Robert Worby's history of electroacoustic music

Loudspeakers are now so commonplace it's difficult to imagine life without them. Almost everything bleeps, squeaks or squawks. But without loudspeakers we would have no radios, televisions, CD players, iPods or telephones. And without loudspeakers we would have no electroacoustic music. Given the time span of the history of Western music, loudspeakers have been around for a relatively short period of time. The invention of the loudspeaker and, its converse, the microphone changed music more radically and more quickly than anything that had come before. If we include sound recording in the mix, we almost have the history of the modern world.

Microphones turn sound into electricity and loudspeakers turn electricity into sound. It's contemporary magic. Put a recording device between the microphone and speaker and we have the power to do something that, in ancient times, only the gods could do – capture and control sound. And when all of this became a possibility, in the second half of the 20th Century, composers were quick to understand and realise its potential.

Electronic sound became an everyday reality with the invention of radio. It is hard to imagine what our great grandparents thought and felt when they first heard disembodied voices and music hissing and crackling into their homes. Sounds from the spirit world, from the 'other side', from out of this world. The phonograph had been around for several years before radio but these wind-up devices were acoustic and were mechanically controlled by their operators. The sound of radio originated elsewhere, at a distance, in some imaginary place. And radio stations brought with themselves all kinds of wonderful electronic devices used for maintenance and testing – sine wave oscillators, impulse generators, filters and amplifiers. Devices that still sound as though they are something to do with space travel rather than the transmission of sound.

John Cage was one of the first composers to think about the possibilities of these new resources. In 1939 he scored Imaginary Landscape No.1 for muted piano, cymbal and two phonograph turntables playing records of sine tones. The performers lowered and lifted the phonograph stylus on and off the records and changed the speed of the turntables to change the pitch of the sine tones. Cage's work with turntables pre-dated the DJs of today by over half a century! In 1942 he composed the dance score Credo In US for Merce Cunningham which calls for phonographs or radios. In 1951 he used 12 radios in Imaginary Landscape No.4.

In 1948 a radio engineer called Pierre Schaeffer invented what he called Musique Concrete. Music made with the 'concrete' sounds of everyday life. Ordinary sounds, recorded, edited, manipulated, joined together and played back. This was originally done on disc until magnetic tape fairly quickly came along. Schaeffer eventually founded the Groupe de Recherche Musicales, an organisation that still exists today, and created the first purpose built electroacoustic music studio.

Many of the European musical avant-garde flowed through Schaeffer's studio – Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis and many others all came to work there and experiment with the possibilities of recorded sound. Xenakis went on to establish his own studio in Paris, Stockhausen went back to Cologne to work at the electronic music studios at the German radio station WDR and in 1977, in Paris, Boulez founded IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) a huge sonic laboratory, under the streets of Paris, where the production, control and analysis of sound are investigated at the highest technical and aesthetic level.

Stockhausen was dissatisfied with the results he had obtained working with musique concrete and when he returned to Germany he established a different approach to working directly with sound. He decided that he would create new sounds by building them from scratch. It was known that all sounds were made up of sine waves. Just as white light can be divided into the colours of the rainbow so sound can be divided into sine waves. These are pure tones that can be dissected no further and when several are fused together, in specific combinations, they are heard as a single rich, sound. A pure sine wave can only be produced electronically but an extremely close approximation can be made by whistling with indrawn breath. Sine waves of different pitch and loudness combined together make new sounds. If individuals in a large choir were able to produce the necessary pure whistling tones of different pitches and loudness the result would be a single sound (timbre) that would not sound like whistling but some other sound depending on the combination of pitches and loudness. They would be behaving like a synthesizer and synthesizing timbre.

Stockhausen set to work creating new sounds and composing with them. In those days this was extremely laborious because the studios in which he worked had only a few sine wave oscillators. These were clunky boxes, about the size of a toaster, with huge dials that lent the appearance of a 1950s sci-fi film. An oscillator produced a single sine wave although the pitch (known as frequency to electroacoustic composers) and the volume could be varied. To synthesize new sounds Stockhausen had to record oscillators simultaneously or superimpose them on tape. Everything took months and months and months!

While Paris and Cologne quickly established themselves as the twin centres of this new music world, composers in the USA developed their own unique ways of working. At the Bell laboratories James Tenney made Collage No.1 – Blue Suede which was a kind of early sampling piece based on Elvis Presley's Blue Suede Shoes. Not at all the kind of thing being considered in Cologne or Paris. The mid-50s New York 'Uptown' scene included the work of Milton Babbitt who worked on the RCA synthesizer at Columbia University. This was about the size of a small bathroom and it looked like a telephone exchange rather than a musical instrument. It was programmed with punched paper tape and its output was recorded onto lacquer disc. Composing electronic music in those days was very labour intensive. In the mid-50s Berio founded the 'Studio di Fonologia' in Milan where he developed his own way of working with electronics. He was particularly interested in combining instrumental sounds with sound produced in the studio. Différences is an excellent example of the results of his research.

Gradually, studios opened up in most countries in the developed world and throughout the 60s and the 70s technology became smaller and cheaper. Synthesizers, like the famous Moog, were now suitcase sized, rather than room sized, and could be manufactured in relatively large numbers. Rock bands used them and they were heard all the time in films and on television. Suddenly electronic music was commonplace.

In the late 80s and throughout the 90s the development of the microchip made computers affordable and music in the digital world mushroomed. Each year brought more than a doubling of possibilities so that today an ordinary laptop is capable of achieving musical results way beyond the dreams of the post-war composers. Schaeffer took days slowly and carefully sticking bits of tape together, now editing takes seconds. Stockhausen had one or two oscillators, a laptop can produce the equivalent of hundreds. Composers like Trevor Wishart write their own software to process and control sound. His piece Globalalia uses 8000 syllables carefully cut out of speech radio from around the world, a daunting task before the computer age.

It would be idle to speculate where electroacoustic music is going but Sonic Explorations gives us a wonderful opportunity to hear where it has come from and where it is today. The fabulous mix of the old and the new will give us a sense of its history, perspective and dynamic.

© Robert Worby 2009