In the 1950s, when technologies were plentiful and the need for reconstruction was great, West Germany began to rebuild its cultural prestige via aesthetic and technical advances. The reclamation and repurposing of wartime machines, spaces, and discourses into the new sounds of the mid-century studio were part of this process.
The studio’s composers, collaborating with scientists and technicians, coaxed music from sine-tone oscillators, noise generators, band-pass filters, and magnetic tape. Together, they applied core tenets from information theory and phonetics, reclaiming military communication technologies as well as fascist propaganda broadcasting spaces.
The electronic studio nurtured a revolutionary synthesis of science, technology, politics, and aesthetics. Its esoteric sounds transformed mid-century music and continue to reverberate today. Electronic music—echoing both cultural anxiety and promise—is a quintessential Cold War innovation.
This according to Electronic inspirations: Technologies of the Cold War musical avant-garde by Jennifer Iverson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).
Below, Herbert Eimert’s and Robert Beyer’s Klangstudie II, one of the first works produced at the WDR studio.
After earning a degree in agricultural engineering in Cairo, Halim El-Dabh traveled to outlying Egyptian villages to assist with agricultural development projects. During these visits he became increasingly drawn to traditional music and dance.
Fascinated by the possibilities of manipulating sound, he borrowed a wire recorder from a Cairo radio station and began recording folk songs, religious rites, and vendors’ cries in the city’s streets. The experience gave rise to an early electronic composition using his recording of the zaar, a traditional exorcism ritual, which he manipulated in the studio.
“I was carving sound,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 1974. “I used noise like I would a piece of stone”.
That work, later released as Wire recorder piece, was well-received, and became one of the catalysts for El-Dabh’s decision to pursue a career as a composer. In the late 1950s he became associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, a hotbed of sonic ferment.
Today would have been El-Dabh’s 100th birthday! Above, a photo by Robert Christy (Kent State University; used with permission); below, Leiyla and the poet, which brought him international recognition in the early 1960s.
BONUS: An excerpt from Wire recorder piece, often cited as the earliest example of musique concrete.
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The volume collects papers from the conference L’Émergence en Musique: Dialogue des Sciences, which was held in Plaisir and Versailles in 2016. This conference explored musical examples of how in certain complex systems radically new properties appear unexpectedly and are characteristic of a higher level of organization; these emergent properties are not found in any individual parts of the system, but occur as an effect of the system as a whole.
Below, a work by Horacio Vaggione, one of the composers who contributed to the book and conference.
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In an analogy to Le Corbusier’s modulor concept, Telemusik is based on a proportional framework constructed on the Fibonacci series, through which so-called Klangobjekte—both found sounds and electronically modulated ones of the most diverse ethnic provenance—acquire musical form.
Still, the limits of the universalism sought by Stockhausen are seen in conspicuous traces of Western compositional practice.
This according to “Universalismus und Exotik in Karlheinz Stockhausens Telemusik” by Peter W. Schatt (Musica: Zweimonatsschrift XLIII/4 [Juli-August 1989] pp. 315–20).
Today would have been Stockhausen’s 90th birthday! Above, the composer around the time of Telemusik; below, the work in question.
Musique concrète has evolved a great deal since its beginnings in the late 1940s; experiments with musique concrète that are presently occurring within the world of electronic dance music (EDM) and other musical genres are quite different from Pierre Schaeffer’s original work.
In 2013 Brian Speise was composing credits music for a short zombie film and thought that the project would be perfect for experimenting with musique concrète. This was not a work of dance music at all, but it had elements of electronic music that producers of EDM can appreciate. Balloons and a grapefruit were brought into play.
The book discusses the visual programming language for music and multimedia known as Max. After over two decades of development and application, Max has become a sort of international lingua franca in practically-oriented music, art, and media institutions. A complete cultural-historical survey is presented, in which the software figures as the product of a specific sphere of aesthetic practice, which retroactively evokes innovative production structures. The focus of the analysis thus becomes the reciprocal influences of technological and artistic production.
Below, a demonstration of Percussa AudioCubes, an electronic musical instrument that allows users to create Max/Msp patches using an OSC server.
The chromochord is a bioelectronic musical instrument that is driven by protein expansion and contraction.
Linked to a laptop computer, the device holds 12 vials, each paired with a different sound. When light shines on one vial the proteins inside swell, changing the wavelength they absorb. A sensor measures the change in absorption and cues the sounds. As one set of proteins slowly expands, the chromochord emits the deep thrum of a bass; as another set quickly shrinks, out comes the sound of glass chimes.
The chromochord was developed by Josiah Zayner, a biophysicist at the University of Chicago, and the composer Francisco Castillo Trigueros. “Scientists see beauty in a well-crafted experiment,” Zayner says. “The chromochord allows other kinds of people to experience that beauty.”
Scrabble™-to-MIDI is a computer-emulated two-dimensional board game that generates MIDI music as the game is played.
The plug-in translator and its configuration parameters comprise a composition. Improvisation consists of playing a unique game and of making ongoing adjustments to mapping parameters during play.
Statistical distributions of letters and words provide a basis for mapping structures from word lists to notes, chords, and phrases. While pseudo-random tile selection provides a stochastic aspect to the instrument, players use knowledge of vocabulary to impose structure on this sequence of pseudo-random selections, and a conductor uses mapping parameters to variegate this structure in up to 16 instrument voices.
For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons. –Iain Chambers, “The … Continue reading →
In 1947 Ella Fitzgerald, already an acclaimed singer of jazz standards, toured with Dizzy Gillespie, immersing herself in the new style known as bebop. Like Dizzy, Ella responded to bebop’s complex harmonies with an infallible ear, and easily translated its … Continue reading →
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s Prove it on me blues affirms her independence from orthodox norms by boldly celebrating her lesbianism. Rainey’s sexual involvement with women was no secret with both colleagues and audiences. The advertisement for the song (above, click … Continue reading →
The American traditional song Go tell Aunt Rhody originated as a gavotte composed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau for his opera Le devin du village (1752). An English version of the opera was produced in London in 1766; subsequently the melody attracted … Continue reading →