by Andy Mackay
Published by Phaidon
The idea of a saxophonist in a rock band like Roxy Music producing a colourful and informative book on electronic music would not be everyone's idea of a logical move, but that is Andy Mackay's background and what he has done with this book. The first section, 'The Instruments', takes the reader through the development of electronic (or, more strictly, electric) instruments, from Thaddeus Cahill's extraordinary Telharmonium — a monstrous device using a 200 HP motor to drive a 60ft shaft of rotating cogged wheels — up to computer-based instruments like the Fairlight CMI. This is well done, though I wish the publishers had seen fit to include a flexidisc with the book to illustrate what the instruments actually sounded like. Mackay is on the right track by relating experiments in alternative sound generation to the elaboration of tone colour in late 19th century orchestration, but he misses the point that this was also due to a desire to explore the upper reaches of the harmonic series, i.e., where Western tonality stops and ¼-tone 'sound fields' start. At the end of this section comes an 8-page chunk (about 10% of the book's main text) on the modern recording studio with plentiful photos featuring Mackay 'in session'. This seems out of place. It would have been more to the point to show an early electronic studio, such as that at Cologne Radio, and then, at a later stage in the book, provide the contrast of the rock studio.
'The Classic Studio' gives a brief consideration of acoustics and synthesis, as well as the musique concrète techniques initiated by Pierre Schaeffer at the RTF studios in Paris and typified by his Etude aux Casseroles — based on the sound of saucepan lids! 'The Synthesiser' includes a concise (though not 100% accurate) explanation of Moog's innovation of voltage control and takes the Prophet 5 as an example (surprise, surprise) of a "sophisticated polyphonic machine", but, curiously, no mention is made of the role of microprocessors in such programmable synthesisers. 'Live Electronics' discusses the work of oddballs like Percy Grainger (including his 1948 'Free Music Machine'), philosophical luminaries like Cage and Stockhausen, and enlightened choreographers like Merce Cunningham to integrate the 'new music' into multi-media performance. This is an interesting section ending with the highly perceptive comment that "a melancholy extension of the idea of a sound environment is the piped Muzak which replaces bad drains as the pervasive nuisance of industrialised society".
The second section, 'The Music', considers the application of the instruments and techniques discussed in the first. Separating the music from the instrument is always dangerous and, in the case of musique concrète, stochastic techniques, or whatever, doubly so as one is by definition the other. This section would have made more sense if musical examples had been included in the text (and on disc) — not necessarily those limited to conventional notation but also including the various attempts by Schaeffer, Stockhausen, Messiaen and Ligeti, to mention but a few, to notate the sound fields of electroacoustic scores. As it is, Mackay's discussion, though intelligent and informative, offers little in the way of concrete evidence of innovation, and falls into a cosy pattern of critical cliches. There's also a large amount of repetition of information between the first and second sections which I frankly found annoying, and not to be expected in a book "which looks set to become an authority on the subject", according to the publicity blurb accompanying my review copy. 'The Business' ends this section and takes a look at the commercial applications of electronic music. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop hardly even gets a mention (a serious omission considering that it has become something of a model for many European studios) before we're back in the land of rock. Whilst it's undoubtedly true that the 'wall of sound' production techniques of Phil Spector supplied the bread and butter for a whole generation of rock musicians and producers, the debt owed is more to classical techniques of orchestration than to those of electronics per se.
The last section, 'The Musicians', consists of 50 mini-biographical entries for "important figures in the field". I'd certainly question the inclusion of at least 10 of them; would you consider Bowie, Cale, Cardew, Davies, Hendrix, Jolivet or Oldfield as having made a real, identifiable contribution to electronic music? I suppose it all comes down to whether or not one should include 'electric' musicians.
In summary, then, 'Electronic Music' is a well-written book, though a shade on the humourless side, with excellent and colourful photos to liven up the text. It should provide an excellent introduction to the subject for the novice, but it only scrapes the surface of many parts of the genre and may well frustrate the committed electro-musician.
Review by David Ellis
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