Considered a cornerstone of Else Marie Pade's oeuvre in the musique concrète tradition, Symphonie magnétophonique musically depicts a day and night in Copenhagen, selecting a range of sounds one might hear during 24 hours in the Danish capital. Pade described the soundscape as “... snoring, alarm clocks, toothbrushing, and a whistling kettle – all familiar morning sounds. Then, we venture out into the world, to work, to Tivoli, to a restaurant, and back home to bed.”
A Tribute to the Sounds of Everyday Life
By Jonas Olesen
From 1958 to 1959, Else Marie Pade collaborated closely with sound technician Sven Drehn-Knudsen from DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) to create the work Symphonie magnétophonique – a symphony for magnetic tape. The first broadcast of the piece was as part of the Danish radio series on electronic music, Musik i atomalderen (Music in the Atomic Age), in 1959.
Pade and Drehn-Knudsen's aim with Symphonie magnétophonique was to musically depict a day and night in Copenhagen, selecting a range of sounds one might hear during a 24-hour period in the Danish capital. Pade described the soundscape as “… snoring, alarm clocks, toothbrushing, and a whistling kettle – all familiar morning sounds. Then, we venture out into the world, to work, to Tivoli, to a restaurant, and back home to bed.”
Reportedly, James Joyce's modernist novel Ulysses (1922) provided inspiration for the work, offering a unique perspective into the various sounds that can be heard during a day in a metropolis. Additionally, composer Luciano Berio’s electroacoustic Thema (Omaggio a Joyce)(1958) for voice and tape may have played a significant role in inspiring Pade. Berio’s piece is based on a reading of the 11th chapter of Ulysses and reprocesses it electro-acoustically. It is worth considering whether German filmmaker Walter Ruttmann’s well-known sound collage Wochenende (1930), which humorously celebrates daily life in Berlin and was produced and edited like a feature film, could have served as a third source of inspiration for Pade's Symphonie magnétophonique. However, it is unclear whether Pade was acquainted with the work.
Considered a cornerstone of Else Marie Pade's oeuvre in the musique concrète tradition, Symphonie magnétophonique involves the electronic manipulation of real-world sounds. As early as 1952, Pade travelled to Paris to meet with the genre's founder, Pierre Schaeffer, who was working with the French radio studios at the time.
Pade and Drehn-Knudsen developed a “realisation score” of 47 pages for the work, which includes instructions such as “12 bars of hammering with a hammer in 4/4 time and nine bars of toothbrushing in 4/16 time.” Even from the score, one can detect a strong sense of humour in the work, which is further confirmed upon listening.
Contrasting the humorous and slightly bizarre content, the title of Symphonie magnétophonique is rather pompous, giving the work an aura of grandeur and solemnity. However, upon listening to the piece, it becomes clear that the title should be understood as, if not entirely ironic, then at least somewhat more down-to-earth: As a symphony of everyday sounds, captured on magnetic tape.
All the sounds in Symphonie magnétophonique are real-world sounds, such as cars, footsteps, voices, and cooking sounds. Pade recorded some of the sounds herself using a microphone, either in the studio or elsewhere, while others were sourced from DR's sound archive of pre-recorded sounds.
Some of the sound material has subsequently been manipulated to a greater or lesser extent using editing techniques and speed changes, carried out on reel-to-reel tape recorders, while others remain completely unaltered.
Symphonie magnétophonique can best be described as a “musical” sound collage, unfolding a narrative that is intended to illustrate the day from morning to evening. At the same time, the work seeks to “musicalize” the particular sound material through electronic treatments, linking together rhythmic patterns and repetitions. This duality is already evident in the opening, where one hears filtered bird song treated with artificial reverberation. The bird song is recognizable as such, but it also possesses an extra, abstract layer.
The real-world sounds are present throughout the work, clearly recognizable but almost always subjected to some form of electronic treatment. These treatments range from radical modulation, reverse playback, and drastic speed changes to more subtle timbral adjustments, such as soft echoes or gentle filtering.
At the beginning of the piece, typical morning sounds are heard in the form of the town hall bells from the Copenhagen City Hall and the sound of a ticking alarm clock, which slowly increases in volume before finally ringing. Later, typing sounds from a typewriter are heard, indicating that work is underway. Voices are heard, including those from Pressens Radioavis (the daily radio news programme), where individual words are repeated in tape loops, and the voice is heavily modulated by what sounds like a ring modulator. Throughout the work, all voices are treated with heavy modulation or “unnatural” high pitch – in other words, they do not appear in a naturalistic form.
The soundscape of Symphonie magnétophonique is also characterised by short musical quotations, such as fragments of classical music and a recurring flute melody in a tape loop. At times, complex and almost polyrhythmic progressions arise when multiple tape loops are layered and displaced. It is in these moments that the work's aim to “musicalize” the sound material is most clear. Towards the conclusion of the piece, the atmosphere shifts to a more contemplative mood, with an electronic lullaby accompanied by the sound of a beating heart, before the piece reaches its finale.
Symphonie magnétophonique can be considered as a fusion of a narrative sound collage and musiqueconcrète. With its extensive manipulations of its sound material and entire soundscape, the work is both humorous and entertaining, yet it also contains dramatic undertones. The overall expression is radical and insistent, and combined with the duality between music and narrative, it makes Symphonie magnétophonique a unique and distinctive work in Danish music history.
Symphonie magnétophonique has previously been released on CD on the album Face It by Dacapo Records, 8.224233 (2002). The complete handwritten score is printed in Inge Bruland (Ed.): Else Marie Pade and Symphonie magnétophonique, Museum Tusculanum (2006).