Reflections on Electroacoustic Music

Otto Luening

On occasions like this, when a person of my vintage is asked to attend and take part, I always view it with a certain amount of suspicion because I suspect that a lot of people just want to know if you are still there. Others would like to know whether you can still remember anything. So one of the dangers is that if you do remember, you start reminiscing. And that's bad because you might remember things that other people wish you had forgotten. Or worse still, you remember things that never happened. But the very bad and dangerous business is if you forget things that never happened.

The other matter is that as I sit here, I listen to all of my distinguished friends, many of whom seem to be grandparents, and young fellows of 60 and 75 come around and tell me of their adventures. It's really lovely to meet them, but I do feel as I look back on this memory lane, there are certain periods that I came from that have to be recounted rapidly because it's a different background.

The first time I heard about electronic music was in 1906. That was on a farm in Wisconsin. We had a musical farm. My father was a very fine musician. The news came in about the Wright brothers flying. Photographs had just started. Automobiles were new. And the news came in, not through television, but in magazines-not even daily papers. McClure's magazine, the 1906 issue, had an article stating that Dr. Thaddeus Cahill had recently demonstrated his dynamophone or telharmonium in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was "an extraordinary electrical invention for producing scientifically perfect music." This is a direct quote from the announcement of the demonstration. My father, who was a graduate of the Leipzig Conservatory, said to us, "You will see. Electronic music will come in the future."

Now in 1907, Ferrucio Busoni published a book called Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music. He wrote that music couldn't go on in 18th century and 19th century fashion, it couldn't just repeat all the time. Something had to open up. Then he stated in a footnote that he had read about Cahill's dynamophone-with which by moving levers, microtones, new timbres and scale formations could be produced-that this was one way of expanding the musical language. But he stated further-quotes from Busoni's article-"Only a long and careful series of experiments and a continued training of the ear will render this unfamiliar material approachable and plastic for the coming generation and for art."

Now, Cahill sent this message of a perfect music over ordinary telephone wires. But the subscribers objected. They wanted to gossip and do business. So soon the dynamophone was out, and the gossip and the business went in, and went on-which is all right. But there were certain things that had been planted there that went on. It was in 1909 that Edgar Varèse left Paris to go to Berlin where for the first time he met Busoni, and read this sketch that Busoni had made predicting this development of electric music. It made a profound impression, and a lasting one, on Varèse. They became great friends, Busoni and Varèse, and Varèse began his search for new timbre in 1909.

Now, we jump a little. I don't have to go into all the interludes. I only have to say about myself that I have either the fortune, or the misfortune, of being uneducated. I only went through seven grades. And from that point, circumstances kicked me around. So, if you notice me getting incoherent, it's because I didn't have proper education-and spent too much time as a professor. [Laughter]

We'll jump now. I landed in Munich in 1912 as a boy of 12. I studied music at the State Academy. In 1917, after five years of study there, [when] America entered the War [WWI], I was an enemy alien age 17, and got expelled, so I was an emigré who landed in Switzerland. I had to get out fast because [otherwise] a concentration camp was waiting [for me].

In Switzerland, I met Ferrucio Busoni, who was also there, and also had gone into self-exile because he would not to play music and make art in any country that was killing and shooting people. There were others there. I read his Sketch which had come out again-this was ten years later. I read it. Translated into German. I saw this thing and thought, "My God. Amazing."

But then I looked around and saw that there were other refugees there. They were other people who later became monuments. But back then, they weren't monuments: they were refugees. There was James Joyce. There was [Paul] Klee and [Alberto] Giacometti and the dada movement. the whole dada movement was alive at that time there in Zurich. Hermann Hesse was there, Stefan Zweig. They had all been washed up because of the War. They were all there seeing one culture break and go into fragments, and were already starting to build. But they were not monuments. Joyce was an English teacher. He had [established] a little acting company to produce Irish plays. He wanted to get the language and his thoughts about Irish plays going. The English players needed people to go. I became a member of [his company]. I was an actor for one year. Joyce was the business manager. But he was also the coach. He coached us on diction. He weighed out every way of how to project words. He sat in the prompt box. He was the great professional. He did everything from getting the costumes, to selling the tickets, to writing the program notes, to buying (or stealing) the copies [of plays] that he had to have for us. In other words, the great professional.

