EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

What’s in a name? The naming of new forms of music in the twentieth century

Marc Battier

MINT, Université Paris Sorbonne


To address the situation in which music appear from the use of new sound technologies, a fairly large number of names have been used. Many have not been retained by History and few remain. However, the use of specific terms and expressions reveal much more than a mere relationship to technology. When German critics and thinkers had to deal with music technology, they first reserved the name “elektronische Musik” to electronic musical instruments and forged the name “authentische Musik” for what became electronic music, a music out of laboratories and radio studios. The concept of authenticity has had a strong impact on the first development of electronic music in Germany. At the same time, Pierre Schaeffer in Paris struggled with the difficult task of naming the field he invented in 1948. Starting as an attempt to realize a symphonie de bruit, Schaeffer’s musical project was given tentative names such as “musique plastique” and even “musique abstraite” before becoming “musique concrète”.

The sources studied are derived from writings of studio directors such as Pierre Schaeffer in France or John Cage in New York, music critics who had to categorize what they described, composers, music historians, theoricists, musicologists, poets and sound poets, filmmakers, painters... In this talk, I will present documents in which the question of naming is attached to new sound art forms emerging from the use of technology, starting with the creative use of the phonograph among poets at the beginning of the twentieth century (“poètes phonographistes”).

Naming is part of a whole process of invention of sound art forms, or simply invention of sound, in the twentieth century.