Introduction

120 Years Of Electronic Music.
October 2016

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120 Years of Electronic Music* is a project that outlines and analyses the history and development of electronic musical instruments from around 1880 onwards. This project defines ‘Electronic Musical Instrument’ as an instruments that generate sounds from a purely electronic source rather than electro-mechanically or electro-acoustically (However the boundaries of this definition do become blurred with, say, Tone Wheel Generators and tape manipulation of the Musique Concrète era).

The focus of this project is in exploring the main themes of electronic instrument design and development previous to 1970 (and therefore isn’t intended as an exhaustive list of recent commercial synthesisers or software packages.) As well as creating a free, encyclopaedic, pedagogical resource on the History of Electronic Music (and an interesting list for Synthesiser Geeks) my main interest is to expose and explore musical, cultural and political narratives within the historical structure and to analyse the successes and failures of the electronic music ‘project’, for example;

 Modes of interaction for performers and composers: Atonality and just intonation as a theme in instrument design.

The ideas put forward in Ferrucio Busoni’s ‘Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music’ (1907) inspired a generation of composers to explore micro-tonal and varied intonation and Hermann von Helmholtz’s ‘On the Sensations of Tone’ (1863) provided an understanding of the physics of sound suggesting the possibility of creating an unlimited palette of tones and shapes beyond the restriction of traditional instrumentation. This lead directly to the design of several new instrument; Thadeus Cahill’s Telharmonium (1897) and Jörg Mager’s Sphäraphon (1920s) amongst many other, that explored new forms of interaction freeing the composer and musician from the ‘tyranny’ of the fixed tempered Piano keyboard (which at the beginning of electronic music instrument design was a fairly recent standard). Though this experiment was ultimately doomed due to commercial pressure on instrument designers to provide simulations of existing instruments on a fixed tempered scale for popular music, the concept survived into the 1960s in ‘serious’ experimental music with the era of the Electronic Music Studio; GRM, Milan, WDR, Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center etc. and even Moog (in the original instruments) and Buchla’s modular synthesisers. More recently interest in atonality and non-manual control has re-surfaced with software synthesis and audio computer languages.

New composition tools: Musician-free composition

As well as developing new physical interface models another channel of exploration was to use electronic musical instruments to free the composer from problems associated with performers and performance; removing the musician from the process of musical production allowing the composer to create pure unadulterated music concepts. When this was first proposed – first proposed in Russia in the 1930s by Avraamov and later Hanert’s ‘Electric Orchestra‘ (1945), Percy Grainger’s ‘Free Music Machine’ (1948) and Murzin’s ANS Synthesiser ) this concept was considered extreme, utopian and unachievable and met considerably hostility from traditionalists This goal has mostly been achieved through digital software but what has been the effect on composition?

 An exploration of the dichotomy between radical culture and radical social change: the role of the avant-garde in political movements

After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia an utopian avant-garde movement inspired by Futurism and Anarchistic ideas developed which included radical new music and performance. New, atonal, music was written, new types of theatre evolved and new instruments invented to bring about this utopian age; Arseney Avraamov conducted a huge symphony of sirens involving warships, factory hooters and artillery and proposed the destruction of all pianos to free music of fixed tonation. It was proposed that a new scientific culture replace the old archaic cultural order– brought about by new electronic instruments and scientific investigations into audio and visual perception (this period is covered in some detail in Andrei Smirnov’s excellent book ‘Sounds In Z’). The Bolshevik government, traditionalists at heart and worried at their lack of control of this anarchic movement, suppressed it replacing it with a manageable propaganda based culture of uplifting, popular socialist realism; many of the former avant-garde were murdered, imprisoned or sidelined for the rest of their lives.