It was the same way with all of them. They had to do it all from memory, because we had no computers. We didn't even have many typewriters. So you had to remember, and you had to have a pencil, and do it all by hand. Otherwise nothing got done. But that's the way everybody did it.

For instance, Busoni, when somebody would ask him, "What is your greatest misfortune?" he said, "My greatest misfortune is that I can forget nothing." He remembered the whole music literature, English literature, Italian and German literature-he knew by memory! He didn't like it, but he lived with it.

Now, at the same time as the dadaists were active, Busoni already knew [poet and dramatist, Filippo] Marinetti and [painter Luigi] Russolo as Futurists.

But he had moved into a somewhat different direction. Busoni said the old and the new are the same. They only happen at different times. We have to chew that one. He said at that point, after having gone through a whole period of experimentation himself, from 1907 on through, he suddenly came out with this [insight]. He said, "Experiment is essential, but it must end at some point, and end in something that has a beginning, a middle and an end, which is the solution of a problem that becomes the framework for the next problem." So with that, he called this the Young Classical Movement.

At the same time, the dadaists were active. The dadaists were destructionists, some of them-not all of them. [Alberto] Giacometti was there. So was Paul Klee. But there were others who said "You have to destroy the museums. You have to knock everything out. Everything must be pulled down, because otherwise you can't start building again. Destruction was a way of art and of constructing."

Others did not believe that, and said that you can go on. Var?se who quoted very often afterwards, "Just because we have airplanes is no reason we have to shoot all the horses," to which my good friend [Robert] Moog said the other day when I quoted to him, "But it's such fun."

In this whole picture, I was a flutist and I became a hands-on professional musician, starting at the age of 15. I've had 75 years [experience] as a professional musician. I became a flutist. I played the piano. I conducted. I did everything you had to do from the standpoint of a hands-on musician. I was a member of the Opera in Zurich. I was a member of the Tonhalle Orchestra when I was 17, conducted operettas when I was young-anything that came along, because I loved music. I started when I was 3, started composing at 6, discovered electronic music at 6 (Cahill's business). I loved music and I was very curious about people-still am-and curious about myself too. What the hell am I doing up here talking like this? That's a puzzle. Because the life expectancy chart [goes to age] 85. They don't put you on after that, so I'm not supposed to be here. The statisticians have said 85 is it. But I'm 91. Well that's your problem. Not mine.

Now, where do I come in with my own interest? I wrote music all the time-no electric instruments. So I studied acoustics by myself, and what there was [that was written] about classical acoustics in the 19th century. But I studied also what was there on the flute. What was there in the piano, on the strings of the piano? What was there in the voice?

James Joyce would tell us about how you could do certain acoustic things [he alters his voice]. [For example], in language you have the wonderful thing that we call the butterfly. Now if you put it in different languages, it's butterfly in English but it's papillons in French, then farfalia (Italian), then in German, it's schmetterling. In the languages themselves describing these things you see whole nations. Now, that was what Joyce used to give to us. He would describe with a few words how it was in Dublin-how things were. So he made me conscious of listening to every word, every kind of inflection.

So I went in and through the composing I did everything as a kid: tonal, atonal, polytonal, unusual forms. I wrote a great deal of music. And I finally started deriving "harmonic areas" I called which were sections of the overtones that I liked. Then they would become my own harmonic area.

I [discontinued] that, and now we make a nice skip. I was appointed to the Columbia University faculty in 1944. I [instituted] a seminar for composers. In 1951, Columbia bought its first tape recorder: a professional Ampex to record concerts. Ussachevsky was a member of the music faculty and a postgraduate member of my seminar. He came out of the Army and landed in my seminar to get him out of the Army and into music again.

