The history of electronic music within European pop

Part 2: The audible future at Brussels 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...this is part 2

We ended our last chapter on the threshold of the fifties when the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète attracted avant garde composers from all over Europe to learn about the new electronic music. The foremost among them were the German Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Greek Iannis Xenakis.

Both returned to their own countries buzzing with ideas. Stockhausen went to Cologne and joined the radio studios of the NWDR in 1953. He started to produce compositions in the tradition of the Elektronische Musik which was sharply differentiated from French musique concrète because of the use of sounds recorded from acoustical sources (so called spatialization).

(listen to 'Etude for Tape' by Stockhausen (1952) (courtesy of www.muziekweb.nl)

Xenakis pioneered with electronic, computer music in combination with mathematics, statistics, and physics, in search of integrating sound and architecture. Although crucial for the development of modern electronic music all this avant garde stuff wasn’t very ‘pop’ however.

So it’s back to the studio of Pierre Schaeffer where Pierre Henry and Jean Jacques Perrey linger around. Henry composes his first Musique Concrete piece in 1952 for the short film ‘Astrologie ou le miroir’. This is not the first time that electronic music is associated with science fiction films or TV drama.


Jean Jacques Perrey was a French accordion player and medical student who abandoned his studies after meeting Georges Jenny in Paris in 1952. Jenny was the inventor of the Ondioline, a vacuum tube-powered keyboard instrument that was a forerunner of today's synthesizers and was capable of creating an amazing variety of sounds. Its keyboard featured a unique feature — the keyboard was suspended on special springs that were capable of introducing a natural vibrato, if the player moved the keyboard from side to side with the playing hand. The result was a beautiful, almost human-like vibrato that lent the Ondioline a wide range of expression. The keyboard was also pressure-sensitive, and the instrument had a knee volume lever as well. The first pop recording using the ondioline was made in France in 1951, 'L'ame des poetes' by Charles Trenet. Jenny hired Perrey as a salesman and demonstrator of the new instrument. As a result he came to the attention of French singer Édith Piaf, who sponsored him to record a demo tape. With the demo Perrey left for New York at the end of the fifties and would later on meet Gershon Kingsley at the Vanguard label.

(listen to 'L'ame de poetes' (courtesy of www.muziekweb.nl)

Meanwhile all kinds of ‘research centers’ around the globe were busy with the new electronic music concept like the Philips studios in The Netherlands, NHK in Tokyo and the Manhattan Research project where Raymond Scott worked. His mission was to ‘design and manufacture electronic music devices and systems’.

One of the electronic enthusiasts in his team was  Robert Moog that dug up the old theremin from the RCA archives and started building what would later become the Moog-synthesizer. But the first real synthesizer was not the Moog but the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer (nicknamed Victor) was the first programmable electronic music synthesizer and the flagship piece of equipment at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Designed by Herbert Belar and Harry Olson at RCA, it was installed at Columbia University in 1957.




All the new experience and machines came together on the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels Belgium. Centre of the musical innovation was the Dutch Philips Pavilion designed by the office of Le Corbusier. The pavilion was designed to house a multimedia spectacle that celebrated postwar technological progress. Le Corbusier's vision was a ‘Poème électronique’ consisting of an innovative musical score by Edgard Varèse which was recorded to be played back from 425 loudspeakers. Accompanying the music was a photomontage combining images of primitive art with scenes of nuclear war and urban rebirth. The plan of the pavilion was conceived as a "stomach": visitors would enter through curved corridor, stand in a central chamber for the eight-minute presentation, and exit out the other side.

Because the interior of the Philips Pavilion was experienced in the dark, its architectural form is principally understood from the exterior. The pavilion is a cluster of nine hyperbolic paraboloids, composed asymmetrically to create dynamically-angled contours and constructed out of prestressed concrete. According to Xenakis, the idea of using curved surfaces composed of straight lines was inspired by his composition ‘Metastasis’, premiered in 1955.

The World’s fair had the ambition to show the world the future and musically it did.

More on the Philips Pavillion is explained in below 5 minute video by the VEP project who recreated the experience virtually.


Go back to part 1: The art of noise

Next month (April): part 3, The in-sound from way out