December 2000
A Different Kind of Roots
Revisiting the dawn of Electronic Music

by PAUL D. LEHRMAN

ILLUSTRATION: KAY MARSHALL

Once upon a time, there was "music," and there was "electronic music." Music was what everybody listened to on the radio and on their "hi-fis," at the movies and in concert halls and clubs. It was played by people in tuxedos, uniforms, dungarees and black suits with shades. Electronic music, on the other hand, was the stuff created by (mostly) guys in white coats and thick glasses behind the sealed basement doors of university studios, or by longhaired, unkempt bohemians in lofts in old warehouse districts, and listened to by...well, not too many people.

But I was one of them. I got into electronic music at a very impressionable age, thanks to my older brother, who would bring home these weird records from his college radio station and New York's free-form Pacifica radio station, WBAI. I created my first electronic piece--involving a Sony 3-head tape recorder, an electric guitar, a kit-built Theremin that didn't work too well and a $6.95 microphone--when I was 15. Studying electronic music was my goal when I left for college, and I was thrilled to learn the techniques from the people who had been my personal heroes, to get a chance to play with some of the coolest equipment on the planet.

But when I realized that at just about every sparsely attended electronic music concert I went to, the people in the audience were limited pretty much to those who had been onstage at the last concert, and vice versa, and I decided that a career in this rarefied field might not be for me. A dozen years later, however, the audiences had caught up, and I dived back into electronic composing with a vengeance, using the new commercial tools of the '80s.

Thanks to those tools, which of course have continued to develop at an incredible rate and reach an ever-widening audience, few people today question the use of electronic sound manipulation, sampling and synthesis in the music they make or listen to. But most don't realize that not so long ago, to put "music" and "electronics" in the same sentence was considered very strange. If you walked into a record store and asked for "electronic music," you either got a blank stare or were directed to the oddball section out back, with the novelty, sound effects and hi-fi demonstration records ("includes a real game of Ping-Pong in incredible stereo!").

Since then, electronically produced and modified sounds have become so essential to music production that the distinction between "electronic" and "non-electronic" music has all but disappeared. In fact, the majority of sound-manipulation techniques used in the modern recording studio evolved directly out of the work of electronic music pioneers. Even the most outrageous experimenters in the pop world in the '60s and '70s were rediscovering what the electronic crowd created years before.

George Martin and Geoff Emerick throwing random bits of tape in the air during the making of Sgt. Pepper? John Cage did the same thing in Williams Mix in 1952. Jimi Hendrix changing tape speed by several octaves on Electric Ladyland? Otto Luening's Low Speed, 1952, and Luciano Berio's Thema, 1956. Robert Fripp's "Frippertronics" and Pink Floyd's moody tape-loop pieces? Pierre Schaeffer's Etude aux Chemins de Fer, 1948. The relentlessly pulsating VCS-3 synthesizer of Pete Townshend on Who's Next? Raymond Scott's Cindy Electronium, 1959. The MC5's and The Stooges' concert-long feedback orgies? Robert Ashley's Wolfman, 1964. Keith Emerson's swooping sawtooth waves in "Lucky Man"? Edgard Varèse's Poéme Electronique, 1958.

For a long time, even after the 1967 release of Wendy Carlos' spectacularly successful Switched-On Bach, which was the first significant attempt to introduce synthetic sounds into the musical mainstream, people still didn't know what to make of this new genre. The Schwann catalog, the bible of recorded music, had no category where it could fit: It wasn't really classical, it wasn't exactly pop and putting it in the "Miscellaneous" section, where the sound effects records went, didn't seem right. So they created a new section, "Electronic Music." In it was lumped everything from Carlos' work, to the cheesiest synthesizer renditions of pop tunes ("Everything You Always Wanted to Hear on the Moog"--not!), to the serious experiments coming out of the studios of the American and European avant-garde.

This category in Schwann is mostly empty now, and the listings that were once there now appear, as they should, in the regular composer and pop sections. But a generous helping of some of the best music from the early electronic era, when the form was still an oddity, is served up by the eclectic publisher Ellipsis Arts in a new boxed set called OHM: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music, 1948-1980. OHM (which was reviewed briefly, but enthusiastically, by Blair Jackson in the July Mix) contains three-and-a-half hours of the roots of electronic music, much of which has not been available on record for years, if at all. It is absolutely fascinating to those interested in the history of electronic music and to anyone who uses electronics to make music today--which include anyone in the recording industry.

Ellipsis Arts, you may recall, is the company that put together Gravikords, Whirlies, and Pyrophones, a book/CD about experimental and unique instruments that I talked about in this column a couple of years ago. OHM, which was produced by New York writer Jason Gross and German-born, Vancouver-based music maven Thomas Ziegler, with the help of a couple small Vancouver project studios, shows the same attention to detail, excellent graphic design and superb sonics.

