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Electronic music is a term for music created using electronic devices. As defined by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standards body, electronic devices are low-power systems and use components such as transistors and integrated circuits. Working from this definition, distinction can be made between instruments that produce sound through electromechanical means as opposed to instruments that produce sound using electronic components. Examples of an electromechanical instrument are the teleharmonium, Hammond B3, and the electric guitar, whereas examples of an electronic instrument are a Theremin, synthesizer, and a computer.
Late nineteenth to early twentieth century
Before electronic music, there was a growing desire for composers to use emerging technologies for musical purposes. Several instruments were created that employed electromechanical designs and they paved the way for the later emergence of electronic instruments. An electromechanical instrument called the Teleharmonium (or Telharmonium) was developed by Thaddeus Cahill in 1897. Simple inconvenience hindered the adoption of the Teleharmonium: The instrument weighed seven tons and was the size of a boxcar. Several more refined versions were also constructed a few years later (the final and most refined model arriving in 1907, weighing in at 200 tons). The first electronic instrument is often viewed to be the Theremin, invented by Professor Leon Theremin around 1919-1920. Another early electronic instrument was the Ondes Martenot, which was used in the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen and also by other, primarily French, composers such as Andre Jolivet.
Post-war years: 1940s to 1950s
The tape recorder was invented in Germany during World War II. It wasn't long before composers used the tape recorder to develop a new technique for composition called Musique concrète.
This technique involved editing together recorded fragments of natural and industrial sounds. Frequently, composers used sounds that were produced entirely by electronic devices not designed for a musical purpose. The first pieces of musique concrète were written by Pierre Schaeffer, who later worked alongside such avant-garde classical composers as Pierre Henry, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen has worked for many years as part of Cologne's Studio for Electronic Music combining electronically generated sounds with conventional orchestras. The first electronic music for magnetic tape composed in America was completed by Louis and Bebe Barron in 1950.
Two new electronic instruments made their debut in 1957. Unlike the earlier Theremin and Ondes Martenot, these instruments were hard to use, required extensive programming, and neither could be played in real time. The first of these electronic instruments was the computer, when Max Mathews used a program called Music 1, and later Music 2, to create original compositions at Bell Laboratories. CSIRAC in Australia was a computer which played music in real time much earlier than this (1950 or 1951) and it was similarly difficult to program, but musical developments stalled and it was not used to develop new computer music, instead playing popular tunes. Other well-known composers using computers at the time include Edgard Varèse, and Iannis Xenakis. The other electronic instrument that appeared that year was the first electronic synthesizer. Called the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, it used vacuum tube oscillators and incorporated the first electronic music sequencer. It was designed by RCA and installed at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where it remains to this day.
The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, now known as the Computer Music Center, is the oldest center for electronic and computer music research in the United States. It was founded in 1958, by Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening who had been working with magnetic tape manipulation since the early 1950s. A studio was built there with the help of engineer Peter Mauzey and it became the hub of American electronic music production until about 1980. Robert Moog developed voltage controlled oscillators and envelope generators while there, and these were later used as the heart of the Moog synthesizer.
1960s to late 1970s
Because of the complexities of composing with a synthesizer or computer, let alone the lack of access, most composers continued exploring electronic sounds using musique concrète even into the 60s. But musique concrète was clumsy, and a few composers sought better technology for the task. That search led three independent teams to develop the world's first playable electronic synthesizers.
The first of these synthesizers to appear was the Buchla. Appearing in 1963, it was the product of an effort spearheaded by musique concrète composer Morton Subotnick. In 1962, working with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Subotnick and business partner Ramon Sender hired electrical engineer Don Buchla to build a "black box" for composition. Subotnick describes their idea in the following terms:
Our idea was to build the black box that would be a palette for composers in their homes. It would be their studio. The idea was to design it so that it was like an analog computer. It was not a musical instrument but it was modular…It was a collection of modules of voltage-controlled envelope generators and it had sequencers in it right off the bat…It was a collection of modules that you would put together. There were no two systems the same until CBS bought it…Our goal was that it should be under $400 for the entire instrument and we came very close. That's why the original instrument I fundraised for was under $500.
Another playable synthesizer, the first to use a piano styled keyboard, was the brainchild of Robert Moog. In 1964, he invited composer Herb Deutsch to visit his studio in Trumansburg. Moog had met Deutsch the year before, heard his music, and decided to follow the composer's suggestion and build electronic music modules. By the time Deutsch arrived for the visit, Moog had created prototypes of two voltage-controlled oscillators. Deutsch played with the devices for a few days; Moog found Deutsch's experiments so musically interesting that he subsequently built a voltage-controlled filter. Then, by a stroke of luck, Moog was invited that September to the AES Convention in New York City, where he presented a paper called "Electronic Music Modules" and sold his first synthesizer modules to choreographer Alwin Nikolais. By the end of the convention, Moog had entered the synthesizer business.
