Electronic Music History

Electronic music history pre-dates the rock and roll era by decades. Most of us were not even on this planet when it began its often obscure, under-appreciated and misunderstood development. Today, this ‘other worldly’ body of sound which began close to a century ago, may no longer appear strange and unique as new generations have accepted much of it as mainstream, but it’s had a bumpy road and, in finding mass audience acceptance, a slow one.

Many musicians – the modern proponents of electronic music – developed a passion for analogue synthesizers in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s with signature songs like Gary Numan’s breakthrough, ‘Are Friends Electric?’. It was in this era that these devices became smaller, more accessible, more user friendly and more affordable for many of us. In this article I will attempt to trace this history in easily digestible chapters and offer examples of today’s best modern proponents.

To my mind, this was the beginning of a new epoch. To create electronic music, it was no longer necessary to have access to a roomful of technology in a studio or live. Hitherto, this was solely the domain of artists the likes of Kraftwerk, whose arsenal of electronic instruments and custom built gadgetry the rest of us could only have dreamed of, even if we could understand the logistics of their functioning. Having said this, at the time I was growing up in the 60’s & 70’s, I nevertheless had little knowledge of the complexity of work that had set a standard in previous decades to arrive at this point.

The history of electronic music owes much to Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). Stockhausen was a German Avante Garde composer and a pioneering figurehead in electronic music from the 1950’s onwards, influencing a movement that would eventually have a powerful impact upon names such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Brain Eno, Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, not to mention the experimental work of the Beatles’ and others in the 1960’s. His face is seen on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, the Beatles’ 1967 master Opus. Let’s start, however, by traveling a little further back in time.

The Turn of the 20th Century

Time stood still for this stargazer when I originally discovered that the first documented, exclusively electronic, concerts were not in the 1970’s or 1980’s but in the 1920’s!

The first purely electronic instrument, the Theremin, which is played without touch, was invented by Russian scientist and cellist, Lev Termen (1896-1993), circa 1919.

In 1924, the Theremin made its concert debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Interest generated by the theremin drew audiences to concerts staged across Europe and Britain. In 1930, the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York, experienced a performance of classical music using nothing but a series of ten theremins. Watching a number of skilled musicians playing this eerie sounding instrument by waving their hands around its antennae must have been so exhilarating, surreal and alien for a pre-tech audience!

For those interested, check out the recordings of Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore (1911-1998). Lithuanian born Rockmore (Reisenberg) worked with its inventor in New York to perfect the instrument during its early years and became its most acclaimed, brilliant and recognized performer and representative throughout her life.

In retrospect Clara, was the first celebrated ‘star’ of genuine electronic music. You are unlikely to find more eerie, yet beautiful performances of classical music on the Theremin. She’s definitely a favorite of mine!

Electronic Music in Sci-Fi, Cinema and Television

Unfortunately, and due mainly to difficulty in skill mastering, the Theremin’s future as a musical instrument was short lived. Eventually, it found a niche in 1950’s Sci-Fi films. The 1951 cinema classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, with a soundtrack by influential American film music composer Bernard Hermann (known for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, etc.), is rich with an ‘extraterrestrial’ score using two Theremins and other electronic devices melded with acoustic instrumentation.

Using the vacuum-tube oscillator technology of the Theremin, French cellist and radio telegraphist, Maurice Martenot (1898-1980), began developing the Ondes Martenot (in French, known as the Martenot Wave) in 1928.

Employing a standard and familiar keyboard which could be more easily mastered by a musician, Martenot’s instrument succeeded where the Theremin failed in being user-friendly. In fact, it became the first successful electronic instrument to be used by composers and orchestras of its period until the present day.

It is featured on the theme to the original 1960’s TV series “Star Trek”, and can be heard on contemporary recordings by the likes of Radiohead and Brian Ferry.

The expressive multi-timbral Ondes Martenot, although monophonic, is the closest instrument of its generation I have heard which approaches the sound of modern synthesis.

“Forbidden Planet”, released in 1956, was the first major commercial studio film to feature an exclusively electronic soundtrack… aside from introducing Robbie the Robot and the stunning Anne Francis! The ground-breaking score was produced by husband and wife team Louis and Bebe Barron who, in the late 1940’s, established the first privately owned recording studio in the USA recording electronic experimental artists such as the iconic John Cage (whose own Avante Garde work challenged the definition of music itself!).

The Barrons are generally credited for having widening the application of electronic music in cinema. A soldering iron in one hand, Louis built circuitry which he manipulated to create a plethora of bizarre, ‘unearthly’ effects and motifs for the movie. Once performed, these sounds could not be replicated as the circuit would purposely overload, smoke and burn out to produce the desired sound result.

Consequently, they were all recorded to tape and Bebe sifted through hours of reels edited what was deemed usable, then re-manipulated these with delay and reverberation and creatively dubbed the end product using multiple tape decks.

In addition to this laborious work method, I feel compelled to include that which is, arguably, the most enduring and influential electronic Television signature ever: the theme to the long running 1963 British Sci-Fi adventure series, “Dr. Who”. It was the first time a Television series featured a solely electronic theme. The theme to “Dr. Who” was created at the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop using tape loops and test oscillators to run through effects, record these to tape, then were re-manipulated and edited by another Electro pioneer, Delia Derbyshire, interpreting the composition of Ron Grainer.

As you can see, electronic music’s prevalent usage in vintage Sci-Fi was the principle source of the general public’s perception of this music as being ‘other worldly’ and ‘alien-bizarre sounding’. This remained the case till at least 1968 with the release of the hit album “Switched-On Bach” performed entirely on a Moog modular synthesizer by Walter Carlos (who, with a few surgical nips and tucks, subsequently became Wendy Carlos).

The 1970’s expanded electronic music’s profile with the break through of bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, and especially the 1980’s when it found more mainstream acceptance.

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