Jean Thévenot

Jean Thévenot (Fédération Internationale des Chasseurs de Son).

Jean Thévenot (1916-1983) was one of the main character for sound hunting, in France and on the international level. In 1948, for the Club d’Essai, he produced an unusual programme, entirely dedicated to recordings made by amateurs:

This last Monday, February 9, 1948, was broadcast on the Parisian channel a Disc Day [Journée du Disque] called ‘Journey Around My Phono’. Having a few friends who, without being professional sound recordists, spend their spare time in recording on disc, the idea came to my mind that their fellow home recordists were maybe far more numerous than we think, and that it could be interesting to meet them for this Day. A call was then broadcast as soon as January. I thought necessary to drum up in advance, and with insistence. But after three or four days, I had to ask the withdrawn of the call. Proposals we immediately received were so many and so diverse that they already exceeded the possibility of the unique programme planned for February 9 under the title Place aux particuliers [Now, to the Individuals]. And despite the call’ stop, proposals continued to arrive. That’s why tonight, under the new title of On grave à domicile [Home Engraving], you will hear the first programme of a series that will be exclusively dedicated to private recordings. And now the proof is made: many French people are recording at home, for themselves of course, but as these documents exist, why not making them beneficial for the public. Recording activities are diverse: radio, family, chronicles of important events, documentaries, artistic practice, editing, secret recordings, soundtrack for amateur cine. A lot of things that radio does not do. Why ‘private’? Because they are amateurs or professionals, but their equipment is personal (home built or bought). This should not be mistaken with recordings made by amateurs in commercial studios.[1]

Thus, Jean Thévenot introduced the first programme of a series that would prove to be not only successful, but also one of the longest-lasting on French waves. What should have been a one-shot programme became an adventure of 54 years, with the premiere was on the 9th of February 1948, and the last on the 27th of July 2002.

Despite different names (On grave à domicile, Aux quatre vents, Chasseurs de son, Sonographie, Résonances) and, after Thévenot’s death in 1983, different producers (Dominique Calace de Ferluc, Paul Robert, Christian Rosset) [I will detail this in a dedicated table soon, here or somewhere else], the concept of the programme remained the same: to only broadcast recordings made by amateurs. To give an idea of the volume of submissions received, Thévenot calculated in 1976 that he had received 10,000 hours of material since 1948, with a ratio of 1 hour of recording broadcast for 10 received. People were indeed recording at home, and the practice was not limited to a few originals.
Thévenot was also the main architect, with his Swiss counterpart René Monnat, of the Concours International du Meilleur Enregistrement Sonore (CIMES) [International Amateur Recording Contest], the annual flagship event of sound hunting. The first edition was organised in Lausanne in 1952 and the contest lasted until 2016. Thanks to their position at French and Swiss Radios, Thévenot and Monnat were able to attract funding and to extend the contest on the European level.

Jean Georges Marie Thévenot was born in 1916 in Givors, near Lyon, from a middle-class catholic family. Attracted by writing and journalism, he wrote his first articles for local journals at 16 before moving to Lille to study at the Haute École de Commerce [Business School] to fulfil the family wish for him to pursue a business career. However, he swiftly switched to a cursus between the Law School and the School of Political Sciences, writing for local newspapers at the same time. It was during these years, that, listening with a crystal set, he became aware of the suggestiveness of sound through radiophonic theatre pieces[1]. And it was with the Centrale Catholique du Cinéma et de la Radio, during the International Catholic Congress of Radiobroadcasting, in 1936 at Prague, that he spoke for the first time on radio. He would still pursue his studies, writing a PhD on the impact of television on radio and cinema. He first worked with the Radiodiffusion Nationale just before the Second World War. During the War, he became director of Radio Jeunessein February 1941, before being accused of communism. Although Pierre Schaeffer – whom Thévenot knew from the Hôtel d’Angleterre in Vichy, where Radio Jeunesse and Jeune France (founded by Schaeffer and where this one worked[2]) were housed – promptly cleared him from any suspicion,[3] Thévenot was eventually fired in October, and remained expelled from the State Radio until the end of the War. Still, called by former friends of Radio Jeunesse, Thévenot participated in a few programmes there in 1943. With Liberation approaching, Schaeffer called Thévenot on the 20th of August 1944, asking him to join his group at the Studio d’Essai, housed at the 37 rue de l’Université in Paris. There, Schaeffer was establishing the Radiodiffusion de laNation Française.[4] Thévenot became Chief Administrative Officer, to coordinate the different services and to prepare a schedule of the artistic programmes.[5] At the end of the War, he was appointed Chief Administrative Officer of the new State Radio, but soon decided that both his job and the position were no longer necessary. He then asked to be transferred to the general management, to work as policy officer for television. He therefore started to work at the Bureau d’études artistiques (Committee for Artistic Studies), quickly becoming its director when the former director, Pierre Garrigues, was sent to the United States. It was while working there that he wrote his first book, L’âge de la télévision et l’avenir de la radio [The Age of Television and the Future of Radio], a development of his doctoral thesis, that would be published in 1946.[6] The end of the War saw the creation of the RadioDiffusion Française (RDF), a replacement of the Radiodiffusion Nationale, and Thévenot was offered the position of director of commercial music programmes. However, he refused, preferring to work for a fee so that he could secure a greater degree of artistic freedom. Therefore, from now on and throughout the rest of his career at the French Radio and Television, and despite the number of programmes produced, Thévenot would always refuse to be appointed, receiving instead a fee for each series of programmes accepted. In parallel with his work with the French radio and television, he quickly started after the War to produce programmes for the Swiss television. He also wrote for various journals, notably cinema journals like L’Écran français where he collaborated with Alain Resnais. His activities were not limited to French State radio and television, as he also produced different programmes for a French commercial radio (Europe 1), but also for Radio Luxembourg or the Radio Télévision Suisse. From 1968, after health issues, Thévenot reduced his commitments, focusing only on his sound hunting programme. He died from a heart attack on the 15th of July 1983 at 67.