Also in 1964, Paul Ketoff, a sound engineer for RCA Italiana in Rome, approached William O. Smith, who headed the electronic music studio at the city's American Academy, with a proposal to build a small playable synthesizer for the academy's studio. Smith consulted with Otto Luening, John Eaton, and other composers who were in residence at the academy at the time. Smith accepted Ketoff's proposal, and Ketoff delivered his Synket (for Synthesizer Ketoff) synthesizer in early 1965.
Electronic music in popular culture
Although electronic music began in the world of classical (or "art") composition, within a few years it had been adopted into popular culture with varying degrees of enthusiasm. One of the first electronic signature tunes for television was the theme music for Doctor Who in 1963. It was created at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop by Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire.
In the late 1960s, Wendy Carlos popularized early synthesizer music with two notable albums, Switched-On Bach and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, which took pieces of baroque classical music and reproduced them on Moog synthesizers. The Moog generated only a single note at a time, so that producing a multilayered piece, such as Carlos did, required many hours of studio time. The early machines were notoriously unstable, and went out of tune easily. Still, some musicians, notably Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer did take them on the road. The theremin, an exceedingly difficult instrument to play, was even used in some popular music. Many people believe it to be used in "Good Vibrations" by The Beach Boys, however, the instrument used was actually an Electro-Theremin. There was also the Mellotron which appeared in the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever," and the volume tone pedal was uniquely used as a backing instrument in "Yes It Is."
As technology developed, and synthesizers became cheaper, more robust, and portable, they were adopted by many rock bands. Examples of relatively early adopters in this field are bands like The United States of America, The Silver Apples, and Pink Floyd, and although not all of their music was electronic (with the exception of The Silver Apples), much of the resulting sound was dependent upon the synthesizer, although it usually merely substituted for an organ. In the 1970s, the electronic style was revolutionized by the Düsseldorf band Kraftwerk, who used electronics and robotics to symbolize, and sometimes gleefully celebrate, the alienation of the modern technological world. To this day their music remains uncompromisingly electronic. In Germany, particularly, electronic sounds were incorporated into popular music by bands such as Tangerine Dream, Can, Popol Vuh, and others.
Some of the leading jazz pianists, most notably Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), and Jan Hammer (Mahavishnu Orchestra), started to use synthesizers on their fusion recordings during the years of 1972-1974. The very first fusion albums containing synthesizer were recorded in 1972. These recordings, I Sing the Body Electric by Weather Report and Crossings by Herbie Hancock, used synthesizer for sound effects rather than a replacement for piano (and actually neither Hancock nor Zawinul played the synthesizer on those albums themselves). But in 1973, the synthesizer—used now as a solo instrument—was already part of the jazz fusion sound as heard in Weather Report's Sweetnighter album and Hancock's famous The Headhunters. Corea and Hammer soon followed, and both developed unique ways of playing synthesizers—utilizing slide, vibrato, ring modulators, distortion, and wahwah. Later, Hancock released the well known Future Shock album, a collaboration with producer Bill Laswell in the 1980s, which spawned a pop hit, "Rockit," in 1983. Musicians such as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Brian Eno, Vangelis, Mike Oldfield, Jean-Michel Jarre, Ray Buttigieg, as well as the Japanese composers Isao Tomita and Kitaro, also popularized the sound of electronic music.
The film industry also began to make extensive use of electronic music in soundtracks. An example is the Wendy Carlos' score for A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick's film of the Anthony Burgess novel. The score for Forbidden Planet, by Louis and Bebe Barron, was entirely composed using the Theremin in 1956. Once electronic sounds became more common in popular recordings, other science fiction films, such as Blade Runner and the Alien series of movies began to depend heavily for mood and ambience upon the use of electronic music and electronically derived effects. Electronic groups were also hired to produce entire soundtracks, just like other popular music stars.
Late 1970s to late 1980s
In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a great deal of innovation around the development of electronic music instruments. Analogue synthesizers largely gave way to digital synthesizers and samplers. Early samplers, like early synthesizers, were large and expensive pieces of gear. Companies like Fairlight and New England Digital sold instruments that cost upwards of $100,000. In the mid 1980s, however, the introduction of low-cost digital samplers made the technology available to more musicians.
