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Music Essays
electronic music pioneers part 1 electronic music pioneers part 2
steve reich - minimalist a short history of the american composer

Different Trains
different trains - part one introduction and the use of music technology
different trains - part two thematic development
different trains - part three thematic development and continuity
different trains - part four dynamics and conclusions
different trains - table 1 tables 1.a. to 1.c
different trains - table 2 tables 2.a. to 2.g



electronic music pioneers

part one - the early days and notable composers




Development in compositional technique has been influenced by electronic investigation since the turn of the twentieth century. Pierre Boulez observes that this investigation has produced a new sound world that reshapes old forms or even creates new ones,

"(in electronic music) models do not exist, or only sporadically, and largely thanks to our imagination ... the field seems exaggeratedly vast, if not inorganic at least unorganised" (Boulez, P. "Orientations", London, 1986, p.494)


The Dynamophone


The Martenot


(Public Domain Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Early Electronic Instruments

However, the first electronic instrument, the "dynamophone" (a kind of sophisticated telephone! Invented by Thaddeus Cahill) received little attention from musicians with its unveiling in 1906. More importantly, the invention of the oscillator in 1915 (enabling pitched notes) led to the "Martenot" (developed by a Frenchman of the same name). Olivier Messiaen utilises six ondes martenot in "Fete des belles eaux" (1937). Several of Messiaen's pupils, such as Boulez, also experimented with this instrument and thereby assured it a place in the repertoire.

Music of the vernacular world was more profoundly influenced by the invention of the electric organ in 1929 by Lorens Hammond in America. Timbre, pitch and volume could now all be controlled electronically.


The next important development came in 1948 with the composition of "Musique concrete" by Pierre Schaeffer working in the "Radio­diffusion-Television Francaise". What Schaeffer did was to record sounds from the environment and musical instruments from record and then transform these sounds by changing their speed, direction and context (a long sound might be fragmented into much smaller units). Several other composers were to transform this technique, such as Edgard Varese (1883-1965) with "Deserts" in 1954 using audio tape instead of a gramophone. With the opening of the "Elektronische Musik" recording studio in Cologne in 1952 Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) rose to the fore of the electronic music world, extending the principles of serialism to timbre. He used the recently invented "Melochord" (a device originally used in telephone networks to produce pure electronic sounds via an oscillator, developed by Harald Bode) in pieces such as "Gesang der Junglinge" in 1955.

The Melochord



"Gesang der Junglinge" by Karlheinz Stockhausen



The Synthesizer

A new era of electronic expression and investigation was made possible with the release of the first commercially available synthesizer in 1964 by Robert Moog (although this had been foreshadowed by the RCA synthesizer in 1959). Moog synthesizers were later to attain widespread commerial success, for example, the Model D seen below, used by groups such a "Yes" and "Tangerine Dream".

The Minimoog Model D (produced from 1971 to 1984)

Mini Moog

The main electrical component in the instrument, the voltage controlled oscillator, enabled an exact manipulation of pitch, duration, and intensity of sound. Milton Babbitt is one such exponent of this new technology, creating one of the first compositions for the synthesizer in 1964, entitled "Philomel" (which also uses live and recorded soprano voice).



The Computer

Another technological innovation that was developing in the 1960's was to herald in precise control over every element of sound creation. With the advent of the computer, music could now be sequenced (i.e. stored into memory and replayed like a tape recorder). Max Mathews produced sequenced music from sophisticated program software working to random mathematics. The father of computer music predicted that by 2010, "almost all music will be made electronically, by digital circuits." He was partially right. There is still much music made and performed by acoustic instruments. However, in the last 40 years, computers have completely transformed the recording and producing of music, to the extent that many popular hits are created from purely digital sources, with no need for "real" instruments to be involved.

Computers also made it possible for music to be "sampled". The opening of IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris, in 1977, under the direction of Pierre Boulez, began research on how conventional sound could be manipulated by the computer. This involved recording, for instance, the sound of a harp, and then transforming it electronically by highlighting harmonics or altering the pitch. Professor Jonathan Harvey in "Mortuos Plango, vivos voco" , remodels a boy's voice and "decomposes" the sound of Winchester Cathedral's bell with the IRCAM computer sampler. For Harvey, this technology,

" ... seems to hint at a new age, a new consciousness".

(Harvey, J. IRCAM in London (BBC Radio 3, broadcast on 22nd May, 1986)






electronic music pioneers p.1 - p.2


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