Anthology of 20th Century Electronic Music

The Music of the Modern Era

In 1913, Italian Futurist painter Luigi Russolo wrote “The Art of Noise” to his friend Francesco Prattela. The painter was discussing the growing fascination between the arts and technology and how it informed the art world and everyday life. He positioned himself as a futurist: leave the old behind and restart from scratch.

The most complicated orchestra can be reduced to four or five categories of
instruments with different sound tones: rubbed string instruments, pinched string instruments, metallic wind instruments, wooden wind instruments, and percussion instruments. Music marks time in this small circle and vainly tries to create a new variety of tones. We must break at all cost from this restrictive circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds. (p. 6)

Noise sounds, according to Russolo, are the artificially made sounds of everyday life in the industrial world. He argued for and established a set amount of sounds that could be used to replace traditional methods of music. The full manifesto is worth reading and can be located here: The Art of Noise. But this manifesto is not the topic of this anthology but rather the start of it’s idea. How do we define 20th century music? Does the variance in style, medium and aesthetics depart from traditional Western art music or is it a continuation? Does electronic music, from its beginning and throughout its evolution to the modern era, hold a space in the Western art canon? By providing a repertoire of electronic music and it’s evolution maybe we can find some the answers to these questions.

1. Joseph Schillinger

“Music scientist” is an uncommon, if not frightful, term in music history. Isn’t music about expression or emotions? Don’t composers sit down, feel inspired and create works of art? Well, according to Schillinger (1895- 1943), the answer would be no. Anyone with a firm grasp of mathematics could, in fact, be a composer of meaningful music. Below is the entire clipping of “Finding Cube Root of Inspiration” from the The Philadelphia Inquirer Public Ledger (March 23, 1941) discussing Schillinger and his scientific philosophy.

“Finding Cube Root of Inspiration,” The Philadelphia Inquirer Public Ledger, March 23, 1941

In particular, draw attention to the second column, first full paragraph where the author quotes Schillinger stating, “Music is a man-made reproduction of an actuality, … The common belief that music is emotional in its origin is wrong. … Actually music is no more emotional than an automobile or an airplane …” What does this mean in context to electronic music?

Schillinger was a composer, music theorist, and composition teacher in the U.S. and is one of the first composers to write for the theremin. The theremin was created by Léon Theremin who saw the need to create an instrument based on the electromagnetic field between two antennae’s. Instead of writing solo music, Schillinger attempted to fuse the early electronic instrument with the sounds of Western art music. It would appear that he composed for the instrument in his early years. “Bury me bury me wind” for Theremin, Voice and Piano dates from 1929. The text is by Russian poet Anna Achmatova.

The decision to continue pursuing tradition while bringing in a new artistic element is crucial to our idea of 20th Century electronic music. This piece dates from his earlier period as mentioned before. Moving into his later period of music, Schillinger worked as a music scientist allowing systematic conditions to control the musical output. The article referenced dates from 1941, a few years before Schillinger’s untimely death when he was in the middle of creating a theoretical concept for his philosophy. Was Schillinger writing his earlier works in the same frame of mind or did he start as a traditional composer? What attracted him to the theremin and electronic instruments? Was electronic music the beginning that lead him to combine music and science later in life? Is this philosophy the life force that permeates electronic music’s evolution?

2. Olivier Messiaen

Turangalila-Symphonie, 1949

Messiaen (1908- 1992) was a prolific 20th century composer who composed in a variety of mediums. The Turangalila-Symphonie was the second work of Messiaen’s based on the legend of Tristan and Isolde (Made famous by Richard Wagner’s opera). It was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was premiered by Leonard Bernstein in 1949. Below is the concert program for the premiere.

Boston Symphony Orchestra concert program, Subscription Series, Season 69 (1949–1950), Week 7, p. 343

On the same wavelength as the Schillinger work, this work has an electronic instrument as part of the modern day orchestra. This instrument is the Ondes Martenot and was invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928. Here is a clip from earlier in the program notes introducing the it and some notable composers that have scored it. It looks like a keyboard but is actually a fusion between the cello and radio frequencies. The right hand controls the pitch through a magnetic ring while the left hand controls the pressure.

The program notes continue with Messiaen's own voice:

“It is a gleaming music that we seek, bringing to the ordinary senses of the listener pleasures voluptuously refined.” (p. 350) Listening to excerpts of the work, the Ondes Martenot is well blended with the orchestra and it is almost difficult to discern an electronic instrument is playing. In the passages you physically see the player performing you can hear its lush albeit soft timbre.

In contrast to Schillinger, Messiaen was a cultivator of 20th century harmonies and colors but did not explore electronic music beyond its ability to blend with Western art music.

