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from dada to disco - a (brief) history of electronic music

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from dada to disco - a (brief) history of electronic music
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...an overbearing treatise on the whole history thing of electronic muzak, scribed by Andrez Bergen and originally published in Zebra magazine, Melbourne, in 1999.

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Too often lately I've read the simplifications, the blanket statements, the outrageously inaccurate assumptions -- that techno was started in Detroit, and that Kraftwerk are the godfathers of electronica.
 
Sure, both that American city and the German band made vital inroads and helped to steer electronic-based music along a certain course, but the fact is that the foundations had already been laid decades before; a break from traditional instrumentation was engineered by the Dadaists as far back as 1916 and over the years since there's been an undercurrent determined to push the perimeters of sound iconoclasm and to invent new means through which to generate these sounds themselves.
 
So there's always been an inexplicable link between electronic and experimental music, but the problem remains: how far back can we trace the ancestry of the machine-based sounds we take for granted towards the end of the 20th century?

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Let's flash-back here to the First World War, to Zurich in 1916, where a fledgling artistic group who got together at the Cabaret Voltaire formulated an ideal called 'dada' to identify their activities; the movement's spirit was best captured by Andre Breton who declared that 'Dada is a state of mind ... Dada is artistic free-thinking.' As such, the Dadaists set about turning 'normal' artistic conventions on their head and severed links with traditional concepts of art, including music, in order to create new and often anarchic forms. During the early 1920s in the USSR physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen a.k.a. Leon Theremin -- developed the synthetic music instrument that became known by his name, and in 1922 performed the world's first 'official' concert of electronic music at the Kremlin before an enthusiastic Lenin. The instrument Theremin developed has been called the first synthesiser -- it operated by using electrical fields which were tuned by the changes in distance between an antenna and the performer's hand -- but his own life was just as remarkable, reading like a trippy episode of "Melrose Place" intercut with "The Maltese Falcon".

Over the next 15 years he taught Lenin how to use his instrument, he worked in the same studio with Einstein, and he reportedly spied on the Americans while living in New York City; after being abducted by the KGB and returned to his homeland, he spent time exiled in Siberia before returning for 'special duties' and developing the first wireless bug that was installed in the US embassy in Berlin during the Cold War. The Theremin instrument he originally developed so long ago has continued to be used here in the West, ingratiating itself with its eerie sound effects in B-grade horror and sci-fi films like Forbidden Planet, in Hitchcock's "Spellbound" (1945), in television themes like "Dr Who" and "Dark Shadows", and in songs like "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love".

Rewind three decades. It's 1939, and the eve of the Second World War. While working with broadcast radio John Cage uses test records of pure frequency tones, which he plays on variable-speed turntables, in his early piece "Imaginary Landscape No. 1". In his subsequent effort, titled "Imaginary Landscape No. 2", Cage pioneers live electronic music by using among his sound sources an amplified coil of wire. But it was the arrival of the tape recorder, invented in 1935 yet not widely available until 1950, that transformed the practice of working with sounds in the studio. Tape presented the composer with a flexible, versatile means of recording and storing sounds; of changing them in pitch and rhythm by altering the play-back speed, of superimposing them, and of rearranging them in any order. Tape was, in effect, the first sampler. In 1948 Pierre Schaeffer, a sound technician working for Radio-diffusion-Television-Francais, extended earlier work with discs to produce several short studies in what he called 'musique concrete', and here tape came to the forefront. Each of his compositions was based upon sounds from a particular source, such as railway trains or the piano, and the recordings were transformed by playing them at different speeds, forwards or in reverse, isolating fragments and superimposing one sound over another, with the intention to free his material from its native associations.

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Concurrently, in Germany, Herbert Eimert established the leading European studio for electronic music in Koln and was soon joined by Karlheinz Stockhausen. In opposition to the principles of musique concrete, Eimert and Stockhausen set out to create what they called 'Elektronische Musik': music generated exclusively by electronic means, without using natural sources of sound. Stockhausen's "Studien" (1953-54), for example, was an attempt to mimic the sounds of an existing source, such as a piano, by superimposing the requisite pure frequencies obtained from oscillators, and alternatively by composing entirely new sounds by creating combinations different from those emitted by any natural instrument.

