This is a four-part series about my own odyssey as a sound composer/designer. It is an expanded version of the topics I presented at Invisible Places 2017, held in Ponta Delgada, Azores in April 2017.
PART 1. MUSIC FROM ELECTRICITY
Electronic music as we know it was essentially created in the 1940s, though there were a few experiments before then. There were two basic ways to use electronics to create (rather than simply record or reproduce) music. Some composers used electronic circuits, often equipment designed for other technical purposes, to create electronic music. The second method, which I have discussed already in earlier posts and which we will deal with here in a later post, was done by recording sounds on disc or tape, then processing them to create music that sounds very different from the raw material. That method is usually called musique concrète. This part of my odyssey will focus on the first method, which I call “music from electricity.”
In the early days of “music from electricity” there were no keyboards. Composers and sound designers wired equipment – oscillators, filters, modulators, etc. – and created the sounds by manipulating knobs, usually recording them to the then-new tape recorder. Indeed, the sound composers Louis and Bebe Barron, who created electronic “tonalities” for the movie Forbidden Planet (1956), got started in the field when someone gave them a tape recorder as a wedding gift. As I understand it, perhaps inaccurately, Louis created the circuits and sound clips and Bebe edited and combined them.
Assembling various discrete electronic components, and wiring them in certain ways, was called, for a time, the “classical” electronic music studio. Composers who pioneered this method of composition include Edgard Varèse, a French-born composer who did most of his work in the United States, and the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. There were many others, but this post is about my odyssey, not a history of electronic music.
I was interested in electronic music even while I was still in college, but I had no access to the equipment to produce it. I think the first electronic music recording I purchased, in the mid 1960s, was a recording that included a piece by Pauline Oliveros. Little did I imagine then that later in her life I would come to know her well.
In my first teaching job, which began in 1968 at Creighton University, I remember using test equipment and borrowing some additional gear from the Creighton medical school. But I really didn’t have the financial resources to build much of a “classical” electronic music studio so I didn’t develop further along those lines.
As people began to use electronics to produce sound, some inventors got the idea of building all of the different signal processing and generating circuits into a single complete instrument: the music synthesizer.
The two most famous American inventors of synthesizers were Robert Moog, who lived on the East Coast, and Don Buchla, who lived on the West Coast. Today people think of a music synthesizer as kind of an elaborate electronic “organ” complete with a keyboard. But the earliest users of the Moog and Buchla synths did not use keyboards.
I first saw the Buchla demonstrated when Larry Austin came to Creighton University and gave a concert creating live electronic music on a small Buchla without any keyboard. Those keyboardless synths did usually have sequencers as part of their circuits—devices that could be set (usually with knobs) to produce a repeating series of voltages that could be used to control various circuits in the synth (including pitch). Many early users of the Moog also did not use keyboards, and examples of modern composers using the Moog without a keyboard can be found on the Moog website.
Performers such as Wendy Carlos, Tomita, and others popularized the use of a keyboard with a synth to reproduce traditional classical or pop music tunes. Most of these early synths were monophonic and could only produce one note at a time, no chords. But these were becoming popular at the same time as the multitrack audio recorder, so these artists recorded music by playing one part at a time on each of several tracks, then mixing down the result.
The Moog and Buchla were very expensive, but a British company, EMS, made a much lower-cost synthesizer, also sold in the U.S. as the “Putney” synth. A friend of mine, Steve Birchall, who hated keyboards (at that time), owned one and created pieces on tape that he performed in a planetarium while manipulating the stars to the music. I became intrigued and ultimately bought a small EMS that was built into a tiny briefcase-size box. That did include a small capacitive keyboard, about two octaves at most, but it was not really useful for serious keyboard work. It did work well, however, in creating sequences for the synth’s sequencer. Though the synth was all analogue, the sequencer was digital (considered really progressive at the time). It had 512 bytes (not kilobytes) of memory. One could trigger the sequencer, then play a few notes with different time durations and have them captured as a sequence, which could be used to create repeating patterns.
But the reason I chose an EMS, even though I wanted a Buchla, was its low cost. Mine cost about $1,600 in the early 1970s (about $9,000 in today’s dollars), so it still seemed like a major investment for a beginning college instructor. I owned a stereo tape recorder (a Magnecorder) and borrowed a second stereo recorder (an Ampex) from the college so I could record sequences and “bounce” them back and forth between recorders. But, like Larry Austin, I tended to want to create pieces in real time directly to a stereo recorder.
The short sample below is from the first movement of “Three Statements Following a War,” a series of three short movements recorded directly to tape that celebrated the end of the Vietnam war. This clip symbolizes the gradual end to the confusion and stress of the war.
The structure of these directly created synth pieces tended to be loose. It was limited to what could be done by moving knobs, activating the sequencer, etc. Certainly, without using a serious keyboard one would find it hard to create “traditional” classical music forms, such as a fugue. But in the 1960s and 1970s we were all rebelling against formalism, so free-form electronic music seemed to be very avant garde. Also, the instrument was great for creating sound atmospheres for dance, theatre, film, etc.
At the time I was using the EMS I was also creating video art. The advantage of the analogue output of the EMS was that I could also feed it to various visual generators (such as oscilloscopes) to create base material for video art pieces. I used the EMS and visual gear to create moving and swirling logos for television ads, which ultimately got me into the advertising industry as a creative director and copywriter.
As I left academia in 1974 to work in advertising, I put aside electronic music for a time and ultimately sold my EMS synth. But stay tuned; I got back into the field later.