Similarly in the early period of Nazi Germany (1933 onwards), Hitler’s government made moves to embrace Futurism and Modernism (for example; Marinetti’s Berlin Futurist Exhibition of 1934, Sponsored by Goebbels and the Nazi Kdf organisation and the final Berlin Bauhaus before it’s exile to the USA). Modernism was a key component of Fascism and early National Socialism; technology was promoted as a National Socialist principle; the Volkswagen (‘Peoples Car’), Autobahn’s, Film, Mass-entertainment (Controlled through the Kdf ‘Strength through joy’ organisation) and electronic music; the first every electronic music orchestra ‘Das Orchester der Zukunft’ at the Nazi sponsored Berlin IFA in 1933. Again, this avant-garde movement was finally suppressed in favour of conservative fascist popular culture during the late 1930s.


’120 Years Of Electronic Music’ is an ongoing web project initiated in 1995 by the author and musician simon.crab@gmail.com . The project is completely non-commercial and self funded. The aim is to make the information available on a free/open source basis i.e. you can use content in any way as long as the content owners are credited and it would be courteous if you could acknowledge the source by linking or referring to the site.

Simon Crab, Oxford. 2016

*The name: ‘120 Years of Electronic Music’ project was begun in 1996; considering electronic music started around 1880 this was quite an accurate title for the time. Almost twenty years later it’s a bit out of date but it’s become something a bit of a brand-name and hard to change

Update:

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A Chinese language version of ‘120 Years of Electronic Music’ (by Guangyu Dong at the Communication University of China School of Journalism (SSI),

Beijing.) is now available here.

74 thoughts on “Introduction”

  1. I am using your work as a source on my DMA dissertation. Could you please tell me your location for my bibliography citation?

  2. Dear Simon,
    Your site is great. Thanks a lot for doing it
    I have been referring to it and using it four my course in the last years. I am happy it is available again.
    Best regards

  3. I found you site some years ago. I teach Organology and History of music in a conservatory in Spain i always recommend your web to the students: it’s fantastic.
    There are few books about electrophones and this site is the most complete and attractive source about electrophones…

    Thanks a lot

  4. Wonder why I keep seeing a faint imprint of M. L. Severy and G. B. Sinclair behind every page viewed? Tech problem at my end or yours?

    Good work, some pictures I’ve actually not seen.

    Wonder also if you’ve seen some 50 or so of my columns in Keyboard Magazine in ‘seventies popularizing this history; and my Ph.D. Dissertation on the topic (1972) which is cited in New Harvard Dictionary of Music and New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments?

    Your site would be immeasurably improved if you cited your sources for both photos, quotes, and commentary, just thinking like an academic!

    Best Regards,

    Tom Rhea
    Electronic Production and Design Department
    Berklee College of Music
    Boston, MA
    USA

    1. Hi Tom,
      Thanks for your comments and visiting the site – I’m honoured! I am planning to cite all my references…it’s quite a job! and the faint imprint; that’s ‘design’ maybe I’ll take it out?

      I’ll reply to the rest via email

      all the best

      crab

      1. Ah Mr Rhea! An honour indeed! I just mentioned that I have a printout of the original webpage in my archive. I am quite sure you’re name can also frequently be found in there.

  5. I’m so glad I’ve finally found a complete documentation of the progress of electronic music through time (as near to complete as it can possibly be). Will definitely post about this on my blog in the near future! Massive thank you!

  6. It’s awesome! This is for ‘Collective Intelligence’ to make better worlds i believe.
    There ‘s lot of works to record and set of things from history.
    Great!

  7. All very nice, but not a word about Russia, which gave the world such men as Leon Theremin, inventor of the well-known theremin, Evgeny Murzin, the creator of the optical synthesizer ANS where is Russian musicians

  8. Wow, that came just at the right moment. I am preparing a talk about electronic music and i am developing a software for creating new sounds and compositions of electronic music. Thanks you so much!

  9. Thank you very much for your amazing work in collecting and putting it out there! The first time i came across your work, it was in the shape of a pdf – its still on the webs somewhere. then this page that i used and loved lots. It was differently designed back then though, very simple. i was wondering wether you put your knowledge from a daytime job here? this is such a mountain of work for being a side-project!

