The Contemporary Classical Music Weekly
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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
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.
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.
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.