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THE ORIGINS OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC

Matt Christoph
http://www.scribd.com/matt_christoph

Electronic music is a very broad term, capable of referring to live or recorded music which is produced, either in whole or in part, by means of electronic instruments and devices or through the use of computer hardware and software. The development of new technologies and the improvement and modification of existing technologies has allowed electronic musicians to continuously expand upon the tools at their disposal and to push the limits of what musicians and composers were once thought to be capable of. Electronic music progressed in step with the progression of technology--with the invention of the telephone, the oscillator, magnetic tape in the 1930s, and especially with the development of synthesizers and personal computers. These increasingly powerful and expansive electronic media presented untold possibilities to musicians, but those who explored these new frontiers often sacrificed acceptance in all but the more progressive and open-minded circles of "serious music", or resigned their work to the background of a radio broadcast or film. And although it is definitively a Twentieth century movement, the composers, performers, engineers, and inventors who explored the outer limits of electronic music were continuing in the spirit of the curious, progressive, and rebellious minds who directed the evolution of new music throughout our history. There has been heated debate for centuries between conservative schools of thought and progressive ones, attempting to define the limits of consonance and good taste in music, and to set rules and standards for composition and performance. Many have tried, in as many different ways, to bend or break the established conventions of Western music.
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The innovators of electronic music showed a strong desire to exploit new sounds and to find new ways of manipulating timbre, dynamics, and tone. In many cases the results were like nothing ever heard before, spurring new debates over the merit or meaning of their work, or its inherent consonance or dissonance. In this sense, electronic musicians are very much indebted to the composers of previous eras who pushed beyond the boundaries of their time and gave the future ranks of sonic revolutionaries a wider foundation to build upon. This list of rogue composers could include individuals like Wagner, for his use of nontraditional harmony and chromaticism, Debussy and Scriabin for their exploration of nontraditional scales and chords, as well as Schoenberg's and Webern's later works that did away with tonality altogether. Webern and those who followed after him withdrew from the Romantic Era influences that had been kept alive throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century. They used silence and dynamics in innovative ways, and broke from conventions of length and form, vividly illustrating a paradigm shift from the "harmonic age" to an "age of sound". But to many the familiar elements of Western music were no longer enough. Musicians of the early 1900s sought to create new sounds, to exploit existing sounds in new ways, and to find new techniques and devices with which to express themselves. In 1914, a collective known as the Futurismo, or Italian Futurists, presented a concert entitled The Art of Noises in Milan. The program, in four parts or networks of noises, used a wide variety of common and recognizable sounds, like engines, whistles, and tools. The concert was not
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well received it ended in a violent brawl between the audience and the performers. Still, composers like Milhaud and Antheil would continue to exploit unconventional sound sources, from natural sounds to airplane propellers and car horns, and to mix these new media with traditional instruments and forms. Extended Technique was a movement with a similar ethos. It explored various methods for altering and controlling the sounds produced by traditional instruments, exemplified by Henry Cowells piece Aeolian Harp, and by John Cages works for "prepared piano". Aside from simply expanding upon the palette of sounds