  10. Hey great site and resource
    i think something is wrong with your subscription feature
    i get an error message

  11. What about the manifesto “The Art of Noises” (1913) by Italian futurist Luigi Russolo and the invention of his Intonarumori?

    1. Hi Peter,
      Well, strictly speaking Russolo’s ‘Intonarumori’ were mechanical instruments not electronic so not really within the scope of this project. But of course the work of Russolo had a huge impact on how (much later) electronic music included noise and ‘non musical ‘ sound – musique concrète, Cage etc.

      thanks

      Simon

    1. Thanks – ah, think that page isn’t finished yet. I’ve removed the link until it’s ready! better get writing…

  12. Absolutely great that this is back. A hardware copy of the original site has been in my archive for years. I just looked it up and it turns out I printed it in 2002!
    One idea / tip / advice: Why no take it further? Of course not to mention every synthesizer fad but some stuff that is available by now (like physical modeling, additive resynthesis and new controller concepts) fits perfectly in the stream of thought of all these inventors. I am sure that people like Thermen, Martenot and Trautwein would have drooled over such stuff.
    The biggest pity however is that so few people are aware of how beautiful and expressive the music from these instruments can be. We simply live in a trigger and forget culture of electronic music. Well, maybe tweak a filter pot now and then but I am sure you catch my drift.
    I actually condensed my personal view on the subject into a hardware setup that I call Starship One. Information about it (including pictures, written articles and even music composed on it) can be found on my website at http://www.brassee.com.
    In other words: The dream is still alive!

  13. the entry for “Minshall Organ” does not seem to have a URL
    and also Philips developed many special neon tube dividers for the Philicorda

  14. Thank you for this! I did my social studies fair on the earliest electronic instruments (up to 1899) and used this for a lot of citation and information. Thank you for having this so readily available.

  15. Hello, this is a great site and reference resource! Kudos to you for all the hard work.

    I did note two key omissions.

    (1) the “electro-theremin,” invented in the late 1950s by session player Paul Tanner for use in film and TV work after having watched a theremin player “sweat bullets” trying to play the instrument in tune.

    Tanner and his instrument (referred to back then as “Paul’s Box”) was sought after very greatly. He did many TV shows including “Dark Shadows” and “My Favorite Martian.” But surely his greatest and most famous work was on the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations,” which many people to this very day insist was a “real theremin” even though though the truth is now widely known.

    http://www.electrotheremin.com/PTE-TPage.html

    http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1093

    (2) In 1999, Tom Polk devised a more efficient version of the electro-theremin and called it the “Tannerin,” fondly named after Paul Tanner.

    http://www.electrotheremin.com/tannerin.html

    http://www.tompolk.com/Tannerin/Tannerin.html

    Cheers,

  16. Hello Simon!

    Congratulations to such a beautiful website.

    Do you know the great Max Brand synthesizer? Max Brand conceived it in the late 1950s and Bob Moog helped him building it. The IMA in Hainau (Austria) hosts the only existing model. In this context you might be interested in the book/exhibition “Zauberhafte Klangmaschinen” curated by Elisabeth Schimana of the IMA. Max Brand can also be found there:

    http://klangmaschinen.ima.or.at/db/?lang=de

    I think it’s a great supplement to your website.

    Greetings,

    Felix

  17. Hi,
    I have recently been in direct contact with AT&T historians at the AT&T Archives about the VODER. At my urging, they have uncovered two original ‘practice’ equipment racks and a good deal more documentation. There is more on the VODER on my website (www.steamsynth.com), and will be adding more as it is legally cleared.
    You’ve got a great site here and I’d love to chat sometime. 908-910-9551.
    Enjoy.
    Doug

  18. As always, great work! I hope to nominate the work of George Breed, brilliant inventor and creator of several musical devices. At patent search will turn up not only his 1890 Electric Guitar, but the Lyrachord or Lyrachord-Symphonia piano, which seems to have some great features.

