[1] Darius Milhaud, Ma vie heureuse (Paris: René Julliard, 1949), p.112. 
[2] Manifesto reprinted at http://www.italianfuturism.org/manifestos/fondation-et manifeste-du-futurisme/ 
[3] Published in Modern Music, 6 (January-February 1929), pp.26-29. 
[4] Jean Cocteau, Le coq et l’arlequin (Paris: Editions de la Sirène, ‘Collection des Tracts no 1’, 1918), p. 35. New edition (Paris: Stock, 1979), p.65.
[5] Ravel, ‘Finding Tunes in Factories’. Originally published in New Britain, 9 August 1933, p. 367; translator unknown; cited in Arbie Orenstein, A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles and Interviews (Minneola, NY: Dover, 2003), pp. 399-400. 
[6] Antheil, Bad Boy of Music (1945); cited in Orledge, Satie Remembered (London: Faber, 1995), pp.190-1. 

Modernism and innovation in Paris

Caroline Potter

Technology devoted to the reproduction of sound was in its infancy at the start of the 20th century. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, but in France, the poet and inventor Charles Cros (1842-88) patented the ‘phonautograph’ in the same year: he conceived an engraving process onto disc that preserved the trace of a sound. His preferred term for the reproducing instrument was ‘paleophone’ – literally ‘voice of the past’. However, as an impoverished poet, Cros did not have the funds to build a prototype; Edison, who was unaware of Cros’s patent, built a machine in 1878 that became the dominant technology. Edison’s invention was the main talking point of the Galerie des Machines at the 1889 Paris Exposition. 

By the turn of the century, the mechanical did not only refer to the wheezy barrel organ that was part of the Parisian sonic landscape, but also to new technology and factories. However, the associated poetic themes of banality and the everyday remained constant, whether the machines were a barrel organ, a typewriter, an engine or a siren. Magic lantern shows, a forerunner of the cinema, were often accompanied by music played on the barrel organ: as very early examples of son et lumière shows, they heralded a long French tradition of multimedia entertainment. These shows are also the ancestors of shadow plays in the Montmartre cabaret of the late 19th century and – crucially – of the cinema. An emergent art form in the Belle Epoque, cinema was rarely a standalone entertainment; it was usually part of a music hall variety bill or a fairground attraction. The close connection between the 19th- and early 20th-century variety theatre on the one hand, and the 20th-century multimedia collaboration on the other, could not be clearer. 

Advertisements published on the back page of the Chat Noir journal, which was associated with the Montmartre cabaret of the same name, promoted, from the early 1890s, the player piano: ‘Play the piano with no musical knowledge’, these advertisements read. While the player piano was itself superseded by recorded music, it went through a creative period in the early 1920s when Paris-based composers including Igor Stravinsky and George Antheil wrote for it, taking advantage of the ability of the player piano to produce chords and counterpoints that are unplayable by a human performer. We should also remember that the late-19th and early-20th centuries saw the French enjoying avant-garde parodies of science and technology: Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire and Marcel Duchamp show that the French response to new technology was far from po-faced. 

Darius Milhaud’s splendidly evocative memoir of the period after World War One describes outings with Jean Cocteau and his fellow members of Les Six in Montmartre: ‘After dinner, attracted by the steam-driven roundabouts, mysterious shops, the Girl from Mars, shooting galleries, lottery wheels, the animals, the racket of the mechanical organs with perforated card rolls, which seemed to implacably and simultaneously grind together all the music hall and revue refrains, we went to the Foire de Montmartre, and sometimes to the Médrano circus to attend the Fratellini shows, which demonstrated so much imagination and poetry that they were worthy of commedia dell’arte performers.’ [1] (The ‘Girl from Mars’ had a fabulously extended neck.) 

The knowingly modern turn of the new century, with its shiny new technology and inventions and distinctly urban sounds, resonated with many composers: the contemporary scene was characterised by self-conscious modernity and experimentation. In the first two decades of the 20th century in Paris, cutting-edge music was indivisible from the other arts, especially literature and visual art. A flurry of short-lived experimental art magazines acted as places for artists of all descriptions to bring their work to a small but influential public. Francis Picabia founded the magazine 391, which featured texts by composers Edgard Varèse and Erik Satie, art by Picasso, Man Ray, Braque and many others, critiques and poetry. The final number, published in 1924, featured an advertisement for Picabia and Satie’s collaboration Relâche, a Ballets Suédois production whose entr’acte was a short film by René Clair with music by Satie. Picabia was obsessed in both solo and collaborative works with merging the human and the machine. 

The Italian Futurist movement had a higher profile in Paris than at home, Paris being the international gathering point for artists. The Futurist Manifesto, written by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, was published in the Gazzetta dell'Emilia in Bologna on 5 February 1909, then in French a fortnight later in Le Figaro. The Futurist movement was urban and dynamic, rejected the past and was a youth cult. Its antipathy for 19th-century Romanticism is clear: Marinetti wrote ‘Literature having, until now, praised pensive immobility, ecstasy and sleep, we want to praise aggressive movement, feverish insomnia, gymnastic movements, daring jumps, the slap in the face and the punch. We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car with a boot decorated with big pipes like snakes with explosive breath... A roaring car, which looks like it’s running on a hail of bullets, is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace.’ [2]

Although not a trained musician, Luigi Russolo was an influential figure in the Futurist scene. His manifesto The Art of Noises (1913), written when he was based in Paris, rejected traditional musical values such as melody; he exalted sounds that he considered more appropriate to the modern age, such as machine noises and sounds produced by human beings that are not traditionally classified as music such as shouting and coughing. He classified sounds into six groups based on their mode of production. Russolo designed his own instruments known as Intonarumori with Ugo Piatti, and presented concerts played on these instruments. The little-known writer and composer Louis Carol-Bérard is a missing link between French composers and the Futurist movement: he was passionately interested in art-science connections and composed a Symphonie des forces mécaniques in 1908, though sadly this work is now lost. He also predicted in an article titled ‘Recorded noises: tomorrow's instrumentation’ [3] that recorded sounds could be the basis of a new musical language. It would be for later generations to put this theory into practise. 

