A Brief History of Electronic Music – 4 – Music 2.0

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The Ondes Martenot, the Novachord and the theremin were all astonishing in their own right, but in order to arrive at the path that would lead to the present age, two very important elements needed to manifest: the inclusion of noise as atmospheric texture in music needed to become more widespread, and a means to record musical compositions electronically needed to become available and affordable.

Once we began to record the sounds that riddle our everyday lives and incorporate them into our art, humankind crossed a threshold into undiscovered territory. Equipped with the technology that granted us this new ability, sonic artists the world over began to see that there were more possibilities for music than they had ever imagined.


From mundane noise to sonic texture


You might remember the song that I linked at the end of the previous chapter. (If not, check it out here, it’s worth a gander.) That chaotic composition was made by a man named George Antheil, an American avant-garde composer who became determined to shatter musical convention as he began his career. He was a gifted artist with a musical oeuvre that covered a wide range of styles including operas, orchestral pieces, chamber music, and more.

Antheil began playing piano when he was six years old and later went on to study it formally in Philadelphia as a teenager, but it wasn’t until he discovered Dadaism during this time that he really started to open his eyes to the endless potential that art has. I’ll explain this creative rebellion briefly since it was a major contributing factor in Antheil’s creative development.

Dada was a radical avant-garde art movement that was conceived in Zurich, Switzerland. Its enthusiasts disregarded aesthetic value and artistic tradition and instead favored a far more experimental approach. It was mostly inspired by other experimental movements like Cubism and Expressionism, but it also shared some of the ideological motivations that had fueled Futurism around a decade earlier – although its vehement anti-nationalist stance would place it at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Across Dada’s many scenes in various countries in Europe and the United States, the themes explored and the topics criticized tended to vary, but the general motivation was to chastise and attack all of the social, cultural and political factors that were believed to have built up to World War I. These particular elements were many and would be too much of a digression to discuss here, but the primary purpose of this school of thought was to make a mockery of the bourgeois values that the Dadaists felt had homogenized modern society and contributed to the unwavering collective perception of the way things ought to be. They rejected any sort of authoritarian leadership or hierarchy of any kind, and they even rejected intellect and common sense, choosing instead to make nonsensical and insane works of art to shock and upset the public.

(Click here to see a well-dressed, articulate man with a monocle introduce Dadaism to you.)

These were the aspects of Dada that resonated with Antheil, so much so that they inspired him to push music’s limits in entirely new ways.

When he was 21 he went to Europe to make a name for himself as an ultra-modern composer, and although some notable figures of music history like Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie became acquaintances of his who respected the music he created, it wasn’t so well received by the public; his frantic, dissonant and “emotionless” piano-playing style evoked such distress that, during his debut performance in Paris in 1926, it caused members of the audience to riot. They began yelling and screaming and fighting each other until the police eventually arrived to end the chaos. This would become a common occurrence at his European concerts.

Of course, Antheil, who considered himself a musical visionary, was ecstatic to receive this response. He relished the infamy; he provoked crowds as much as possible, often playing the piano so hard during performances that he would harm himself, other times casually drawing a gun and laying it gently on the piano as he played, further solidifying his “bad boy” persona. He knew that all the best modernist artists had received harsh criticism for their work, and he was now frequently in the company of artistic heavyweights like James Joyce, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, who validated his outlandish efforts by praising the compositions that the public was clearly not ready to understand.

But it wasn’t just his bizarre piano technique and unsettling stage presence that made him so controversial for his time. What really set people off was the fact that he incorporated electric buzzers, bells, sirens and even airplane propellers into his compositions, which was seen as nothing short of preposterous. Nonetheless, the idea of using noise to create textures for music was one that began to form the basis for a whole new understanding of what music truly is and can be.

Antheil’s approach was adopted by several composers that came in later years, but none were as influential as John Cage, a man that has been hailed as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Antheil was certainly a progressive thinker and his contributions were crucial, but he never ended up achieving the success he’d hoped to have as an ultra-modern composer, resorting instead to writing film scores in Hollywood for most of his life; Cage, on the other hand, remained steadfast in his dedication to composing experimental music, and as the decades passed he would see his hard work pay off as people began to hail him as a musical genius.

Cage often challenged music itself, challenged his audiences and his students to ask themselves what music really is, and most of his work is a reflection of this meditation. Perhaps his most well-known and controversial effort in questioning music’s definition was his infamous 4’33”, a piece consisting of three movements for an orchestra, in which none of the musicians play anything at all. That’s right: they sit in their chairs on a stage with their instruments, with a composer standing before them, and they remain silent for specific lengths of time.

I will let you determine how to react to that.

Aside from these experiments in approach to music, Cage was known to use all sorts of household objects and other items to create his compositions, along with radios and turntables. In the 50s he became deeply interested in the I Ching and several Asian schools of philosophical and spiritual thought, which inspired him to compose pieces where the sounds were randomized, sometimes with several radios tuned to different stations at random as a form of sonic expression. This resulted in the Imaginary Landscape No. 4, which is another of his most famous creations.

It took some time for the public to see the merit in Cage’s very unconventional work. It took time for them to realize that it wasn’t the sounds themselves (or lack thereof) that made his pieces special, it was the calculated destruction of music as it was known that made them important. And as this became understood, he was embraced as a truly gifted artist.

As you have no doubt observed, it took the kind of envelope-pushing audacity that fueled innovators like Antheil and Cage to allow electronic music to begin to blossom. The fusion of noise and music was explored further when the means to record sound electronically started to become available to the whole population.


The vast electroacoustic frontier


In reality, the technology for recording sound had existed in a primitive state as far back as the late 1890s, in the form of wire recording. This was an analog form of sound recording that was mainly used for dictation and reference purposes, although it was generally very rare.

Recording devices evolved as the decades came and went, but the most important development for music was the magnetic tape recorder, an invention that would not only change music, but film, too – thanks to this technology it became far more commercially viable for directors to made what were known as “talkies,” or movies with synchronized audio for dialogue, sound effects and score.

In terms of music composition, the tape recorder allowed for far superior recording quality than was previously available, and even allowed users to edit the recordings they made, which was a massive development. Of course, one still had to manually cut and splice pieces of tape in order to put the final edits on pieces of music, but the fact that this alone had been made possible completely revolutionized music as we know it. Before this, bands and singers had to record for gramophone records by performing together for a single take, but with the tape recorder they could record each track separately and then later combine them and mix each track individually.

In order for this technology to go into widespread use it needed a familiar face to market it; and in 1947, none other than Bing Crosby became the face and voice of tape recording, when he used it for the season premiere of “Philco Radio Time,” a show he hosted. With the growing popularity of this medium there were several rival companies struggling to be the top manufacturer, including names that are still around today, such as AEG and 3M.

In the music realm, people had been experimenting with the recording of audio several years prior to this, in another corner of the world. Before the industry began to explode in America, far across the cold, chopping waves of the Atlantic and the constantly-morphing golden dunes of the Sahara, a very creative and intelligent Egyptian man in Cairo was using a wire recorder in completely new ways. This man was Halim El-Dabh.

El-Dabh was a student of agriculture at Cairo University, a dabbling musician that played the piano and various traditional instruments as a hobby. At one point he and a friend decided to borrow a wire recorder from the university and try their hand at recording sound from the world around them, to see how they could manipulate what they caught. And of course, being college boys, instead of taking the easy route and recording people talking on the streets they obviously had to go all out and wear ritualistic head coverings to pose as women and sneak into a zaar ceremony, an ancient African healing ceremony used as a last resort to cure mental illness by purging the body of the demons that plague it.

Yes. It’s exactly what it sounds like.

El-Dabh used the wire recording device to capture some of the chanting being uttered during the ritual, and, as unbelievable as it may seem, you can listen to a fragment of this same recording right now, on YouTube.

As if this haunting early recording wasn’t contribution enough, El-Dabh took the audio he’d captured and manipulated it in the studio of the Middle East Radio, effectively making himself one of the first individuals ever to mix and master recorded sound.

In his own words, he “emphasized the harmonics of the sound by removing the fundamental tones and changing the reverberation and echo by recording in a space with movable walls. [He] did some of this by using voltage controlled devices. It was not easy to do. [He] didn’t think of it as electronic music, but just as an experience.”

This accomplished man would go on to become University Professor Emeritus of African Ethnomusicology at Kent State University.

He would also become the first person to take recordings from everyday life and mix, edit and record them onto magnetic tape; this made him the first person to implement a style that would emerge in France 4 years later, which the French called musique concrete.

Musique concrete was the name that certain composers used to define their technique of recording sounds from everyday life and using them to make sound collages once recorded onto magnetic tape. Composers could cut up their audio however they saw fit and add effects, reverse the recordings, and include recordings of singing or instrument playing. It was a freeform style whose proponents didn’t pay much attention to common song structure, and it was the first style that incorporated early versions of pretty much all the equipment we use to make music today. Of this group of musicians, Pierre Schaeffer is considered the most essential contributor, and his knowledge and talent would influence many others to create their own novel methods of music composition.

From the mid-40s to the early 50s and beyond there were many scenes across the globe that began to take electronic recording very seriously. In Germany there was elektronische Musik, which was developed by the scientist Werner Meyer-Eppler in the Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio. He used this studio with a composer that had briefly worked in Schaeffer’s studio in France, a man named Karlheinz Stockhausen, among several other people.

Resulting from animosity between the French and the Germans – probably as a result of the Second World War – Stockhausen and the others wanted to create a musical style that would outdo musique concrete. Meyer-Eppler conjured up the idea of creating music exclusively through electronic synthesis, and Stockhausen eventually began chipping away at it until he created his Elektronische Musik Studie I, which would be the first of a two-part exploration of electronic sound. You can listen to Studie I here.

When they began to broadcast these recordings on the radio, listeners would call in, mesmerized, explaining that the music was making them feel as though they were flying at high speed or floating in some distant area of space. Electronic music was finally beginning to make waves. (Pun intended.)

Japan also had its own electronic music scene, as America eventually did, both influenced by what was happening in France and Germany. As these nations began to produce more and more efficient and affordable means for anyone to record sound, the world of electronic music was born, and the industry of sound equipment manufacturing began to explode.

There’s just one last chapter before we reach the end. We’ve come a long way, but we still haven’t discussed one of the most important tools for electronic music production in existence, a tool that so many of us in this modern age have grown to depend on.

More on that, next time.