A History of Electronic Music (Part 4)
Avant-garde jazz, Rock and Roll, Fender Stratocaster, hippies, Jimi Hendrix to Beatles and beyond...
The developments in 'avant-garde' music began to find their way into jazz in the early sixties. In 1962 Bob James, a jazz pianist-composer, prepared tapes for use with Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma. In Robert Ashley's 'The Wolf-man', a six minute tape collage is played simultaneously with a straightforward jazz blues piece. The tape contains speech modulated by racing-car motors, often to the point of distortion. It is faded in and out during the performance and frequently covers the trio's playing.
Another jazz musician who combined instruments with tape pieces was George Russell. Although he was probably best known for his book 'The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation'. The book, a theoretical study which predicted the shift from chord changes to scales or modes as a basis of jazz improvisation, paved the way for the so-called 'third stream' music. This music is noted for its absence of a constant rhythmic pulse, and is exemplified in the works of Russell, Charlie Mingus, Gunther Schuller and Ran Blake.
Comparable, although less sophisticated, use of tape manipulation appeared in a few isolated examples of rock/pop music as early as 1957. David Seville produced the 'Chipmunk Song' by overdubbing his own voice with speeded up versions, to derive four-part harmonies.
At about that time 'rock and roll' was born out of 'rhythm and blues' and it invariably used tape echo or reverberation, used previously by such luminaries as Otto Luening (e.g. in 'Fantasy in Space'). As well as tape-echo, rock and roll bands tended to use amplified instruments, particularly the electric guitar. The most popular being the Fred Tavares designed Stratocaster. The Fender company also developed, slightly later, the electric bass.
With the continued development of amplification and pick-ups, bands began to experiment with the use of feedback and sustain. Most notable of these were the 'Velvet Underground'. Their line-up included organ, electric guitar, electric bass, percussion and indeed an electric viola, as well as vocalist Lou Reed. In 1965, Andy Warhol asked them to perform in his sex and drug orientated multi-media show, 'Exploding Plastic Inevitable'.
Their lyrics were sung over an accompaniment of feedback, distortion and rock solid drumming courtesy of Maureen Tucker. Songs such as 'Heroin', 'European Son' and 'Run Run Run' used these effects to the extreme1. The late guitarist Jimi Hendrix used similar electronic techniques in his trio. Many of the effects used previously in studios were now available as "black boxes" enabling guitarists in particular to filter, distort and modulate their sound. Although the guitar was one of the first instruments to be treated this way, various players such as Eddie Harris and Miles Davis went on to use them to transform the sound of the saxophone and trumpet respectively.
Whilst the Velvets and Jimi Hendrix were based in New York, a revolution was taking place in San Francisco and especially in an area known as Haight Ashbury. Until 1965 rock and roll bands played hit records, wore matching uniforms and tried to get a recording contract. These ideas were ignored by one George Hunter, who neither sang nor played an instrument, but conceived a band of existentialists, 'The Charlatans'. After one out of town gig they returned to Haight-Ashbury to find themselves stars amongst the new generation of pot-smoking LSD eating Hippies. Thus was born the sound of San Francisco. Within a year or two San Francisco gave birth to several notable bands, like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company and arguably the best of them all, Grateful Dead.
They were folkies, with the exception of one avant-garde electronic music drop-out. Soon after getting 'electrified' the Dead became involved with novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. They attended Acid Test LSD parties and soon became the most notable acid existentialists on the scene.
They had a reputation for playing endless versions of 'In the Midnight Hour' which went on until everybody decided to stop at the same time. However, out of this chaos came some of the most influential music of the mid-sixties. The Dead treated feedback with a subtlety not seen before in rock music. They treated texture and instrumental colour as compositional elements. One of their best numbers, 'Darkstar'3, was full of smooth, gradual timbral alterations. In the piece 'Feedback' the techniques were extended to include flute-like oscillator and bell sonorities; noise masses; simulated ring modulation and tape reversal; all produced from feedback regulation.