From the late 1970s onward, much popular music was developed on these digital machines. Groups and artists such as Ultravox, Gary Numan, The Human League, Landscape, Visage, Daniel Miller, Pete Shelley, Heaven 17, Eurythmics, Severed Heads, John Foxx, Thomas Dolby, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Norman Iceberg, Yazoo, Art of Noise, Yello, Depeche Mode, and New Order developed new ways of making popular music by electronic means. Fad Gadget (Frank Tovey) is cited by some as the father of electronics in New Wave, although Ultravox, The Normal (Daniel Miller), The Human League, and Cabaret Voltaire, all released electronic singles before Fad Gadget.
The new kinds of electonic noise that synthesizers could create contributed to the formation of the genre of industrial music, pioneered by groups such as Throbbing Gristle, in 1975, Wavestar, and Cabaret Voltaire. Artists like Nine Inch Nails in 1989, KMFDM, and Severed Heads, took the innovations of musique concrète and applied them to dance and rock music. Others, such as Test Department, Einstürzende Neubauten, took this new sound and created noisy electronic compositions. Other groups, such as Robert Rich, Zoviet France, and Rapoon created soundscapes using synthesized noise. Still others (Front 242, Skinny Puppy) combined this harshness with pop and dance, creating electronic body music.
During this time, dub musicians such as industrial-funk outfit Tackhead, vocalist Mark Stewart, and others on Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound record label in the 1980s integrated the aesthetics of industrial and noise music with tape and dub production. This paved the way for much of the 1990s interest in dub, first through bands such as Meat Beat Manifesto and later downtempo and trip hop producers such as Kruder & Dorfmeister.
Recent developments: 1980s to early 2000s
The development of the techno sound in Detroit, Michigan, and house music in Chicago, Illinois, in the 1980s, and the later UK-based acid house movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s fueled the development and acceptance of electronic music into the mainstream and introduced electronic dance music to nightclubs. Electronic composition can create faster and more precise rhythms than is possible using traditional percussion. The sound of electronic dance music often features electronically altered sounds (samples) of traditional instruments and vocals.
Electronic music, especially in the late 1990s fractured into many genres, styles and sub-styles, too many to list here, and most of which are included in the main list. Although there are no hard and fast boundaries, broadly speaking we can identify the experimental and classical styles: Electronic art music, musique concrète; the industrial music and synth pop styles of the 1980s; styles that are primarily intended for dance such as italo disco, techno, house, trance, electro, breakbeat, jungle, drum and bass, and styles that are intended more as experimental styles or for home listening such as IDM, glitch, and trip-hop. The proliferation of personal computers and the MIDI interface beginning in the 1980s, brought about a new genre of electronic music, known loosely as chip music or bitpop. These styles, produced initially using specialized sound chips in PCs such as the Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST among others, grew primarily out of the demoscene. The latter categories such as IDM, glitch and chip music share much in common with the art and musique concrète styles which predate it by several decades.
Notable artists and DJs
With the explosive growth of computers music technology and consequent reduction in the cost of equipment in the late 1990s, the number of artists and DJs working within electronic music is overwhelming. With the advent of hard disk recording systems, it is possible for any home computer user to become a musician, and hence the rise in the number of "bedroom bands," often consisting of a single person. Nevertheless, notable artists can still be identified. Within the experimental and classical or "art" traditions still working today are Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Steve Reich. The genre of cosmic electronic music was formed at the turn of the 1970s, in Germany, by Popol Vuh, Klaus Schulze, and Tangerine Dream. Influential musicians in industrial and later synth pop styles include Throbbing Gristle(who reformed in 2004), Cabaret Voltaire (now defunct), the Human League, and Kraftwerk who released their first album in over a decade in 2003. In house, techno, and drum and bass pioneers such as Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Goldie, A Guy Called Gerald and LTJ Bukem are still active as of 2006. Commercially successful artists working under the "electronica" rubric, such as Fatboy Slim, Faithless, Fluke, The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, The Crystal Method, Massive Attack, The Prodigy, Orbital, Propellerheads, Underworld, Björk, and Moby, continue to release albums and perform regularly (sometimes in stadium-sized arenas, such has the popularity of electronic dance music grown). Some DJs such as Paul Oakenfold, John Digweed, Paul van Dyk, Armin van Buuren, Ferry Corsten, and Tiësto) have reached true superstar status and can command five-figure salaries for a single performance. They perform for hours on end mixing their music into pre-recorded singles. Some DJs have world wide Radio, and internet, broadcast shows that air weekly, such as A State Of Trance, a show mixed by Armin van Buuren. The critically acclaimed Autechre and Aphex Twin continue to put out challenging records of (mostly) home-listening music.
Notable record labels
Until 1978, and the formation of Mute Records, there were virtually no record labels that deal with exclusively electronic music. Because of this dearth of outlets, many of the early techno pioneers started their own. For example, Juan Atkins started Metroplex Records, a Detroit-based label, and Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva started their hugely influential Plus 8 imprint. In the United Kingdom, Warp Records emerged in the 1990s as one of the preeminent sources of home-listening and experimental music. Later arrivals include Astralwerks, Ninja Tune, Tiesto's Black Hole Recordings, and Oakenfold's Perfecto Record label.
