The history of electronic music and the best supporters of electronic music today!
The history of electronic music is decades ahead of the rock and roll era. Most of us were not even on this planet, when it started it’s often vague, underestimated and misunderstood development. Today, this “otherworldly” sound body, which began almost a hundred years ago, can no longer seem strange and unique, because new generations accepted it largely as a mainstream, but it had a bumpy path and, finding mass acceptance by the audience, free.
Many musicians – contemporary supporters of electronic music – developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s a passion for analog synthesizers with signed songs such as Gary Numan’s breakthrough, “Are Friends Electric? It was in this era that these devices became smaller, more accessible, more user-friendly and more affordable for many of us. In this article, I will try to follow the story in easy to digest chapters and present examples of the best contemporary supporters.
For me, it was the beginning of a new era. To create electronic music, it was no longer necessary to have access to a room full of technology in the studio or live. Until now, it was only the domain of artists such as Kraftwerk, whose arsenal of electronic instruments and custom-made gadgets the rest of us could only dream of, even if we could understand the logistics of their functioning. Having said that, while I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I had little knowledge of the complexity of the work that had set standards in previous decades to reach that point.
The history of electronic music owes much to Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). Stockhausen was the German composer Avante Garde and the pioneer of electronic music from the 1950s, influencing a movement that would ultimately have a strong influence on such names as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, not to mention the experimental work of the Beatles and others in the 1960s. His face can be seen on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, the master of Beatles’ Opus from 1967. But let’s start with traveling a little further in time.
The turn of the 20th century
Time stood still for this stargazer, when I discovered that the first documented, exclusively electronic concerts did not take place in the 70s or 80s, but in the 20s.
The first purely electronic instrument, Theremin, played without touch, was invented by Russian scientist and cellist Lev Termen (1896-1993), around 1919.
In 1924 Theremin made his debut at a concert with the Leningrad Philharmonic. The interest generated by Theremin attracted audiences to concerts all over Europe and Great Britain. In 1930 the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York performed classical music using only a series of ten musicians. Watching many talented musicians playing this amazing sounding instrument, waving their hands to the antenna, had to be so exciting, surrealistic and alien to the pre-tech audience!
For those interested, check out recordings of Theremina Clara Rockmore’s virtuosity (1911-1998). Lithuanian-born Rockmore (Reisenberg) worked with his inventor in New York to improve the instrument in its early years and became its most respected, brilliant and respected performer and representative throughout his life.
In retrospect, Clara was the first “star” of real electronic music. It is unlikely that on Theremin you won’t find more frightening but beautiful performances of classical music. She is definitely my favorite artist!
Electronic music in Sci-Fi, cinema, and television
Unfortunately, and mainly due to difficulties in mastering the skills, the future of Theremin as a musical instrument was short-lived. He finally found a niche in Sci-Fi films from 1950. The Day the Earth Stood Still” from 1951, with the soundtrack of influential American film music composer Bernard Hermann (known from “Psycho” by Alfred Hitchcock, etc.), is rich in an “extraterrestrial” soundtrack using two Theremins and other electronic devices combined with acoustic instruments.
Using Theremin’s vacuum oscillator technology, French cellist and radiotelegraph Maurice Martenot (1898-1980), in 1928 he began the development of Ondes Martenot (in French, known as Martenot Wave).
Using a standard and well-known keyboard, which the musician could easily master, Martenot’s instrument was successful where Theremin was not user-friendly. In fact, it became the first successful electronic instrument that the composers and orchestras of that period have been able to use to this day.
Half a century 1900s: Concrete music
In the 1900s, electronic music was not limited to manipulating electronic circuits in order to obtain sound. In the 1940s, a relatively new German invention – a reel tape recorder developed in the 1930s – became the subject of interest of many European composers, Avante Garde, especially the French radio broadcaster and composer Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995), who developed a technique of assembly called Musique Concrete by him.
Musique Concrete (meaning the “real world” of existing sounds as opposed to artificial or acoustic sounds produced by musical instruments) relied extensively on combining recorded segments of tape containing “found” sounds. – natural, environmental, industrial and human – and manipulating them with effects such as delay, reverberation, distortion, acceleration or deceleration of tape speed (varispeed), reversal of direction, etc.
Stockhausen gave concerts on the backing tapes, using his Musique Concrete works (on recordings he used both electronic sounds and sounds of the “real world”), on top of which the instruments would perform live classical players responding to the mood and motives they heard!
Musique Concrete had a major impact not only on Avante Garde and the effects library but also on contemporary music of the 1960s and 1970s. Important work that needs to be tested is the Beatles’ use of this method in groundbreaking songs such as Tomorrow Never Knows, Revolution No. 9 and Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, as well as Pink Floyd’s albums Umma Gumma, Dark Side of the Moon and Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy. All used cut tapes and home tape loops are often fed live to the main mixdown.
Today it can be done with simplicity using digital sampling, but yesterday’s heroes worked for hours, days and even weeks to perhaps complete a four-minute track! For those of us who are contemporary musicians, understanding the history of electronic music helps us to appreciate the quantum leap technology in recent times. But those first innovators, those pioneers – of whom there are many more – and the important characters who have been influenced, who came before us, have laid the revolutionary foundations that have become our electronic musical heritage today, and I pay tribute to them!
The 1950’s: First computer and music synthesizer
Moving a few years until 1957 and introducing the first computer to the electronic mix. As you can imagine, it wasn’t exactly a portable device, but it absorbed the whole room, and user-friendly wasn’t even a concept. However, creative people were still crossing borders. One of them was Max Mathews (1926 -) from Bell Telephone Laboratories, New Jersey, who developed Music 1, an original music program for computers, on which all subsequent digital syntheses have their roots. Mathews, called “Father of Computer Music,” using IBM’s digital Mainframe, was the first to synthesize music on a computer.
In the climax of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”, in 1961 Mathews’ electronic performance of the song “Daisy Bell” from late 1800 was used. Here, the musical accompaniment is performed by his programmed mainframe together with a computer synthesized human “singing” technique, which began in the early 1960s. In the film, as the HAL computer retreats, “he” returns to this song, a tribute to “his” own roots.
In 1957 he also witnessed the first advanced synthesizer, RCA Mk II Sound Synthesizer (an improvement on the original 1955). It also included an electronic sequencer for programming music playback. This massive RCA Synth was installed and still remains at Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York, where the legendary Robert Moog worked for some time. Universities and technical laboratories were the main places of experimentation with synthesizers and computer music in this early era.
1960’s: The Dawning of The Age of Moog
The logistics and complexity of composing, and even access to what was previously unfriendly synthesizer musicians, have led to a demand for more portable instruments to play. One of the first to react and by far the most successful was Robert Moog (1934-2005). His synthesizer used a well-known keyboard in the piano style.