May 1997

Summer Reading
part 1

by Paul D. Lehrman

I read a lot of books over the summer. I know that makes me tragically un-hip and old-fashioned, but until they come up with a laptop you can read in bright sunshine and then leave open, upside down, on top of a blanket on a sandy beach, and a few minutes later drip salt water and ice cream all over it, all the time not worrying about whether you’ll ever be able to use it again, I’ll stick with books.

A formal summer reading list, however, is not my style. I know other people who do those, and they never get more than a couple of items into the list before they get totally distracted by something else, like life, and so they end up in September mad at themselves.

Since I don’t need to find any more reasons to get mad at myself (I do that enough already), I use a different method for choosing books, one which relies more on serendipity. Just before I’m about to go away on vacation, I visit my local library and see what’s new. Then I go to a huge used bookstore in my neighborhood, and browse for an hour or two. I occasionally end up with some real turkeys (sometimes you really can’t judge a book by its cover), but I’ve also found some gems that, had I found them when they were new, I would have missed because I would have been way too cheap to pay for them. Last year, for example, I bought "experienced" copies of Fred Dannen’s stunning indictment of the record industry, "Hit Men", in which we learn that disco not only sucked, it snorted; Abbie Hoffman’s touching (really!) autobiography, "Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture", which answers the age-old questions, "Did Pete Townshend really sock Abbie in the mouth on stage at Woodstock?" and "Did Abbie and Grace Slick really plan to spike the punch with LSD at a Nixon White House party?"; a collection of Art Buchwald essays from the post-Watergate years, which are still tremendously funny and totally relevant; and a replacement for my 20-years-lost copy of Jerome Agel’s "The Making of Kubrick’s 2001", which is not only a comprehensive primer on state-of-the-art film techniques of the late ‘60s, it also includes full instructions for using the zero-gravity toilet.

Another way I get books is the time-honored custom, practiced by journalists the world over, of collecting freebies from publishing companies. I get offered lots of these, but the majority of them are pretty boring. They tend to have titles like "How to Make Million$ On The World Wide Web (includes floppy disk)", or "Record, Master, Press, Package, Distribute, and Collect Royalties On Your Own Platinum Grammy-Winning Record", or "Everything You Need to Know About Studio Design (in 24 Fact-Filled Color Pages!)". Journalists know that Sturgeon’s Law, named after sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, which states–I paraphrase here–that 99 percent of everything is ca-ca, is very much alive and well in the publishing business. (The only place it isn’t, by the way, is on the Internet, and that’s only because those "9"s need to be carried out at least three more decimal places–but that’s another column.)

In the last few months, however, three brand-new books were sent to me by their publishers which would definitely make it to my summer reading list, if I had one. They’re entertaining, enlightening, well-written and well-organized. I highly recommend them for anyone with even a tangential interest in the subject matter–and I’m sure most of you have more than that. I’ll talk about two of them this month, and save the third, a "multimedia" experience in the best sense of the word, for next month.

Electronic music, contrary to some people’s beliefs, did not instantly spring into being the day that Yamaha released the DX7, or even, for those whose memories go back a little further than that, the day that Switched-On Bach was released. It’s actually been an entire century since composers started using electronics to stretch their sonic vocabularies. The stories of the composers, engineers, physicists, and marketeers who were responsible for the electronic music medium–both their successes and failures–is a fascinating one. And you won’t find a better re-telling of that story than "Electric Sound", by Joel Chadabe, published by Prentice Hall.

Chadabe is himself a pioneering composer, who was making music with computers back when all most of us knew about computers was that they screwed up our bank statements. For a while, he ran a company called Intelligent Music, which brought to market some of the first algorithmic composition programs for personal computers and MIDI synthesizers. Today he manages the Electronic Music Foundation, a resource center for distributing books and recordings of important historical and present-day electronic music, and he is on the faculty at the State University of New York at Albany. I’ve known Joel and his work for a long time. I’ve always known him to be a talented musician and technologist, with a well-developed sense of history, but it’s a pleasant surprise to also find that he writes very engagingly.