Electronic music press
United States magazine sources include the Los Angeles based Urb,BPM Magazine, and San Francisco-based XLR8R, and other magazines such as Side-Line,e/i, and Grooves. British electronic music sources include the London-based magazine The Wire (a monthly publication), DJ,Mixmag,Knowledge,Sound on Sound,Computer Music,Music Tech Magazine, and Future Music. German magazine sources include Spex as well as Berlin-based De:bug.
- Bogdanov, Vladimir, Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, and John Bush (eds.). All Music Guide to Electronica: The Definitive Guide to Electronic Music. Backbeat Books, 2001. ISBN 0-879-30628-9.
- Kettlewell, Ben. Electronic Music Pioneers. ArtistPro.com, 2001. ISBN 1-931140-17-0.
- Lee, Iara and Peter Shapiro (eds.). Modulations: A History of Electronic Music: Throbbing Words on Sound. Distributed Art Publishers, 2000. ISBN 1-891-02406-X.
- Prendergast, Mark. The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance: The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age. Bloomsbury, 2001. ISBN 0-747-54213-9.
- Reynolds, Simon. Energy Flash: a Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture. UK: Pan Macmillan, 1998. ISBN 0-330-35056-0.
- Schaefer, John. New Sounds: A Listener's Guide to New Music. HarperCollins, 1987. ISBN 0-060-97081-2.
- Sicko, Dan. Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk. Billboard Books, 1999. ISBN 0-823-08428-0.
All links retrieved September 15, 2017.
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Electronic music, any music involving electronic processing, such as recording and editing on tape, and whose reproduction involves the use of loudspeakers.
Although any music produced or modified by electrical, electromechanical, or electronic means can be called electronic music, it is more precise to say that for a piece of music to be electronic, its composer must anticipate the electronic processing subsequently applied to his or her musical concept, so that the final product reflects in some way the composer’s interaction with the medium. This is no different from saying that a composer should have in mind an orchestra when composing a symphony and a piano when composing a pianosonata. A conventional piece of popular music does not become electronic music by being played on an electronically amplified guitar, nor does a Bachfugue become electronic music if played on an electronic organ instead of a pipe organ. Some experimental compositions, often containing chance elements and perhaps of indeterminate scoring, permit but do not necessarily demand electronic realization, but this is a specialized situation.
Electronic music is produced from a wide variety of sound resources—from sounds picked up by microphones to those produced by electronic oscillators (generating basic acoustical waveforms such as sine waves, square waves, and sawtooth waves), complex computer installations, and microprocessors—that are recorded on tape and then edited into a permanent form. Generally, except for one type of performed music that has come to be called “live electronic music” (see below), electronic music is played back through loudspeakers either alone or in combination with ordinary musical instruments.
This article covers both early experimentation with electronic sound-producing devices and composers’ subsequent exploitation of electronic equipment as a technique of composition. Throughout the discussion it should be clear that electronic music is not a style but rather a technique yielding diverse results in the hands of different composers.
Historically, electronic music is one aspect of the larger development of 20th-century music strongly characterized by a search for new technical resources and modes of expression. Before 1945 composers sought to liberate themselves from the main Classical-Romantic tradition of tonal thinking and to reconstruct their thinking along new lines, for the most part either Neoclassical or atonal and 12-tone, in which a composition is built up entirely from a tone row consisting of all 12 notes of the ordinary chromatic scale.
This pre-World War II period was accompanied by substantial experimentation with electrical and electronic devices. The most important outcome for the composer was the development of a number of electronic musical instruments (such as the Hammond organ and the theremin) that provided new timbres and that laid the technical foundations for the future development of electronic music proper from about 1948 onward. The rapid development of computer technology has had its effect in music too, so much so that the term computer music is replacing electronic music as the more accurate description of the most significant interaction between the composer and the electronic medium.
Electronic music is represented not only by a wide variety of 20th-century works and not only by serious concert pieces but also by a substantial literature of theatre, film, and television scores and by multimedia works that use all types of audiovisual techniques. Electronic music for theatre and films seems an especially appropriate replacement for a disembodied, nonexistent orchestra heard from a tape or a sound track. Electronic popular music has also won adherents. This mostly has consisted of arrangements of standard popular music for electronic synthesizers, the tentative use of electronic alterations by some of the more ambitious and experimental rock groups, and the preparation of recordings by innovative studio techniques.
History and stylistic development
During the 19th century, attempts were made to produce and record sounds mechanically or electromechanically. For example, the German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz traced waveforms of regular sounds to check results of his acoustical researches. An important event was the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner, independently, in the 1870s and 1880s. This invention not only marked the beginning of the recording industry but also showed that all the acoustical content of musical sounds could be captured (in principle, if not in actuality at that time) and be faithfully retained for future use.
The first major effort to generate musical sounds electrically was carried out over many years by an American, Thaddeus Cahill, who built a formidable assembly of rotary generators and telephone receivers to convert electrical signals into sound. Cahill called his remarkable invention the telharmonium, which he started to build about 1895 and continued to improve for years thereafter. The instrument failed because it was complex, impractical, and could not produce sounds of any magnitude since amplifiers and loudspeakers had not yet been invented. Nevertheless, Cahill’s concepts were basically sound. He was a visionary who lived ahead of his time, and his instrument was the ancestor of present-day electronic music synthesizers.
The Italian Futurist painter Luigi Russolo was another early exponent of synthesized music. As early as 1913 Russolo proposed that all music be destroyed and that new instruments reflecting current technology be built to perform a music expressive of industrialized society. Russolo subsequently did build a number of mechanically activated intonarumori (noise instruments) that grated, hissed, scratched, rumbled, and shrieked. Russolo’s instruments and most of his music apparently vanished during World War II.
Impact of technological developments
Between World War I and World War II, developments occurred that led more directly to modern electronic music, although most of them were technically, rather than musically, important. First was the development of audio-frequency technology. By the early 1920s basic circuits for sine-, square-, and sawtooth-wave generators had been invented, as had amplifiers, filter circuits, and, most importantly, loudspeakers. (Sine waves are signals consisting of “pure tones”—i.e., without overtones; sawtooth waves comprise fundamental tones and all related overtones; square waves consist only of the odd-numbered partials, or component tones, of the natural harmonic series.) Also, mechanical acoustical recording was replaced by electrical recording in the late 1920s.
Second was the development of electromechanical and electronic musical instruments designed to replace existing musical instruments—specifically, the invention of electronic organs. This was a remarkable achievement and one that absorbed the attention of many ingenious inventors and circuit designers. It should be stressed, however, that it was the objective of these organ builders to simulate and replace pipe organs and harmoniums, not to provide novel instruments that would stimulate the imaginations of avant-garde composers.
Most electromechanical and electronic organs employ subtractive synthesis, as do pipe organs. Signals rich in harmonic partials (such as sawtooth waves) are selected by the performer at the keyboard and combined and shaped acoustically by filter circuits that simulate the formant, or resonant-frequency, spectra—i.e., the acoustical components—of conventional organ stops. The formant depends on the filter circuit and does not relate to the frequency of a tone being produced. A low tone shaped by a given formant (a given stop) is normally rich in harmonics, while a high tone normally is poor in them. Psychologically, one expects this from all musical instruments, not only organs but also orchestral instruments.
Some electronic organs operate on the opposing principle of additive synthesis, whereby individually generated sine waves are added together in varying proportions to yield a complex waveform. The most successful of these is the Hammond organ, patented by Laurens Hammond in 1934. The Hammond organ has odd qualities because the richness of its harmonic content does not diminish as the player goes up the keyboard. The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (in Momente, 1961–62), the Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim (in Colorazione, 1968), and a few others have scored specifically for this instrument.
Third was the development of novel electronic musical instruments designed to supply timbres not provided by ordinary musical instruments. During the 1920s there was a burst of interest in building an extraordinary variety of such instruments, ranging from practical to absurd. The most successful of these were relatively few in number, were monophonic (i.e., could play only one melodic line at a time), and survive chiefly because some important music has been scored for them. These are the theremin, invented in 1920 by a Russian scientist, Leon Theremin; the Ondes martenot, first built in 1928 by a French musician and scientist, Maurice Martenot; and the trautonium, designed by a German, Friedrich Trautwein, in 1930.
The theremin is a beat-frequency audio oscillator (sine-wave generator) that has two condensers placed not inside the circuit chassis but, rather, outside, as antennas. Because these antennas respond to the presence of nearby objects, the pitch and amplitude of the output signal of the theremin can be controlled by the manner in which a performer moves his hands in its vicinity. A skilled performer can produce all sorts of effects, including scales, glissandi, and flutters. A number of compositions have been written for this instrument since the 1920s.
The Ondes martenot consists of a touch-sensitive keyboard and a slide-wire glissando generator that are both controlled by the performer’s right hand, as well as some stops controlled by the left hand. These, in turn, activate a sawtooth-wave generator that delivers a signal to one or more output transducers. The instrument has been used extensively by several French composers, including Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez, and by the French-American composer Edgard Varèse.
The trautonium, like the Ondes martenot, uses a sawtooth-wave generator as its signal source and a keyboard of novel design that permits not just ordinary tuning but unusual scales as well. Most of the music composed for this instrument is of German origin, an example being the Concertino for Trautonium and Strings (1931) by Paul Hindemith. In about 1950 a polyphonic version (capable of playing several voices, or parts, simultaneously) of this instrument was built by Oskar Sala, a former student of Trautwein and Hindemith, for preparing sound tracks in a Berlin film studio. These instruments have become virtually obsolete, however, because all the sounds they produce can easily be duplicated by electronic music synthesizers.
With tape music the history of electronic music in the narrower sense begins. This history seems split into three main periods: an early (by now classical) period lasting from the commercial introduction of the tape recorder immediately following World War II until about 1960; a second period that featured the introduction of electronic music synthesizers and the acceptance of the electronic medium as a legitimate compositional activity; and the third period, in which computer technology is rapidly becoming both the dominant resource and the dominant concern.
The invention of the tape recorder gave composers of the 1950s an exciting new musical instrument to use for new musical experiences. Fascination with the thing itself was the dominant motivation for composing electronic tape music. Musically, the 1950s, in contrast to the 1960s, were relatively introverted years: in all kinds of music, the focus of interest was technique and style, especially with the avant-garde. In time, the medium became fairly well understood, the techniques for handling it became increasingly standardized, and a repertory of characteristic and historically important compositions came into being. The burning issues were whether tape would replace live musicians; whether the composer was at last freed from the humiliations so often endured to get his music into the concert hall; and whether a new medium of expression had been created, quite different from and independent of instrumental music, analogous, say, to photography as opposed to traditional painting.
It became increasingly evident, however, that there was no reason to think that the electronic tape medium would eliminate instrumental performance by live musicians. Tape was increasingly regarded as something that could be—but did not need to be—treated as a unique medium. Thus the notion that the tape recorder could function as one instrument in an ensemble grew more and more popular. This conceptionobviated the visual monotony of an evening in an auditorium with nothing to look at but a loudspeaker. To this has been added a further stage of evolution, namely, live electronic music, in which the tape recorder and its tape is eliminated or greatly restricted in function, and transformations of the sounds of musical instruments are effected at the concert with electronic equipment. Not infrequently, this kind of performance environment also involves scores in which aleatory (chance, or random), improvisatory, or quasi-improvisatory musical guidelines for the manipulation of such equipment are supplied by a composer who prefers to let what happens just happen. Actually, it is open to question whether live electronic music is really an advance or a reversion to an earlier state of the art, in the sense that it is the enhancement of the timbres of familiar instruments, rather than music conceived totally in terms of electronic media per se.
Establishment of electronic studios
The first period of development was certainly one into which Europeans put the most consistent work. Tape music quickly gained recognition and financial support, and, before long, a number of well-equipped electronic music studios were established, primarily in government-supported broadcast facilities. Some important work was also done in the United States, but this was much more fragmentary, and not until after 1958 did Americans begin to catch up, either technically or artistically.
In 1948 two French composers, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, and their associates at Radiodiffusion et Télévision Française in Paris began to produce tape collages (analogous to collages in the visual arts), which they called musique concrète. All the materials they processed on tape were recorded sounds—sound effects, musical fragments, vocalizings, and other sounds and noises produced by man, his environment, and his artifacts. Such sounds were considered “concrete,” hence the term musique concrète. To this Paris group certainly belongs the credit both for originating the concept of tape music as such and for demonstrating how effective certain types of tape manipulation can be in transforming sounds. These transformations included speed alteration, variable speed control, playing tapes backward, and signal feedback loops. Schaeffer however, opposed the use of electronic oscillators as sound sources, claiming that these were not “concrete” sound sources, not “real,” and hence artificial and anti-humanistic.
Two of the most successful and best known musique concrète compositions of this early period are Schaeffer and Henry’s Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950; Symphony for One Man Only) and Henry’s Orphée (1953), a ballet score written for the Belgian dancer Maurice Béjart. These and similar works created a sensation when first presented to the public. Symphonie pour un homme seul, a descriptive suite about man and his activities, is an extended composition in 11 movements. Orphée is concerned with the descent of Orpheus into Hades.
The second event of significance was the formation of an electronic music studio in Cologne by Herbert Eimert, a composer working for Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk (now Westdeutscher Rundfunk), who was advised in turn by Werner Meyer-Eppler, an acoustician from the University of Bonn. Eimert was soon joined by Karlheinz Stockhausen, who composed the first really important tape composition from this studio, the now-famous Gesang der Jünglinge (1956; Song of Youth). The Cologne studio soon became a focal point of the reemergence of Germany as a dominant force in new music.