So far, I have introduced two works that incorporate an electronic instrument into a traditional “ classical” setting. Were these composers utilizing an unknown element for expressionistic purposes or were they interested in the development of electronic music along side Western art music? The answer is both. These composers, like so many others, composed for the instruments of their time. However, many viewed stand alone electronic music as off putting and considered it a break from tradition and rejected it. Journalist John Rockwell perfectly sums up this dilemma:

Electronic Music Takes a New Turn: The New Electronic Music by John Rockwell, 1980

3. Bebe and Louis Barron

Forbidden Planet, 1956

Bebe and Loius Barron were American electronic composers responsible for fostering the avant-garde music scene in their New York City studio. The couple created the first electronic soundtrack to the 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet and made electronic music popular to the public eye. To create it, Louis built electronic circuits that produced musical tones and Bebe spliced and taped together these tones with a tape recorder. What resulted is a brand new soundscape of unknown tonalities and expression that began to attract listeners and composers to a new medium of music.

“Screen: Wonderful Trip in Space: ‘Forbidden Planet’ Is Out of This World” by By Bosley Crowther, New York Times, 1956.

In addition to this movie, the couple is well-known through John Cage. Cage hired the Barron’s to create his piece Williams Mix. They recorded and arranged sounds specified by Cage’s instructions and then spliced and taped it together. Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and David Tudor among others were regulars at the couples studio. In addition to holding an integral part of influential composers, the two made their living composing movie scores.

4. Karlheinz Stockhausen

Gesang der Junglinge, 1956

One of the more well-known electronic composers would be Stockhausen (1928–2007) and is considered to be “the leader of the most radical group of German composers” (Los Angelos Times, 1956). Gesang der Junglinge was composed in 1955–56 at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk studio in Cologne.

The work utilizes two opposing ideas: 1) German electronic music and 2) French music concrète. Music concrète is an idea developed by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in the early 1950’s that edits recorded sounds through audio effects and tape manipulation. The vocal parts were recorded using 12-year-old Josef Protschka’s voice. This work is considered a masterpiece in early electronic music because it blends the recorded voice and sounds into a cohesive work.

5. Edgard Varèse

Poème électronique, 1958

Another well-known composer on this list is Varèse (1883–1965). This work was written for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.

The architecture of the pavilion synchronized with the electronic work accompanied by a film by the architect Le Corbusier. Varèse intended for the work to use hundreds of speakers, but this was not fully realized. Contrary to the European premiere, the U.S. premiere of Varèse’s work was played on a recording. Despite the delivery, the American premiere was a success. I wonder how different it would have been if the architecture accompanied the music as it was originally intended. Would America still enjoy it? Another question to raise is: in the past, the U.S. was delayed compared to European premieres. Did the rise of technology speed up this process to allow the U.S. to be equal to Europe culturally in the Western art form?

6. Daphne Oram

Pulse Persephone, 1965

In a previous blog post I discussed Delia Derbyshire, a UK electronic composer who is often paired with Daphne Oram. Both women worked at the BBC Radio Work Shop early in their careers and were considered pioneers as women in a male-dominated field and as electronic composers. To read more of Derbyshire, you can read here:

Both women worked extensively for television and movie sound tracks. One of Oram’s well-known works was Pulse Persephone. After leaving the BBC, Oram created her own studio at Tower Folly in which she worked.

By now, the notion that Classical concert needed to be playing Brahms or Beethoven was becoming almost outdated (a issue the Western art world is still debating). With the rise of electronic music and its notable connoisseurs, concerts such as the one described in the article became common place. The “Music Critic” continues to explain the appeal of electronic music over the next few paragraphs and dives into what it means to be a performer and a composer but also a listener.

As stated earlier in the Rockwell article concerning “thoughtful older musicians” it would appear composers did not need the validation of outside forces on their music. The “Music Critic states toward the end of the article (not pictured) “Miss Oram declared that this music does not call for interpreters any more than a painter needs somebody to intervene between his canvas and the beholder.”

7. Ruth White

Lover’s Wine, 1969

“Everywhere you look with me you’ll find terrible abandon and terrible structure. One balances the other.” -Ruth White, 1971

The above quote is from an interview with White (1925–2013) from the Los Angeles Times. In 1969, she released a full-length album titled Flowers of Evil based on French poet Charles Baudelaire’s volume of poetry Les Fleurs du mal. The album features a Moog synthesizer and recited poetry. The Moog synthesizer was developed by Robert Moog in 1964 in response to a need for reliable electronic instruments. It has separate modules that create and shape sound and can be controlled through a musical keyboard and etc. Above, White speaks about structure and the balance one needs between it. She continues “Art that’s sheerly accidental is terrific”. Isn’t that the perfect summary of these electronic composers we have studied thus far? How many “accidents” did they all explore while creating their works. Is this the test of a composer of the 20th century?

