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The term electronic music covers a vast range of musical genres. Just as the term "EDM", or Electronic Dance Music, is a buzzword applied to Trance, House, Trap, Juke, and Dubstep to name a few, the blanket term "electronic music" has been used to encompass many different schools of thought. This even goes back to the days of electronic music's infancy when critics and reporters were looking for a way to separate the music of old from these new insurgencies. At this time I would like to highlight a few of these schools from the mid-twentieth century.

In the beginning

Although postulated and experimented with during the first half of the twentieth century, there wasn't much progress made with integrating electronics and music until after World War II. This lack of utility was due to the limited nature of the the instruments. Several instruments, including the theremin and many keyboard instruments, had been developed and could produce a particular variant of electronic sound, but enough composers were yet convinced of their versatility. These developments further inspired composers to work directly with sound, which became a guiding principle of the later half of the century. Between the years 1948 and 1953, there were many developments that were crucial for leading electronic music into its present form. During this formative period three epicenters emerged and began the amalgamation of music and electronics in slightly different schools of thought. The rapid growth in composers embracing electronics resulted in over 5,000 known compositions, and another 2,500 likely, by the end 1967.

Objects of Sonority

Pierre SchaefferThe first of these "schools" of electronic music began during 1948 in Paris. Like many intellectuals in post-War France, Pierre Schaeffer became attracted to "phenomonology," a philosophy by Edmund Hussen. This thought movement disregarded the distinction of subject to object and appearance to reality and moved to describe the contents of experiences in and of themselves. For Schaeffer's purposes, it meant thinking of sounds existing without the need of relating them to their sources. This concept,"acousmatics," had previously been envisioned by the Pythagoreans. Shaeffer, whose training was as a radio engineer and announcer, viewed radio and recordings as the means to make this style of listening possible.

Acousmatics was the given name of the disciples of Pythagoras, who for five years listened to their master while he remained concealed by a curtain. Maintaining strict silence on their part, the disciples tried to focus on perceiving his voice without other sensory information. Another precondition of acousmatic listening is to remove any prior understanding from the sounds being heard.This meant that the disciples were aiming to dissociate Pythagoras's voice from all prior understanding. This includes the fact that: the voice belonged to Pythagoras, what they were hearing was a human voice, the sounds were forming what they would have previously understood as language. If followed strictly, communication becomes impossible as you can't even comprehend the words of your own speech. The heart of this practice centered on changing the question of "What am I hearing?" into "What exactly am I hearing?" While the former is seeking to identify the sound and ascertain it's origin, the latter is about describing the characteristics of the sound.

"Musique concrète" is the movement that Shaeffer founded with the idea of acousmatics as its guiding light. The primary building block of this music were the "objets sonore" or sonorous objects. A sonorous object is an isolated sonic event. This is not the source, nor is the source relevant for these purposes. With recorded media, the recordings are not the sonorous object; they are only an account of the sonorous object, or event, that occurred.

A comparable example of this is a petrichor. Per the Oxford English Dictionary, "[a petrichor is] a pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions." Although associated with fresh rainfall, a petrichor is but the smell that is present. The term does not refer to the rain or grass, which together generate the odor. Instead, the term exists for the sole purpose of naming the specific sensation of that scent.

These sonorous objects were manipulated and arranged to create "musique concrète." The first creation of the style was Schaeffer's own "Étude aux chemins de fer." As the name implies, the composition consisted of recorded snippets of sounds associated with trains: whistles, escaping steam, and wheels clicking along the rails. These recorded events were scored to be cued on separate turntables and the completed version was released on a phonographic disc. As I perceive the work, it is programmatic in nature and we begin at the station. A whistle blows and the train departs. Eventually, we reach the next stop and once again a whistle cues our departure. In the end, we arrive at the yard and wait for other trains to move out of the way before being directed into our parking spot. While moving the sound of the train gives the impression of going through a tunnel. The piece easily depicts this storyline, however some may argue, in much the same way critics of Varèse's compositions, over whether it could be labeled 'music'. Unlike other works that are quickly identified as musical in nature there isn't a traditional sense of meter or melody. Perhaps some would describe it as being more of a sound painting than a piece of music.

To contrast this work, we can look at Tod Dockstader and his piece "Water Music." Dockstader was a self-taught sound engineer and apprenticed as a recording engineer at Gotham Recording Studios, where he experimented with this style of music. To much dismay, after his apprenticeship concluded, he no longer had access to studio facilities to continue his work. He applied to join the other major electronic music centers but was rejected due to his lack of academic credentials. Dockstader was thus redirected towards audio/visual productions, which is where he continued to work.

