Sunday, May 23, 2010

History of Electronic Music: Introduction

To begin with let me apologize to Wendy Carlos. I do respect your accomplishments. But, back then... Well, I was ten. Back then was 1973 and I was just beginning, as many children that age, to develop an active, as opposed to a passive, interest in music. I was beginning to seek and my first area of exploration was within the immediate surroundings of my parents' record collection. I was fortunate that my parents were young and forward thinking.
Their records were a good representation of music current at the time as well as folk from their beatnik period and classical, which was more my mother's taste. I worked my way through Beatles, Cream, Dylan, Kingston Trio, Melanie and eventually became intrigued enough by one record I would repeatedly flip past to actually put it on the turntable and give it a listen.
What captured my attention was the cover. It was a picture of a man in a powdered wig dressed as an 18th century composer in a room with period furnishings. Behind him was a straight out of sci fi musical device set in complete incongruity to its surroundings. I was eager to hear the sounds this instrument produced with its multiple knobs, switches, jacks and wires but was ultimately disappointed.
The sounds were kind of cool but the music was classical: mathematical, controlled, measured, tight-assed. Switched On Bach is still Bach and it didn't do it for me even as I periodically gave it repeated chances throughout my maturation. What I wanted to hear was music specific to the instrument pictured, a Moog modular, which in my mind should be beeps, bleeps, burbles and wows.
As I started buying my own records, I'd hear hints of what I was looking for in the works of Yes, Pink Floyd, ELP and other prog rockers but it was subservient to the traditional rock format driven by drum, bass and guitar. Then, thanks to David Bowie, I was led to Brian Eno and this opened me up to all sorts of weird and wonderful music but it was still not quite what I was looking for. I wanted to hear the instrument in its own time, played by a musician exploring it in a new and unique context.
My quest was abandoned as I became immersed in Punk with its somewhat anti-tech stance and wasn't resumed until I had come through through the other side of electronica years later. I was looking for something new and different in a Brooklyn record store when I heard the music of my youthful imagination coming from the store speakers. The owner informed me it was "Silver Apples of the Moon" by Morton Subotnik and introduced me to his establishment's experimental music section. I was excited. This is exactly what I had been looking for; switched on, no Bach.
I bought the Morton Subotnick CD and from there began building a decent collection of early 20th century experimental music. My favorite discovery was a boxed set of four CDs entitled, "Popular Electronics: Early Dutch Electronic Music From Phillips Research laboratories 1956-1963." In a funny moment I caught myself looking at the period graphics and wondering if the collection was new or vintage.
What fascinated me was how far back the roots of electronic music went. Basically, as soon as electricity became available people were using it to create music. As I listened I read and researched and got to know something about them. The stories of these intrepid innovators are often more interesting than their creations and what I hope to do in what follows is dig up those stories and share them as I explore the history of what was, for most of the 20th century, a fringe musical genre.

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