When we turn on the radio to any pop station, we hear sampling. When we utilize any MIDI instrument technology within our DAWs and hardware, we hear sampling. It’s everywhere, and it’s due to the fact that 21st century musicians are realizing that while we may still be painting the same pictures as decades earlier, the canvas has changed drastically.
Through sampling in 2016, we can hear a previously recorded sound, capture it on a pocket-sized device, and endlessly morph it until it has become what we want it to be via a home computer. It’s a beautiful thing, really, and while we must bask in these new endless freedoms provided by cutting edge technology, we can also benefit from an examination of the fundamental theories of sampling.
Many artists perceive today’s sampling culture as having grown from hip-hop and dance music, but theorists would consider its humble origins to date back to the earliest incarnations of sound collage and tape music, which itself has origins in radio drama. And it is only after experiencing these early practices from a listener’s perspective that we can become the creators of something entirely new in this field. From late 1800s radio sounds to 1940s France to Kanye West, here’s sampling, in theory and practice, broken down.
Early Origins in Radio Drama
As radios — the first household audio device — began to invade American and European homes in the late 1800s, the “radio drama” (or “audio play”) became a widespread cultural phenomenon.
These early productions featured live foley artists who would create sound effects on the spot using found objects and prerecorded tape sound. Many argue that outside of early tape music, this is history’s first example of sampling as well as using sound objects as a performance medium.
These radio artists used the technology and resources available to them to create sonic landscapes that reached far beyond the sound studio and household; and while it may not have been utilized musically, these sonic landscapes had to be performed live, on-the-spot, cued to the dialogue as if orchestrated on the page.
While I wouldn’t refer to the radio drama soundscape as “sampling” per se, it influenced the belief amongst future composers that technological applications and extra-musical sounds have a place in “audio performance,” which would only develop further in music as technology progressed into the post-war era.
Musique Concrète and Pierre Schaeffer
“Cybernetic machines: Indeed, only machines of this type (probably weighing several tons and costing hundreds of millions!), with oscillating circuits equipped with a certain memory, will permit endless play with complex numerical combinations, which are the key to all musical phenomena.”
— Pierre Schaeffer, 1952, predicting the future of music through computer music studios.¹
Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) was a composer and writer, amongst many other things, in the fields of music and technology in post-Nazi France. He is known primarily as the founder of one of the earliest forms of electronic music, “musique concrète.” In his own words, Schaeffer describes this new theory and practice of music as “an opposition with the way musical work usually goes. Instead of notating musical ideas on paper with the symbols of solfège and entrusting their realization to well-known instruments, the question is to collect concrete sounds, wherever they came from, and to abstract the musical values they are potentially containing.”²
In other words, Schaeffer proposed using tape recording technology to capture industrial and environmental (concrète) sounds and processing them until the sounds themselves became musical instruments in something of a “tape orchestra.”
Schaeffer’s most well known piece, Étude aux chemins de fer from the Études de bruits series, was one of the first known examples of looping a recording to create a pattern. The piece consists of tape recorded sounds of trains and other automobiles that are cut up, sped up and slowed down, and repeated to craft unheard of textures and odd rhythms. Undoubtedly, the legacy of Pierre Schaeffer and musique concréte is truly profound, even by the importance of looping alone. Listen to the entire Études de bruits series below.
Williams Mix, Collage no. 1 (Blue Suede), and It’s Gonna Rain
There are three compositions of the post-war era in America that have created true legacies surrounding their innovations in the field of sampling, with each piece inspiring the following in chronological order: Williams Mix (1952) by John Cage, Collage no. 1 (Blue Suede) (1961) by James Tenney, and It’s Gonna Rain (1965) by Steve Reich. Though considered to be electro-acoustic “art” music, each of these compositions utilize techniques that have since become standard in the field of all electronic music, especially those that heavily feature samples.
