The history of electronic music predates the era of rock and roll by decades. Most of us weren’t even on this planet when its often dark, underrated, and misunderstood development began. Today this ‘otherworldly’ body of sound that started almost a century ago may no longer seem strange and unique as younger generations have accepted much of it as mainstream, but it has had a path full of potholes and, finding mass audience acceptance, a slow one.
Many musicians, modern proponents of electronic music, developed a passion for analog synthesizers in the late 1970s and early 1980s with iconic songs like Gary Numan’s breakthrough, ‘Are Friends Electric?’ It was around this time that these devices became smaller, more accessible, easier to use, and more affordable for many of us. In this article I will try to trace this story in easily digestible chapters and offer examples of today’s best modern proponents.
In my opinion, this was the beginning of a new era. To create electronic music, it was no longer necessary to have access to a room full of technology in a studio or live. Until now, this was the exclusive domain of artists like Kraftwerk, whose arsenal of electronic instruments and custom-made gadgets the rest of us could only have dreamed of, even if we could understand the logistics of their operation. That being said, by the time I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, however, I had little knowledge of the complexity of the job that had set a standard in previous decades to get to this point.
The history of electronic music owes much to Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). Stockhausen was a German Avante Garde composer and a pioneering figure in electronic music from the 1950s onwards, influencing a movement that would eventually have a powerful impact on names like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Brain Eno, Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode. , not to mention. the experimental work of the Beatles and others in the 1960s. His face appears on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the 1967 Beatles master Opus. Let’s start, however, by traveling a little further back in the time.
The turn of the century
Time stood still for this star gazer when I originally discovered that the first documented, exclusively electronic concerts were not in the 70s or 80s, but in the 20s!
The first purely electronic instrument, the Theremin, which is played without playing, was invented by the Russian scientist and cellist Lev Termen (1896-1993), around 1919.
In 1924, the Theremin made its concert debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic. The interest generated by the theremin attracted the public to concerts organized in Europe and Great Britain. In 1930, the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York experienced a performance of classical music using nothing more than a series of ten theremins. Watching various expert musicians play this eerie-sounding instrument waving their hands around its antennae must have been so exhilarating, surreal, and strange to a pre-tech audience.
For those interested, check out the recordings of the Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore (1911-1998). Rockmore (Reisenberg), of Lithuanian descent, worked with its inventor in New York to perfect the instrument during its early years and became its most acclaimed, brilliant and recognized performer and manager throughout her life.
In retrospect, Clara was the first celebrated ‘star’ of genuine electronic music. It is unlikely that you will find more haunting but beautiful classical music performances on the Theremin. It is definitely one of my favorites!
Electronic music in science fiction, film and television
Unfortunately, and mainly due to the difficulty in mastering the skills, the future of the Theremin as a musical instrument was short-lived. Eventually, he found a niche in the sci-fi movies of the 1950s. The 1951 film classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, featuring a soundtrack by influential American film music composer Bernard Hermann (known for “Psycho “by Alfred Hitchcock, etc.), is rich in an” alien “score that uses two Theremins and other electronic devices fused with acoustic instrumentation.
Using the vacuum tube oscillator technology of the Theremin, the French cellist and radio telegrapher, Maurice Martenot (1898-1980), began developing Ondes Martenot (in French, known as Martenot Wave) in 1928.
The expressive multitimbral Ondes Martenot, though monophonic, is the closest instrument of its generation that I have heard that comes close to the sound of modern synthesis.
“Forbidden Planet,” released in 1956, was the first major commercial studio film to feature an exclusively electronic soundtrack … as well as featuring Robbie the Robot and the stunning Anne Francis! The groundbreaking score was produced by husband and wife team Louis and Bebe Barron who, in the late 1940s, established the first privately owned recording studio in the US Recording experimental electronic artists such as the iconic John Cage. (whose own Avante Garde work defied the definition of music itself!).
The Barrons are generally credited with having expanded the application of electronic music to film. With a soldering iron in one hand, Louis built circuits that he manipulated to create a plethora of strange and ‘supernatural’ effects and motifs for the film. Once executed, these sounds could not be reproduced as the circuit would be deliberately overloaded, smoked, and burned to produce the desired sound result.
As a result, they were all recorded on tape and Bebe examined hours of reels, edited what was deemed usable, then re-manipulated them with delay and reverb, and creatively dubbed the final product using various decks.
In addition to this laborious method of working, I feel compelled to include what is possibly the most enduring and influential electronic television firm in history: the subject of the 1963 British science fiction adventure series, “Dr. Who “. It was the first time that a television series featured an exclusively electronic theme. The theme for “Dr. Who” was created at the legendary BBC Radio Workshop using tape loops and test oscillators to run the effects, record them on tape, and then another Electro pioneer, Delia Derbyshire, played it again and edit, interpreting the composition. by Ron Grainer.
As you can see, the predominant use of electronic music in ancient science fiction was the main source of the general public’s perception of this music as “otherworldly” and “with a strange alien sound”. This continued to be the case until at least 1968 with the release of the hit album “Switched-On Bach” played entirely on a Moog modular synthesizer by Walter Carlos (who, with a few bites and surgical folds, later became Wendy Carlos).