Stockhausen's next venture was one of reconciliation. Composed in 1955-56, his "Gesang der Junglinge" sought to bring together Elektronische Musik and musique concrete by combining purely electronic sounds with natural ones -- those of a child's singing voice -- and the result was a fusion of electronic music with language. Meanwhile in the United States the film industry encouraged the new electronic music medium. Louis and Bebe Barron had set up a private electronic music studio in New York to provide suitably strange and eerie soundtracks for science fiction films like "Forbidden Planet" (1956), and it was in this studio that John Cage composed his "Williams Mix" (1952) that was a collage of all kinds of material, from purely electronic sounds to pre-existing music; from amplified 'small sounds' (Cage's own term for the barely audible) to city noises.

From 1948 to 1954, therefore, the technical and aesthetic foundations of electronic music had been firmly established. In particular the advancing technology and experiments by people such as Cage, Schaeffer and Stockhausen had opened up four new approaches to musical composition: using natural and machine-made sounds, altering the sounds of traditional musical instruments, creating new sound material, and constructing overlaid collages. The concept of the collage harks back to the Dadaists, and it was only natural that electronic music coming from the experimental community would have a leaning towards similar theatrics and mixed-media orientations.

This collage, or synthesis as it became known, was developed into the 1960s; mostly it was an attempt to bring together diverse styles within a single work, often using references -- or samples -- of music from the past to bring an ironic accentuation to the modern condition of abundant variety. It was also the means for some Dada-inspired experiments with sound. The recordings of Cage's "Variations IV" (1964) includes scraps of sampled music and speeches of different kinds, all willingly admitted in a free-for-all montage; Cage himself declared that the work was his own personification of the fact that 'nowadays everything happens at once'. Yet in spite of the technological and artistic advances of this time, by the first half of the 1960s it was apparent that electronic music had reach its limitations.

Stockhausen's "Kontakte" (1958-60) -- which was composed for four-channel tape and generated a whole new world of sound from the simple basic material of electronic pulses -- was symptomatic of the restrictions being faced. It took two years to complete. Too many hours were necessarily spent in the studio, experimenting by trial and error with equipment never intended for musical composition. Many of these affected composers and electronic technicians therefore concerned themselves in the search for their own Holy Grail of the time: an effective electronic music synthesiser. The first such functional instrument was the RCA Synthesiser built by Harry Olsen and Herbert Belar -- a gargantuan assembly capable of producing and altering a wide variety of sounds -- but an invention of far wider significance came in 1964 when Robert Moog constructed the first sound devices responsive to control voltages. Moog developed the twin elements of a voltage-control oscillator and a voltage-control amplifier. Whereas previously it had been necessary for a composer to 'tune' his equipment by hand in order to obtain the desired pitch, volume, and so on, it was now possible for this to be done by electronic signals, thus increasing the speed and precision with which sounds could be created. This in turn paved the way for the development of an instrument for sound synthesis, and with the simultaneous miniaturisation of electronics and the evolution of modular systems, a synthesiser could finally be produced. In 1966 synthesisers developed by Moog and Donald Buchla became commercially available, and in 1968 the release of Walter Carlos' "Switched On Bach" -- an album of music by Bach performed entirely on a Moog synthesiser -- brought the innovation to worldwide public attention. Carlos went on to produce the music for Stanley Kubrick's film "A Clockwork Orange" which, along with the electronic-inspired soundtrack to Kubrick's other film "2001: A Space Odyssey", confirmed the synthesiser's place and electronic music in general as an increasingly accessible and relevant medium.

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Until the mid 60s, however, electronic music experiments had been confined to the studio; as the decade drew to a close it began its fractious assimilation into popular culture and progressive music styles. Influenced by Stockhausen's work with his own ensemble on such compositions as "Kurzwellen" (1968) rock musicians like Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground and the Beatles began to make use of live electronic techniques and more experimental sound nuances, while with their album "Anthem Of The Sun" (1967-68) the Grateful Dead played on the development of electronic rock by drawing upon references of musique concrete in between songs.

However in the first half of the 1970s there was a conscious shift away from the abstraction, discontinuity and non-harmoniousness that hallmarked the 60s. Assured, often sophisticated techniques of recording, and integrating electronic music into this process, was the hallmark of British bands like Yes, Roxy Music, the Matching Moles and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, yet in general the use of synthesiser was often relegated to instrumental imitation and nothing more definitive.

