Electronics & Music Maker FEBRUARY 1982 - by Derek Pierce



In the late 1950's, as we have seen 'musique concrète' was popular as a method of producing new and unusual sounds, which could be transformed, manipulated and used as the basis of much new music. Although popular for quite a while after this, one development was to have a greater effect on the music right up to the present day. It was the synthesiser. The word synthesiser is often misused, and in this text it denotes a multi-function machine possessing sound generators, filters, mixers etc. Harry Olsen and Herbert Belar completed the first synthesiser in 1955 - the RCA Mk I. However, in 1959 the Columbia Princeton Studio acquired the RCA Mk II synthesiser. It was unlike the previous Mk I version in as much that it functioned on a binary number system. The Mk II version also made use of punched paper rolls. In a binary system there are only two digits, 0 and 1. The control of each component (sound sources, filters and modifiers) is contingent upon specific binary information. Composers were able to specify the various elements of composition in a decimal form and then assign them a binary code. The encoded numbers were punched in to the paper roll which was divided into five paired columns, one column signifying 0, and the other, 1. The information was then conveyed to appropriate circuits via sets of brushes sensing the holes and activating the appropriate relays.

With its unique control system, the Mk II was capable of controlling frequency, duration envelope, harmonic spectrum and temporal progression of sonic events. It could be programmed to play forward, backward, faster and slower - techniques which would have taken a composer a lot of time and patience to accomplish using classical studio techniques.

Milton Babbitt, co-director of the studio, loved the freedom that the Mk II had given him and used it for his most important works including Ensembles For Synthesiser (1961-63) [1]. Ensembles is an effort to produce instrumental sounds, rich in complex rhythms, pitches and organisation not available from conventional musical instruments. It makes a convincing case for the use of electronics in music, and although not that accessible, it makes rewarding listening after several hearings.

At about the time of the arrival of RCA's Mk II synthesiser, Harold Bode, a German engineer, suggested in an article a new concept in the design of equipment using modular systems. The advantage being that each piece of electronics (oscillators, ring-modulators, etc) would be self-contained and thus the user could custom build his own system.

Three years later at the request of a young composer, Max Deutsch, Robert Moog built a modular voltage controlled oscillator (VCO) and a voltage controlled amplifier (VCA). The following year he completed a voltage controlled filter (VCF). The revolution of using voltage control was not appreciated by composers until 1967. Prior to Moog's voltage control, electronic devices were controlled manually, composers needed to turn knobs and dials to give them the variations they needed. Their manual dexterity limited the number, speed and accuracy of changes that could be made. Since an electrical signal can move considerably faster than human dexterity, and can be measured accurately with a voltmeter, voltage control provided a major step for electronic music composers.

Control voltages can be divided into two main categories, passive and active. The former consists of those voltages produced by the keyboard, sequencer, or random voltage generators. The latter are derived from VCOs, VCAs and VCFs. Frequency followers and envelope followers convert pitch and amplitude respectively, to proportional voltages which can also be used to control modules. By joining together various modules the voltage from one can be used to control the other. For example, frequency modulation is achieved by periodic variation in the frequency of VCO 1 by, say, VCO 2 and using a fairly slow modulation rate produces the familiar vibrato effect.

Although the Moog voltage controlled synthesiser became much better known, it was not the only one available in these early years. In California for instance, Donald Buchla, an engineer working with composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, jointly developed "an electronic music 'machine' that would satisfy our needs as composers", to quote Subotnick. Thus was born the Buchla synthesiser although, unlike the Moog, it did not use a keyboard. This made it less popular for the roles in which the Moog became well known, i.e. as a keyboard instrument in rock music and jazz.

Although at the time the synthesiser was not available to the general public, the need for a live performance synthesiser was realised by Paul Ketoff, a technical supervisor of NIS Films in Rome. He developed the 'Synket' for live performance, notably used by American composer John Eaton. Eaton first employed the Synket with soprano and piano in Song For R.P.B.. His fascination for microtones is immediately apparent in his compositions, being found in both vocal and synthesiser parts. It is not surprising, therefore, that he went on to form the Microtonal Music Ensemble. He later expanded his number of synthesisers to perform Blind Mans Cry [2], a piece with an intense vocal style that blends with the Synkets to produce an expressionistic atmosphere. Returning to the more popular Moog, it is interesting to listen to a recording of Reconnaissance by American jazz trumpeter Donald Erb (Nonesuch H 71223). This record is one of the first to bring together conventional instruments, i.e. trombone, bass, violin and the new range of Moog instruments, which were able to realise many of the effects of the electronic music studio during live performance. Despite the fact that during Reconnaissance performance, Erb needed the assistance of three helpers to move the plugs and switches of the Moog's control panels!

Before synthesisers became commercially available, American musicians in particular showed an interest in the application of computers to musical composition. Three distinct possibilities existed for their use.

The first of these possibilities occurred at the University of Illinois in 1957. A programme written by Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson was used to produce the score for a string quartet. It defined such parameters as pitch, duration and orchestration and gave rise to Illiac Suite for String Quartet.

