This post covers a topics touched upon also in other posts, but was inspired by the fact that the term “electronic music” has taken on new meanings over the years and now can cause confusion. In order to set an appropriate context, however, I need to start by describing a bit about the history of musical forms.
The range of traditional music is so great that any characteristic cannot be said to be found in 100% of the worlds music, but the generalizations I will assert here do seem to apply to the vast majority of the music regardless of music “style”, country of origin, or genre. By “traditional” music I mean here music as generally practiced by most musicians of all types. Sometimes the term is used to refer to folk music but here I am using it in a much broader sense.
Scales or Modes Containing Specific Pitches
Most traditional music is based on audible “notes” that are part of a scale or mode. This is true weather the notes are written with some kind of musical notation or played totally within a aural tradition. There are instruments, such as keyboard ones, that force the player into using only the notes from a particular scale. Other instruments, such as a violin, allow the performer to play a wide variety of pitches but usually the performer is trained, often with difficulty, to accurately play notes from a particular scale.
Musicians can choose a sequence of some notes from a scale to create melody or combine some simultaneously to create harmony.
Metre and Rhythm
Most traditional music is played according to some time framework where notes have a specific time value. In many types of music percussion instruments are used to emphasize these time divisions (“the beat”) and some divisions are divided in various ways to create rhythms. Rhythms can greatly alter the perception of melody. I used to ask students to name a song they certainly have heard many times whose first line is nothing but a descending diatonic scale. I then sang the scale using common music syllables: Do Ti La So Fa Me Re Do. Then I sang the same descending scale using the rhythm to the song line I was thinking about: “Joy to the world the lord is come.” The use of rhythm disguises, for many people, the simple mundane descending scale.
EARLY EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC
Even before the use of electronics or computers in music, some people experimented with novel forms of music that don’t necessarily fit the model of traditional music. John Cage, for example, placed objects inside a piano (the “prepared” piano) to create sounds beyond that of a piano played traditionally. He also famously created a piece, “4:33,” where the performer does not play any notes at all but relies of various room sounds to be considered as the “music.”
The visual artist, Jean DuBuffet, who created visual art is what is known as the Brutalist style, also created, with his friends, highly avant garde Brutalist music using traditional instruments being played by people with little or no training on them who figured out various ways to create sounds from them. There were no scales, no noticeable metre or rhythm, just a collage of sounds. The YouTube example listed below shows an end result. It may not be very musically satisfying to a listener today but paved the way for John Cage and others to proclaim that most any sound can be considered “music” in the right context.
Oddly enough, instruments that created sound with electricity were invented even before the vacuum tube. The Telharmonium was a 200 ton electrical instrument first patented in 1897 and used to broadcast music by wire into hotels and restaurants in NYC. It is probably not surprising that it ultimately did not succeed very well as a business but paved the way, after electronic amplification was developed, for other musical instruments that created sounds electrically.
A YouTube Video excerpt from “The Magic Music of the Telharmonium” explains more:
The Hammond organ, oddly enough, used a tone generation system somewhat similar to the Telharmonium only with low voltages that were then amplified for playback. The Hammond organ, and other kinds of electronic organs, became used in churches and also for other kinds of music (jazz, pop, rock, for example). In the early days of radio the Hammond organ often provided the background music for early radio soap operas and even today electronic organs are used in many major-league baseball parks to accompany ball games.
Another early electronic instrument was the Theremin which made violin-like melodies controlled by a performer moving their hands near two antennas, one which controlled pitch and the other loudness. Though the player could make all kinds of weird sounds – the instrument became popular in Hollywood for creating the sound of flying saucers landing and the like – it was generally used to create quasi-violin melodies playing traditional music.
