A History Of Electronic Music (Part 2)
As we have seen in the previous issue, by 1930 virtually all the prerequisites for the realisation of electronic music had been satisfied. However, although useful at first, the wire-recorder and the phonograph were soon superceded by the arrival of the tape recorder in 1935. Known as the 'Magnetophone', this first tape recorder allowed much greater 'sonorous transformation'. For instance it was now possible to alternate between various sound sources by splicing together pieces of tape. One other technique was also to prove very accommodating — the ability to overdub. These and variations in speed during playback and/or recording opened up a whole new world of sound and compositional possibilities. At this time, film-making was also to become more creative in its use of sound. Film-makers began to use sound effects and electronic music in their films. Amongst them a Mexican, Carlos Chavez, advocated the synthesis of all art forms via film. He saw the potential of using elaborate mixing desks, as well as dubbing, and filtering, for the production of film sound-track.
By 1939 his and other experiments had reached New York and Hollywood. At that time a Canadian film-maker living in New York, Norman McLaren, developed a form of optical sound-track by drawing or scratching on to the film. This was further developed by the Whitney Brothers, but because they wanted to retain the synchronisation between sound and image they were forced to work at slow speeds. However, in order to avoid sub-audible frequencies on playback, they speeded up the film. This speeding up changed the timbral qualities of the sound. A technique used much later by Stockhausen in the work 'Kontakte'(1).
Following the appearance of the tape recorder, primitive synthesisers began to appear. The most significant of these were built by Percy Grainger and Burnett Cross.
Later a collaboration between Grainger, Cross, and fellow American J. M. Hanert, produced a synthesiser which employed eight oscillators that could be accurately synchronised. Hanert's synthesiser used punchcards, as opposed to the paper rolls of the earlier machines. From this time onward, at least until the 1970s, America was to the fore in developing the synthesiser for commercial use.
Of course, all these technological developments were inevitably to have an effect on the realisation of new music. And in 1944 a broadcasting engineer working for RTF in Paris — Pierre Schaffer — was the first person to present a concert of sound effects and everyday noises composed entirely for magnetic tape. This new music was to be called 'Musique Concrète'. A year later he was to establish the first centre for tape composition with a young French composer, Pierre Henry.
At first they treated familiar sounds such as voice, trains, wind, piano and later amplified sounds, including creaking doors, sighs, etc. Pierre Schaffer's first composition was a concert of locomotive sounds entitled 'Etude aux Chemin de Fer'. It was, in fact, little more than sounds usually associated with trains or to use the parlance of painters, a study in 'traininess'. Although a modest little piece, it occupies a special place in musical history. It was significant on several accounts. First, the act of musical composition was accomplished by a technological means. Second, it could be played repeatedly in precisely the same manner. Third, its playing was not reliant on a human performer; and fourth, the basic elements were 'concrete' (not ephemeral) and thus required a different mode of listening from that employed in perceiving abstract music.
Within the next five years, 'Musique Concrète' was to attract musicians of the stature of Messiaen, Milhaud, Boulez and Stockhausen.
Some of the more important pieces to emerge during this period include 'Vocalise' by Pierre Henry, Messiaen's 'Timbres — Durées', and Boulez's 'Etudes I and II sur un son'. Listening closely to 'Vocalise' we are able to hear some of the tape manipulations available. For instance the variation of speed, both of recording and playback was very popular with Henry, and indeed 'Vocalise' begins with a clear pronunciation of the syllable 'Ah'. It is then transformed by replaying the tape at a higher speed. It then sounds like chirping birds. When it is slowed down, it resembles the roar of lions. By splicing both these and other effects, Henry was able to give the piece rhythm. This together with overdubbing also enabled him to vary the texture between one and several voices. Although only 2½ minutes long, its use of minimal sound sources would have been inconceivable without the use of the tape recorder, and it thus established the tape recorder as a compositional tool.(2)
The voice was a popular sound source, and a little later (1958) Luciano Berio employed part of the text of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' in his piece 'Thema'. Berio's use of this text was prompted by the sonorous nature of the text itself. It makes use of such onomatopoeiac(3) words as hiss, smack, and trilling. Having begun with an unaltered statement of the basic material, it is then altered over a period of six minutes by various tape manipulations and filtering.
All the pieces mentioned so far were realised at RTF Paris. During the early 50s, however, other studios were set up, usually by radio stations, and they all encouraged composers to use their facilities. Of these new studios the Columbia studio, later to merge with the Rockerfeller-financed Princeton University studio, became very well known. Founded by composers Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening in 1952, it has been used by composers from over twenty countries. The first works to emerge were realised using the piano as a sole sound source. The most important of these was probably 'Sonic Contours'. The piano is modified in the usual ways and also by the simultaneous mixing of sounds, thus retaining the fidelity which was often lost during overdubbing. Ussachevsky presented this and other pieces at a concert in New York on May 9th 1952.
Otto Luening also played some pieces at the same concert, including 'Fantasy in Space', a piece built upon a simple melody played on the flute; it features echo and reverberation derived from multiple head tape decks. Its similarity to Ussachevsky's pieces led not surprisingly to their collaboration on a piece entitled 'Incantation'.
