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The early history of American electronic music can be found on pages one to three on this very website. The start of the music and the meaning of the prestigious Columbian-Princeton Electronic Music Center under guidance of Vladimir Ussachevsky is well known : "I suddenly realized that the tape recorder could be treated as an instrument of sound transformation." He started life performances using a simple tape recorder and some technical ‘tricks’ like reverb. Otto Luening in the public was astonished an later on asked Ussachevsky to cooperate on various occasions: "Equipped with earphones and a flute, I began developing my first tape-recorder composition. Both of us were fluent improvisators and the medium fired our imaginations." The team was asked to perform for a concert organized by the American Composers Alliance and Broadcast Music, Inc. Henry Cowell opened his studio and some other equipment was borrowed. After just two month Ussachevsky and Luening peformed their first Tape Music Concert (1952).
At the same time in New York people like John Cage (left), Earle Brown, David Tudor and Morton Feldman were heavily busy producing tapes as The Music for Magnetic Tape Project (1954-1957). Before the start of this project Morton Feldman had already composed his Marginal Intersection (1951) for instruments and oscillators and sound effects. Cage constructed his famous Williams Mix (1953).
In 1954 Edgard Varèse returned from Europe with the tape parts for Déserts which he constructed in the same studio Schaeffer worked in. The parts show his influence in being more on the Musique Concrete side than pure electronic . Déserts would grow out to be one of the most important pieces in the electronic field although that was only part of the composition which also included orchestral parts. The German premiere was conducted by Bruno Maderna and no one less than Karlheinz Stockhausen operated the control panel. The same piece was performed for French Radio as the first stereo broadcast ever. "Déserts stand for all physical deserts (of sand, sea, snow, of outer space, of empty streets), but also for the deserts in the mind of man; not only those stripped aspects of nature that suggest bareness, aloofness, timelessness, but also that remote inner space no telescope can reach, where man is alone, a world of mystery and essential loneliness."
In 1958 the RCA Mark II was finally ready to be used, it was the first synthesizer, although you couldn´t take it under your arm and perform on stage. The apparatus was as big as a room. Ussachevsky and Luening were kind of the god fathers of the machine, but it was used by others like Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, Halim El-Dabh, Bülent Arel and Charles Wuorinen. Not everybody was allowed to work with the Mark II, you had to have a certain degree in your musical education. The reason why ´amateur ´ Tod Dockstader wasn´t allowed in.
Slowly computers creep up in electronic music. The first computer to play something like music was CSIRAC (desigend and built by Trevor Pearcey and Maston Beard). Max Mathews developed his MUSIC I program and Raymond Scott developed his Clavivox.
Once again Edgard Varèse banged on the electronic door with his Poème Électronique. A piece for hundreds of speakers in a building in which the public was literally drowned in sound. Again a small step for men but a giant leap for mankind. Nowadays Varèse is often seen as the grandfather of electronic music or one of the most important people in the field. Varèse was invited (a honor) in the studio of Columbia Princeton. Assisted by Davidovsky and Arel he started a new version of the electronic parts for Déserts. To this day both versions exist, the first ones are much rougher and more exciting.
In 1963 another kind of synthesizer appeared in the studios, the Buchla, embraced by Morton Subotnick who created his Silver Apples of the Moon with it.
Because of the success of Columbia Princeton Subotnick opened a new studio in San Francisco, the San Francisco Tape Music Center (1963). He was accompanied by Pauline Oliveros (left) and Terry Riley. Oliveros was one of the first woman to conquer the world of electronic noises and would become a remarkable figure in the field. She later moved the Tape Music Center to Mills College. It still exists as Center for Contemporary Music. Riley would become very famous with his tape loops as in his A Rainbow in Curved Air. Hus use of tape loops would influence lots of people, but also European bands as Soft Machine and specially Daevid Allen, who used them frequently for his ´space´ band Gong.

In 1960, John Cage composed Cartridge Music, one of the earliest live-electronic works. Electronic music was developing from a speaker-performance in front of you into a more surround sound in which the public could move or the sound could move. Experiments were done with more speakers. In 1962 the first Audium concert took place. It seemed astonishing to do so, but don’t forget the experience people had in 1958 in Brussels in the Philips Pavilion at the World Art Fare with the Poème Électronique. More and more performances became happenings in which anything could happen. Music would go on forever, people were invited to have their lunch during the performance or walk around, come on stage, in one happening Cage would wash his hair. It would be a starting point for the Fluxus movement. In fact Cage started it already in the fifties, but without the name. Maybe the ultimate composition in this setting is Cage’s 4:33. It is what it is, silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. A piano player attempts to play, but never does so the sounds around you become the play and suddenly you are in the middle of it. Tempting! His HPSCHD was just as surprising. The piece for harpsichord (thus the name HPSCHD) was performed on a chance operation. The harpsichord was mixed with 51 computer generated tapes and played with random chosen projections. More live electronics were performed (1961-1966) at Ann Arbor. Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley and guests would perform on a yearly bases at the ONCE festival, which would sometimes grow into multimedia theater.
At the end of the sixties things started to happen fast, new machines were developed as the Moog synthesizer, Wendy Carlos performed her Switched on Bach which left people perplexed, but also in classical music as well in pop music electronics were used.
In the gulfstream of Terry Riley, Steve Reich (left) and Philip Glass developed their minimalistic music. Both worked with projections and electronics. Reich’s Pendulum Music existed of some microphones hanging on stage. One or two people would swing the microphones back and forth so they could give an uncontrolled feedback sound. Come Out is a collage of sounds he recorded on the streets, they were mixes in a way that a repetitive pattern would grow out of it. Some goes for a performance would tape decks with the same piece. They were started at the same time, but since very deck would have its limitations the music slowly didn’t synchronize anymore and a new piece would develop.
In pop music Frank Zappa was one of the first to realize the impact of the Moog. Zappa was very much influenced by Edgard Varèse. From his early recordings on he worked with electronics, tape manupulation, Musique Concrete and lots of sound effects. His first album Freak Out (1966) has one site which is one collage of sounds. His first ‘serious’ work Lumpy Gravy has two sides full of experimentation as does his magnum opus Uncle Meat, which is the first record to have Robert Moog’s VCO’s as is written on the inner sleeve. His swan song album Civilization Phase III was performed and the Synclavier and had snippets of sound recordings from people talking in the inside of a piano.

Of course there were more musicians and bands working with electronics in music. Phil Spector produced his ‘wall of sound’ by using the studio as a tool, Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) used electronics for lots of his compositions (PEt Sounds, Smile). Jimi Hendrix played guitar, but used anything (even fire) he could lay his hands on to manipulate his sound to an astonishing range.

Being a busy country lots of the so called ‘music for relaxation’ or New Age music come out of the US. Mostly a soft and weak electronic ‘carpet’ with bells and bird sounds. It’s far away from the sometimes screeching and uncontrolled sounds in early electronic music. Is this the ultimate from of electronic music, or is electronic music still a music to shock people? Time will tell, but until now most developments in electronic music today come from Europe.



The Music for Magnetic Tape Project
l-r: Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, John Cage,
David Tudor, and Morton Feldman


Edgard Varèse


Morton Subotnick with Buchla


Terry Riley


John Cage


Once Festival


Pendulum Music - Steve Reich


Brian Wilson


Jimi Hendrix