His story starts exactly a century ago: 1897 was the year that Thaddeus Cahill took out his first patent on an electronic musical instrument, the Telharmonium, which synthesized music using dynamos and "broadcast" it to subscribers over telephone lines. (Which also makes Cahill, as Chadabe points out, the inventor of Muzak.) Four years later he had a prototype, and six years after that an instrument was installed in a theater in midtown Manhattan, and Rossini overtures were coursing through the streets of Gotham. But soon thereafter Cahill ran into trouble with his delivery platform, his subscription base faltered, competition reared its head, and the whole enterprise fell apart in 1914. (Why does this sound so familiar?)

The stories of the Theremin, the Electronic Sackbut, the Mixturtrautonium, and the RCA Mark II synthesizer are equally fascinating and equally instructive. Chadabe also goes into detail about the evolution of tape music, live performance with electronics, computer music, the replacement of analog with digital electronics, MIDI, automated composition, and human-machine interaction. The story of electronic music involved hundreds of people, working in a dozen or more different countries. Chadabe does an admirable job of tracking the often-parallel paths of these explorers, and placing them in context. Most impressive is how he manages to balance the technical, the artistic, the commercial, and the human aspects of the development of the various technologies, so that we can see everything in a broad perspective.

He organizes the book not by chronology or geography, but by the type of music that was being created, and so each chapter examines the development of a particular sub-genre over time. It doesn’t always work, in that there’s just too much overlap between the different categories to make the distinctions stick, but it’s probably as good an approach as any. And it’s fascinating to see the variety of disciplines and philosophical schools that people came from, who found a home in the new medium.

I’ve been fascinated by this field since I was a teenager, and so I found a lot of old friends in "Electric Sound", but I also found a lot of names, stories, and connections I didn’t know and was delighted to discover. All of the important figures are here, from Oskar Sala, Pierre Henry, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Edgard Varèse, to Robert Moog and John Chowning, to Max Mathews, Tod Machover, and Peter Gabriel. But although I knew that Greek composer Iannis Xenakis started his career as a civil engineer and architect, I never realized he worked for the brilliant French architect Le Corbusier. Moreover, the Philips pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair, a shell in the shape of a cow’s stomach for which Varese’s seminal Poè me Electronique was written, the design of which Le Corbusier is always given credit for, was primarily designed by Xenakis.

Some of the anecdotes Chadabe has dug up are priceless. We can all take inspiration from the story of how Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender got equipment for their San Francisco Tape Center in 1963: they bought the inventory of a burned-out hi-fi store from the insurance company, paying for it with a bad check, and sold off enough of what they didn’t need to cover the check before it bounced, leaving them with a bunch of free stuff, some of which worked. Another prophetic tale has California composer Pauline Oliveros walking into her studio one morning after Don Buchla had just installed his very first synthesizer there, and her technician had been up all night programming it to play "Yankee Doodle". Says the technician, after she turns the power on and it starts to play, "She called me and asked, ‘How do I turn this damn thing off?’" And hitting closer to home, I learned from the book that Vladimir Ussachevsky’s and Otto Luening’s concert of tape music at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which was the first American electronic-music concert aimed at the general public and is regarded by many as the birthday of electronic music in this country, took place the same night I was born.

Second on my between-the-covers hit parade is a must-read for anyone who thinks that the current technology wars between AT&T and MCI, AOL and Compuserve, Alesis and Teac, or Microsoft and just about everybody, are anything new. Corporate bullying, impossible R&D crash programs, lying to the press, using the courts to drive the competition out of business, turning government regulation on its head, and all of the other favorite corporate strategies we think are unique to the ruthless ‘80s and ‘90s were every bit as popular 70 years ago, if not more so. That’s one of the major lessons of "Tube: The Invention of Television," written by father-and-son team David E. and Marshall Jon Fisher, and published by Counterpoint, a small but very impressive Washington, D.C., house.

