The ‘Groupe de Recherches Musicales’ Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry & Jacques Poullin, France 1951

Console at GRM Paris
Console at GRM Paris showing the EMI mixing desk and parts of the Coupigny Synthesiser c1972

The GRM was an electro-acoustic music studio founded in 1951 by the musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, composer Pierre Henry and the engineer Jacques Poullin and based at the RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) buildings in Paris. The studio itself was the culmination of over a decades work into musique concrète and sound objects by Schaeffer and others at the ‘Groupe Recherches de Musique Concrète’ (GRMC) and the Studio d’Essai. The new studio was designed around Schaeffer’s sound theories later outlined in his book  “Treaty of Musical Object – Traité des Objects Musicaux”:

“musique concrète was not a study of timbre, it is focused on envelopes, forms. It must be presented by means of non-traditional characteristics, you see … one might say that the origin of this music is also found in the interest in ‘plastifying’ music, of rendering it plastic like sculpture…musique concrète, in my opinion … led to a manner of composing, indeed, a new mental framework of composing” (James 1981, 79). Schaeffer had developed an aesthetic that was centred upon the use of sound as a primary compositional resource. The aesthetic also emphasised the importance of play (jeu) in the practice of sound based composition. Schaeffer’s use of the word jeu, from the verb jouer, carries the same double meaning as the English verb play: ‘to enjoy oneself by interacting with one’s surroundings’, as well as ‘to operate a musical instrument’
(Pierre Henry. Dack 2002).

Along with the WDR Studio in Germany, the GRM/GRMC was one of the earliest electro-acoustic music studios and attracted many notable avant-garde composers of the era including Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis, Michel Philippot, and Arthur Honegger. Compositional output from 1951 to 1953 comprised ‘Étude I’ (1951) and ‘Étude II’ (1951) by Boulez, ‘Timbres-durées’ (1952) by Messiaen, ‘Konkrete Etüde’ (1952) by Stockhausen, ‘Le microphone bien tempéré’ (1952) and ‘La voile d’Orphée’ (1953) by Pierre Henry, ‘Étude I’ (1953) by Philippot, ‘Étude’ (1953) by Barraqué, the mixed pieces ‘Toute la lyre’ (1951) and ‘Orphée 53′(1953) by Schaeffer/Henry, and the film music ‘Masquerage’ (1952) by Schaeffer and ‘Astrologie’ (1953) by Pierre Henry.

The original design of the studio followed strict Schaefferian theory and was completely centered around tape manipulation, recording and editing. Several novel ‘tape instruments’ were built and integrated into the studio setup including the phonogène (Three version were built; the phonogène Universal, Chromatic & Sliding) and the Morphophone.

The phonogène

The Phonogene

The Phonogène was a one-off multi-headed tape instrument designed by Jacques Poullin. In all, three version of the instrument were created;

    • The Chromatic Phonogène . A tape loop was driven by multiple capstans at varied speeds allowed the production of short bursts of tape sounds at varying pitches defined by a small one-octave keyboard.
    • The Sliding phonogène created a continuous tone by varying the tape speed via a control rod
    • The Phonogène Universal allowed transposition of pitch without altering the duration of the sound and vice-versa obtained through a rotating magnetic head called the ‘Springer temporal regulator’ (a similar design to VHS video tape recorders)

The morphophone

The Morphophone circa 1955

The Morphophone was a type of tape loop-delay mechanism, again designed by Jacques Pollin. A tape loop was stuck to the edge of a 50cm diameter rotating disk and the sound was picked up at varying points on the tape by ten magnetic heads (one recording, one erasing and ten playback heads). The resulting sound was passed through a series of bandpass filters (for each playback head) and amplified.

 Images from the GRM Studio


GRM Archive

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