How Electronic Music Got That Way

A recent review of some electronic music complained that it has too many bleeps and chirrups. This is something like complaining that a symphony has too many flute and clarinet notes (the reviewer was not reviewing the music so much as parading his own prejudices), but I think I understand. Those bleeps and chirrups, along with that robotic reverberation and that inhumanly precise reiteration, are electronic music’s unfortunate legacy of instant clichés, the latter-day incarnation of “unabashed melody.” Unfortunate, yes, but a minor flaw in what has become, in a single generation, the most important new instrument since the piano.

As it happens, these clichés are particularly hard for the electronic composer to avoid because they are so easy to produce by comparison with the tedious difficulty of noteby-note composition in the new medium. But their presence cannot obscure the fact that the medium answers, for the first time in history, the problem of how to get the music to sound exactly the way the composer imagined it: it bypasses that unreliable middleman, the performer, and puts the composer in the position of painters and writers, who do the whole job by themselves, once and for all.

It offers, moreover, a beguiling array of possibilities for the exercise of fantasy in tone colors and textures, a microscopically subtle control of pitch and rhythm, and the opportunity for virtuosity and complexity in quantities limited only by the composer’s imagination and patience. Small wonder the more than a hundred electronic music laboratories across the country are unable to meet the demand for their use.

The word electronic refers to the harnessing of electron flow, traditionally by use of vacuum (radio) tubes, to create soundless wave forms and then transduce them into audibility. Electronic music-making devices followed remarkably soon after the early radios and amplifiers, in the 1920s. The best known are the electronic (Hammond) organ and the eerie theremin, which keened like a musical saw when the performer passed his hands through the air above it.

The most important breakthrough on the way to electronic composition was a reproducing (rather than a performing) device: optical recording. This made use of a photoelectric cell to convert the fast-moving patterns of movie sound tracks into audible sound. It introduced, in a rather unmanageable form, opportunities for the now commonplace manipulation of sound by editing, reversal, and speed changes. This line of evolution was climaxed by the tape recorder, which was developed in Germany during World War II. It stores sounds in the form of patterns of microscopic magnetic particles on the coated plastic tape. With the tape recorder’s convenience and flexibility, the scene was set for electronic composition.

The product, carelessly but irreversibly lumped under the name electronic music, comes in two varieties: the kind that uses microphones to gather sound material, and the kind that doesn’t. The former, best known by its French name, musique concrète, manipulates and transforms natural sounds before they are composed. The latter, “pure” electronic composition, is produced entirely in the laboratory without the aid of anybody’s scraping, blowing, or hitting anything, or, indeed, of anything audible until the final stages. The types are sometimes mixed, as when “live” sounds in the concert hall are picked up by microphones and electronically modified before they emerge to be heard alongside the original sound.

The first successful practitioners of musique concrète were Vladimir Ussachevsky in the United States, Pierre Schaeffer in Paris, and Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. They recorded ordinary sounds from the world around them for use as the material for their compositions. In a remarkable glorification, the sounds of bells, horns, sirens, clocks, footsteps were removed from the everyday realm of noise and elevated to that of meaningful sound.

Although the sounds were usually made unrecognizable by snipping off their beginnings, by playing them backward, and by slowing or speeding the tape (thus lowering or raising the pitch as well), their creators claimed an emotional significance derived from their mundane origins. They maintained that listeners could feel or sense the original source, even when, for instance, a carillon was speeded up to sound like a tuneful doorbell; or water dripping into a tin pot was slowed until it sounded like a kettledrum, or a baby’s cry until it sounded like a baritone groaning in his beer. There is no doubt that a genuine nostalgia is roused by the sound of a locomotive whistling in the distance, or that a soporific or erotic effect derives from the soft crash of surf.

Otto Luening and Ussachevsky joined forces to reveal the possibilities of electronic manipulation of traditional musical sounds—at first, flute and piano. Their original device was the now overfamiliar tape-delay mechanism that produces reverberation or echo effects. Their involvement with the medium led to the establishment of the pioneering Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York.

This laboratory is the location of the original workable RCA Music Synthesizer, a wall-sized bank of “black boxes” that can, theoretically, reproduce any known sound and, with equal facility, sounds hitherto unheard. All that is required is that the operator understand the physical structure of his desired sounds in terms of their fundamental and overtone components and the “envelope” — the nature of the attack and release and the dynamics of what goes on in between.

The basic sound sources of a music synthesizer are oscillators, which generate a wave form that emerges as a pure flutclike tone, and whitenoise generators, whose audible product resembles a combination of escaping steam and a waterfall. The first can be easily made to produce any pitch but must have overtones added faintly above before the sound acquires “color” or “timber.” The second must be filtered — something like forcing that waterfall through a funnel — until a tone of richness and character emerges. A recent recording called the Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music gives, among other fascinating examples, illustrations of the four basic wave forms: the sine wave (pure), sawtooth (resembling a clarinet), square wave (resembling an oboe or bassoon), and the triangular wave (a subtle combination).

To compose for synthesizer, the composer first imagines and notates his creation, much as if he were writing for live performers. Then, using his knowledge of sound-physics as a traditional composer would use his orchestration, he sets up the synthesizer to match the sounds he hears in his head. On the older type of synthesizer, he causes the notes to be reproduced by means of a paper tape in which he has punched holes, causing the mechanism to deliver like a player piano. Later synthesizers have keyboardlike attachments, enabling them to be played like an organ. The punched-tape method is time-consuming but allows the composer to create patterns of hitherto unplayable complexity — cascades of notes, swirling arabesques that flood faster than human fingers, layers of sound as distinct as a terraced hillside.

As the punched tape unreels, the electrical impulses trigger the sound sources, modulators, filters, and the rest, and patterns emerge through loudspeakers and are simultaneously recorded by an ordinary studio tape recorder. Thus the composer builds his composition bit by bit, splicing the segments together until it is complete. The finished tape is duplicated for concert or recording purposes. Synthesizer music by Milton Babbitt and Mario Davidovsky — the modern “classicists” — by Luening, Ussachevsky, Mel Powell, Kenneth Gaburo, and Morton Subotnik, may be selected from Schwann’s record catalogue. Electronic music using the Syn-Ket, a portable “playable” synthesizer, has been composed and recorded by John Eaton.

The reason those bleeps and chirrups and the rest of the clichés appear is that they are semi-automatic, and turned on with a minimum of effort, to fill in embarrassing gaps in the composition. But finding fault with the medium because synthesizers are capable of making bad music is like faulting all piano music because the instrument has a sustaining pedal that can be misused.