"Water Music" consists of sounds that one would associate with water. The composer "suspected these sound sources were capable of complex organization – in short, of making a kind of music. And yet the processes of mechanical and electronic abstraction they went through during organization did not rob them of their essential quality: a sometimes delicate, sometimes ponderous, wetness." His notes also explain that "There are six short parts, each one of varying degrees of density, acceleration, loudness. Some are lyrical, some violent – both, I feel, are qualities of water." I believe that he definitely captured the essence of water in this creation.

I would also argue that this piece represents an early example of the genre of ambient music. As Brian Eno stated in his 1978 manifesto on the subject “Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." The idea being that the composer seeks to create an overall tone or atmosphere for the listener to explore and not follow any preconceived notion of form or structure. It's hard not to hear a correlation between the texture and a flowing structure of this work and pieces from Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume 2.

In contrast to Schaeffer's "Étude aux chemins de fer," Dockstader treated his material in a manner more consistent with other works classified as music. There is a sense of melodic progression created from his manipulated samples of water droplets. The piece also builds up and flows through varying levels of density and complexity. The aspect that makes it easiest to classify the piece as a musical work is that of pulse. There may not be a constant meter, but after the very sparse introduction a pulse is created through the repetition of the samples. The primary melodic line carries this pulse and incorporates rhythmic variance to entice the listener.

Although the work of "musique concrète" may not have been the revolution that brought about the current iteration of electronic music, its contributions towards the genre cannot be overlooked. The work from this school of thought established a trend from which the subsequent movements could further develop. Their most important endowment to electronic music was the techniques and approaches they created in formulating compositions. The methods of transforming and manipulating sounds to meet their needs would be a necessity of all other schools of electronic music.

An electrical bouquet

Image of WDR Studio in Köln, Germany, home of elektronische musikThe second school of electronic music came from the loose collaborations of Werner Meyer-Eppler, Robert Beyer, and Herbert Eimert. In his 1949 thesis Elektronische Klangerzeugung, Meyer-Eppler, a leading figure in the field of information theory, gave an in-depth introduction to electro-acoustics. Beyer started collaborating with Meyer-Eppler the following year and on October 18, 1951 all three men, along with other composers, met and decided to establish an electronic music studio in Köln, Germany. This studio became fully operational by 1953 and was the home of their movement "elektronische musik."

The composers of this style also chose to use and manipulate recordings as the basis of their compositions. They contrasted with the work in Paris in that their preferences led to using sound material from purely electronic sources. They were also committed to working with magnetic tape as opposed to the turntable discs. These fundamental decisions required many pieces of equipment: several recording and playback devices of magnetic tape, implements for cutting and splicing tape, loop players with variable speed controls, a "monochord," "melochord," variable frequency generators of periodic waveforms (e.g. sine, square, sawtooth, etc.), and a "white" noise generator. The timbre, spectrum, and transposition of their sources were manipulated with low-pass, high-pass, and band-pass filters. Specialized circuits were also designed to alter the attack, decay, and dynamics of each sound.

Eimert's association with the compositional techniques of Schönberg and Webern was the driving force of the aesthetic posture during the studio's formation. Webern's demand for granular control over timbre and challenging textures could have been a prime reason for the choice in electronically created sounds with which they could achieve whatever they desire. Herbert Eimert asserts that "only in electronic music has the real sense of [Webern's] developments been realised."

A city of two tapes

The Music for Magnetic Tape ProjectThere existed two separate factions developing during 1951 in New York City. Led by John Cage was "music for magnetic tape," while Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening led "tape music." Both resolved to make music solely on magnetic tape and arranged to meet the aesthetic demands of individual pieces. However, the group led by Cage originally set out to only utilize natural sounds and "tape music" used sounds of natural and synthesized sources from the beginning. European reports of these groups misidentified them as being a single entity. This statement, although inaccurate, highlighted the fact that both groups had more than their proximity in common. The manner in which Ussachevsky arrived to this medium was after a rather eureka moment. "One day I suddenly realized that [a tape recorder] could be treated as an instrument of sound transformation." The key distinction between these approaches and that of the one in Köln was that of restrictions. Elektronische musik composers restricted themselves to recordings of electronic sources only and then followed serialistic procedures for composing their works. The New York City schools left a more open philosophy for composers to make their own choices.

Page from the score of Williams MixCage used this additional freedom of his methods as a means to incorporate even more chance into his compositions. An example of his work at this time and in the tape medium is "Williams Mix." Composed between 1951 and 1953 it was the third piece created by his conglomerate.