This method was used by Yannis Xenakis later, to compose Morsima-Amorsima and Strategic, Jeu pour deux Orchestres. Xenakis had by then formulated a compositional process based on statistics, probability theory and the theory of games.

The second possibility became popularly known as 'computer music'. In this medium, the computer actually produced the sounds by means of a 'Digital to Analogue converter'. A closer look at the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, available commercially since 1979, should provide us with all the elements used in digital sound generation. (Reviewed in detail in June 1981 E&MM.) For example, by analysing a waveform, it maybe broken down into a series of numbers, converted to a binary code, and then stored in a computer's memory bank. On recall, this code can be transposed up or down in pitch as well as altering dynamics or harmonics. One of the main features of the Fairlight is its ability to 'sample' natural sounds through a microphone or tape recorder. This enables it to produce scales out of any sound from animal noises to the sound of breaking glass. (It's played on E&MM Cassette No. 2.) The resultant waveforms can be displayed on an oscilloscope and redrawn using a light pen to produce an even greater variety of sounds.

Computer generated sounds were first produced by Max Mathews of the Bell Telephone Company, New Jersey in 1957 and composers who used this technique included John Pierce, James Tenney, Jean Claude Risset and Frederick Moore. By 1968 Mathews had also developed the light pen as used later in the Fairlight CMI.

The third possibility in the area of computer music, was the use of the computer to control synthesiser or other analogue equipment. Peter Zinovieff was a pioneer in this field. Working in England early in 1968, together with English manufacturers EMS who produced the first cheap and portable machine, he designed one of the first synthesisers to include a computer, the Synthi 100.

One early application of computer control, was as a sequencer (a device which produces a series of voltages one after the other and used to control modules). This particular function is popular today and is used to full effect by such people as Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream etc.

The development of both the voltage control synthesiser and the computer have gone hand in hand right up to the present time, resulting in an increased popularity of both in the field of music. In spite of all these electronic developments, many composers continued to use 'natural' sounds, one of the most notable being Pierre Henry's Variations For A Door And A Sigh (1963) [3]. Variations offers proof that the French tradition of 'musique concrète' was still a viable compositional tool. The tape music of Italian Luigi Nono was also to the fore in this particular form of music, being both highly theatrical and immensely political.

During the period being discussed here, Stockhausen was busy formulating a concept known as intermodulation. It was a logical development of previous methods of treating timbre, and was the result of combining two or more sounds so that their interaction transformed the final result. Whatever sonorous elements were used i.e. rhythm, pitch or timbre, Stockhausen maintained the result was a higher unity. The first composition to use this concept was Telemusik. This was an attempt towards a universal music as the result of an intermodulation between folk music and electronically produced sounds.

As well as the highly composed areas of electronic music, there was a school of electronic music improvisation developing, being influenced by both composers in the Cage school, as well as the self expression offered by jazz. One of these was the London based AMM group which included composer Cornelius Cardew, as well as several jazz musicians. A former associate of Stockhausen, Cardew stated that AMM stood for "a very pure state of improvisation operating without any formal system or limitation". Free music indeed!

Various other electronic improvisation groups flourished particularly in Europe. A group of American composers living in Rome formed Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) in 1966. Their line-up included conventional instruments as well as tape recorders, a Moog synthesiser, photocell mixers and various other unusual devices. Brainwave amplifiers, for instance, were used to derive control voltages from neurological responses such as blinking. One of their finest pieces on record is entitled Spacecraft [4]. Brainwave amplifiers and photocell mixers added new resources to improvisational situations. Brainwave amplifiers connected the performer's physiological response to the production of sound. Light beam mixers added a new approach to the control of sound by using a different medium to control it.

The response from the sounds produced, together with the feedback obtained both visually and acoustically, linked the musicians, their environment and the audience. To MEV this total involvement was an ideal. America, too, had its improvisational groups, the foremost of these being the Sonic Arts Union, formed in 1966 by American composers Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, David Behrman and Alvin Lucier. Most of their works were improvisatory, and some theatrical as well. Electronics were essential, particularly in the slow textural transformations that were their trademark. Gordon Mumma introduced the Cybersonic Console in a piece entitled Medium Size Mograph in 1963. It was, in fact, a console worn by the performer that responded to live sounds and either transformed or generated electronically new sounds from this information.

This fascination for exotic electronic devices is also a characteristic of the Sonic Arts Unit as a whole. They were probably the first group to use the Vocoder, a device produced by Sylvania Electronic Systems for the transmission of speech along telephone lines. It coded the voice in much the same way as the previously mentioned DAC and decoded it at the receiving end of the line.

Needless to say the developments and trends in the 'art' music world gradually found their way into the worlds of jazz and rock music. In the next part of the series we will look at developments in these two areas.


1 Ensembles for Synthesiser, MS 7051

2 Blind Mans Cry, CRI S 296

3 Philips 836 898 DSY

4 Spacecraft & AMM Live, Mainstream 500

PART 1 / PART 2 / PART 4 / PART 5 / PART 6 / PART 7 / PART 8 / PART 9