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A History of Electronic Music (Part 1)

Article from Electronics & Music Maker, December 1981

Part 1 looks at the early growth of this vitally important area of music today.

To understand the recent revolutions in music it is necessary to examine previous ones.

The year 1900 was not only the beginning of a new century, but of a clearly defined cultural era as well. Early in the twentieth century the world had largely absorbed the implications of Max Planck's 'Quantum Theory', Freud's 'Interpretation of Dreams' and Einstein's 'Theory of Relativity'. The art world had been torn apart by the emergence of Cubism, and Kandinsky had painted the first non-representational picture. Frank Lloyd Wright revolutionised architecture, and Ezra Pound arrived in Italy. Technology produced the first motion picture theatre, as well as the Model T Ford cars, and the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight.

These, and other artistic developments, had come about as a gradual process. For example, the definition of music had been extended progressively from the Pythagorean concept of harmony (500 BC) to the natural music as defined by Regino. Francis Bacon mentioned 'sound houses' as places where all sounds exist as early as 1627, in 'The New Atlantis'.

The technological advances mentioned earlier, as well as others, gave rise to various new instruments: for example, in 1550 a mechanical organ with over 150 pipes was built. Later, 1555 saw the emergence of the 'Archicembalo', a keyboard instrument which divided the octave into 31 steps. It pre-dated the micro-tonal concept of music by several centuries.

As well as technological advances, research was being undertaken everywhere. The work of Herman Helmholtz — particularly his 'On the Sensations of Sound as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music', published in 1862 — provided plenty of avenues for theoreticians to explore. A French scientist, Joseph Sauveur, formulated many acoustical theories. Unquestionably the most important of these was the discovery of the 'overtone' series(1). He also researched into the aural perception of micro-tonal intervals. Other theorists left us with many notable achievements, including the work of Rameau(2), Oplet(3), and Drobisch(4).

One major advance, however, enabled the initial experiments of electronic music to get under way. It was the work of Alexander Graham Bell. He was responsible for the electrical transmission, storage and reproduction of sound, in 1876. Within a decade we had Berliner's telephone, and Edison's phonograph.

Running parallel to this technological revolution was an artistic one. The need to leave the tonal system that had been in existence since the 17th century was beginning to show in the works of the Romanticists. Several early Modernist composers challenged the established language of music, including Wagner, Debussy and Charles Ives.

The first important musician to concern himself with what Edgard Varese was later to call the 'liberation of sound' was Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924). Born of German/Italian parents, he lived mostly in Berlin. He made his name as a controversial arranger of the works of Bach. As a conductor, however, he was responsible for introducing the new music of Debussy, Faure, Sibelius and Bartok to the Berliners. His home was the gathering place for many young artists, and his remarkable foresight made him extremely popular with these young people. His realisation that 'Music was born free and to reach freedom is its destiny'(5) was an inspiration to many.

Contemporary with Busoni was the formation of the Italian Futurist Movement, founded by Filipo Marinetti. Its manifesto initiated a series of events which influenced composers such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. It stated that '...a roaring motor car was more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace'. It suggested that the music of the period should echo 'the age of the aeroplane, etc'.

The futurists were an avant garde of writers, painters and musicians who professed radical theories about all of the arts, including painting, sculpture, dance, music and the cinema. The glorification of machines, speed, strength, and the destruction of all things past — particularly monuments of a historical nature — created a lot of unrest.

This turbulent atmosphere was later exploited by Mussolini and the Fascists. Primary correspondences between Futurism and Fascism included the abolition of the monarchy and the advocacy of war. However, the growth of the Futurist Movement was hindered by both economic and political unrest created by the First World War.

One of the more important members of this movement was Luigi Russolo. Although primarily a painter, he was an advocate of what is today referred to as 'music from found sources' — i.e. the use of noise. He went as far as to produce a 'mechanical' noise instrument known as the 'Intonaramori'.

He also devised a system of notation in which a horizontal line was used to signify duration, as is still used today. Russolo's first 'art of noises' concert was held in Milan on April 21st 1914, and used the 'Intonaramori' as well as horns and megaphones. The last Futurist manifesto 'Futurist Radiophonic Theatre' mentioned concepts which are today commonplace in electronic music: for example, the amplification of normally inaudible sounds, and the use of 'brain waves' as a source of sound. Most Futurist works appeared between 1910 and the mid-1920s. They combined various art forms, including theatre, painting and dance. Russolo continued his experiments until 1930, eventually losing interest and leaving behind most of his machines in Paris, where they were later destroyed in the war.