available, composers of the late 1800s and early 1900s helped set the stage for electronic music by exploring new methods of composition and performance. The twelve-tone technique championed by Schoenberg and the serialism of Messiaen meant that a composer could abandon standard practice and invent their own systems and structures for composing and creating music. Serialism especially would continue to have a strong influence on serious music, electronic and orchestral alike, until the late 1940s. However, in the 1950s, the rigid and strict methods of serialism were left behind in favor of indeterminacy, or chance music. This movement saw composers leaving aspects of the compositional process, or even aspects of the composition itself undefined, open to interpretation, or still to be determined by chance procedures. However, while electronic music owes so much to the musical work that preceded it, the existence of electronic music was only made possible by the ideas and creations of the
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world's engineers, scientists, and inventors. Thomas Edison, working on the premise that sound waves must be recordable and reproducible by some mechanical means, created the first practical phonograph in 1878. His Edison Cylinder design was supplanted in 1896 by Emile Berliners disc phonograph, or gramophone. Invented in 1898, the first magnetic recording device, called the Telegraphone, recorded sound onto spools of piano wire. One year later, the Singing Arc, the first entirely electronic instrument ever built, consisted of a carbon arc lamp, a coil, and a capacitor. An electronic instrument completed in 1900 known as the Teleharmonium, or Dynamophone, was invented and later reconstructed at Holyoke, Massachusetts by Dr. Thaddeus Cahill. Public performances in 1903, '04, and especially in '06 caught the attention of the press, as well as many musicians and composers. Cahill's Teleharmonium, a forefather of the Hammond Organ, weighed over 200 tons and took 30 boxcars to transport. In 1906 the three-element vacuum tube, or triode, made electronic amplification possible, and numerous experiments were underway by 1910 to explore tone generation using oscillators. In 1920, Leon Theremin demonstrated a new electronic instrument he had created to the Russian scientific community and press. The Theremin was a fairly simple design, consisting of two tone-generating oscillators and an antenna, which produced a unique, ethereal, and droning sound. Another noteworthy electronic instrument is the Ondes Martenot, invented in 1928. This instrument in particular was used extensively by composers like Messiaen, Milhaud, Boulez, and Varse.
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By the 1930s, scientists and engineers in the United States and Germany were experimenting with methods of recording via magnetism. The Magnetophone, a magnetic wire recorder, was developed and marketed by the German firm A.E.G. in 1935. After the war, the wire was replaced by magnetic tape, and by the late 40s tape recorders were commercially available. The tape recorder opened up new avenues for the musician to record, manipulate, layer, and loop sound. Enthusiasts honed their skills at cutting and splicing the tape itself, and could use these techniques to edit and arrange previouslyrecorded material. The creation of tape music generally involved one or more techniques like the variation of playback speed, reverse playback, looping, cutting and splicing, or creating delays or other effects. The first genre of electronic music, dubbed musique concrte, was created in Paris by a French radio engineer named Pierre Schaeffer in 1948. Radiodiffusion-Television Franoise (R.T.F.) broadcasted five etudes which Schaeffer had created by layering and juxtaposing sounds on tape. In 1949, Schaeffer began collaborating with Pierre Henry, a composer and student of Messiaen. The two worked together for only a few years before parting ways, but their efforts produced such landmark works as Orpheus, a musique concrte opera, and Symphonie Pour un Homme Seul (Symphony for a Man Alone). In 1950 they made the first public performance of musique concrte, technically the first concert of electronic music ever given. R.T.F. established the first studio for electronic music in Paris in

1951, giving Schaeffer a place to work and collaborate with other composers like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Pierre Schaeffer acknowledged two key influences of musique concrte: the Italian Futurists, and American composer John Cage. Cage was likely one of the most influential composers of the mid-Twentieth century. Known mostly for his works during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, he was a lifelong proponent of innovation through music. He produced many famous pieces of serious music during that era, including works for prepared piano, serial compositions, tape music, chance music, and everything from orchestral to electronic music. In fact, he was quick to incorporate new technologies into his musical works, experimenting with electronic sound sources like oscillators and amplified coils of wire in the early 40s, and manipulating pre-recorded sounds years before Pierre Schaeffer had ever conceived of musique concrte. Cages influence throughout the period in which electronic music first appeared was enormous. The Italian-German composer Ferruccio Busoni, a mentor of Edgard Varse, had predicted in the early 1900s that an aesthetic revolution of sorts would occur in music, and that composers would search for a new language while rejecting the old, established systems. Artists and musicians in the late 1940s and 50s demonstrated this sort of dramatic paradigm shift, perhaps in reaction to World War II and the Atomic Bomb. In music, any sound or lack thereof was now fair play, and every kind of experimentation was equally valid. One of the few common threads among the early proponents of electronic music was
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a rejection of the art and media of the past, and the exploration of new methods and forms. Some composers continued to write serial and twelve-tone music, emphasizing a sense of order. Others wanted to relinquish control and depersonalize their music through indeterminacy and chance procedures. In the 1950s, new kinds of electronic instruments were being developed, giving composers and musicians an entirely new palette of sounds to work with and new methods of shaping and manipulating their art form. The RCA Synthesizer was completed in 1955 at RCA Labs in New Jersey, and gave its user unprecedented sonic control. The synthesizer allowed a musician to work with any tone in the audible range, of any duration, and with strict control over dynamics, timbre, and other parameters of each tone. Robert Moog presented the first modular analog synthesizer in 1964 at an Audio Engineering Society convention in New York City. A modular synthesizer consists of multiple independent modules which can be customized, interconnected, and otherwise expanded upon. Moogs design would flourish on the commercial market, and he himself often built custom equipment for famous composers and musicians which he would design to their specifications. In Germany, a collective known as the Cologne School had rejected the rigidity and limitations of tape music and were pursuing their own methods of composing through electronic devices. Their early works pre-date the synthesizer, but used many of the same processes. A piece of music would be constructed out of electronically-generated tones
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square waves, sine waves, white noise, et cetera. These sounds were then shaped by filters, equalizers, and potentiometers. The Cologne School was doing with multiple devices what the synthesizer would later allow them to do with one device. West German Radio established a studio in 1953 where key figures of the Cologne School like Stockhausen, Eimert, Meyer-Eppler, and Beyer continued to compose their ground-breaking works. Stockhausens Studie II, written in 1954, was the first electronic composition to have a published score. At the same time, a group of composers in America was exploring other methods of creating electronic music. Composers like John Cage and Edgard Varse continued to exploit the potential of musique concrete and to mix electronic sound sources with more traditional orchestration. In 1953 Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky gave the first public concert of entirely electronic music at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1954 their collaboration Rhapsodie Variations was the first combination of taped material and a live orchestra. A few years later, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Luening, Ussachevsky, and Milton Babbit established the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Edgard Varse, although underappreciated in his time, is now recognized as one of the most deeply influential composers of his eraspanning the time before, during, and after the origins of electronic music. Born in Paris in 1883, he was educated in France and Italy, came to the United States in 1915, and settled in New York City. He was brilliant,
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undoubtedly, but was reputed to be a nonconformist and a rebel. Although Varse studied with luminaries like Schoenberg and Busoni, he approached his work more from an engineering perspective, following scientific principles rather than preconceived conventions of tonality and form. When the Phillips Corporation commissioned the famous French architect Le Corbusier to design the Phillips Pavilion for the 1958 Worlds Fair in Brussels, he demanded that Varse be hired to compose the music for the pavilion. Company directors wanted a safe and well-known composer like Aaron Copeland, and continually protested and demanded concessions from Varse. Le Corbusier more than once threatened to withdraw from the project unless Varses music was left uncompromised and used as the composer intended. Varses finished work for the Worlds Fair, entitled Poeme Electronique, was played from tape through more than 400 loudspeakers, and was heard by over two million people before the exhibit was dismantled at the conclusion of the 1958 Worlds Fair. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, technology and musicianship have combined to create new instruments and whole new styles and genres of music. As quickly as they could be found or invented, new instruments and devices, new sounds, techniques, and forms have been created, studied, and put to use in academic and artistic circles around the world. Still, the composers and musicians who saw electronic music through its infancy had difficult roles to play in their own time and place. Their music sounded like nothing that came before it, and was often interpreted by more conservative thinkers as an
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attack, or at least an insult, to the sensibilities of audiences who knew little else but the Classical Western repertoire. Some audiences protested or even became violent. While doing important and ground-breaking work, composers like Cage, Varse, and Stockhausen were often met with scrutiny, debate, and ridicule from traditionalists and critics. The continuing evolution of electronic music was only made possible by the insight, hard work, and determination of its forefathers--namely the engineers and musicians of the early twentieth century. These individuals, either by choice or by fortune, found themselves derided by some as hacks or fools, but appreciated in their own time by many others, and are remembered subsequently as artistic pioneers, rebels, and iconoclasts. Today the overwhelming majority of music is produced, recorded, or reproduced, at least in part, through some arrangement of analog circuits, digital electronics, computers, or magnetic storage, and therefore owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the inventors and innovators who made these technological advances possible.

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Russcol, Herbert. The Liberation of Sound: An Introduction to Electronic Music. Englewood Cliffs,

NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Sear, Walter. The New World of Electronic Music. New York: Alfred Publishing, 1972.

Trythall, Gilbert. Principles and Practice of Electronic Music. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973.

Wright, Craig, and Bryan Simms. Music in Western Civilization, Vol. 2. Belmont, CA: Thomson

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