The results of these collaborations, as well as the works of other composers, influenced many German researchers and musicians, who tackled the possibilities of further exploration with typical Teutonic thoroughness. A collaboration between Werner Meyer-Eppler, Robert Beyer and the composer Herbert Eimert was broadcast in October 1951. It featured the 'Sound-world of music created on a melochord'. After encouraging reviews they decided to establish the Cologne studio. It was originally directed by Eimert, and later Karl-Heinz Stockhausen.
Although most of the composers who used the studio were followers of the Schoenberg-Webern tone row approach to composition, Stockhausen and his colleagues were more concerned with creating pure electronic music than transforming existing sounds. Stockhausen thus looked forward to the synthesis of any sound from pure frequencies. He first attempted this in his 'Studie I' (1953). It failed to some degree, but later (1955-6) he used both electronically generated sounds plus that of a boy's voice in his 'Gesang der Jünglinge'). This was much more successful and effected a fusion between opposed extremes — i.e. natural and synthesised sound. By using several banks of speakers he was able to move the sounds around in space (an idea later used by Boulez in his 'Poesie pour pouvoir' for electronic sounds and spirally disposed orchestra).
Meanwhile, in America, Varèse — who had been pressing for various electronic means of producing sound — received his first tape recorder, and by 1954 realised 'Deserts' for tape and orchestra. It was not until much later, he was in fact in his seventies, that he created one of the masterpieces of music on tape. This piece, 'Poeme Electronique'(5), was commissioned by Philips for their pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Exhibition. It was played via a multispeaker set up in a building designed by Le Corbusier. The piece combines the sounds of solo soprano and chorus, with totally new sounds.
Despite the progress of electronic music, it was often criticised on the grounds that its sounds were dead, and indeed in some respects they were. They lacked the subtle changes which always take place when a performer is involved — i.e. variations in pitch, tone, rhythm and tempo. This criticism was often countered or pre-empted by the use of a live element in the music. The total organisation and the ability to precisely define complex sounds needed to be countered by some outside influence. Composers needed to get away from, on the one hand the inflexibility of serial composition, and on the other the free play of the imagination which could so easily lead to incoherence.
The answer was 'Chance' music — or 'aleatory music'. One man's influence played a large part in the use of 'Chance'. His name was John Cage. He defined 'Chance' as 'a choice between defined parameters'. His association with New York visual artists Jackson Pollock and Alexander Calder led to what Earle Brown was later to call 'the creative function of non-control' — in other words 'indeterminacy at the level of form' — a good example of this being Earle Brown's 'Twenty-five Pages'. Twenty-five sheets of musical material are arranged in any order by the player or players, giving 'chance' within defined parameters. The piece is then performed as read.
Cage later expanded the idea further, so that he was not aware of the outcome himself. His Variations series (1958-1968) shows this attitude. Its notation is extremely enigmatic, or else non-existent. When combined with film, television images and lighting etc. they were, in fact, the forerunners of 'mixed media' happenings, popular in the late sixties and early seventies, particularly in America and Germany.
This use of chance in music is, of course, destroyed once a piece is committed to tape or disc. Various ways around this have been suggested — for instance instructions with regard to altering the listening level, balance, tone controls, have been issued with records. One other way around this was to construct the music in such a way that there is too much to perceive in one listening, and this perception changes with the individual's mood. The listening experience itself then becomes aleatory. Many pieces of music exploited this 'aural illusion', none more so than the music of Steve Reich. Its extremely repetitive nature simulates 'false' perceptions analagous to those produced by the paintings of Bridget Riley. The mind is mesmerized by repetition and small motifs leap out of the music with a distinctness quite unrelated to their acoustic importance. Stockhausen also used this technique in his later works, including 'Stimmung' (Tuning 1968). Possibly the most widely known composer to use this fascinating, if not maddening, technique is Terry Riley, particularly in his 'In C'(6).
The use of chance and/or repetition did much to make electronic music more listenable. The techniques of tape manipulation, together with the use of chance and repetition, however, were probably surpassed by the development of one instrument — the Synthesiser.
In 1955 RCA demonstrated the Olson-Belar Sound Synthesiser. It was capable of imitating existing instruments, as well as previously unheard of sounds. Its subsequent purchase by Princeton University enabled Otto Luening to collaborate with Belarto produce his 'Synthesis for Orchestra and Electronic Sound'(7). In 1959 the RCA Synthesiser Mk II was installed at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre. This Mk II version was developed with the help of Professor Milton Babbitt. Its sound sources included saw-tooth and white noise generators, as well as inputs for microphones, tape recorders, etc. Some of the available modification devices included amplitude modulator, filters, 16 mixing amps, glissandi controls, and various resonators.
The design of the synthesiser dictated to some degree the character of the music produced, and Babbitt's melodic and rhythmic motifs could be easily obtained on the Mk II instrument.
We will see the importance of the synthesiser in the forthcoming parts of this series, and also look at some earlier works for synthesiser.
(1) Kontakte: D.GG 138811.
(2) Vocalise: Pierre Henry. DUC-9.
(3) Onomatopoeia: Words which sound like that which they describe.
(4) Song of the Youths: D.GG 138811.
(5) Poeme Electronique: Col. Ms 6146.
(6) Terry Riley 'In C': Recorded on CBS 61237. This was reviewed in E&MM August 1981 with another work 'Shri Camel' (CBS 73929).
Feature by Derek Pierce
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