Early Electronic Music
Thursday, December 9, 2004, 10:57 PM
Technological Limitation and Innovation in Early Electronic Music

The early development of electronic / electroacoustic music had as much to do with research and philosophy as it did with composing. The proponents of this genre concentrated a great deal of effort toward understanding the physical properties of sound, and the characteristics of aural perception. They developed and published many theories and principles, and this research-based aspect played a significant compositional role that was largely unprecedented. Pierre Schaeffer, the 'father' of the genre, claimed that he was disappointed with his inability to really succeed at making good music (Holmes 2002), but he set forth a number of important principles to be used for the meaningful creation of electroacoustic music, thus starting a trend of ideological development influencing the composition of musical works. The great diversity of theories and compositional constructs led to an ever-evolving musical system, where the only constant by which to define the electroacoustic genre was the technical machinery available at the time. The machinery, however, did not have any inherently musically or artistically aesthetic characteristics, so the technological limitations imposed by available equipment, and the innovations of the early composers defined the progress of electroacoustic music by forcing the development of new practices and theories which were necessary for the creation of musically interesting electronic works.

Early in 1948, Pierre Schaeffer began work on the first pieces of what would become known as musique concrète. These Etudes de bruits were premiered in October during the "concert of noises" on the Radiodiffusion-Television Fraçaises (RTF). The five pieces, Etude aux chemins de fer, Etude aux tourniquets, Etude au piano I and II, and Etude aux casseroles, are remarkable for being "composed using only turntable technology" (Holmes 92). At the time, Schaeffer had only: a disc-cutting lathe, four turntables, a four-channel mixer, microphones, audio filters, a reverberation chamber, a portable recording unit for recording new sounds, and sound effect records from the radio station library (Holmes 2002) 1. His ability to modify recordings in the course of creating a piece of music was severely limited to what could be done with turntables. He could play sounds backward as well as forward, and he could speed up or slow down the playback. In addition, by deliberately breaking the groove on a record, he was able to create sound loops, but the duration of the loop was "determined by the rotational speed of the turntable: approximately 0.8 seconds at a standard playback speed of 78rpm" (Manning 2003).

Using the limited technology at hand, Schaeffer was able to isolate sounds using several turntables and a volume control. He later dubbed these sounds, objets sonores. The juxtaposition of these objets sonores played a major roll in the creation of the Etudes de bruits. The Etudes were musically significant because "the act of composing music was accomplished by technological means; the way in which the organization of sounds was created was as important to the outcome as the sounds themselves" (Holmes 2002). The concept of objets sonores is particularly dependent upon the technological medium. An object sonore could not exist in traditional music, because it is impossible to reproduce exact copies of sound, or to juxtapose those copies, without the use of electronics. Likewise, traditional notions of pitch and voice-leading were not applicable to the music being created. In order to create music with the new technology at hand, Schaeffer had to create a new paradigm for composing music, and did so quite explicitly.

In 1951, with the founding of the Studio d'Essai in Paris, Schaeffer, along with his associates, Jacques Poullin, and Pierre Henry, began to create music using the tape recorder, and thus were no longer limited to using the disc-cutting lathe. The initial reaction to this new technology, however, was certainly not that of an avowed technophile. While the tape recorder dramatically expanded the range of ways in which an objet sonore could be augmented, the "initial reaction was singularly unenthusiastic" (Manning 1985). The machinery they had become accustomed to working with had "fostered a methodology such that its limited facilities had become a major part of the musical process" (Manning 1985). There was significant worry that the introduction of a new technology would alter the course of musique concrète in a way that would abandon their ideals.

Around the same time in Cologne, Germany, another electronic music movement was underway. Limited to much the same recording equipment as was available in Paris at the time, the proponents of Elektronische Musik at Cologne Radio, namely Herbert Eimert and Werner Meyer-Eppler, created a very different music that they saw as the direct continuation of the Second Viennese School serialism. Their music, in stark contrast with Musique Concrète, initially forbade the use of concrète sounds, and relied on the creation of novel sounds by additive synthesis, restricted to sine waves. This method allowed for total control over timbral characteristics, and was based on Fourier's principles of spectral analysis. Given that the Cologne studio only had one sine wave generator, this "quest for a pure electronic serialism" (Manning 1985) was quite an undertaking, but the over-intellectualized serial ideology is striking in its complete, and explicit, rejection of musical emotion.

These two different attitudes toward electroacoustic music underline a fundamental difference in the French and German approaches to electroacoustic composition. In the case of the French Studio d'Essai, the composer starts "with a collection of potential sound sources, offering a range of characteristics with which he may experiment, building up from the results of such investigations the elements for a complete composition" (Manning 1985). With this approach, the important distinction is that the material precedes the structure (Holmes 2002). Such a process implies aesthetic judgements on the part of the composer, as the composer has to pick which materials will work together in order to make a coherent musical statement. The difficulty involved in making these aesthetic judgements necessitated formal theories with which to relate elements.

To facilitate the selection of materials, and the construction of the structure, Schaeffer grouped his objet sonores typologically and morphologically into three groups: continuous, iterative, and impulsive. He then developed a wide variety of classifications, which he called solfège concrète. The solfège classified sounds based on their time structure, as well as by "value judgements" on the nature of the sounds and how they are manipulated. As a part of the solfège, he developed a series of criteria for evaluation of what he called plans de référence, which included plan mélodique, plan dynamique, and plan harmonique. These three plans set out a specific way of classifying sounds by how they are perceived based on their pitch, intensity, and timbre. These classifications and criteria formed the basis of an operational language for the characteristics of the sonic events making up a piece.