For new sonorities Ussachevsky recorded instruments and then superimposed them on one another on tape. He wrote at that time, "I suddenly realized that the tape recorder could be treated as an instrument of sound transformation as well as of sound reproduction." On May 19, 1952, his experiments [led to a performance]. He had done a lot of experiments with Peter Mauzey from the engineering school, and they had cooked up a few things for fun, out of curiosity. But they were performed at a composer's forum. The reception was mixed, as usual, and has been since then. No change. But Virgil Thomson predicted a future for the new medium. He said, "I think this is something that's going places."

I was in charge of composition at the Chamber Music Conference Composer's Forum at Bennington College, Vermont-which was a new college, very forward-looking. I was in charge of developing music there in the summer. I had been there before on the regular faculty. So I invited Ussachevsky to come up [in 1952] for the summer conference. It was sort of a conference like this about new music, but with instrumentalists, and an audience. I said, "We could get together and experiment with this new business, this gadget, this tape recorder. We'll try it. I'll take the flute, you take the piano, and we have other people with instruments, so we can really fuss around." We did.

Besides the Ampex tape recorder, Mauzey had built a feedback machine, a form of mechanical reverberation. We borrowed a portable concertone, a portable loudspeaker, an amplifier, a professional splicing block, and a supply of straight-edge razor blades. That was the traveling laboratory that fit into the back seat of Ussachevsky's car, and [the place] where we did our first experimenting. With violin, clarinet and voice, we decided the best way to proceed was to produce our own sound and work as a team.

Right away, we felt that it was too much to do for one or two persons. We needed a team. So he played the piano, and I played the flute, recorder, piano. We sang, we played percussion instruments equipped with earphones. I began experimenting with my flute with sound on sound. I'd improvise a passage, put it on tape, listen to it, and while I listened to it I'd improvise another one-all within these harmonic "acoustic areas" that I had cooked up along with these homemade studies. Then I'd mix these and add another passage. And I remembered Busoni saying that these experiments have to stop at some point, that you have to shape it into a beginning, a middle and an end. You have to do something. This was the great exploration that I made with my flute at the time.

Now, I felt that with these experiments, I had to put them together somehow and get a beginning, a middle and end. So I went at it some more with the earphones and talk [voice] with Ussachevsky and some of the other players.

By then we had a lot of material that we had to put together little by little to create a piece. Once we did, we had a party, and we played the piece for all the other composers at the party as a joke, just for the fun of it [the way I'm doing here].

After it was over, they came up, rather solemn, and said "Congratulations." We said, "What for? It was a lot of fun." They said, "That's all right. It may be primitive, but this is a new horizon. Congratulations." We said, "Come on. Forget it. Have another drink." So we had a fine time.

The next day, there was a telephone call from Leopold Stokowski in New York. He said, "I heard about your electric music. I want you to do a group [of pieces] for me for a concert of modern music." We didn't want to. We said, "We have no equipment, no laboratory. No. I think not." So we turned it down at first. The next day, he called up again and said, "Why can't you do something?"

Henry Cowell had a farm out there in Shady, New York, and he said we could come up to his farm. We could put the laboratory in Ussachevsky's car, go to the farm, make the pieces for Stokowski's concert. So we said, "OK, we'll do it." And we did. We moved everything in the car up to Henry Cowell's farm, and got busy on the first pieces that we had done in a public concert.

The whole thing was that, having nothing, we had to learn to do it with nothing. We had no sound-deadening devices. We had one speaker we had to borrow up there in Shady, New York. So we borrowed it from some fellow who was a buff. We had carpets we hung on the wall as sound deadening, and then went to town with these pieces. We did three short pieces. I did [it] with flute as a sound source, and then sound on sound by listening and recording one over the other while I listened to this with some sketches. I had an acoustic plan that I followed that produced resultant tones-not just the direct tones, but harmonics and resultant tones that gave quite a new vocabulary for the flute. Ussachevsky did [the same] for the piano. And we did these little pieces at the Modern Museum.

