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Reviewed by:
  • Polychrome Portraits 14: Pierre Schaeffer
  • Thom Blum
Évelyne Gayou, Editor: Polychrome Portraits 14: Pierre Schaeffer Softcover, 2009, ISBN 978-2-86938-210-7, 171 pages, €9, color plates, contributors' biographies; GRM Institut National de l'Audiovisuel, Maison de Radio France, 116 avenue du Président Kennedy, 75220 Paris cedex 16, France; telephone (+33) 01-5640-2988; electronic mail; Web

This book has it all: a fertile and fantastic time in history, a protagonist who is enigmatic and paradoxical yet is a powerhouse thinker–doer of the time. He is gifted, having heightened organizational skills and showing artistic talents at a young age. He enlists and attracts scores of people from diverse walks of life, and they participate in his many plans. Some of these same participants are the narrators of the story, each one revealing another piece of the jigsaw puzzle until the big picture, our central character, emerges. The chapters reveal remarkable results (and tolls) that are achieved, despite the bureaucratic elephants our hero must coax up the hill.

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As a natural observer and scientist, the central character puts forth hypotheses, and he does the research required to prove them true or false. He takes it hard when he is convinced that an hypothesis has failed—however, this only adds a certain mythic quality to the character. And he never stops striving for the next goal. [End Page 106]

The ways in which the authors of this episodic biography relate their experiences of Pierre Schaeffer—his personality, his plans and actions, his organizations, and the influences he had and continues to have—make this compact collection of 23 previously unpublished essays an engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable read.

The essays can be divided into two, sometimes overlapping, groups: those that describe various aspects of the man (e.g., his youth, his observations, missions or goals, activities, relationships), and those that focus on his effects (e.g., his influence on the chapter's author or the author's organization, and/or on music research, communications, or current technologies). Each of the essays expresses a warmand personal point of view. Two chapters are most notable in this respect, the mementos by his daughter and his wife. And perhaps most valuable, especially to those who do not read the French language, this collection is published in English, thanks to the Institut national de l'audiovisuel (INA); editor-in-chief Évelyne Gayou, who also served as interviewer for four of the essays; and expert English translations provided by François Couture.

Space does not permit synopses of many of the 23 essays, so details drawn from representative chapters will have to suffice. The diversity of the essays attests to the man's diversity. Indeed, his plurality—his complex personality, interests, and experiences—is a prominent theme of the collection.

The memento, "My Father . . . With His Smile So Sweet," written by his daughterMarie-Claire Schaeffer, is a sentimental and tender survey of her father's paradoxical interests, careers, and approach to life. The chapter begins with some simple facts, for example, that he was born in Nancy, France, on 14 August 1910, to two music teachers. He died on 19 August 1995. His mother's deep faith in God and his father's probing and skeptical nature forged in him a moral code that spurred him to seek truth, beauty, and goodness. She then describes his contradictory life through a series of questions and answers:

Was he a spiritual man or simply an "honest man"? A man of reflection or a man of action? A paradoxical man if there ever was one, a man that beckoned analysis as much as synthesis, weirdly specialized and of general interest all in one. Visionary, moralist, occasionally anarchist, provoking at times, traditional at others, depending on his efficiency. A talent scout, an inventor of new institutions that would beat the elephantine administrations at their own game, at best serving as the pilot fish. . . . A-political and a Resistance fighter. Enfant terrible or choirboy? A revolted man or a senior clerk of the State? The extraordinary thing is that he was simultaneously this...


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