Sam Ridout

Header Photo: Map of French colonial radio stations

From the Indigenous headdresses that plague the US festival circuit to the rhetoric of a global, universal culture that was a mainstay of dance music discourse in the 1990s, electronic music has long served as a fertile site for imagining encounters between different cultures.[1] Behind this recurring trope of seamless cultural interface is a set of ideas that understand modern communication technologies to afford a new vision and experience of worldliness, in which radio and television facilitate real-time encounters between previously isolated cultures, a view shaped by the sort of utopian technophilic counterculture that Fred Turner describes in From Counterculture to Cyberculture.[2]

This fantasy of the technically-mediated encounter has a history that extends at least as far back as the mid-twentieth century, and finds an early proponent in Pierre Schaeffer, better known in the Anglophone world as the creator of the early style of electronic music called musique concrète. Though it does not figure frequently in the countless citations of musique concrète as a point of origin for electronic music, among the characteristics of Schaeffer’s early musique concrète programme was a faith in its ability to cast new light on the relations between cultures and the human universals that underwrite them.[3] For Schaeffer, the sound reproduction technologies that occasioned the development of musique concrète provided a means of perceiving beyond the “merely” social to a natural realm of sound beneath.

The contemporary legacy of these sorts of claims for sound has been criticized in recent years; Marie Thompson, for instance, has argued that writers in the field of sound studies valorize a form of listening that understands itself to reach beyond the accretions of culture to a more fundamental reality. As such, writers like Christoph Cox feel able to bracket questions of race, gender and politics as secondary to an ontological substratum of sonic flux. But, Thompson argues, such a move is not so much a liberation from a particular perspective as an obfuscation of a ‘racialized perceptual standpoint that is both situated and universalizing’. In other words, categories and concepts—ontology, sound in itself, matter—are employed as if they are neutral and without history, denying their imbrication with, as Thompson lists, ‘Eurological histories, practices, ontologies, epistemologies and technologies of sound, music and audition’.[4]

As Thompson notes, a faith in the neutrality of technology has often played a significant role in the constitution of this universalist conception of sound. In the United States in the mid-twentieth century, as Jennifer Lynn Stoever argues, a similar set of arguments about listening, race and universality were developed in relation to the radio which sought to characterize it as a medium affording or fostering a post-racial or ‘color-blind’ listening. These arguments rested on an unexamined alignment of whiteness with neutrality, propriety and universality and of its other with the particular, disavowing the inscription of racial politics in the very texture of the radio.[5]

Schaeffer, who is regularly invoked in histories of electronic music, has by and large avoided the sort of scrutiny to which, say, John Cage and R. Murray Schafer have been subject.[6] This much is evident in Fielding Hope’s well-intentioned citation of musique concrète, in which he links ‘Schaeffer’s radical proposition for a reduced listening’, a listening that purports to listen only for the “intrinsic” features of sound, with a ‘radical, internationalist, and almost utopian proposition’.[7] Such a conception of a realm of pure sound, rendered accessible by electronic technology and transcending cultural difference, repeats much of what Thompson, Stoever and others find troubling elsewhere. By turning to the conditions that determine the universalism of musique concrète, a more complex conception of the cluster of ideas about technology, sound and politics that it sets in play can be produced.

Musique concrète, a term coined by Schaeffer in the late 1940s, denoted a practice that consisted of the montage and manipulation of recorded sound. Developed out of a theoretical and practical reflection on the sonic aesthetics of the radio, the early pieces were characterized by short loops on shellac discs. These pieces—most famously, Cinq études de bruits (1948) and Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950)—are often cited as important influences on the development of electronic music, from the electroacoustic music of university music departments to hip hop sampling and underground experimental music.[8] Underlying Schaeffer’s project was a conception of technologically-mediated listening as a means of reaching through the obscuring layers of culture and habit to experience sound in itself. Thus, sound technology was conceived as a neutral prosthesis for human perception, enabling cultural difference to be transcended and human universals to be discovered.[9]

Schaeffer and decolonization

This universalism did not emerge fully formed from Schaeffer’s head but was shaped by a moment at which universalism and internationalism were being radically challenged and reimagined in both theory and practice; as the theoretical edifice of musique concrète developed, the high period of colonialism came to an end.[10] In particular, imperial France, which sought its justification in a universalising mission civilisatrice, was met with a wave of anticolonial struggles in Madagascar, southeast Asia and Algeria. By the time Schaeffer’s theoretical magnum opus, the Traité des objets musicaux, was published in 1966, France’s colonial possessions consisted of a handful of small island territories.