Apart from the more adventurous offerings of Brian Eno and the German-based dabblings of Tangerine Dream, Neu, Can, and Kraftwerk, music in general had relegated machine-based sounds to a more subservient position. While punk's arrival in the mid 70s was a subversive way in which to combat the excesses of pomp rock, there was an equally defining and vital underground that surfaced in Britain under the moniker of industrial music. The principle protagonists in this movement were Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, bands as much influenced by Dada and the Beat generation writers as they were by Stockhausen, Schaeffer, Brian Eno, basic sound iconoclasm, the new electronic music technology coming through ... and James Brown. These bands had more in common with Germans like Kraftwerk, Can and Karlheinz Stockhausen than they did with anyone else in the UK, but they made an enormous impact upon the emerging 'hip' new British media cartel that included fledgling magazines like "The Face" and "NME".

What made Cabaret Voltaire unique in their early records -- in particular "Mix Up" (1978) and "Voice Of America" (1979) -- was the way in which band members Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson created their own unique, sometimes obscure, soundscapes and grooves through the use of a collage of effected sound-sources and spliced-up tape loops; for their live shows the band integrated a multi-media approach that included slide-shows and political imagery, for an all-encompassing effect and an often deliberately heavy-handed message. There was a reason behind this apart from basic visual aesthetics: in 1983 Mallinder reflected that 'people react a lot more immediately to a visual image than to an audio one. Audio can be far more subconscious, more subliminal, but audio doesn't have the immediacy of the sense of sight.'

Industrial music as an autonomous artistic putsch effectively sputtered to a halt around 1982, and bears very little resemblance to the music style calling itself 'industrial' that emerged later that decade and continues to be flogged like a dead horse. But the short-lived movement has had a phenomenal impact on the electronic music we take for granted twenty years later. Its impact on young British musicians, artists, designers and music journalists at the time was integral in the development of a better understanding and appreciation of experimental music and underground culture in general; its use of sampling techniques and an untraditional approach to composition, along with the integration of new technology to do so, is a practice that has continued. You can hear its legacy in the soundscapes of artists like Coldcut, Jeff Mills, DJ Krush, Optical, Little Nobody, Steve Law, Aphex Twin, Black Lung, Atari Teenage Riot and Voiteck.

Many of industrial's principle protagonists also helped to develop techno in its formative stages, and some still continue to make vital contributions. Although Throbbing Gristle split in 1981, founding member Genesis P-Orridge went on to form Psychic TV just as his cohorts Cosey Fanni Tutti and Peter Christopherson formed Chris & Cosey. Cabaret Voltaire, while still ostensibly together 25 years after they were formed, has seen Richard Kirk join up with Sheffield's Warp label to create some poignant electronic muzak albums and Stephen Mallinder now lives in Perth, moonlighting as a member of Sassi & Loco as well as the Ku-ling Brothers. Ollie Olsen, who was a member of pioneering local synthesiser outfit Whirlywirld in the late 70s then worked with experimental band Orchestra Of Skin & Bone in the first few years of the 1980s, went on to push the perimeters with No, found pop success with Max Q, and set himself up as one of Melbourne's first purist techno musicians as Third Eye; these days he still produces electronic sounds, he DJs around the traps, and he runs Psy-Harmonics.

So what exactly is this music we call techno as the new millennium kicks into gear? It's a hybrid creature, a fusion of influences and interests, ideas and ideals, that has no specific original source; in its time it's drawn upon previous movements such as industrial, hip hop, house, funk, disco, soul, blues, punk, rock, salsa and Dada. It's been influenced not just by the cerebral experimental studio work crafted from the 1940s through to the 1960s, but also by B-grade 50s sci-fi film soundtracks. Meaningful monologues from "The Twilight Zone" sit comfortably beside news broadcasts appropriated from CNN; inane vocal samples are shaped to become just as pivotal a part of the music as the TB-303 bassline beneath.

Contemporary electronic music is a realm in which culture, politics, history, entertainment, humour and technology can all sit alongside literally hundreds of diverse musical influences jammed together to create the whole; it takes stock from the world we live in and flashbacks to the past in order to create a new and ever-changing futurist entity. It's electronic music that derives its sounds from machines and its ideas from the environment, and it has the potential to restrict itself less than any other musical style in history.

Amen to that.

[ g r a p h i c s . b a s e d . v e r s i o n ]

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