Cage received a copy of the ancient Chinese divination text I Ching in 1951. His compositions thereafter were typically composed in association with this "Book of Changes." The book was merely reference material for the casting of lots in this iteration of Cleromancy. Upon tossing three coins a total of six times Cage would refer to the text to determine the decision on whatever he actively working towards. In considering this practice Larry Austin determined that it was "presignifying the development of algorithmic composition, granular synthesis, and sound diffusion."

"Williams Mix" is similar to traditional notation in the fact that the score consisted of directions for a performer to follow in the realization of his work. This 192-page score, however, was not like the the works of his predecessors, Beethoven or Gershwin. As Cage referred to it, the score was a kind of "dressmaker's pattern." Each page consists of two systems with eight lines, one for each of the tapes that are used to perform the work, that are life-size templates for cutting quarter-inch magnetic tape. In creating the first-known octophonic/surround-sound tape composition, almost 600 individual tape sources were required.

There is no exemption on what can be on any of the tapes used to create the product of his recipe. The samples must simply be divided into the six categories from which his text will reference: city sounds; country sounds; electronic sounds; manually produced sounds, including the literature of music; wind produced sounds, including songs; and small sounds which require amplification to be heard among the others. From there the piece can be realized by following Cage's explicit instructions on which tape slices are combined and in which order. The final product is a four-and-a-half minute long piece, performed with eight tape players, which can consist of up to 16 simultaneous textures (during splice points).

In contrast to the previously discussed works, "Williams Mix" is far more jarring to an unprepared listener. In following his score Cage presents segments that are seemingly non sequitur. Akin to being in the room while eight people channel-surf on eight different televisions, it can be hard to absorb each layer before it moves onto the next sample. One sound source that is prevalent throughout is a sample close to, if not exactly, a sample of "white" noise. "White" noise can be characterized as a wash of sound without a distinct pitch. This is because it is a randomized signal that covers the entire frequency spectrum, in which all frequencies are equally represented. The name is derived from that of white light. Light that is perceived as being white actually consists of every color within the light spectrum. A set of filters can be used to break up "white" noise in much the same way that a prism can be used to split light waves. It is this transitional material that creates the strongest correlation with the example of flipping through television channels. The second sound source that jumps out is the croaking and other rumblings of frogs. I would love to see a list of the samples that were used to realize this score, however my initial research has not yielded any results. The frequency of which the "white" noise and frog sounds occur is interesting and it would be fascinating to see if the samples used were weighted in that manner or if this was purely the result of using the I Ching.

Upon subsequent listens, I have come to realize how Cage used intensity to derive interest in place of the traditional melodic line. Rather than creating suspense and resolution through the old tools of melody and harmony, he accomplishes this through clip length. The push and pull one feels in the timing of these samples brings the listener through a similar experience composers have long since utilized. This development of tension and release also lends weight towards argument for "Williams Mix" being classified as music.

Closing Thoughts

With the advent of new electronic instruments in the first half of the twentieth century, composers looked to use these tools to accomplish that which was previously unattainable. These instruments provided an even wider range of timbre, frequency, and dynamics than traditional instruments could offer and composers were optimistically incorporating them into compositions to realized pieces which previously were only accurately represented in their imagination. Three early epicenters of adoption for these devices were Paris, Köln, and New York. Each school of thought had a slightly different than the one that came before it and contributed towards those they would come to follow. Along with electronic instruments, the techniques devised to manipulate and transform sound, the methods of altering magnetic tape, the pushback against strict musical form, and giving prominence to indeterminacy have helped further electronic music and music as a whole. 


Further Reading

A Handbook to Twentieth-Century Musical Sketches, ed. Patricia Hall, Friedemann Sallis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 189.

"Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center," Revue Belge de Musicologie, vol. 13, no. 1-4 (1959): 129.

Cross, Lowell. "Electronic Music, 1948-1953." Perspectives of New Music, vol. 7, no. 1 (1968): 32-65.

Eimert, Herbert. "What is electronic music?" Die Reihe, no. 1 (1958): 8.

Eno, Brian. Liner Notes, Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Polydor Records AMB 001, 1978.

Guerrieri, "Cage's painstaking labor created the illusion of chance," The Boston Globe (Boston, MA), Oct. 18, 2014.

"petrichor, n.". OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press. (accessed February 15, 2015).

Schaeffer, Pierre. "Acousmatics." in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, ed. Christoph Cox, Daniel Warner (Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 76-81.