While the contemporaneity of musique concrète and decolonization may be insufficient grounds to connect the two, attending to Schaeffer’s career and work with this conjuncture in mind allows the effects of the ideological reconfiguration occasioned by decolonization to be detected in the inner workings of Schaeffer’s musical experiments. Most straightforwardly, Schaeffer worked on the administration of colonial radio from the late 1940s, and most intensively in French West Africa from the early 1950s to 1957. The French state, concerned to shore up its soft power in the region particularly in the context of growing Soviet influence in national liberation movements, invested in radio infrastructure and training for the colonies. From the mid-1950s Schaeffer led these initiatives, training future radio professionals at the Studio-École in Paris. With the students at the Studio-École, Schaeffer sought to develop broadcasts adapted politically and aesthetically to the requirements of ‘overseas France’.

Schaeffer’s understanding of this project was grounded in a technocratic universalism that placed its hopes in radio’s capacity to ‘abolish distance, vanquish time […] [and] establish links between men of all races and of all lands’.[11] On the new radio, the best of ‘white’ and ‘black’ culture would be combined, drawing together ‘French genius’ and ‘autochthonous folklore’.[12] In practice, the broadcasts sought to combine educational content and public health information alongside broadcasts concerning French and indigenous culture, including recordings of traditional music and literary programmes presenting both African writers and the classics of French literature.[13] This reflected a conception of empire that Gary Wilder terms ‘colonial humanism’: a reforming sensibility that no longer conceives of difference in fixed biological terms but rather in terms of varying degrees of development and political maturity, such that the colonized require the paternalistic oversight of the French, who support self-determination in principle while infinitely deferring it in practice.[14] The Other’s cultural difference was thus in need of preservation as an authentic and organic essence, and consequently was to be subsumed under a synchronic, universalising ethnographic framework: in this case, the French colonial system.

Schaeffer clearly understood his reforming radio work in West Africa to be internal to his broader radiophonic practice, as demonstrated by its inclusion in a plan for a prospective work entitled ‘Le phénomène radiophonique’ alongside his more well-known work on radio aesthetics. Turning in detail to the project of musique concrète in the late 1940s and early 1950s can clarify how this political conjuncture—the attempt to reconcile cultural difference within a technocratic colonial framework conceived as neutral and universal—is played out and worked on in Schaeffer’s conception of listening.

Musique concrète and the “primitive”

In his written account of musique concrète, Schaeffer develops his conception of a mode of listening that attends to the sonic “in itself”, bracketing the cultural and indexical meanings of sounds. This is a listening that, he claims, reaches truths that are deeper than those expressible in language. For example, Schaeffer recounts practising this listening at an international conference, allowing him to ‘perceive all the better’ the truths behind the various delegates’ speech.[15] This conception of listening is joined in Schaeffer’s thought to a primitivist tendency that recalls the tropes of earlier artistic avant-gardes, as in André Breton or Pablo Picasso’s interest in African art. This combination establishes a logic that shapes how the relation to non-Western culture is conceived by Schaeffer.

In a footnote in In Search of a Concrete Music, the 1952 book that sets out the project of musique concrète, Schaeffer articulates his sense of the relation between the style and “primitive” culture:

personally I attach great importance to the strange encounter between concrete music and so-called primitive musics. This is a good moment to recognize that extremes meet, and to explain why. On the one hand, the latest fashion in Western technique leads us to find sound objects that undeniably have more in common with exotic musics than any Western music. On the other, the aesthetic and psychological impressions produced by concrete music inevitably make us think about the role music plays in other civilizations. Finally, the concrete experiment in music allows us to approach the problems of exotic or primitive musics in a quite different spirit from Western musicologists.[16]

Schaeffer’s claim that musique concrète provides a privileged vantage point for surveying, comparing and ordering cultural differences rests on its attention to a posited natural realm of sound material.[17] Various pieces of musique concrète take up this interest in cultural difference, including Étude aux casseroles (1948), Maskerage (1951), Orphée 53 (1953) or Simultané camerounais (1959), demonstrating a logic related to that which underwrites Schaeffer’s conception of colonial radio, in which the “primitive” serves to denote musique concrète’s return to origins. Where Étude aux casseroles combines ethnographic recordings with sound effects, Étude aux tourniquets draws on recordings of material composed by Gaston Litaize for various West African percussion instruments. A short film by Max de Haas, Maskerage, for which Schaeffer composed the soundtrack, renders the musical rhetoric of affinity between musique concrète and the “primitive” particularly clear, setting loops of ethnographic recordings and jazz to expressionistic shots of masks from around the world housed in the National Museum of Ethnology in Amsterdam.[18]

In a talk from 1954, Schaeffer had contrasted the ‘cloud hooks’—tall ritual structures—of the Dogon in Mali with the radio antennae of the colonial administration, registering a ‘naïve intuition’ that was ‘rendered more objective’ by les blancs. An echo of this rhetorical pairing can be heard in Étude aux tourniquets, which operates through the juxtaposition of two forms of repetition: on the one hand, the “primitive” repetitions taken to characterize West African music and the mechanical repetitions of the sillon fermé or locked groove, the central formal and technical device of the early years of musique concrète. In positing itself as unity, the piece stages and makes a claim for the essential affinity between the two repetitions, implying that, like the ‘cloud hook’ and the antenna, they are underwritten by what Schaeffer elsewhere refers as ‘an intuition that, though naïve, heralds a universal character’.[19]

Schaeffer’s premise here relies on a process of abstraction in which an epistemological framework constitutes its object in a certain way. That Schaeffer identifies the fundamental essence of music with pure sound is not a given but the result of particular histories of Western musical aesthetics, and of post-Kantian aesthetics more generally. Such an abstractive move, separating sound from religious, ritual and social practice, played an important and illuminating role in the work of early comparative musicologists, who argued that recorded sound lent itself to comparative study precisely because of its isolation of the sonic from the social.[20] As such, rather than isolating an essence, this manoeuvre shares a structuring principle with the ethnographic museum that is the setting of Maskerage, providing a ‘neutral’ frame within which artefacts can be compared. What is taken to be neutral, however, is far from it, and instead can be aligned with what Thompson calls a ‘white aurality’, one that keeps its material and historical conditions hidden from view. The vision of cultural difference in musique concrète can thus be seen to be closely aligned with that guiding the administration of French colonial radio, in which a modernising technological frame deemed neutral affords the reconciliation of different authentic cultural essences.

Syncretism Again

Despite the historical distance, similar questions continue to weigh on the present moment. Divergent conceptualizations of cultural difference crisscross the landscape of contemporary electronic music. In part, it would seem, in reaction against the sort of whitewashing exoticism that developed around dance music in the 1990s and the 2000s, an account of the European reception of house and techno has emerged which presents the history of this music as a fall from a fully-present origin in Chicago, New York and, above all, Detroit.[21] While this return to essentialism is unsatisfactory, not least in the way it dismisses the enthusiasm of Black US musicians for European music as well as the encounters between US dance music and other Afrodiasporic forms in Europe, a liberal pluralism founded in the totality of our present, namely, the market conceived as a neutral container for diverse contents, is no more satisfactory a solution.[22]

We might think, as Chal Ravens seems to encourage us to in her account of UK Club as a syncretising dynamic, of the soundsystem, the mix and the dance floor as social forms for generating the transversal connections between Jersey club, techno, gqom, UK funky and baile funk.[23] Like Ravens, Caspar Melville’s history of London club culture traces a similar syncretic energy in rare groove, acid house and jungle; both are alert to the precarity of these encounters, which remain riven by the tensions of race and class and do not settle into the harmonious whole imagined by liberal ideology.[24]

