Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2021
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
University of California - Berkeley
French Colonial Radio from 1953-1958: Pierre Schaeffer & the Founding of SORAFOM

This project examines the ties between colonialism and European modernism through a study of midcentury theories of sound and listening. I begin from a classic site of musical modernism, namely the work of French experimental composer and sound theorist Pierre Schaeffer, founder of musique concrète and author of many influential writings on sound and listening. I draw attention to an unfamiliar—and much more political—aspect of Schaeffer’s work and output; the five years (1953-1958) he spent reforming French colonial radio. These were the very same years in which he developed musique concrète and the bulk of his theories on sound perception. I focus particularly on the Société de radiodiffusion de la France d’Outre-mer (SORAFOM), a government agency Schaeffer founded and directed. Through a study of the documentation left behind by Schaeffer during these years, I explore the links between his position as a manager of French colonial radio at the brink of decolonization, and his path to influential concepts such as “reduced listening,” the “sound object,” and the “acousmatic.” These concepts rely on a belief in a universal, “natural” listening shorn of cultural specificity. I contend that such ideas cannot be fully understood apart from the intricate pragmatics of Schaeffer’s work at SORAFOM. By cross-referencing archival materials on SORAFOM and Schaeffer’s writings on music and sound, I offer a unique method for understanding how a particular tradition of modernist musical aesthetics is steeped in the mechanics and ideologies of overseas broadcasting at the dissolution of the French empire. I hope to contribute to the growing field of investigation on the links between modernism and coloniality in the mid-twentieth century, and participate in the ongoing reconsideration of the foundational ideas behind the interdisciplinary field of sound studies.