Here is a YouTube link to a performance on the Theremin:
THE “CLASSICAL” ELECTRONIC MUSIC STUDIO
In the fairly early 20th century electronics seemed to be the “wonder” technology of the future. Some composers and sound artists were less interested in building a traditional sounding instrument using electronics, but in creating completely new sounds and sound structures with electronic gear. Sometimes these new sounds were combined with recorded natural sounds or used to create a sonic accompaniment to traditional instrumental performance. (Hence, pieces for “violin and tape” for example.)
The tools for this kind of synthesis were function generators, filters, etc. designed mostly for electronics labs, along with some hand built circuits designed by the composer or by someone commissioned by him/her.
One of the real classics of this genre is Poème électronique composed by Edgar Varèse for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Although it includes a few natural sounds most of it was generated with electronic devices of various kinds. This was before the invention of the modern music synthesizer. Music of this kind was not created with a keyboard, Much of it was created with electronic circuits and recorded on tape. Multi-track tape recorders had not been invented at that time so sometimes portions had to be recorded then dubbed onto another recorder while adding new sounds, etc. This was slow and the original sounds, being regenerated, would degrade somewhat is the copying process.
In the case of Poème électronique the piece was originally recorded on three separate monaural tapes, two of which were in turn recorded onto a stereo tape with stereo “panning” to create separate left and right channels. The stereo tape and the remaining monaural tape were finally combined onto 35-mm perforated tape in order to synchronize the tape with visuals created for the pavilion. NOTE: THE SOUND IN THE YOUTUBE CLIP BELOW STARTS ALMOST 30 SECONDS IN.
Notice that most of the sounds in Poème électronique seem very “electronic,” reflecting their source as the output of test equipment and the like. For some composers that was not a negative. These “electronicy” sounds seemed futuristic and “modern.” For other composers, they were a turn off.
Another famous composition using this type of studio, often referred to as the “classical electronic music studio,” was the score for the Hollywood film “Forbidden Planet” released in 1956. The score was created by the husband and wife team of Louis and Bebe Barron. As I understand it, they were given a tape recorder as a wedding gift so they used it to create electronic music. Louis built special circuits to create some of the sounds. Due to issues with the musicians’ union, the film credits them not with creating “music” but “electronic tonalities.” Still, it is considered the first film with an all-electronic “score.” The film is still available and those who watch it may see that some aspects of the film appears to have influenced ideas in the Star Trek TV series that came much later.
At the same time some composers were using the classical electronic music studio to create pieces based on obvious electronic sounds (pure tones of various kinds) other sound artists were looking for richer timbres. These artists started with microphones to record a variety of timbres from nature and, in some cases, those produced by instruments. But then they processed the sounds using magnetic tape and slicing out small sections, reversing sounds, changing tape speeds, filtering the sound output in various ways, adding artificial reverberation, etc.
The most famous pioneers in this field were two Frenchmen, Pierre Schaeffer, a radio engineer and his colleague and student, Pierre Henri. They coined the term musique concrete. The YouTube link below points to one of Schaeffer’s pieces recorded in 1959.
A favorite piece of musique concrete of mine is Ambience 1 by Michel Philippot recorded about 1960. Philippot also worked with Pierre Schaeffer:
The word “concrete” in this genre refers to the fact that the composer works directly with sound. He/she does not just provide written directions to a performer as in scored traditional music.
Because the structure is so different from traditional music composition a person without traditional musical training in scales, harmony, counterpoint, etc. can practice it in the same way a visual artist can learn to create striking collages using found visual materials, without necessarily needing courses in life drawing and painting. Thus it is a good medium for visual artists who want to create sound environments for their work.
[STAY TUNED, I will be announcing, on this blog and elsewhere, workshops in sound design using musique concrete techniques designed for visual arts as well as others wanting to experiment with sound design. In this multi-media age I believe it is a good idea for arts to experiment in various art forms, some involving sound.]