The main characteristic of Thévenot’s production, both for radio and for television, was a search for authenticity and sincerity, to find the truth of beings,[7] to gather “human documentaries of psychological and sociological interest of absolute verity.”[8] There was a real anthropological perspective in Thévenot’s work, as stated that he wanted “to discover the within of people, and to understand how it works.”[9] He often produced programmes centred around ordinary people of all ages.[10] He embodied a belief that everybody has something to say, noting how he liked “to discover people, places, for my knowledge and to pass on to others. Nothing should be unnecessary. Have I given to others as much as I have received from them?”[11] It was this quest and trust in humankind that kept him producing his programme on sound hunters. Because amongst the vast amount of material produced by amateurs, there is always the possibility of an exceptional document. If amateurs were hunting sounds, Thévenot was hunting documents that could express “the thought of someone, the manifestation of a personality, the communication between individuals.”[12] It is through that anthropological perspective that his interest in recordings made by amateurs should be understood. And it is also through that perspective that his programme should be approached: what could the layman do with a microphone and a recorder? What did these recordings mean? What happened when a subjective experience was objectified?  How could the limit between the private and the public reveal truths about what was recorded, about the recordist, and about the listeners? Most of his shows had in common a desire to extract an experience from everyday life, in order to share it.

[1] Jean Thévenot, programme sheet for On grave à domicile n°1, broadcast on March 5, 1948. Archives JT et CdS, 19910681/4, folder Émissions particulières, sub folder Place aux particuliers – Journée du disque 09/02/48), documents (dont textes manuscrits préparatoires).

[1] Jean Thévenot, 30 ans d’antenne: Ma radio et ma télé des années cinquante (Paris: Harmattan, 2009), 30.

[2] Philip Nord, “Pierre Schaeffer and Jeune France: Cultural Politics in the Vichy Years,” French Historical Studies 30, no. 4 (October 2007): 685–709.

[3] Note to the General Secretary of Radio, 20 mars 1941. Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, AN, ‘Dossiers de Jean Thévenot, producteur d’émissions radiophoniques’, 19970331/1, folder “Émissions Radio-Jeunesse, 1941-1944”, sub folder “Radio Jeunesse”. The note is unsigned, but the identification of Schaeffer is possible with the surrounding notes and with Thévenot, 30 ans d’antenne, 48: “Already expert in the art of successfully defending undefendable causes, Pierre Schaeffer solved the incident in two shakes.”

[4] For more details about that episode, see Karin Le Bail, “Émissions de minuit,” in Pierre Schaeffer, Les constructions impatientes, ed. Martin Kaltenecker and Karine Le Bail (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2012), 116-27, 121-7.

[5] J. Thévenot, 30 ans d’antenne, 64.

[6] Jean Thévenot, L’âge de la télévision et l’avenir de la radio (Paris: Les Éditions Ouvrières, 1946).

[7] J. Thévenot, 30 ans d’antenne, 111.

[8] Ibid., 116.

[9] Ibid., 149.

[10] Besides the sound hunting programme, see notably the series C’est arrivé chez vous [It happened at home], En direct de… [Live from…], Visite à… [Visit to…], Le Grand Voyage [The Great Journey].

[11] Jean Thévenot interviewed by Jacques Chancel, Radioscopie, 09/12/1969.

[12] J. Thévenot, 30 ans d’antenne, 118.