At Cologne emphasis was immediately placed on electronically generated sounds rather than concrete sounds and on electronic sound modifications such as filtering and modulating rather than tape manipulation. Eimert and Stockhausen also published a journal, Die Reihe (“The Row”), in which appeared articles emphasizing the “purity” of electronic sounds and the necessity of coupling electronic music to serial composing (using ordered groups of pitches, rhythms, and other musical elements as compositional bases), which made no more sense than the Paris group’s insistence on using only nonelectronic, nonserial material. This activity was part of the campaign of the 1950s that brought about the collapse of Neoclassicism (a style that drew equally on 20th-century musical idioms and earlier, formal types); the emergence of the Austrian composer Anton von Webern as the father figure of the new music; the development of total serialism, pointillism (a style making use of individual tones placed in a very sparse texture), and intellectualism; and an emphasis on technique. The examples set by these two studios were soon widely imitated in Europe. This trend continued in the 1960s, with many more studios, from modest to elaborate, being set up in almost every major urban centre in Europe. As time passed, the techniques and equipment in the newer studios became more standardized and reliable, and the rather peculiar issue of concrete versus electronic sounds ceased to concern anyone.
In the United States the production of electronic music, until 1958, was much more sporadic. The only continuing effort of this sort was the project undertaken by two composers at Columbia University, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, to create a professional tape studio and to compose music illustrating the musical possibilities of the tape medium. Luening and Ussachevsky often collaborated on joint compositions. They gained particular attention for the composition of several concerto-like works for tape recorder and orchestra. In 1959 Luening and Ussachevsky joined with another U.S. composer, Milton Babbitt, to organize, on a much larger scale, the Columbia–Princeton Electronic Music Center, in which an impressive number of composers of professional repute have worked.
Other tape compositions in the early 1950s in the United States were largely those of individual composers working as best they could under improvised circumstances. One major composer who did so was Varèse, who completed Déserts, for tape and instrumental ensemble, in 1954, and Poème électronique, for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Another was John Cage, who completed Williams Mix in 1952 and Fontana Mix in 1958. Both Varèse and Cage had anticipated the electronic medium; Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) for RCA test records and percussion can well be regarded as a forerunner of current live electronic music.
With the establishment of the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois in 1958 by Lejaren Hiller and the University of Toronto studio in 1959 by Myron Schaeffer, the formation of facilities for both production and teaching began to move forward. The number of studios in university music departments grew rapidly, and they soon became established as essential in teaching as well as composing.
The individual components may vary in a well-designed “classic” studio, but basically the equipment may be divided into five categories: sound sources (sine-wave, square-wave, sawtooth-wave, and white-noise generators; and microphones for picking up concrete sounds); routing and control circuitry (patch panels, switching boards, and mixers for coupling components together; amplifiers; and output connections); signal modifiers (modulators, frequency shifters, artificial reverberators, filters, variable-speed tape recorders, and time compression–expansion devices); monitors and quality-control equipment (frequency counter, spectrum analyzer, VU metres that monitor recording levels, oscilloscope, power amplifiers with loudspeakers and headsets, and workshop facilities); and recording and playback equipment, including high-quality tape recorders.
With this equipment, composers record sounds, both electronic and microphoned; modify them singly or in montages by operations such as modulation, reverberation, and filtering; and finally re-record them in increasingly complex patterns. Inevitably, a major part of composers’ efforts is tape editing, unless they are satisfied with the crudest string of effects merely linked together in sequence. As in any other kind of music, the aesthetic merits of electronic music compositions seem to depend not only on musical ideas as such but also on the way in which they relate to one another and how they are used to build up a musical structure.
The integration of the tape has become a rather popular form of chamber music, if not of symphonic music. Varèse’s Déserts is an early example of this. It is scored for a group of 15 musicians and a two-channel tape and consists of four instrumental episodes interrupted by three tape interludes. In other works the tape recorder is “performed” together with the remaining instruments rather than merely in contrast to them. The problems of coordination, however, can become overriding, for it is difficult for a group of performers to follow a tape exactly. Obviously, the tape dominates the situation, remorselessly moving along no matter what happens in the rest of the group.
Thousands of electronic tape compositions were in existence by the early 1970s, many of ephemeral interest. It is relatively rare for a composer to have established a reputation solely as a composer of tape music. Pierre Henry perhaps is an example, but, in general, the important names in instrumental music of the 1950s and 1960s are the significant contributors in electronic music too.