You may have seen the recent PBS documentary on this subject (David Fisher was one of the talking heads in the program), in which case you know about Idaho farm boy Philo T. Farnsworth, the engineer who was as responsible as anyone for the development of the medium, but who 20 years later was so totally obscure he could stump the panel on "I’ve Got A Secret". Like Edison and Bell, Farnsworth was the epitome of the lone inventor as the spirit of American technological genius. He got the inspiration for the scanning electron gun at age 14 while mowing a hayfield, and told his high school chemistry teacher in 1922 that someday everyone in American would own a television tube.

Edison and Bell, however, didn’t have RCA and David Sarnoff, a figure who makes Bill Gates look like Beaver Cleaver, to contend with. Unwilling to let his company use any technology owned by others, Sarnoff first tried to buy Farnsworth off, and then spent the next decade systematically screwing him, stealing his patents, keeping his achievements out of the press, and tying him up in lawsuits–which RCA ultimately lost, but they had the desired effect. By 1940 Farnsworth had lost control of his company and was (ironically for a Mormon) an alcoholic. Within a few years he developed a drug habit, his house had burned down, and his company was absorbed by ITT and vanished. He lived until 1971, but never again did anything that brought any success.

"General" Sarnoff (the title was essentially honorary, but he insisted that everyone address him by it) wouldn’t let anything stand in his way. In 1935 he pulled the plug on his company’s development of FM radio, partly because he didn’t want to obsolete all of RCA’s AM radios, and partly so he could use the spectrum (and the transmitting towers atop the Empire State Building) for television. Major Edwin Armstrong, the inventor of FM, tried to sue his own employer for not supporting his baby, and eventually committed suicide.

Sarnoff struck again 15 years later in the battle over color, which started when a sequential-image system using a spinning disk designed by CBS’s Peter Goldmark (whose other major invention was the long-playing record) was approved by the FCC. Since the system was incompatible with RCA’s existing black-and-white sets, Sarnoff fought it tooth and nail, and developed his own system, far inferior in quality to CBS’s, but compatible with older sets. Thanks to the Korean war, CBS had trouble getting its manufacturing off the ground, while RCA made sure their monochrome sets flooded the marketplace. After a couple of years, the FCC, not wanting to obsolete the millions of sets now in use, caved in and reversed its decision. The problems with RCA’s color system would still give viewers headaches for 20 years–I have fond memories of playing hooky and going to a friend’s house to watch "Do You Trust Your Wife", starring a green Johnny Carson.

The Fishers paint sympathetic pictures of Farnsworth and other figures like eccentric Scotsman John Logie Baird, who in fact built the world’s first working television (his previous, unsuccessful, inventions included pneumatic boots and a glass razor), but they don’t take sides: they let us know that RCA, mostly in the person of engineer Vladimir Zworykin, really did contribute a tremendous amount to television’s development. And they tell us there’s a lot more to the saga than just Farnsworth and Sarnoff. Besides Baird’s work, there was research going on in Germany, France, Japan, and Russia, most of which ground to a halt when World War II broke out. The Germans, for example, had invented videoconferencing in 1940, which never went into production, while the Japanese had a home-grown television system which they hoped to use to broadcast the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but they were too busy fighting in China to make it happen. (They would win a different television war, but that was much later.)

If you follow any of today’s format and platform wars, in any medium, the stories the Fishers tell will seem painfully familiar. They even offer a preview of the next TV war, in an even-handed chapter on the death of HDTV and the birth of digital television. Digital technology, they warn us, may not make television any better–it just may make more channels available to today’s broadcasters. "Radio and television contributed nothing to world harmony," they warn, "and neither will digital TV. Only human beings can do that."

By humanizing the people behind the technology, and showing us the excitement and the heartbreak that accompanied nearly every step in the development of the new medium, the Fishers have brought a crucial part of our history–recent enough that there are still many alive who were around when it all started, but already largely forgotten in this age of constant media churn–to life. There are lessons here for all of us, and we’d better start learning them.

Next month: Gravikords, Wurlies, Pyrophones, and Tom Waits.

Paul D. Lehrman, composer, writer, educator, and iconoclast, only watches television when he’s working.

These materials copyright ©1997 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing