Origins of Electronic Music: Paris & Cologne
The contribution of the Paris group to the history of electronic music begins in 1948 with Pierre Schaeffer, a radio engineer and announcer for RF (Radiodiffusion Francaise - French National Radio). Schaeffer’s idea was to record the sounds of trains and make it into ‘music’.
At that time there were no tape recording machines, so Schaeffer recorded direct to vinyl disc. He edited the various recordings by playing them through a mixer and recording onto another disk, much like today’s DJ. The first composition borne of this technique is Etude aux Chemins de Fer (Railroad Study, or literally “Study of Iron Horses”), and is notable for being the first recorded ‘collage’ of sounds. Shaeffer attempted to apply recurring formal elements to the work, such as using the ascending/ descending fourths of the locomotive’s whistle thematically, and the sound of the wheels on the tracks as a rhythmical and metrical element. [Simms 384] Shaeffer would later go on to name this type of music ‘musique concrète’, to signify that the composer was working directly with ‘concrete’ sounds, as opposed to the abstraction of composing symbolically on paper.
It is important to point out how revolutionary Shaeffer’s idea was. He was in essence reversing the compositional process that was used in classical music up to this point: instead of going from the abstract to the concrete, he was starting with the concrete (the actual sound material), experimenting with it, and ending up with the final piece. Schaeffer’s new genre was controversial for this reason, and also because “if the sounds remain recognizable, then they are evocative symbols rather than, as Schaeffer wished ‘sound objects’ freed from their associations in the real world.” [Griffiths, p. 30].
In 1949, Shaeffer begins to collaborate with Pierre Henry and together they produced the work Symphonie pour un homme seul. The piece is based on the sounds that a man can make without the aid of instruments. Henry’s musical training proved to be a great asset to the collaboration, as Schaeffer was more an engineer than musician.
In 1958 Schaeffer, along with several composers including Luc Ferrari and Iannis Xenakis, formed GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales). Xenakis like many other important composers of the 20th century spent much of his formative years working in Musique Concrète. Xenakis used his training in mathematics and statistics to develop a stochastic method of composition, and used mathematical formulas and computers to make decisions about the structure of the piece before working it out. For more information on stochastic composition, see Xenakis’ Formalized Music.
In Diamorphoses (1957) we hear engines, car crashes, earthquake shocks, sliding pitches and bells. In Concret PH we hear the sound of amplified burning charcoal, manipulated via an early form of ‘granular synthesis’: Xenakis used tape segments of one second or less, and amassed these into huge ‘grain clouds’, similar to the techniques of his contemporary instrumental compositions:
“All sound is an integration of grains, of elementary sonic particles, of sonic quanta…All sound, even continuous musical variation, is conceived as an assemblage of a large number of elementary sounds adequately disposed in time.” (Matossian pp. 44-45)
The electronic music studio at Cologne Radio (a.k.a Westdeutsche Rundfunk) was officially put into operation in 1951. The primary figures associated with the founding and running of the studio are Dr. Herbert Eimert and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
In the early years of the studio, Eimert and colleague Robert Bayer used a modified Trautonium as a sound source that was fed into a variable speed tape recorder. The studio was also outfitted with a sine tone generator and filter modules for changing the timbre of the sound sources.
In 1953, Stockhausen (after much experimentation including work at the Paris studio) composed Studie I, and is the first work based exclusively on sine tones. In 1954, Stockhausen followed up with Studie II which also used sine tones in different combinations. The frequencies of the sine waves used in both were determined using strict serialist techniques. In Studie I, each sound is constructed from up to six pure frequencies taken from a table based on proportions 48:20:25:15 5/8: 37 ½: 30. In Studie II there is also an artificial frequency set, this time of 81 frequencies related by a complex ratio (Approx 1: 1.07).
One of the elements that sets apart the Cologne studio from the Paris studio is the theoretical basis of composition for the works being produced. Eimert and Stockhausen were both interested in connecting the new ‘Elektronische Music’ with the elements of total serialism. In other words, approaching electronic music from the abstract to the concrete, in opposition of the Schaeffer model. Ironically, since both studios used many of the same technical procedures, the overall sound of the works coming from the respective studios is remarkably similar.
Chadabe, Joel. Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997)
Griffiths, Paul. A Guide to Electronic Music (Bath:Thames & Hudson, 1979)
Griffiths, Paul. Modern Music And After (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
Matossian, Nouritza. Xenakis (New York: Kahn & Averill, 1986)
Taylor, Timothy. Strange Sounds: Music Technology & Culture (New York: Routledge, 2001)
Simms, Bryan R. Music of the Twentieth Century: Style and Structure (New York: Shirmer Books, 1986)
Stuckenschmidt, H.H. Twentieth Century Music (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969)
Clarkson, Austin [Review of Studie II] Notes, 2nd Ser., Vol. 17, No. 4. (Sep., 1960), pp. 644-646.
Cross, Lowell “Electronic Music, 1948-1953” Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Autumn - Winter, 1968), pp. 32-65.Eimert, Herbert “How Electronic Music Began” The Musical Times, Vol. 113, No. 1550. (Apr., 1972), pp. 347+349.
Kramer, Jonathan “Moment Form in Twentieth Century Music” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2. (Apr., 1978), pp. 177-194.
Stockhausen, Karlheinz “The Origins of Electronic Music” The Musical Times, Vol. 112, No. 1541. (Jul., 1971), pp. 649-650.
Stockhausen, Karlheinz. Nr. 3 Elektronische Studien: Studie II. UE 12466LW (London: Universal Edition, 1956)
electronic music resources on the web
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Avant Garde Project (AGP)
The Avant Garde Project is a series of recordings of 20th-century classical-experimental-electroacoustic music digitized from LPs whose music has in most cases never been released on CD, and so is effectively inaccessible to the vast majority of music listeners today. The downloads are in FLAC format. There are a lot of great and very rare recordings at this site. All free.