Stockhausen remained in the forefront of electronic music composers with several important pieces following Gesang der Jünglinge. These included Kontakte (1959–60; Contacts), for tape, piano, and percussion, and Telemusik (1966), for tape alone. Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna, both Italians, worked for a while at the Radio Audizioni Italia (now Radiotelevisione Italiana) studio in Milan. Besides Différences (1958–60), a composition for tape and chamber group, Berio’s tape pieces include Thema-Omaggio a Joyce (1958; Homage to Joyce) and Visage (1961), which exploited the unusual voice of the American singer Cathy Berberian.
In the United States the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center has had the greatest output, a long list of composers besides Luening and Ussachevsky having used its facilities. Tape music from the University of Illinois studio includes Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA (1967), a savage political satire for tape, films, helium bomb, and gas-masked politico. The University of Toronto studio, in spite of its technical excellence, has not been well represented on discs. One Canadian piece that is very amusing, however, is Hugh LeCaine’s Dripsody (1955), all the sounds of which are derived from the splash of a single drop of water.
Composing tape music by the classic method was neither easy nor free of technical pitfalls. A complex piece had to be assembled from hundreds or even thousands of fragments of tape. Splicing these sounds together consumed a vast amount of time and could also lead to an accumulation of errors and deterioration of the sound. Consequently, substantial efforts were expended to reduce this work load and at the same time improve quality. Music synthesizers were the first product of these efforts. They cannot, however, be regarded as more than an intermediate technological development because of later computer technology (see below).
In contrast to Cahill’s period, by the 1950s the means finally existed to construct full-scale music synthesizers, starting with the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizers, designed by Harry Olson and Herbert Belar, research scientists working at the RCA Laboratories at Princeton, New Jersey. The first machine was introduced in 1955; a second, improved model was turned over to the Columbia–Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1959.
The basic advance of the RCAsynthesizer was an information input mechanism, a device for punching sets of instructions into a wide roll of punched paper tape. Composers can at any time during the programming process interrupt this activity to listen to what had been punched, to make corrections, and to edit the material before making a final paper tape that then constituted the “master score” of the composition.
The composer whose name became particularly associated with the RCA synthesizer was Milton Babbitt. He had developed a precisely defined compositional technique involving total serialization (i.e., of every musical element). When he became aware of the synthesizer, he was anxious to use it, because it gave him the opportunity to realize his music more precisely than had hitherto been the case. Among Babbitt’s compositions created with this machine were Composition for Synthesizer (1961), Vision and Prayer (1961), Ensembles for Synthesizer (1963), Philomel (1964), and Phonemena (1974).
In about 1960 a new circuit, the voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO), attracted the attention of engineers interested in electronic music because the frequency of its output signal is proportional to an independently generated input voltage rather than being internally set. The response is immediate because no mechanical couplings or controls are required. Robert Moog was the first to design several types of compact synthesizers of moderate price that supplied an extended range of possibilities for sound manipulation. In addition to VCO’s, which produce sine, square, sawtooth, and triangular waves, the Moog synthesizer contained white-noise generators, attack and decay generators (controlling a sound’s onset and fading), voltage-controlled amplifiers, and band-pass filters and sequencers.
One major advance in sound manipulation provided by VCO’s is frequency modulation; if the input is a periodic function, the output frequency will vary periodically to provide tremolos, trills, and warble tones. Moog’s synthesizer soon had to compete with several other synthesizers of essentially the same design, the Buchla Electronic Music Box, the ARP, and the later, more sophisticated Prophet 10.
These popular synthesizers eliminate much of the drudgery of tape splicing, but at a price. The range of timbres and processes is more limited because they operate by subtractive synthesis and impose transients that affect all partials (component vibrations) of a complex wave identically. An advantage of a harmonic tone generator built in 1962 by James Beauchamp at the University of Illinois, also from VCO’s, was that it used additive synthesis—i.e., it created sound by combining signals for pure tones (sine waves)—instead of removing partials from a complex signal. It was designed so that each partial of a sound could have its own entry point, its own rise time, and its own decay time. The improvement in tone quality was enormous, because the ear normally expects nuances such as higher partials that decay faster than lower ones. Salvatore Martirano’s Underworld (1965) is a good example of music in which the tape was made largely by additive synthesis.
A composer closely associated with synthesizers is Morton Subotnik, who has produced a series of extended electronic music compositions, starting with Silver Apples of the Moon (1967). These pieces were created on the Buchla synthesizer, and any one of them demonstrates in relatively unmodified form the types of sounds one may obtain with these instruments.
A word should be said about realizations of instrumental music through synthesizers, notably an early, commercially successful album called Switched-on Bach (1968), arrangements made by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos on a Moog synthesizer. The record displayed technical excellence in the sounds created and made the electronic synthesis of music more intelligible to the general listening public. This is useful so long as it is realized that the materials on the record are arrangements of familiar music, not original compositions. (Carlos later created an original electronic score for the science fiction film Tron.)