ (Petric 1987: 63). In very similar terms Walter Ruttmann declared in 1929 that ‘everything audible in the world becomes material’ leading to his proto Hörspiel work (made using film stock), Wochenende (1930) ‘a study in sound-montage…In Weekend sound was an end itself’ (Ruttmann 1933). Thus, though billed as an audio documentary, Weekend features sounds that to all extent and purposes are abstracted from any source; they are in effect, objets sonores. This presentation therefore aims to draw attention to the various threads of early documentary filmmaking that foreshadowed the sound experiments of Pierre Schaffer. It will challenge the notion that musique concrète’s lineage lies mainly in the Futurists’ declarations, through Cage’s ‘emancipation’ of noise, to Schaeffer’s codifications. Whilst scholars have detailed some of the works mentioned above and occasional connections made with Schaeffer’s ideas, the purpose here is to outline a more comprehensive survey of the material and to offer an alternative history of the origins of musique concrète and the notion of the sound object, with a view to a later detailed article on the topic.

Subjects: W000 - Creative arts & design > W300 - Music
W000 - Creative arts & design > W300 - Music > W310 - Musicianship/performance studies > W316 - Electronic/electro-acoustic music performance
Divisions: Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures > School of Music
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Date deposited: 27 Jul 2017 19:48



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