In Britain the Grateful Dead's counterpart were Soft Machine, and although they called their music avant-garde jazz, they found rock audience most receptive. They had appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1968 and used many of the effects employed by the Dead. They were also one of the first British bands to work with a light show.
As well as the use of live electronics, rock bands had begun to use tape transformations in the studio. The most notable of these recordings was the Beatles' 'Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band'4. 'A Day in the Life', for example, included tape reversal and transposition loops as well as extensive splicing. Their next album 'Magical Mystery Tour' (1967), also incorporated tape reversal of both instruments and voices in 'Flying' and 'Blue Jay Way'. Both these albums influenced the production of the Rolling Stones, 'Their Satanic Majesties Request' being recorded in the same year (1967). The Stones used techniques on this album which they were not able to use in a live situation and consequently some of this music was only available on record.
The Grateful Dead made a more elaborate use of electronics on their album 'Anthem of the Sun'. They often performed with a pre-recorded tape and, despite the complexities of the transformations, were able to perform these pieces outside of the recording studio. Other bands instrumental in the evolution of a new rock style were Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and British band Pink Floyd. Zappa's interest developed after his purchase of a recording studio in California, and is shown to great effect on 'Uncle Meat'5. Pink Floyd, as well as employing the usual range of accepted effects of that time, isolated individual sounds on one or other of the stereo channels and then moved them to the other channel. A collaboration between Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and Ron Gessin resulted in the soundtrack for the film 'The Body', which utilised practically all of the techniques mentioned so far.
The bands mentioned used tape and effects as part of their overall sound, but to composer Steve Reich the tape recorder was his instrument. His composition 'Come Out'6 was derived from tape loops of the phrase 'come out', repeated against itself for some twelve minutes. During the first thirty seconds the phrase remains in unison with its counterpart and the listener becomes aware of its pitch, rhythm and noise formants. Gradually the piece is characterised by temporal separation of the two channels, resulting in phasing. This amazing transformation emphasises various rhythmic patterns and the process is repeated with new loops created from the previous transposition. And finally the process is repeated yet again.
One other performer who is known for his extensive use of tape recorders is Terry Riley, an American. He used a system of tape delays to play at all night concerts in New York. By setting up delays he was able to play mesmerising motifs of great complexity by himself. His recorded works became popular with rock fans as well as lovers of the avant-garde - particularly his work 'Rainbow in Curved Air'7.
Although we have seen in previous parts of this History of Electronic Music that synthesisers were being employed by the avant-garde, they did not make in roads into rock music until a decade or so later. The first American band to employ the synthesiser were the 'United States of America'. Led by Joseph Byrd who was formerly organiser of the UCLA New Music Workshop, USA used a custom designed Byrd-Durrell synthesiser, as well as the 'foot pedals' used by the contemporaries Grateful Dead, and Mothers of Invention. They even ring-modulated their voices, a novelty for rock audiences. Within a year, however, they had disbanded and left behind just two albums.8,9 Without a doubt, Byrds compositional training and awareness of the works of Stockhausen, Cage et al, made the 'United States of America' an unusual band in rock music at that time. Similar influences and awareness have contributed to more recent developments in the rock medium. The work carried out by the British Broadcasting Corporation's Radiophonic Workshop also influenced many British rock groups and composers. Next month I will look at their contribution to the world of electronic music.
(1) The Velvet Underground with Nico. Verve 6-5008
(2) Jimi Hendrix Experience. Rep. 6281
(3) Live Dead. War. 1830
(4) Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club. Cap. SMAS-2653
(5) Uncle Meat. Biz.2MS-2024
(6) Come Out. CBS 3216 0160
(7) Rainbow in Curved Air. CB 64564
(8) The United States of America. CBS 63340
(9) Metaphysical Circus. COL. MS 7317
Feature by Derek Pierce