“Coffee, Colored Mugs, Old-Shoe, Prokofiev: That’s Ruth White” by M.P.
Los Angeles Times, 1971

The Moog synthesizer was also used in popular music. For examples, in 1969, the Beatles released Abbey Road. It was used on four of its tracks: “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Here Comes The Sun”, and “Because”. The electronic sound is becoming an accepted part of mainstream media. Rockwell sums up this phenomenon:

Electronic Music Takes a New Turn: The New Electronic Music by John Rockwell, 1980

8. Laurie Spiegel

The Expanding Universe, 1980

Spiegel (b. 1945) released her debut album The Expanding Universe in 1980. It was re-released in 2019 after a re-mastering from Spiegel. During that year she was interviewed by the following magazine. The album was “a collection of universe-imagining rhythms and harmonies inspired by Bach, the guitarist John Fahey and Appalachian folk, made using Bell Labs’ GROOVE (Generating Real-time Operations On Voltage-controlled Equipment) System between 1974 and 1977” (Laurie Spiegel’s Expanding Universe by Leah Mandel, Crack Magazine, 2019). One of the tracks of this album is titled “Applachian Grove 1” (June 1974) which is linked below. The screen shot below is of Spiegel’s program notes from the 2019 re-release describing how she created each piece and its significance.

Excerpt from Spiegel’s Program Notes

Spiegal guards herself against being labeled as a minimalist but instead focuses on creating a non-violent environment for the listener. Her works were shoved into the limelight when the movie The Hunger Games (2012) used her work “Sediment” in the sound track. Her career is a melding of different interests but she started as a guitarist and theorist. She was introduced to the analogue synthesizer and was fascinated by the colors and textures it could produce in real time. From there, her electronic recording career took off.

During the 2019 interview from the Crack Magazine, Spiegel comments on the onslaught of current technology and information that prevents creative output. Was Spiegel recognizing that her album The Expanding Universe would have been drastically different if created in 2019? Not because of musical technology but because of the advancement of the entire world?

People are always constructing images of themselves for external display. And their creative art, their music, is part of that. There’s an inauthenticity to it that is really different from going out on the back porch with a guitar after a big fight with my parents. It’s about what the music does for us. How it works for us as an individual alone, that has to be a basis for the music that we put out in the world. The music that will touch people the most deeply has to be what comes from the deepest parts of yourself. And it’s so hard to turn off everything else and get in there. (Laurie Spiegel’s Expanding Universe by Leah Mandel, Crack Magazine, 2019)

9. Eliane Radigue

Elimination of Desires, 1998

Radigue (b.1932) and Spiegal worked together in the beginning of their careers and both developed different tastes in music. In 1998, Radigue released her album Songs of Milarepa inspired by her time engaging with Buddhism. Milarepa is a Tibetian poet from the 11th century. Radigue performed on the synthesizer and recording with Robert Ashley (English voice) and Lama Kunga Rinpoche (Tibetan voice). The selection I chose is Elimination of Desires.

“Music: Minimalism of Elaine Radigue” by John Rockwell, New York Times, 1980

The main reason for choosing Radigue and this work (as opposed to an earlier one) is due to her path as a composer. As mentioned above she studied with Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry of the music concrète school of thought (Stockhausen section). She mainly did assistant work of splicing and taping recorded sounds. Later she sided with Henry on aesthetical values of electronic music and left to establish her own voice. From that appeared a more meditative approach to music fueled by her innate urge to express one’s self. From Rockwell’s point of view, what created his bias opinion toward French composers? He states her “credentials are about as solid as a French electronic composer’s can be,” before continuing “at least before Pierre Boulez returned to Paris and started spawning disciples” (second paragraph). Boulez (1925–2016) was a leading avant-garde composer in Paris but what is he doing in an article concerning Radigue? If anything, Radigue should be compared and mentioned alongside Pauline Oliveros (1932- 2016) and her deep listening approach to music.

10. Yaeiji

What We Drew, 2020

Lastly, I want to draw attention to current electronic music in comparison to the evolution we have experienced thus far (and also continue celebrating women). I decided to choose the artist Yaeji and her last album What We Drew (2020) and the title track. It’s an exciting album that uses modern technology to achieve a blend between vocals and electronic beats (remind you of Stockhausen of 1956?)

“Yaeji: What We Drew Review: Dance Music for an Existential Crisis” by Aimee Cliff, The Guardian, 2020

Cliff states in the above review of the album, “As we enter a nightclub-less era of isolation, she timed it eerily well: this is dance music to soundtrack- and soothe- an existential crisis.” In case you’re reading this well into the future, currently we are experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic. Things shut down, people were isolated, many people died, many people discovered peopled did not care that other people were dying, and people became more divided than ever given the political and social climate of the 21st century. The world is at a breaking point where it has already fractured beyond repair. The only thing left is a revamp of its people and while this album is not dealing directly with that, it is a response to everything in the world. Is this how the previous composers felt composing during the World Wars? Can the 20th century art world provide guidance toward the 21st century in terms of humanities grief and suffering? Is life all this bad or is there upbeat dance tunes and songs that are a reflection of the current generations strength and resolve toward a more promising future?

Currently, Western art music is making itself obsolete by ignoring the impact of technology. Looking back, is this what early electronic composers imagined when they were first experimenting with this medium? Did they envision a version of Schillinger’s “music scientest” or Russolo’s “noise-sound” or Schaeffer’s “music concrète”? Or did these ideas evolve into something else to fit the narrative and climate of the modern era? The use of technology in electronic music is a reflection of the modern era and it deserves a space in the Western art canon. It holds a space at the table to be explored for its expressivity and impact in the 20th and 21st Century music.