In Cologne, under the direction of Herbert Eimert, the structure was all-important. In contrast to Schaeffer's concentration on concrète materials, the Cologne studio chose the opposite compositional attitude, whereby the composer starts "by developing a clear concept of the sound structures he wishes to achieve" (Manning 1985). As noted by Malcolm Macdonald, "whereas the spirit behind Schaeffer's experiments seemed more poetic and anecdotal, the Cologne enterprise -- closely linked from the first with the Darmstadt Ferienkurse -- aimed at something like a 'pure' electronic music whose theoretical premises were a kind of technological extension of serialism" (MacDonald 2003). This "pure" electronic music, however, did not extend serialism in a way that was consistent with the philosophies of Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern. Their attitude toward their own music was not of strict anti-emotive intellectuality. They believed their compositions to be directly related to the works of the 18th and 19th century composers of the First Viennese School. And so, while Eimert's group did in fact use serial processes, the aesthetic of their music was perhaps less influenced by the Second Viennese School than it was by the fall of the Third Reich, and the subsequent desire to distance themselves from the emotionality of propaganda music.

In 1953, Karlheinz Stockhausen began his tenure at the Cologne studio, and his initial works were Studie I and Studie II. These works followed the strict serialism taught by Eimert, and helped push forward the use of echo and reverberation, bringing about a need for new reverberation technologies. While the Cologne studio was initially equipped with a reverberation chamber, they eventually were able to use plate reverb, which gave them the ability to modify various parameters of the reverberation. Thus, they were no longer constrained to the single reverberation characteristic of a chamber.

In his continuing work, Stockhausen seemingly began to grow tired of the strict requirements of Elektronische Musik, and began to implement techniques and concepts that were more typical of Musique Concrète. His next piece, Gesang der Jünglinge, while still following strictly serial procedures, "provided a major turning-point in the artistic development of the studio" (Manning 1985). Instead of relying only on purely synthesized sounds, he also used recordings of a boy's voice as compositional material. This simple act, which helped to combine the two schools of thought regarding early electroacoustic music, started a trend which would culminate with Stockhausen eventually succeeding Eimert as the director of the Cologne studio in 1963.

Stockhausen developed his own set of principles to guide his music making. He set out concepts such as Unified Time Structuring, whereby he proposed that any tone, when slowed down to a low enough tempo, would create a unique rhythm, which would be an ideal complement to the texture of the tone. While based on physical fact (tones can be slowed down to create rhythms, and rhythms can be sped up to create tones), the lack of any real psychoacoustic evidence for the complementary nature of these rhythms with their textures didn't hinder the ability of his theory to work well as a compositional tool.

Another important aspect of Gesang der Jünglinge, and Stockhausen's next piece Kontakte, was the concept of space and movement of sound.

In my 'Gesang der Jünglinge' I attempted to form the direction and movement of sound in space, and to make them accessible as a new dimension in musical experience. The work was composed for 5 groups of loudspeakers, which should be placed around the listeners in the hall. From which side, by how many loudspeakers at a time, whether rotation to left or right, whether motionless or moving -- how the sounds and sound groups are projected into space: all this is decisive for a comprehension of the work (Stockhausen, quoted in Heikinheimo 1972).

Stockhausen went on to posit that sound can be thought of spatially not only as positional, but as multi-layered. In his words, "not only does the sound move around the listener at a constant distance, but it can also move as far away as we can imagine, and also come extremely close" (Stockhausen 1971). He made several observations about what makes something sound close to us, and what makes it sound far away. As a sound producing object moves farther away from us, it tends to take on more distortion, so purer sounds seem as if they are closer to us. He also made use of layering and masking in order to make some sounds disappear behind a closer sound, only to be revealed once again.

As should be fairly obvious at this point, the pioneers of electroacoustic music were full of ideas and theories about sound, and about how to manipulate it effectively. For the first time in history, composers were able to localize and copy sound bites, and to make transformations impossible to reproduce in the natural world. Many important technological advances were made over the years, but through strict principles of composition and the development of novel sonic theories, the early proponents of electroacoustic music were able to create a music which, while being defined by the innovative use of recording technology, continued to develop as a coherent musical genre throughout the technological advances being made.

--Tom Gersic


Camilleri, Lelio. (1993). "Electro-Acoustic Music: Analysis and Listening Processes." URL: http://www.sonus-online.org/pdf/camilleri.PDF.

Heikinheimo, Seppo. (1972). The Electronic Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Helsinki: Sanomapaino Oy.

Holmes, Thom. (2002). Electronic and Experimental Music. New York: Routledge.

MacDonald, Malcolm. (2003). Varèse. Astronomer in Sound. London: Kahn & Averill.

Manning, Peter. (1985). "Paris and Musique concrète." 19-42. Electronic and Computer Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Manning, Peter. (1985). "Clogne and Elektronische Musik." 43-78. Electronic and Computer Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Manning, Peter (2003). "The Influence of Recording Technologies on the Early Development of Electroacoustic Music". 5-10. Leonardo Music Journal 13.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz. (1971). "Four Criteria of Electronic Music." 88-111. Stockhausen on Music. Compiled by Robin Maconie. London: Marion Boyars.