John Mowitt’s telling of the ‘percussive encounter’ between ‘African rhythmic traditions’ and ‘Anglo-American musical practices’ that produced rock and roll is useful here. Mowitt is concerned with the constitution of a technology—the drum kit or “trap set”—in ways that treat it not as a neutral prosthesis but as ‘an apparatus—that is, as a configuration of limits and possibilities that are shot through with use, with, in effect, an ensemble of prior engagements, whose significance is distinctly, though perhaps distantly, available to all those touched by the trap set’.[25] This technology is not some neutral frame, then, but instead an assemblage that is shaped by and brings with it a history of the violence and prohibitions of the racial regimes of the Americas, one that is both constitutive of and constituted by particular social forms.[26] As such, Mowitt suggests, the questions of hybridity, miscegenation and subjectivation that haunt rock and roll are foundational to it, rather than accidents of history.[27]

Many of these questions are floated by an EP by the German musician T++. Working on recordings of vernacular music made in Uganda by HMV between the 1930s and the 1950s (which is to say, made for the colonial market rather than as “scientific” ethnographic documents), Wireless (2010) compresses and fragments its source material into a musical language that draws on techno, dubstep and 2-step. On the face of it, then, these compositions participate in precisely the sort of primitivism found in musique concrète and much dance music culture: a white German appropriating African and Afro-diasporic musics, producing a piece that might be heard as remarkably similar to Schaeffer’s Étude aux tourniquets. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that something more complex might be at work. Wireless treats technology not as a transparent window but as historically conditioned: the recording that gives the EP its title is not an ethnographic snapshot of a disappearing cultural essence but an ode to the new technology of radio, an artefact of a decidedly modern commercial arrangement.[28] T++ accentuates the distortions and frequency biases of the original recordings, drawing on the surface noise atmospherics of dub techno. The elements are not assimilated into a smooth pluralist whole but might be said instead to produce an effect of “beating”, the awkward syncopations are the result of the different rhythmic codes of dancehall, techno and jungle displacing one another in an ensemblic exchange. Instead of the completion of a primitive intuition, T++ practices a dissonant syncretism, working not to assimilate differences through a mastering technological frame but to set those differences to work; technology does not vanish into the middle ground but bears the traces of a history of uses and meanings. Here, the meaning of the technology is inseparable from, for example, the history of both ethnographic and commercial music recording. If these practices and technologies afford a certain syncretism, this is not the result of transparency but of particularity. Such a syncretism, any worth thinking with at any length, will be one in which its contents constantly risk its undoing, composed of and with breaks: not an ordered tabulation of differences but a ‘composed brokenness of the rough cut’.[29]


Sam Ridout researches and cooks in London.


