The history of electronic music within European pop

Part 1: The art of noise Bookmark and Share

As many of you already have gathered by now the synthesizer as an instrument plays an important role in European popular music. It’s an instrument you will encounter in the European art scene, the (progressive rock scene) and entering the main stage in the eighties with the development of new wave and hi-nrg disco. But did this tradition came falling from the sky? In the coming months we will try to recreate a small history of the use of electronic music and the use of the synthesizer within the European popscene...

Let's start with the question whether the synthesizer tradition 'came falling from the sky'. As you will understand, it didn’t but it would take a while before the instruments were small enough to be used in live musical performance. To have a starting point we have to go back 1897 when the French Thaddeus Cahill created an electromechanical instrument called the Telharmonium. Cahill had tremendous ambitions for his invention; he wanted telharmonium music to be broadcasted into hotels, restaurants, theaters and even houses via the telephone line. At a weight of 7 tons and a price tag of  € 150.000,- only three telharmoniums were ever built and Cahill's great vision was never fully implemented. (Nice detail is that his ideas were used a 100 years later by the internet industry to create streaming media).

The first electronic instrument, in the sense of small enough to take onto a stage, is often viewed to be the theremin, invented by the Russian Professor Leon Theremin circa 1919–1920. The theremin was originally not intended to be a musical instrument but a government-sponsored research project into proximity sensors. As it turned out it wasn’t very useful for detecting unwanted American spies but you could create (with some training) a certain musical melody with it. Lenin was so impressed with the device that he began taking lessons in playing it and commissioned six hundred of the instruments for distribution throughout the Soviet Union. He also sent Theremin on a trip around the world to demonstrate the latest Soviet technology. This took him to the USA where he granted RCA the commission to use the theremin as a commercial instrument. By then it was 1929, the stock market collapsed and the Theremin ended in the RCA basement not to emerge again for thirty years.

(listen to Barbara Bucholz playing the Theremin on her 2004 album 'Russia with love' (courtesy of www.muziekweb.nl)

So far for the technical influence that founded the base for electronic music. Another important step came from Italy. Luigi Russolo, member of the Futurist movement, wrote the manifest ‘L'arte dei rumori’ ('The art of noise') in 1913. Russolo states that because the human ear will become accustomed to urban industrial soundscapes a new form of enjoying sound will emerge. Furthermore, this new sonic palette requires a new approach to musical instrumentation and composition. He proposes a number of conclusions about how electronics and other technology will allow futurist musicians to "substitute for the limited variety of timbres that the orchestra possesses today the infinite variety of timbres in noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms.” He also held ‘art of noise’ concerts where a cacophony of howls, roars, shuffles and gurgles would ‘entertain’ the listener. Although very avant-garde at the time, the idea that a machine could reproduce the sound of an orchestra or any other everyday sound would be essential for the development of the synthesizer. The ideas of Russolo would stand as an example for Léger’s ‘Ballet  Mécanique’ in 1924. The "ballet" was not a show of human dancers but of mechanical instruments (airplane propellors, electric bells) that moved about the stage creating an ear shattering noise.


Now, all this experimenting was very fine but the problem was that the ‘instruments’ were very heavy, very unpractical and the sound production could happen only live and only once. What was needed was a way to store the sound and use it over and over again. It was the German Fritz Pfleumer who came up with idea of storing sounds on a magnetic tape. The magnetophon was model name of the first reel-to-reel tape recorder developed by engineers of the German electronics company AEG in 1935. The first recordings sounded awful due to all the background noise but during WWII the Germans refined the technique. After the war captured tape recorders lay the basis for the first commercial tape recorder the Model 200, manufactured by the American Ampex company. The technique was embraced by entertainer Bing Crosby, who became the first performer to record radio broadcasts and studio master recordings on tape.


It was the French composer and theorist Pierre Schaeffer that took the last step and started to record sounds on tape and used it in a concert like setting. He called it ‘musique concrete’ and it was premiered at a concert given in Paris on the 5th of October 1948. In his experiments, Pierre tried playing sounds backwards, slowing them down, speeding them up and mixing them with other sounds, all techniques which were virtually unknown at that time. In 1949, Schaeffer met the percussionist-composer Pierre Henry, with whom he collaborated with on more than several different musical compositions, and in 1951, he founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) in the French Radio Institution. It quickly attracted the avant garde of the european modern music like Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgar Varese and Iannis Xenakis. Artists who would speed up making the electronic music in the fifties. Schaeffer himself would play a tutorial part in the next decade giving lessons to young interest students amongst whom a very young Jean Michel Jarre.

(listen to Vladimir Ussachevsky 'Piece for tape recorder' for an example of Musique Concrete (courtesy of www.muziekweb.nl)




Next month (March): part 2, The audible future at Brussels