Jean Cocteau, in his 1918 musical manifesto Le coq et l’arlequin, proclaimed Satie as a truly French composer who should be the model for young musicians. Although not a musician himself, Cocteau knew what he liked and was happy to give detailed advice to composers about what sounds were to be preferred. He wrote: ‘Soon we can hope for an orchestra without caressing strings. A rich wind band with woodwind, brass and percussion. It would not be disagreeable to us to replace the cult of Saint Cecilia with that of Saint Polycarp.’ [4]

Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music, while Saint Polycarp is the patron saint of noise (and earaches). While Cocteau did not succeed in banishing strings from the orchestra, his interest in the Futurist movement fed into his collaboration with Satie, Picasso and Massine, the Ballets Russes production Parade (1917) in which Satie’s music often accompanies a foreground of non-musical noises, including a typewriter and pistol shots. The constant pulse of Parade and Satie’s use of simple repeated figures as a backdrop to the noises ensure that the music has a mechanical quality that is absolutely characteristic of his work. Music as mechanism and as a backdrop to other activity reach an apogee in Satie’s furniture music – music that is intended to be background music.

Ravel showed an interest in musical innovation, unsurprisingly given that his father was an engineer and brother a factory manager. He even wrote an article, Finding Tunes in Factories, which was first published in English in 1933. Here, under the subheading ‘Music of Machines’, he wrote: ‘We have had nature, war, and a hundred other themes in music, and it amazes me that musicians have not yet captured the wonder of industrial progress. Honegger, Mosolov, Schoenberg and others have gained much of their inspiration from machinery. My own Boléro owed its inception to a factory. Some day I should like to play it with a vast industrial works in the background.’ [5] Ravel refers to Honegger’s train-inspired Pacific 231 (1923), Mosolov’s Zavod (The Foundry) (1927) and Schoenberg’s Die glücklicke Hand (1924) whose third scene takes place in a grotto, described in the score as ‘something between a machine shop and a goldsmith’s workshop’.

The young George Antheil performed his violently provocative piano pieces Sonata Sauvage, Airplane Sonata and Mechanisms as a prelude to a Ballets Suédois  performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on 4 October 1923. Satie and Milhaud were in the audience, most of which was raucous in its disapproval; Antheil recalled hearing ‘Satie’s shrill voice saying “Quelle précision! Quelle précision! Bravo! Bravo!” and he kept clapping his little gloved hands.’ [6] What Antheil does not say is that this riot was staged: it was an invitation-only event that was filmed by Marcel L’Herbier and used in L’Inhumaine. Antheil’s Ballet mécanique is a curiosity worth investigating. His first version, written in 1924, calls for 16 player pianos playing four separate parts, four bass drums, three xylophones, a tam-tam, seven electric bells, a siren and three different-sized airplane propellors (high wood, low wood and metal), as well as two human-played pianos. Unsurprisingly, this instrumentation proved impractical: Antheil revised the score and Ballet mécanique was first performed on 19 June 1926 in a reduced version. 

Edgard Varèse is a composer who links many innovative artists in the first half of the 20th century. A project based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream with text by Cocteau and music by several composers including Satie, Stravinsky and Florent Schmitt did not come to fruition and Varèse moved to the US in 1915, though he returned to Paris in 1928 and grew close to André Jolivet. His Ionisation is the first Western work for percussion ensemble, and orchestral works of the 1920s and 30s, such as Amériques and Ecuatorial, feature new electronic instruments such as the theremin and ondes Martenot. Varèse returned to the US in 1933 in the hope of getting grants to set up an electronic music studio, but in vain. 

The ondes Martenot, invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928, is a curiosity that continues to have a life in contemporary concerts largely thanks to one composer, Olivier Messiaen. Jeanne Loriod, Messiaen’s future sister-in-law, became the best-known exponent of the instrument and author of the definitive book on its technique. Like the theremin, the ondes Martenot is a simple electronic instrument, though its familiar interface (the piano keyboard) ensures it is more accessible to performers than the theremin. The Musée de la Musique in Paris, located on the same site as the Conservatoire, houses different versions of the ondes Martenot. 

During World War Two, Pierre Schaeffer worked for French Radio and founded the Club d’Essai, an organisation that played a role in the Resistance. Later, this club was renamed Studio d’Essai and became a space for experimenting with musique concrète. An example of the French curiosity for new sounds, this tape music is created from recorded sounds, both of traditionally musical origin and not. Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950), which Schaeffer composed in collaboration with Pierre Henry, is a classic early example of this genre. Schaeffer also generously gave Varèse studio time to realise Déserts in the early 1950s, a period when Varèse despaired of achieving his dream of a music incorporating new technologies. The Radio France studio was, together with the RAI studio in Milan and the West German Radio studio in Cologne, one of the pioneering spaces for the creation of new media work. 

But most French composers were more interested in orchestral and vocal explorations, and the virtuosic Ensemble Vocal Marcel Courand premièred stupendously difficult works such as Messiaen’s Cinq rechants (1948) and Jolivet’s Epithalame (1953). While Paris remained at the forefront of musical innovation, most composers prized the talented human performer over the machine.

Further Reading