  1. Much of this essay draws on the more detailed account of primitivism in musique concrète that I set out in ‘“From the Totem to the Antenna”: Musique concrète and the Universal at the End of the French Empire’, Music & Letters, 101 (2020), 743–64.
  2. Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); cf. Susana Ilma Loza, ‘Global Rhetoric, Transnational Markets: The (Post)Modern Trajectories of Electronic Dance Music’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, 2004).
  3. One notable exception is Timothy D. Taylor, Strange Sounds: Music, Technology and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2001), 55–60. Though it would take us too far away from my argument here, a significant node in both the French and US contexts is the reception of cybernetics; cf. Christopher Johnson, ‘“French” Cybernetics’, French Studies, 69 (2015), 60–78.
  4. Marie Thompson, ‘Whiteness and the Ontological Turn in Sound Studies’, Parallax, 23 (2017), 266–82 (p. 274).
  5. Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016).
  6. Douglas Kahn, ‘John Cage: Silence and Silencing’, The Musical Quarterly, 81 (1997), 556–98; Benjamin Piekut, ‘Sound’s Modest Witness: Notes on Cage and Modernism’, Contemporary Music Review, 31 (2012), 3–18; Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003). One exception is Patrick Valiquet, ‘Hearing the Music of Others: Pierre Schaeffer’s Humanist Interdiscipline’, Music and Letters, 98 (2017), 255–80.
  7. Fielding Hope, ‘Freedom and Movement: Radical Music vs. the Hostile Environment’, New Socialist, 4 June 2019 <>.
  8. John Diliberto, ‘Pierre Schaeffer & Pierre Henry: Pioneers in Sampling’, Electronic Musician, December 1986, reproduced at <> and subsequently archived at <> [accessed 3 December 2020]; Rob Young, ‘Roll Tape: Pioneers in Musique Concrète’, in Peter Shapiro (ed.), Modulations—A History of Electronic Music: Throbbing Words on Sound (New York: Caipirinha, 2000), 11–20; Art Lange, ‘The Primer: Musique Concrète’, The Wire, 174 (August 1998), 50–55; Jonathan Patrick, ‘A guide to Pierre Schaeffer, the godfather of sampling’, Fact, 23 February 2016 <> [accessed 3 December 2020]; Moby, ‘The Evolution of Techno According to Moby’, Vibe, March 1994, 67; Simon Reynolds, Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999), 42–43.
  9. On Schaeffer’s conception of (or failure to account for) technology in his later writing, see Brian Kane, Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  10. Examples in theory might include Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (1950) and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Race and History (1952).
  11. Schaeffer, ‘La radio instrument de culture’ [talk given in 1954], IMEC, fonds Schaeffer, Box 55, Dossier 471.1, 1.
  12. Schaeffer, ‘La radio instrument de culture’, 8 and ‘Annexe B’.
  13. See, for example, ‘Annexe A’ to Schaeffer, ‘La radio instrument de culture’. These programmes, such as those of Yves le Gall, were undertaken more with an interest in preserving and disseminating folklore than with any strictly scientific ethnographic project.
  14. Gary Wilder, The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 143; Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
  15. Schaeffer, In Search of a Concrete Music, trans. by Christine North and John Dack (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 21–22.
  16. Schaeffer, In Search of a Concrete Music, 182.
  17. Hal Foster, ‘The “Primitive” Unconscious of Modern Art’, October, 34 (1985), pp. 45–70 (p. 60); Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Continuum, 2007).
  18. The film is accessible online: <>.
  19. Schaeffer, ‘Du totem à l’antenne’ [radio broadcast of talk given in January 1954] <>.
  20. Otto Abraham and E. M. von Hornbostel, ‘On the Significance of the Phonograph for Comparative Musicology’ [1904], trans. by Ray Giles, in Klaus P. Wachsmann, Dieter Christensen and Hans-Peter Reinecke (eds.), Hornbostel Opera Omnia (The Hague: Springer, 1975), I, 195; cf. Alexander Rehding, ‘Wax Cylinder Revolutions’, The Musical Quarterly, 88 (2005), 123–60.
  21. This is found most clearly in the writing of DeForrest Brown Jr.; see, e.g., ‘Techno is Black, Tekkno is German’ <>. Alexander Weheliye’s writing functions as a pre-emptive riposte to these arguments; see, e.g., ‘“White Brothers With No Soul”: Untuning the Historiography of Berlin Techno’ <>.
  22. cf. Veit Erlmann, ‘The Aesthetics of the Global Imagination: Reflections on World Music in the 1990s’, Public Culture, 8 (1996), 467–87.
  23. Chal Ravens, ‘UK club music is evolving – but how?’, DJMag, 26 February 2020 <>.
  24. Caspar Melville, It’s A London Thing: How Rare Groove, Acid House and Jungle Remapped the City (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2020).
  25. John Mowitt, Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 67–68.
  26. In a passing comment, Mowitt notes ‘the disappointment of “world beat”, where contact among different folks and their different strokes threatens constantly to reduce difference to diversity’; Mowitt, Percussion, 114–15.
  27. In its attempt to push back against the centrality of New World slavery to accounts like Mowitt’s, Fumi Okiji’s location of the ‘foundation in dispersal’ of blackness away from the Middle Passage is instructive here; Okiji, ‘Oriki for Don Cherry: To Be Part of a Gathering-Work’, in Lawrence Kumpf (ed.), Organic Music Societies (New York: Blank Forms, 2021), 417–28.
  28. cf. Michael Denning, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Music Revolution (London: Verso, 2015).
  29. Fred Moten, Black and Blur (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 150.