Williams Mix consists of eight separate tape machines that simultaneously “blaze through a library of more than five hundred recorded sounds in four and a half minutes,” says composer and author David Grubbs, who covers the creation of Williams Mix in his book, Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording. Due to the primitive technology of the 1950s, there was no way to synchronize the eight machines perfectly at each performance, differing “from one another by virtue of individual tape machines starting times varying by a brief interval.”³
By adding the element of chance, Cage debuted pre-recorded sound technology as a “human” performance medium, one that differed each time the piece was performed. One can compare these early performances to that of a contemporary DJ set: a DJ may have their sounds planned out to a T, but through the act of performing said sounds, they must allow a certain amount of room for chance and discretion once on stage. It’s almost impossible to recreate the exact same set each time if it’s spun live.
One of the composers who found much influence in Williams Mix immediately following its release was James Tenney. Grubbs quotes Tenney to have said, “obviously it was an essential influence on my Collage no. 1 (Blue Suede). The idea of collaging, quick cutting through this kind of material was originally from [Williams Mix].”³
(Blue Suede) is considered by many to be the first “remix” of a piece of popular music. It consists of Tenney customly cutting and abstractly rearranging tape loops that feature segments of Elvis Presley’s Blue Suede Shoes.
This idea of taking something widely regarded as “safe” and “acceptable” music and transforming it into something much darker and complex is a theory that continues today in both contemporary remixes of pop music as well as contemporary electro-acoustic music.
Tenney continued to create sound collages throughout the sixties, giving workshops and becoming synonymous with the early incarnations of the fluxus movement.
One of Tenney’s students at these workshops was a young composer by the name of Steve Reich. While he would later be known as a pioneer of minimalism in the world of ensemble music, his earliest works consist mostly of the utilization of tape technology of the mid 1960s. One of his best known tape works, It’s Gonna Rain, went on to further define the possibilities of looping prerecorded samples, specifically in terms of rhythm and phasing effects. The piece consists of two tape machines playing back and repeating the same loop of a street preacher saying “it’s gonna rain.” While in theory these two loops should remain synchronized throughout their playback, primitive tape technology would never play these two loops in exact synchronization, allowing one tape machine to very gradually fade out of phase with the other, creating what can be described by contemporary listeners as “polyrhythmic four-to-the-floor sample music.”
It’s not hard to notice the legacy and influence this piece has had on electronic music. The idea of essentially turning a vocal sample into a driving rhythmic pattern, or even the drums themselves, is something we have seen constantly in hip-hop and house music since their very beginnings.⁴
Hip-Hop, House, and Everything ‘til Now
People don’t often realize that the sampling nature of hip-hop and house music, from an instrumental theory perspective, is a continuation of the ideas and foundations laid out by these early masters of tape and electronic music.
Early house pioneers in Chicago such as Frankie Knuckles would utilize the turntables the same way these composers would use a tape machine: with older disco records as his sound sources, he’d create rhythmic loops by cutting back and forth between left and right turntables with a crossfade mixer, later going on to pioneer the “four-to-the-floor” fundamentals of house. Meanwhile in New York, artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Public Enemy’s Terminator X began using concrète samples and found sounds to create new melodic timbres and rhythms, just as Pierre Schaeffer did in the 1940s.
The only true difference between now and then is the emphasis of sample-heavy electronic music today is to get people dancing. Beyond that the similarities are hard to miss if you know what to listen for. The sounds and genres may have changed, but the language remains the same, and it’s our duty as contemporary electronic musicians to study our roots and give credit where it is due, starting from the very beginning.
Notes: Reydellet, Jean de (1996). “Pierre Schaeffer, 1910-1995: The Founder of ‘Musique Concrete.'” Computer Music Journal 20, no. 2 (Summer): 10-11.  Schaeffer, Pierre. “À la recherche d’une musique concrète.” Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1952.  Grubbs, David. “Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording”. Duke University Press, 2014.  Huizenga, Tom. “Fifty Years of Steve Reich’s ‘It’s Gonna Rain.’” National Public Radio, Washington D.C. 2015