There are 42 selections in all, spread over three CDs--some complete works and some excerpts. The producers give equal time to the relatively well-known nexuses, such as the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, the West German Radio studio in Cologne and the more obscure composers and collaboratives. We hear from the Musica Elettronica Viva, a group of American expatriates in Rome whose music featured "homemade" instruments like contact microphones attached to found objects and owed more to Coltrane-style free jazz than the post-Webern serialism favored by the university types. There's the INA-GRM group from Paris, whose work dates back to the musique concrète experiments of Pierre Schaeffer in the early '50s, and is still going on in the form of developing sophisticated software products for modern computer-music systems. And there's the Sonic Arts Union, represented by the interactive and automated pieces of Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Alvin Lucier.

The large variety of techniques that electronic composers employed over the years is well represented: tape and digital manipulation of recorded sounds, real-time and computer-controlled analog and digital synthesis, "chance" music, composing automata (press a button and a piece comes out), interactive installations that make use of things like swinging microphones and moving bodies, and much more.

Rather than try to break the music down into categories, OHM presents the pieces in roughly chronological order, starting from Clara Rockmore's '20s-vintage arrangement of a waltz by Tchaikovsky for Theremin and piano (from a recording made in 1977) and ending with Brain Eno's late '70s Unfamiliar Winds (Leeks Hills). In between are some rare gems. Raymond Scott, the '30s composer of "cartoon jazz," had a huge homemade synthesis and automatic composing system, called the electronium, in his basement, and we hear two minutes of intriguing, previously unreleased noodlings from the beast. Olivier Messaien, the mystical French composer whose music was inspired by bird songs and other natural sounds, was a champion of the electronic instrument the Ondes Martenot. Although several pieces in which he used the instrument are well known, I never realized that he wrote a piece for an entire ensemble of the things, with no other instruments. Here it is, in a new 1998 performance, and it is stunningly beautiful.

Oskar Sala, a German composer perhaps best known for creating sound effects for Hitchcock's The Birds, wrote richly textured pieces for a unique live-performance instrument of his own design, the "Mixturtrautonium," which are almost impossible to find today. But he is here with a charming selection from his Elektronische Tanzsuite (you do the translation). LaMonte Young, a legend of the New York downtown scene of the '60s and '70s whose work has recently only been available on bootlegs made by a small but rabid group of fans, is featured in an excerpt from one of his Drift Studies. Two sine waves, tuned to a ratio of 32:31, are allowed to drift very slightly over time--on this disc, seven minutes are excerpted from a piece originally 32 minutes long. The description would make it seem excruciatingly boring, but, in fact, the piece really draws your attention, and it makes most "trance" music made since then seem unnecessarily cluttered.

And arguably the greatest of all early electronic pieces, Edgard Varèse's Poème Electronique, commissioned for the 1958 Brussels World Fair and designed to be played over 425 (!) loudspeakers in a building by famed architect Le Corbusier that was shaped like the inside of a cow's stomach (!!), is here in a (stereo) version so clean and crisp it sounds like it was recorded yesterday. Stark, spare and incredibly emotive, I guarantee that if you listen to it loud, with the lights off, you won't need to listen to any more music for a while.

During these early days, many composers were forced to create for themselves the devices to make the sounds they heard in their imaginations--and thus was born the "musician as technician," a combination of disciplines that once seemed very foreign, but in today's musical world is not only common, it's expected. Unlike today, there was no commercial light at the end of the tunnel for most of these inventors, and their devices and techniques were created entirely for art's sake. Few received much fortune or fame for their efforts, despite the fact that the technologies they created have become part of the mainstream.

For example, here is one of the first uses of what we now call "sampling": Dripsody, a 1955 piece by the Canadian composer and inventor Hugh LeCaine, who used the sound of a single drop of water, recorded onto what he called a "Multitrack Tape Recorder." This was not the multitrack tape deck we know and love today; instead, it was a device that could play 16 tape loops, each going at a different speed, under the control of a keyboard. (If you're thinking this was the direct precursor of the Mellotron, you're paying attention.) The loops in Pierre Schaeffer's Etude aux Chemins de Fer weren't done with tape: He recorded railroad sounds onto vinyl records with "locked grooves" so that the same sound would play over and over, "suspending it in time and isolating it from its context," as the liner notes read. And then he discovered what happened when he played it backward!