The 1970s expanded the profile of electronic music with the emergence of bands such as Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, and especially the 1980s when it found more widespread acceptance.
Mid 1900: Musique Concrete
In its development throughout the 1900s, electronic music was not limited solely to the manipulation of electronic circuits to produce sound. In the 1940s, a relatively new German invention, the reel-to-reel tape recorder developed in the 1930s, became the subject of interest to several European Avante Garde composers, most notably the radio host and songwriter. French Pierre Schaeffer (1910 -1995) who developed an assembly technique that he called Musique Concrete.
Musique Concrete (meaning existing sounds in the ‘real world’ as opposed to artificial or acoustic produced by musical instruments) extensively involved the splicing of recorded segments of tape containing ‘found’ sounds – natural, environmental, industrial and human – and manipulate them with effects such as delay, reverb, distortion, speed up or slow down (varispeed), inversion, etc.
Stockhausen actually held concerts using their Musique Concrete works as backing tapes (electronic and ‘real world’ sounds were used in the recordings at this stage), in addition to which they would play instruments live by classical musicians responding to the status of encouragement and the reasons they were listening!
Musique Concrete had a great impact not only on Avante Garde and the effects libraries, but also on contemporary music from the 1960s and 1970s. Important works to verify are the use of this method by the Beatles on innovative themes such as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, ‘Revolution No. 9’ and ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, as well as Pink Floyd albums “Umma Gumma”, “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “Lumpy Sauce” by Frank Zappa. All used tape cutouts and homemade tape loops are often streamed live to the main mix.
1980s: the first golden age of electronic music for the masses
Gary Numan possibly became the first commercial synth megastar with the 1979 hit “Tubeway Army”, “Are Friends Electric?” The sci-fi element is not too far off once again. Some of the images are taken from the sci-fi classic, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The 1982 hit movie “Blade Runner” was also based on the same book.
Although ‘Are the friends electric?’ With conventional drum and bass backing, his dominant use of Polymoogs gives the song a very distinctive sound. The recording was the first synth-based release to reach number one on the UK charts in the post-punk years and helped usher in a new genre. Electronic and / or synthesizer music was no longer relegated to the fringes of the mainstream. Exciting!
New developments in affordable electronic technology put electronics directly into the hands of young creators and began to transform professional studios.
Designed in Australia in 1978, the Fairlight Sampler CMI became the first commercially available polyphonic digital sampling instrument, but its prohibitive cost saw it used exclusively by the likes of Trevor Horn, Stevie Wonder, and Peter Gabriel. However, in the middle of the decade, smaller and cheaper instruments entered the market, such as the ubiquitous Akai and Emulator Samplers that musicians often use live to reproduce their studio-recorded sounds. The Sampler revolutionized music production from this point on.
In most major markets, with the qualified exception of the US, electronically influenced artists were commercially attracted by the early 1980s. This was an exciting time for many of us, myself included. I know I was not the only one who shut down the distorted guitar and amplifiers and immersed myself in a new universe of musical expression: an abstract and non-traditional world of sound.
At home, Australian synth-based bands Real Life (‘Send Me An Angel’, ‘Heartland’ album), Icehouse (‘Hey Little Girl’) and Pseudo Echo (‘Funky Town’) began to appear on international charts, and more experimental electronic equipment. like Severed Heads and SPK they also developed a cult following abroad.
But by the middle of the decade, the first global electronic wave lost its momentum amid resistance fostered by a relentless old-school musical milieu. Most of the artists who began the decade predominantly based on electronics disintegrated or heavily hybridized their sound with traditional rock instrumentation.
The United States, the world’s largest market in every way, remained on the wings of conservative music for much of the 1980s. Although synthesizer-based records made it to the American charts, the first of them was the hit from Human League’s 1982 American chart ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby?’ Overall, it was a few more years before the American mainstream embraced electronic music. at which point it established itself as a dominant genre for musicians and audiences around the world.
1988 was a watershed year for electronic music in the United States. Often maligned in the press in its early years, it was Depeche Mode who unwittingly, and mostly inadvertently, spearheaded this new assault. From cult status in America for much of the decade, his new high-end rotation on what is now called Modern Rock radio resulted in mega-stadium performances. An Electro act playing in sold-out arenas was not a common thing in the US at the time!
In 1990, the pandemonium of fans in New York to greet members in a central record store made television news, and their album “Violator” outsold Madonna and Prince in the same year made them a household name on United States. Electronic music is here to stay, without a doubt!
1990 onwards: the second golden age of electronic music for the masses
Before our ‘star music’ took hold in the US mainstream, and while losing commercial ground elsewhere for much of the mid-1980s, Detroit and Chicago became unpretentious laboratories for a electronic music explosion that would end much of the 1990s onwards. Enter Techno and House.
Detroit in the 1980s, a post-Fordist American industrial wasteland, produced the harshest European-influenced Techno. In the early and mid-1980s, Detroiter Juan