  19. hi simon,

    it’s great to see this work alive and kicking 🙂

    I still have somewhere the panel we made for the exhibition in Naples.

    we should meet somewhere somehow

    best

    danilo

  20. Great article! It was a pleasure to read it. Very informative. Thanks.
    I have a few links to contribute to this awesome project, that i think relevant to the independent and experimental, open expression/source, art movement.

    In January 1996, coincidentally, i have co-founded Idiosyntactix Strategic Arts & Sciences Alliance, with a series of what we called the IDIO-AUDIO Mighty Mono 99.1 FM Pirate Radio shows broadcast live on 25 watt transmitter setup on the rooftop of the TransForum gallery (Queen St. and Bathurst) in downtown Toronto. The IDIO-AUDIO Independent and Experimental Music Online email list was set up by Dmytri Kleiner at that time followed by a series of first in Toronto live webcasts from different venues by the IA team. Eventually the Industry Canada, after three and a half months, has shut the pirate radio party down. However the community formed during that time has moved on to host and broadcast more IA shows on other SW/FM/AM frequencies and online, including the licensed stations. http://archive.groovy.net/idio-audio/ also later http://archive.groovy.net/groovy/

    The Idiosyntactix Strategic Arts & Sciences Alliance has created its own art manifesto, rather, the Incidentalist Manifestos, plural, the reason being since it is always in a draft version, the latest being Draft 11. http://archive.groovy.net/syntac/

    In 1997 Idiosyntactix has organized a three-day festival of cultural appropriation and intellectual property freedom, culminating with the live concert at the Lees Palace attended by David Bowie. http://archive.groovy.net/plunderpalooza/
    photos: http://archive.groovy.net/partypix/

    While Plunderpalooza ’97 was widely reported in the Toronto and Canadian media, the New York Times has also mentioned Idiosyntactix once thus far in connection with our hosting of the Italian art group online project.

    As a web designer, since the beginning of it in 1993, i have designed all the above websites, at a time the ASCII design elements were essential for fast download, i have also designed the first website for a great experimental musician from Winnipeg, Canada Diana McIntosh. http://archive.groovy.net/dianamcintosh/ She performed on a few occasions, from what i remember, in the Music Gallery concert series organized by Ron Gaskin. It was great!

    Anyway, that’s my two incidentalist cents. God Speed! Live! Prosper! Be Well! Happy Trails! Cheers!!! 🙂

  21. Fantastic references! – Sadly though it looks like the images for the Wobble Organ from 1951 seem to have been moved or removed.

  22. An amazing endeavor. The research, analytical, sociopolitical and musical approaches could prove one of the most important projects for understanding contemporary mainstream and substream electronic music. Is there some kind of crowdfunding initiative where people can contribute?

  23. I would like to thank you very much for this demanding and highly informative project. As a pipe organ builder and electronic musician myself I could retrieve a whole treasure of additional knowledge. It would be great if you could extend your timeline and include also newer tools like i.e. the evolution and relevance of sampling, or the highly important developments of IRCAM (Max!) or Native Instruments (Reaktor!) etc. But again: Thanks so much for your fantastic work so far!

  24. Nice but very, incomplete!
    Misses RAI Milan’s Studio, IRCAM, CCRMA and the all the composers who actually have developed fundamental concepts without whom no electronic music would actually exist. It’s not just the gear, it’s, before all, the music ideas behind them.

    1. Hi Tobor,

      Thanks for your comment;

      RAI is here: http://120years.net/milan-electronic-music-studiodirector-luciano-berioitaly1960/

      and IRCAM is covered in:

      http://120years.net/coupigny-synthesiser-coupigny-france-1967/
      and
      http://120years.net/the-grm-group-and-rtf-electronic-music-studio-pierre-schaeffer-jacques-poullin-france-1951/

      Whilst I agree that it’s ‘not just the gear’ – this project IS specifically about exploring electronic music through the technology first. I think there are plenty of musical resources that tackle music and ideas as a starting point.

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