The inventor of FM synthesis was not a Japanese engineer. He was a Stanford composer, John Chowning, whose goal was to broaden the sonic vocabulary of computer-generated sound and achieve greater precision and control over his music. He didn't set out to create a technology that would end up bringing in more revenue to the university, by licensing it to Yamaha, than any other patent in its institutional history. One of Chowning's early experiments with the concept, Stria, from 1977, points the way to the digital synthesis that would define the music of the next two decades. Charles Dodge, then at Columbia University, was a pioneer in computer speech synthesis and manipulation, and we get to hear a selection from his wonderful 1972 group of "Speech Songs" based on poems by Mark Strand, He Destroyed Her Image, in which the bardic voice is literally destroyed by the computer. And if you think real-time interactive control over synthesizers only began with MIDI, listen to the 1974 Appalachian Grove, a delightful bluegrass-inspired piece realized late at night on the computers at Bell Labs in New Jersey by "resident hippie" Laurie Spiegel.

OHM also demonstrates how aesthetically diverse the world of electronic music has always been. In the hands of its many practitioners, it has been tonal, anti-tonal, dynamic, static, accessible, obscure, funny, spooky, breathtakingly beautiful and (especially in the case of one piece here, Steve Reich's Pendulum Music, in a new recording by Sonic Youth), downright ugly. Perhaps fortunately, all the pieces on OHM are relatively short. While many composers (like John Cage) could create pieces that went on literally for days, nothing in this collection lasts more than eight minutes--where the producers wanted a longer piece to be included, they took an excerpt of the piece, sometimes suggested by the composer, and sometimes using their own judgment.

The sonic quality of the recordings is remarkably good, especially considering the age of some pieces. The only audible noise is on the Clara Rockmore recording, which is actually a little surprising considering it was made in the late '70s. I have heard one of the original 2-track masters of the Varèse, and this CD sounds better than that--I really don't know how or why. Todd Simko, owner of Chateau Shag, a project studio in Vancouver, did most of the mastering for the project, and he says that all of the works came in already digitized, either on CD or DAT, from transfers that were often supervised by the composers (which speaks well for their ability to keep up with technology), their students or associates. Simko's job, he says, was relatively simple, mostly consisting of matching levels. His tool of choice, interestingly, was Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer, occasionally employing the Ray-gun plug-in to remove some hiss and rumble, but using no other processing besides an occasional bit of EQ. There's plenty of tape distortion in many of the pieces (and in the LaMonte Young piece, some bias noise, something you don't hear much any more), but that's part of the character, and indeed the charm, of the music.

In keeping with previous releases from Ellipsis Arts, the packaging is gorgeous, and a 96-page booklet accompanies the three discs. Each piece has a short essay from the composer or someone close to him or her, and there are plenty of pictures, as well as a thoughtful introduction by Eno, who maintains that we've actually all been listening to electronic music for 80 years, not just 30. If there is one criticism about the booklet, it is that it doesn't go into the technical aspects of the pieces nearly enough to satisfy the more gear-minded among us. But an excellent source of information about the music on OHM can be found in Joel Chadabe's book Electric Sound (Prentice Hall), which I also wrote about when I reviewed Ellipsis Arts' previous efforts. Listen to the music, have the book handy as a reference and you will learn much.

Even on three CDs (and with the music packed so tightly together, to fit as much as possible on each disc, it's sometimes hard to know where one piece ends and the next begins), it's impossible to cover the huge spectrum of electronic music, even within the 32-year span. Co-producer Thomas Ziegler says that although using 1980 as a cutoff date made sense, in that the mainstreaming of electronic music was well under way by then, plenty of electronic music continued to be produced after that date. And, of course, there was plenty of earlier music that he would have liked to include, as well.

The legal and logistical issues involved in such a project were, as you might imagine, tremendous. "What appeared on the final product changed considerably from our initial list," Ziegler says. Luciano Berio, for example, doesn't appear in the collection, because the composer's agents proved difficult to reach. A piece by Gordon Mumma came in too late to be included. The pieces by Robert Ashley and Steve Reich that ended up on disc were different from what the producers originally wanted, because the composers didn't like the original choices.

But the effort was so rewarding, and hopefully so successful, that Ziegler is thinking there might be a Volume Two of OHM. If so, I would like to humbly offer some recommendations for pieces I think would be extremely educational for modern ears to hear, pieces that inspired me to get into the field: Mario Davidovsky's brilliant juxtapositions of real instruments with tape in his "Synchronisms" series; Berio's electronic fantasies based on the voice of his wife, the incredible singer Cathy Berberian; the dazzling musique concrète pieces from the late '60s by the young Turkish composer Ilhan Mimaroglu; and the far-ahead-of-its-time electronic rock of a group called the United States of America led by Joseph Byrd.

There's plenty to enjoy and learn from this remarkable set. In the new millennium--yes, it's finally here!--a new generation of composers need to hear these pioneers and be inspired by them to do their own pioneering. So buy OHM, sit back and listen to your past--whether you know it or not--and perhaps also the future.


Paul D. Lehrman, editorial director of Mix Online, doubts his teenage experiments will ever be anthologized, but you can listen to his current craziness at antheil.org.

These materials copyright ©2000, 2001 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing