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A Beginner Guide to Electronic Music

by C. Bryan Rulon

Any attempt at this subject has to be very, well... subjective. After nearly 50 years of music written specifically for the electronic medium (not to mention the fact that all recorded music is electronic), the sheer quantity, to say nothing of quality, of works considered could not be adequately covered here or anywhere. But, for the “absolute beginner” I’ll point out some landmarks and some of my favorites.
    Milton Babbitt once said that even a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is electronic music. So it’s hard to believe that anyone hasn’t experienced the medium. Those who regularly attend live performances might be acutely aware of this effect that Mr. Babbitt speaks of. 
   And this is no small matter. How we experience music, both individually and collectively, is highly dependent on its context. Imagine the fact that until the rise of the middle class in Europe during the Industrial Revolution (ca.1800’s around the time of Beethoven) music was almost if not absolutely always functional. It accompanied some occasion or ritual and was not experienced as an event to sit down and listen to for its own sake. Now we find ourselves in the curious position that music, when listened to for its own sake, is more often than not disembodied, emanating from boxes wired to amplifiers and CD players and hence electronic (or, perhaps more to the point, electronically reproduced).
   This raises the question: do we experience the music vicariously as a simulacra or representation of  the live performance situation or is there an essential paradigm shift in the listening of (electronic) music?
    This question is perhaps ancillary to my task of a beginners guide but one which is important and engaging. During my stint as a grad student at Princeton we spent not a small amount of time discussing if, when listening to a computer music work, there was a difference between hearing a digital recording of it or hearing it directly pumped out of the computer! Perhaps (and this is my take) the difference is one of psychology or even sociology than acoustics. But when composers began to create music purely for the electronic medium, this was no small question. To jump into the stream of history inevitably rents the fabric (to mix a metaphor) so, like the cutting the first piece of a beautifully decorated cake, I’ll begin and try to pepper (yuch!) the pieces with historical context as I present them.

The Early Days

The earliest, purely electronic music was centered in three areas in the mid 50’s: Paris with Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer, Cologne with Karlheinz Stockhausen and at the Columbia-Princeton Music Center in New York with Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening. From a historical stand point, each of these centers were working on distinctly different aspects of this new medium.
    The Paris school engaged in what is known as musique concrete. This entailed recordings of “real world” sounds that were manipulated with the possible techniques of the time using magnetic tape. These techniques are well known and easily accessible to anyone who has a computer and sound manipulation capabilities today. They were:
1) basically tape manipulation - transposition -speeding up or slowing down the tape machine or playing the tape backwards,
2) reverb which at the time was a spring or metal plate, and
3) splicing. Lord! did they splice! Their aesthetic task was to find the idiosyncrasies of this new medium. This was helped along by the general movement of the Modernist era in which they lived. New sound possibilities and how to structure them was in the air and a major concern. Consider that John Cage’s music was becoming known in Europe. Also, the use of percussion and its emphasis on new timbres (the color or special spectral characteristics) had been growing in importance over the 20th Century (Edgard Varese, et al.). 

I can’t say that the music from this time and place is all that interesting as a purely musical experience - certainly not to me here and now. But someone had to start somewhere; it was in the purest sense experimental. There exists somewhere historical recordings of Henry, Schaffer, Luc Ferrari et al. if one is interested but these are crude first attempts at finding their way. No one today wants to commute to work in a Model T Ford or take a cross country trip in an ox drawn covered wagon. It’s probably not desirable and maybe not even possible. These early attempts are museum-like curiosities but they are the forerunners of much of today’s computer music (more on that later).

From Sound to Music

The first concrete work that could probably be seen as being actually poetic was “Poem Electronique” by Edgard Varese.  It was composed (assembled) in 1958 for the Phillips Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair in collaboration with architect Le Corbusier and demonstrates the classic techniques of music concrete.
   In Cologne, Stockhausen was working with sine wave generators rather than sounds recorded from the real world. His impulse was an extension of that substantial group of composer looking for a higher or tighter control of materials. Again (and ironically), I can’t recommend the musicality of these efforts but half a generation later with the first attempts at purely computer generated sound, Charles Wuornien created “Time’s Enconium”  usingthe then new Mark IV computer at the Columbia- Princeton Music Center seems to be one of the earliest stabs at purely synthesized music that holds some interest. Stockhausen went on to work with a hybrid of electronically generated sounds and concrete techniques producing the haunting and beautiful tape piece “Gesang der Junglinge” (Song of the Young Men; 1956).
    Finally, from the 3-prong historical stand point, was the work at the Columbia-Princeton Center by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachefsky. They rather eclectically mixed  concerte, synthesized and, most importantly, live instrumentalists. This use of the live performer addressed or attenuated the problematic aspect of the disembodied sound of purely taped music. The musical output is questionable in my opinion, but again, in the 1950’s, it was a starting point. Some of the works that still have some poetic interest
today are Milton Babbitt’s “Philomel” (for soprano and tape; 1964) and Mario Davidovsy’s series of “Syncronisms for various solo instruments (Violin, Flute, Piano) and tape.
    In Europe, works that employed live instrumentalist and tape abound. Some of the interesting early works here are from Luciano Berio working with his then wife, soprano virtuoso Cathy Berbarian. These include “Omaggio d’Joyce”, et al. Also, cheating on the definition a bit, Olivier Messiaen early on employed the Onde Martenot, an electronic keyboard (more like an electronic organ) with glissando capabilities. Messiaen’s works “ The Turangalila Symphony” and “Three Petite Liturgies” make particularly effective use of this instrument.

Evolution, Not Revolution

So, having done a great injustice to the hundreds of composers and performers working early in the field of electronic music, I want to make a point. To a large degree, the medium of electronics was as much an extension of musical trends of the time as a break through into new aesthetic areas.
   The entire history (still being written) of Modernism is a great tumbling forward towards the new. The works by composers using this new medium reflect both the discovery of a “new, seemingly virtual instrument” and the abilities and talents of the composers involved as well as the time, place, school and style of those composers.
    In coming issues of Sequenza21/, I’ll focus on various periods and schools of electronic music as well as the rising use of computers which now dominate the scene. I’ll also be speaking of how this new medium has inter-penetrated the non-electronic music of our day and how electronic music has altered our listening habits - culturally, socially and psychologically.