The Futurist Movement was not, however, the only inspiration for composers of 'machine music'. An American, George Antheil, for instance, composed and performed his 'Ballet Mécanique'(6) using sounds derived from car horns, airplane propellers, saws and anvils. The notes on the sleeve of the recording referred to have this to say about it: 'Ballet Mécanique is a new aesthetic in music. If one has a mind to understand it, let him listen with new ears, as he must look at new architecture with new eyes. Rhythmically, aesthetically, materially and constructively, I feel aligned with our modern life.' George Antheil.

"Music was born free and to reach freedom is its destiny."
Ferrucio Busoni

As well as 'Ballet Mécanique', a ballet by the Russian composer Alexander Mosolov, entitled 'Steel' was one of the most celebrated pieces of music in this field. The works of Edgard Varèse profited tremendously by the futurists delight in 'urban noise'.

Edgard Varese.

Varese was responsible for 'Ionisation'(7), the first Western percussion-only piece — apart from some folk music. It was said at the time to 'have an impact like a sock on the jaw'.

Edgard Varèse later wrote 'I am no longer able to compose for old instruments. I am handicapped by the lack of adequate electrical instruments for which I can conceive my music'. Varese conceived music which existed in space; he heard music in three dimensions. He struggled on composing music which was inevitably played on conventional instruments, but it was not until much later that he was hailed as the 'Father of Electronic Music'. Meanwhile, the Bauhaus, founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius, was also comparable to many aspects of Futurism. Although concerned primarily with the visual arts, there was one exception, the theatre. Theatre enabled the use of syntactic and semantic modification, in addition to the musical and other sounds used.

One director, Oskar Schlemmer, preempted the 'free dance' to be found much later in history in his 'Gesture Dance'. Three actors coordinate their movements with sounds produced by an undirected group of musicians using gongs, timpani and a fanfare played on a phonograph.

In a later work, 'Man and Art Figure' (1924), Schlemmer explored further the possibilities of sonorous transformation. In this work he specified the use of various kinds of technological equipment. He probably meant equipment such as the Theremin, or devices that produced sound from oscillators. The latter of these had been developed by Lee De Forest in 1915. The oscillator produced sound waves electronically, and although now transistorised, it still remains the basis of the modern synthesiser. The Theremin is also an oscillator, but its frequency is controlled by distance of the operator's hand from its antenna. The Theremin was used as late as 1966, by 'Lothar and the Hand People'(8) — Lothar being the nickname of the Theremin. It also makes an appearance on the Beach Boys 'Good Vibrations' single of 1966.

As well as the work of the Bauhaus movement and Futurism, one other group of artists, known as the Dadaists, shaped the future of electronic music — although not an artistic movement, but rather a state of mind. It was summarised by Andre Breton: 'Dada is a state of mind... Dada is artistic free-thinking... Dada gives itself to nothing'. Several of its members worked with the Futurists, and Bauhaus artists. Tzara, for instance, had been in contact with Marinetti; Ball had worked with Kandinsky. Dadaism spread as far as New York, and was revealed in the works of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Max Ernst. Its (Dadaism's) use of collage, chance, and simultaneity, appear in the works of John Cage, György Ligeti, and Pierre Henry, as well as many other electronic music compositions.

It will be seen that modern electronic music's concept and indeed realisation goes back a long way. The period from 1876 to 1930 laid the basis of much of our present-day electronic music, as well as the basic technology that we now take for granted. By the 1930s virtually all the pre-requisites for the realisation of electronic music had been satisfied. Scientific advances had been so numerous, that Joseph Schillinger had compiled a survey of them by 1931. A year later Leopold Stokowski published a special 'New Horizons in Music' which called on scientists and musicians to work together.

Next month I will look at the period 1930 to 1960. I have listed several references which are worth checking out.

References and Discography

(1) Système General Intervalles des Sons, et son application à tous a Systèmes et à tous les Instrument de Musique (1701)

(2) Rameau's Traité de l'Harmonie Reduite à ses Principes Naturels (1722); Noveau Systeme de. Musique Theorique (1726); Generation Harmonique (1737) Code de Musique Pratique (1760).

(3) Oplet — Allegemeine Theorie of Musik (subdivision of 22 and 43 per octave).

(4) Drobisch. (Further division of the octave into 43 and 74 intervale.) (5) 'Sketch of a New Aesthetic' (1907) New York, Dover Publications, 1962.

(6) Ballet Mécanique. CBS. AML 4956.

(7) 'Ionisation' and 'Poeme Electronique' by Edgard Varèse. Columbia MS6146.

(8) Lothar and the Hand People. Capitol SM 2997 (Re-issue)

Series - "History of Electronic Music"

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All parts in this series:

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

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Rick Wakeman in 1984

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Bio Music

Publisher: Electronics & Music Maker - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Electronics & Music Maker - Dec 1981


Composing / Art

History / Culture


History of Electronic Music

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

Feature by Derek Pierce

Previous article in this issue:

> Rick Wakeman in 1984

Next article in this issue:

> Bio Music

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