posted : 2005.Jun.05 @ 10.42pm
The History of Electronic Music
By Rychard Cooper
From the time when someone first hollowed out a log in order to change it’s tone when it was hit it with a stick,
from the first time someone drilled holes in a sea shell to cause it to produce different pitches when they blew through it,
instrumental music has been made entirely by artificial means.
Musical instruments have always reflected the technology of their time.
A Violin represents the height of seventeenth -century, pre-industrial technology.
The Harpsichord had no dynamics, that is, it had only one volume level. Its evolution into the piano was due to advancements in mechanical technology.
The piano It is a complex machine with lots moving parts, the product of nineteenth-century industrial technology.
The player piano was first developed in 1850 and it became popular among composers including Claude Debussy who said:
“The century of airplanes deserves a music of its own”
In the 1920’s, Leopold Stokowski said,
‘Musical notation cannot by any means express all the possibilities of sound. In time, the musician will create directly into tone, not on paper. Any frequency, any duration, any intensity or combinations of harmony or rhythm. Soon we shall have entirely new methods of tone production by electrical means.
Thus will begin a new era in music’.
A good place to start the history of electronic music is in 1877 When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.
It was a hand-cranked mechanical device made of cogs and gears
but for the first time sound could be stored and played back.
His first recording was ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.
Two years later Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone which converts sound into electric signals
In 1899 when the new electric arc lamps were being installed in London it was soon realized the they made a loud whistling sound.
An electro-physicist named William Duddell was called in to fix them.
When he realized that the pitch of the whistle varied with the fluctuation of the current, he attached a keyboard to the lamp and created the singing arc, the first electronic musical instrument.
In 1906 Canadian scientist Thaddeus Cahill invented the Telharmonium.
The sound was created in a room below by banks of rotating electromagnetic generators.
It weighed 200 tons, and measured 60 feet across.
Cahill’s plan was to broadcast music via telephone lines to restaurants, hotels, and private homes.
The same year, American inventor Lee De Forest creates the Audion, a vacuum tube that allowed for amplification.
Around 1909 an Italian art movement called Futurism was getting started.
It focused on the dynamic, energetic and violent character of 20th century city life.
The Futurist were extremist modernist who emphasized the power of machinery
and some credit them with moving Italy towards fascism.
Among the Futurist was a painter named Luigi Russolo who was one of the first to explore the idea of synaesthesia.
Synaesthesia is when the stimulation of one of the senses causes a sensation in another,
as when hearing a sound produces the visualization of a color.
Russolo’ paintings had titles like ‘A Meeting of Motorcars and Aero planes’, ‘The Awakening of the Great City’ and this one,
‘Dynamism of an Automobile’
In 1913 he published his manifesto the ‘Art of Noise’
Russolo outlines the need for a new music based of a wider acceptability of sound. In it he writes,
‘We are now satiated with Beethoven and Wagner.
We find more enjoyment in the noises of trams, carriages and crowds’.
‘We cannot see that enormous display of power represented by the modern orchestra without feeling profound disappointment at the feeble acoustic results. Is anything more ridiculous than the sight of twenty men furiously bent on redoubling the mewing of a violin? All this will naturally make the music-lovers scream, and will perhaps stir the sleepy atmosphere of the concert halls’.
Russolo also built what he called Noise Machines which were boxes of various sizes, each with a crank in the back, a sound generating mechanism inside, and an amplification horn in front.
According to Russolo, Here are the 6 families of noise in the Futurist orchestra:
1.Rumbles, Roars, Explosions, Crashes, Thuds, and Booms.
2.Whistles, Hisses and Snorts.
3.Whispers, Murmurs, Mutters and Gurgles.
4.Creaks, Rustles, Buzzes, Crackles and Scrapes.
5.Percussion noises of metal, wood, skin, stone etc.
6.The voices of animals and men, including, Shouts, Screams, Groans, Shrieks, Howls, Laughs, Wheezes and sobs.
In Milan, on April 21st 1914, Russolo conducted the ‘Gran Concerto Futuristica’
with an orchestra of 18 formally dresses musicians playing gurglers, cracklers,
howlers, hissers and buzzers.
The audience began throwing vegetables and fist-fights broke out between Futurist and non-Futurist.
In 1915 Lee De Forest found that his vacuum tube could be used as an oscillator, creating sound at a fraction of the cost of the Telharmonium.
He filed a patent entitled ‘Electrical Means for Producing Musical Notes’.
In 1920 The Russian inventor Léon Thérémin created the Theremin.
The instrument uses radio waves to create sound. It has 2 antennas,
one for pitch that sticks straight up and one for volume that is in a loop.
It’s played by changing the distance between your hands and the antennas.
The composers Joesph Schillinger, Edgard Varese, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland all wrote for the instrument.
There was even a Theremin Electrical Symphony which played at Carnegie Hall.
The first virtuoso of the Theremin was Clara Rockmore.
Theremin came to The US in 1927 to promote his instrument.
He lived here until 1938 when he was abducted by Soviet agents and forcibly returned to Russia,
where he ended up in a labor camp.
As it turned out, he had been a Russian Spy who had also invented the first passive electronic bugging device.
In the 1950’s the Theremin was used on the soundtracks of the science fiction films,
‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ and ‘Forbidden Planet’.
In the 1960’s there was a resurgence if interest in the Theremin.
It was used in 1966 on The Beach Boys
It was also used in 1969 on Led Zeppelin’s
Whole Lotta Love’
In 1993 There was a documentary called Leon Theremin the Electronic Odyssey.
In 1923, Maurice Martenot a Cellist and radio Telegraphist, met Leon Theremin.
This meeting lead him to design the Ondes Martenot, which he introduced it at the Paris Opera.
Like the Theremin it used radio waves but has a keyboard attached.
In 1930 he brought the instrument to the US and performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Olivier Messiaen used 6 of them in the ‘Feasts Of The Beautiful Waters’, which was written for an exposition in Paris,
where the music accompanied fountains which had been constructed along the banks of the river Seine.
The music was broadcast from speakers which had been placed on buildings all along the river.
Messiaen’s most famous use of the instrument was in ‘The Turangalila Symphony’.
In the 3rd movement there is a dialogue between the Ondes Martenot and a clarinet.
In 1928 the acoustician Friedrich Trautwein, and the composer Paul Hindemith,
established Berlin’s Experimental Radio Center.
There they invented the Trautonium.
It’s played by the performer pressing their fingers against 2 wires, one for pitch and one for articulation.
Both Hindemith and Richard Strauss wrote for the instrument.
It was also used as the only instrument in the soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock’s film, ‘The Birds’
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