Other musicians thought that maybe the elements of the “classical” electronic music studio could be combined in one instrument with further features. Enter the modern analog music synthesizer. Although RCA built a huge room-sized synthesizer in the 1950s, it was so expensive that most music schools passed on buying one. An RCA Mark II was installed as part of the Columbia-Princeton music studio. It was difficult to program but was used by a number of musicians such as Milton Babbitt, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Charles Wuorinen. In 1970 Wourinen won the first Pulitzer prize for his album Time’s Encomium made with that synthesizer. All of these composers created sophisticated avant garde art music which many traditional music lovers could not easily understand.
The real breakthrough in synthesizers came from two inventors who happened to bring out smaller (and smaller) analog synthesizers using solid state devices (transistors) about the same time: Robert Moog on the East Coast of the US and Don Buchla on the West Coast. These used a series of voltage controlled sound creation and processing modules that could be patched into each other using traditional telephone-style patch cords. Neither was necessarily intended to be played using a keyboard and indeed, Mort Subotnik, created a very successful album, Silver Apples of the Moon, released on the Nonesuch label that was created without any kind of keyboard. An excerpt of the piece can be found at the link below:
People also created experimental music with the Moog Synthesizer minus a keyboard though that focus changed, especially when the musician Wendy Carlos attached a keyboard and multitrack tape recorder and created the famous album Switched on Bach — works by Bach played on the Moog. Now people realized that electronic music did not have to be awkward squawks having complex structures but could be used, with a keyboard, to play traditional Western music, both classical and pop. The Moog synth became very popular among popular music artists while the Buchla tended to be used more by experimental “classical” musicians.
HYBRID ELECTRONIC MUSIC
Another major evolution in electronic music came with the introduction of the microprocessor, the chip that helps control computers, cell phone, cars and even your microwave oven. Digital electronics allowed for very sophisticated devices to be built and sold at relatively low cost (eventually).
The analog synthesizer essentially created sound from electricity but the early modular synths (Moog and Buchla) were expensive and since their oscillators were governed by voltage, it could be a trick to keep some in tune. A synthesizer that used microprocessors could still create sounds based on analog technology, but also use digital technology to create a broader range of sounds and stable pitches. Also, it was easier to make polyphonic synthesizers – ones that could play more than one note simultaneously. Finally, microprocessor technology combined with mass production meant the instruments could be sold at fairly reasonable prices in ordinary music stores. Suddenly keyboard synths were everywhere, each one having any number of “patches” (sounds) and the ability for the user to create more. In pop music and commercials, especially, the keyboard synthesizer became the new Hammond Organ but with more sounds at a cheaper price. This started blurring the line between traditional experimental “electronic music” and the electronic organ.
The technology of musique concrete was also adopted, but with huge changes, into what were known as “samplers.” While traditional music concrete took recorded sounds and heavily processed them into pretty much unrecognizable new sounds, samplers recorded traditional instruments the broke each sampled note down into its attack, sustain, and decay stages. But instead of making each sound unrecognizable the recorded files were controlled by keyboards or other computer functions that allowed the performer to play sampled instruments that were very close to those from acoustic instruments. This turned out to be a boon to people creating music for TV commercials, theatrical events, and pop music on a budget. Of course it did not go over well with the musicians union as it was another example of technology replacing jobs. Studio musicians in radio stations in the early days of radio objected to the playing of records on the air for the same reason.
In the example below I used analog synthesizer sounds, sampled sounds from nature, and processed piano sounds all programmed on an early Kurzweil digital synthesizer. Also, the piece was created algorithmically, meaning that nothing was played on a keyboard but procedures were set up in a computer to create the music on the fly. Since the Kurzweil really has 16 sound modules built in, all of the sounds were created at the same time. No multi-track recorder was used. This method combines several of the electronic music techniques described in the paragraphs above. The piece was created for a dancer in the Merce Cunningham studio and first performed there.
That, in a nutshell is how this Audio Penguin has come to understand various kinds of “electronic music” — by literally living through the various stages mentioned above. The journey has been interesting.