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A Different Kind of Roots

The 3-CD "OHM" collection revisits the dawn of electronic music.

Once upon a time, there was “music,” and there was “electronicmusic.” 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 playedby 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 doorsof university studios, or by longhaired, unkempt bohemians in lofts inold warehouse districts, and listened to by…well, not too manypeople.

But I was one of them. I got into electronic music at a veryimpressionable age, thanks to my older brother, who would bring homethese weird records from his college radio station and New York’sfree-form Pacifica radio station, WBAI. I created my first electronicpiece – involving a Sony 3-head tape recorder, an electric guitar, akit-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 forcollege, and I was thrilled to learn the techniques from the people whohad been my personal heroes, to get a chance to play with some of thecoolest equipment on the planet.

But when I realized that at just about every sparsely attendedelectronic music concert I went to, the people in the audience werelimited pretty much to those who had been onstage at the last concert,and vice versa, and I decided that a career in this rarefied fieldmight not be for me. A dozen years later, however, the audiences hadcaught 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 atan incredible rate and reach an ever-widening audience, few peopletoday question the use of electronic sound manipulation, sampling andsynthesis in the music they make or listen to. But most don’t realizethat not so long ago, to put “music” and “electronics” in the samesentence was considered very strange. If you walked into a record storeand asked for “electronic music,” you either got a blank stare or weredirected to the oddball section out back, with the novelty, soundeffects and hi-fi demonstration records (“includes a real game ofPing-Pong in incredible stereo!”).

Since then, electronically produced and modified sounds have becomeso essential to music production that the distinction between”electronic” and “non-electronic” music has all but disappeared. Infact, the majority of sound-manipulation techniques used in the modernrecording studio evolved directly out of the work of electronic musicpioneers. Even the most outrageous experimenters in the pop world inthe ’60s and ’70s were rediscovering what the electronic crowd createdyears before.

George Martin and Geoff Emerick throwing random bits of tape in theair during the making of Sgt. Pepper? John Cage did the same thing inWilliams Mix in 1952. Jimi Hendrix changing tape speed by severaloctaves on Electric Ladyland? Otto Luening’s Low Speed, 1952, andLuciano Berio’s Thema, 1956. Robert Fripp’s “Frippertronics” and PinkFloyd’s moody tape-loop pieces? Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux Chemins deFer, 1948. The relentlessly pulsating VCS-3 synthesizer of PeteTownshend onWho’s Next? Raymond Scott’s Cindy Electronium, 1959. TheMC5’s and The Stooges’ concert-long feedback orgies? RobertAshley’sWolfman, 1964. Keith Emerson’s swooping sawtooth waves in”Lucky Man”? Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique, 1958.

For a long time, even after the 1967 release of Wendy Carlos’spectacularly successful Switched-On Bach, which was the firstsignificant attempt to introduce synthetic sounds into the musicalmainstream, people still didn’t know what to make of this new genre.The Schwann catalog, the bible of recorded music, had no category whereit could fit: It wasn’t really classical, it wasn’t exactly pop andputting it in the “Miscellaneous” section, where the sound effectsrecords went, didn’t seem right. So they created a new section,”Electronic Music.” In it was lumped everything from Carlos’ work, tothe cheesiest synthesizer renditions of pop tunes (“Everything YouAlways Wanted to Hear on the Moog” – not!), to the serious experimentscoming out of the studios of the American and European avant-garde.

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

Ellipsis Arts, you may recall, is the company that put togetherGravikords, Whirlies, and Pyrophones, a book/CD about experimental andunique instruments that I talked about in this column a couple of yearsago. OHM, which was produced by New York writer Jason Gross andGerman-born, Vancouver-based music maven Thomas Ziegler, with the helpof a couple small Vancouver project studios, shows the same attentionto detail, excellent graphic design and superb sonics.

There are 42 selections in all, spread over three CDs – somecomplete works and some excerpts. The producers give equal time to therelatively well-known nexuses, such as the Columbia-PrincetonElectronic Music Center, the West German Radio studio in Cologne andthe more obscure composers and collaboratives. We hear from the MusicaElettronica Viva, a group of American expatriates in Rome whose musicfeatured “homemade” instruments like contact microphones attached tofound objects and owed more to Coltrane-style free jazz than thepost-Webern serialism favored by the university types. There’s theINA-GRM group from Paris, whose work dates back to the musique concreteexperiments of Pierre Schaeffer in the early ’50s, and is still goingon in the form of developing sophisticated software products for moderncomputer-music systems. And there’s the Sonic Arts Union, representedby the interactive and automated pieces of Robert Ashley, David Behrmanand Alvin Lucier.

The large variety of techniques that electronic composers employedover the years is well represented: tape and digital manipulation ofrecorded sounds, real-time and computer-controlled analog and digitalsynthesis, “chance” music, composing automata (press a button and apiece comes out), interactive installations that makes use of thingslike swinging microphones and moving bodies, and much more.

Rather than try to break the music down into categories, OHMpresents the pieces in roughly chronological order, starting from ClaraRockmore’s ’20s-vintage arrangement of a waltz by Tchaikovsky forTheremin and piano (from a recording made in 1977) and ending withBrain Eno’s late ’70s Unfamiliar Winds (Leeks Hills). In between aresome rare gems. Raymond Scott, the ’30s composer of “cartoon jazz,” hada huge homemade synthesis and automatic composing system, called theelectronium, in his basement, and we hear two minutes of intriguing,previously unreleased noodlings from the beast. Olivier Messaien, themystical French composer whose music was inspired by bird songs andother natural sounds, was a champion of the electronic instrument theOndes Martenot. Although several pieces in which he used the instrumentare well known, I never realized that he wrote a piece for an entireensemble of the things, with no other instruments. Here it is, in a new1998 performance, and it is stunningly beautiful.

