The State of Electronic Music: 1972

  • PDF:

The field of electronic music grew so rapidly during the last fifteen years that composers and listeners came to expect that its role in our musical culture, like our economy, could only expand. I choose the comparison to the economy because there is a direct as well as a casual correspondence. People are beginning to realize that the principle of continual expansion is threatening our continued existence, and I suspect that audiences are reacting similarly to the continued emphasis on the "newest" musical experience. It is important to differentiate between the concepts of expansion and evolution. It is not so much change that bothers the critics as it is our casting aside everything but the latest trend. The recent attention being paid to the music of Virgil Thomson, Harry Partch and Stefan Wolpe is, I believe, an attempt to reevaluate music which was important but which was neglected in the search for newness.

I do not mean to imply that new composers must now remain obscure while we concentrate on music of the recent past. Rather, I think that the recent past must share the limelight with the avant-garde.

There seems to be less discussion about electronic music today for two reasons. First, people have begun to accept it as one medium of musical expression along with others. Second, the commercial exploitation of electronic sound, from the Beatles to Switched-on-Bach, has subsided, like all trends which the music business exploits and the "soft-sound" is back again.

Yet there are more and more electronic music studios in colleges and universities because composers finally are able to convince their colleagues that a synthesizer is not a popular toy but a serious compositional tool. The price of electronic music equipment has become low enough for a studio to cost $7,500. instead of $50,000. as it did just a few years ago.

In the summer of 1972 Hubert Howe (Queens College), John Rogers (University of New Hampshire) and I conducted an institute for college teachers so that these teachers might return to their own campuses and set up a program in electronic music, having had an opportunity to work with the several different approaches and systems now being used to make electronic music. There were several other institutes given last summer, one in Massachusetts for high school music teachers given by Electronic Music Studios of Amherst. Numerous public school systems around the country are now offering electronic music instruction in their curriculums.

On the technological front, one might say that the effort of the past few years has been more in the direction of improving existing systems rather than in developing entirely new ones. Improvements in circuit design have reduced the cost and enlarged the capability of voltage-controlled synthesizer systems. The publication of several books which are useful to most studios attests to the stability of technical developments at the present time.1 Computer generated music is being created using similar systems, and programs are being simplified and coordinated so that colleges and universities can use their own computers to begin making music without first having to spend months or years on research and system design.

One technical development which is bringing the different kinds of electronic music closer together is the use of analog-to-digital converters, which make it possible to store or record sound in a computer and then retrieve it at will in altered form. Readers may remember that in the early history of electronic music a sharp, ideological distinction was made between musique concrète, using natural sounds, and "pure" electronic music, using electronically generated signals. The early use of computers to make electronic music tended to intensify this distinction until very recently. Systems are now being developed by Charles Dodge at Columbia University and by personnel at the Bell Laboratories, that will enable composers to encode or store concrète material in a computer memory by means of an analog-to-digital converter. Once stored, the material can be modified in any number of ways and then, combined or not with new material, returned to the composer for inspection using a digital-to-analog converter. Ultimately, this new approach will free the composer from the restrictions imposed by either the conventional tape studio or the traditional computer synthesis of sound.

Another technological development makes it possible for students to interact with a computer-driven synthesizer system in real time using a teletype and/or a display screen. At the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University the system is used for response games with disturbed children, by theory students who use the system for learning traditional harmony, and by composers who can create a score, modify it, and hear the results immediately. Theory and composition students at the University of Utah are now using a "musicational organ" in their studies. The system consists of a $2,500. electric organ, a $4,000. computer and an ordinary graphics display television screen. This equipment is linked together so that the composer can create music at the keyboard (however slowly he desires), see a notated version of the piece on the graphic display unit, make necessary corrections, and hear the piece replayed, at tempo, when he has finished.

A similar program has been developed at the National Research Council of Canada, and the number of voices and timbral possibilities are being enlarged. The Canadian system has been used mostly by composers for film scores and commercial music, but a secondary school computer music project under the auspices of the National Arts Centre is underway.

At Dartmouth College we have just begun instituting a system like the ones described above, not only into our theory and composition courses, but into a new general introductory course which I am offering jointly with a colleague. Following the lead of music departments like the one at the University of California at San Diego, we believe that the best way for the non-musician to learn about music, and especially new music, is to perform and compose it. We begin the composition instruction by giving the students ten musical sounds which they can call-up and study at the computer terminal in the Music Department. They then design small pieces using these sounds. The designs are in the form of scores which they invent to describe as best they can the sounds and their intentions. The student working on the system will usually modify his piece once he sits down and hears his first efforts. Gradually, the vocabulary of sounds is enlarged and more complicated forms and structures are suggested. If the student shows talent, he can continue to work with the system in subsequent terms. At the same time that the student is "composing" he is also performing in small ensembles under the direction of my colleague, Christian Wolff. He may use conventional instruments, instruments of his own design, or simply noise makers or vocal sounds.

It is too early to give an evaluation of the various systems and approaches described above, but I think they demonstrate how electronic music has become part of the mainstream of musical activity and thought.

Much has been written about multi-media presentations, and most of us have been dismayed with productions whose sole raison d'être has been to bring music, lights, theatre, and dance together. I believe that this initial infatuation has passed away, along with the "happening," and that serious artists are collaborating as they always have, on the basis of ideas which can best be projected by more than one artistic medium. Certainly, the collaboration of composers with choreographers and film makers has increased dramatically at colleges and universities with the recent increase in film departments and as dance programs free themselves from the restrictions often imposed by physical education departments.

The dissemination and presentation of electronic music which is not performed or which is not combined with other media still remains a problem. Although the latest Schwann Record and Tape Guide lists, in a special section, over one hundred different recordings of electronic music, these recordings reflect only the surface of present day compositional activity in this area. As I said earlier, the electronic music "fad" is over, and record companies are as cautious in their approach to new music as they have always been. This is partly because they do not know how to reach the audience for electronic music and also because the audience is still small compared to the one for Beethoven, James Taylor, or even Frank Zappa. A similar problem exists in Europe, and composers there have recently started their own small cooperative recording companies. The question of distribution still remains a strong obstacle between composers and their audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

In summary what we can observe about the state of electronic music is that confrontation has been replaced by the integration of this new music into our musical and cultural life. This is most obvious in our colleges and universities, as it should be.

1See Jon H. Appleton and Ronald C. Perera (Eds.), The Development and Practice of Electronic Music, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973; Elliott Schwartz, Electronic Music: A Listener's Guide, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973; and Allen Strange, Electronic Music, Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Co., 1972.

Read 1539 times

Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

Go to top