Oskar Sala, a German composer perhaps best known for creating soundeffects for Hitchcock’s The Birds, wrote richly textured pieces for aunique live-performance instrument of his own design, the”Mixturtrautonium,” which are almost impossible to find today. But heis here with a charming selection from his Elektronische Tanzsuite (youdo the translation). LaMonte Young, a legend of the New York downtownscene of the ’60s and ’70s whose work has recently only been availableon bootlegs made by a small but rabid group of fans, is featured in anexcerpt from one of his Drift Studies. Two sine waves, tuned to a ratioof 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” musicmade since then seem unnecessarily cluttered.

And arguably the greatest of all early electronic pieces, EdgardVarese’s Poeme Electronique, commissioned for the 1958 Brussels WorldFair and designed to be played over 425 (!) loudspeakers in a buildingby famed architect Le Corbusier that was shaped like the inside of acow’s stomach (!!), is here in a (stereo) version so clean and crisp itsounds like it was recorded yesterday. Stark, spare and incrediblyemotive, I guarantee that if you listen to it loud, with the lightsoff, you won’t need to listen to any more music for a while.

During these early days, many composers were forced to create forthemselves the devices to make the sounds they heard in theirimaginations – and thus was born the “musician as technician,” acombination of disciplines that once seemed very foreign, but intoday’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 ofthese inventors, and their devices and techniques were created entirelyfor art’s sake. Few received much fortune or fame for their efforts,despite the fact that the technologies they created have become part ofthe mainstream.

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

The inventor of FM synthesis was not a Japanese engineer. He was aStanford composer, John Chowning, whose goal was to broaden the sonicvocabulary of computer-generated sound and achieve greater precisionand control over his music. He didn’t set out to create a technologythat would end up bringing in more revenue to the university, bylicensing it to Yamaha, than any other patent in its institutionalhistory. One of Chowning’s early experiments with the concept, Stria,from 1977, points the way to the digital synthesis that would definethe music of the next two decades. Charles Dodge, then at ColumbiaUniversity, was a pioneer in computer speech synthesis andmanipulation, and we get to hear a selection from his wonderful 1972group of “Speech Songs” based on poems by Mark Strand, He Destroyed HerImage, in which the bardic voice is literally destroyed by thecomputer. And if you think real-time interactive control oversynthesizers only began with MIDI, listen to the 1974 AppalachianGrove, a delightful bluegrass-inspired piece realized late at night onthe computers at Bell Labs in New Jersey by “resident hippie” LaurieSpiegel.

OHM also demonstrates how aesthetically diverse the world ofelectronic music has always been. In the hands of its manypractitioners, 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 PendulumMusic, in a new recording by Sonic Youth), downright ugly. Perhaps,fortunately, all the pieces on OHM are relatively short. While manycomposers (like John Cage) could create pieces that went on literallyfor days, nothing in this collection lasts more than eight minutes -where the producers wanted a longer piece to be included, they took anexcerpt of the piece, sometimes suggested by the composer, andsometimes using their own judgment.

The sonic quality of the recordings is remarkably good, especiallyconsidering the age of some pieces. The only audible noise is on theClara Rockmore recording, which is actually a little surprisingconsidering it was made in the late ’70s. I have heard one of theoriginal 2-track masters of the Varese, and this CD sounds better thanthat – I really don’t know how or why. Todd Simko, owner of ChateauShag, a project studio in Vancouver, did most of the mastering for theproject, and he says that all of the works came in already digitized,either on CD or DAT, from transfers that were often supervised by thecomposers (which speaks well for their ability to keep up withtechnology), their students or associates. Simko’s job, he says, wasrelatively simple, mostly consisting of matching levels. His tool ofchoice, interestingly, was Mark of the Unicorn’s Digital Performer,occasionally employing the Ray-gun plug-in to remove some hiss andrumble, but using no other processing besides an occasional bit of EQ.There’s plenty of tape distortion in many of the pieces (and in theLaMonte Young piece, some bias noise, something you don’t hear much anymore), but that’s part of the character, and indeed the charm, of themusic.

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

Even on three CDs (and with the music packed so tightly together, tofit as much as possible on each disc, it’s sometimes hard to know whereone piece ends and the next begins), it’s impossible to cover the hugespectrum of electronic music, even within the 32-year span. Co-producerThomas Ziegler says that although using 1980 as a cutoff date madesense, in that the mainstreaming of electronic music was well under wayby then, plenty of electronic music continued to be produced after thatdate. And, of course, there was plenty of earlier music that he wouldhave liked to include, as well.

The legal and logistical issues involved in such a project were, asyou might imagine, tremendous. “What appeared on the final productchanged considerably from our initial list,” Ziegler says. LucianoBerio, for example, doesn’t appear in the collection, because thecomposer’s agents proved difficult to reach. A piece by Gordon Mummacame in too late to be included. The pieces by Robert Ashley and SteveReich that ended up on disc were different from what the producersoriginally wanted, because the composers didn’t like the originalchoices.

But the effort was so rewarding, and hopefully so successful, thatZiegler is thinking there might be a Volume Two of OHM. If so, I wouldlike to humbly offer some recommendations for pieces I think would beextremely educational for modern ears to hear, pieces that inspired meto get into the field: Mario Davidovsky’s brilliant juxtapositions ofreal instruments with tape in his “Synchronisms” Series; Berio’selectronic fantasies based on the voice of his wife, the incrediblesinger Cathy Berberian; the dazzling musique concrete pieces from thelate ’60s by the young Turkish composer Ilhan Mimaroglu; and thefar-ahead-of-its-time electronic rock of a group called the UnitedStates of America led by Joseph Byrd.

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

The archives of Paul’s Insider Audio columns now lives here.