We first had to move this from Cowell's farm to Ussachevsky's apartment in Chicago. Betty Ussachevsky, who was his wife, was wonderful. It went to their apartment. That was the laboratory. That was the equipment. From there, we had to move it to the Theological Seminary. They had some tape recorders we could use. Then we got kicked out, and went into my apartment. Nobody thought much of this whole thing. We hadn't yet had the concert.

Under those conditions we did write these pieces that were then done at the concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on October 28, 1952. The contemporary program was under Stokowski's auspices.

What was interesting about one of the pieces, "Low Speed," was changing the quality and the character of the sound. This is what I taught myself by making the piece. Then I learned some things that I checked later with Dr. Meyer Eppler in Bonn when I came over on a study tour. When you made sixteen mixes, iteration set in, the original material changed completely and became something else in actual sound. Some harmonic rhythmic fragments would turn into a melodic kind of a line, or pulse-whatever you want to call it.

Funny thing-Schoenberg in his Harmonielehre, had called it klangfarbenmelodie, timbre-melody. And that's it. It had a sort of a sense of continuity, but it was with timbres rather than with scale formations.

We gave the concert. Half the audience thought it was the greatest thing since the invention of counterpoint. The other half thought we had ruined music. It's been that way ever since. No change. Still there.

Luciano Berio was there. He heard that concert. Very shortly afterwards, he went to Milan and started the Milan Studio with a real studio and a real laboratory. But he heard this concert, and we've been very good friends since.

NBC television heard about this. It was in all the papers. We were overnight geniuses, famous, and everything else. They had a program, and they asked us if we could do this for the television audience in front of them. And since I was used to coping with difficulties since I was a small child, said "Of course we can do that." So we got together on television, over a national hookup, and I composed a piece right then and there. It was immediately processed by Mauzey and Ussachevsky with the earphones on, I with the earphones on and the flute, making up this piece. It was heard by the television audience at the same time [as we created it]. All of that was a gas, because everybody figured anybody could do this if these guys can do it.

So the big publicity started (if you know what I mean).

It's still with us. And we did it a couple of times, and then, I began thinking about this business, and I realized that this whole thing-it's very strange, but the way this thing is, we need an enormous team to work on this. It's too much for any one, any two, any three. Big. They've got to think of it that way.

In '53, the New York Academy of Sciences arranged a lecture-recital of these first pieces. They wanted to use them, and did use them for music therapy to see if they could get people who were in catatonic states-schizophrenics-to react. And I understand, from 20 years later, that the experiments were successful. We never heard about it [at the time]. They just said, "Can we have your program?" then did this, then 20 years later, I heard this from some doctor. He came up and said, "You know, those experiments? They really worked. We had some people there who hadn't moved for two months. And we played your flute piece for them, and they went right into attention."

Now, it's very curious the way that this continued. Western Electric Company did a research program at the same time and invited us to come. They discovered [that] uncontrolled sound vibrations destroyed airplanes-very bad for flying. They had to control sound, some uncontrolled sound-dangerous.

So then the Navy Department was doing some secret research on how to detonate bombs through underwater acoustics. It dawned on us that the whole matter of sound could be [either] destructive or benevolent, and that that had to be taken into consideration somehow. In other words, not in the sense of dissonance and consonance, but in the sense of "Does it or doesn't it do something?" and "What does it do?"

From then on my assignments, alone or with a team, followed Busoni's dictum that the experiment must be formed, and should be performed to see how it was perceived by the audience for which it was intended-whatever that audience is. What about the perception? Is it sinking in? Do they respond? Are all audiences alike? We soon found that out because we were asked to do a lot of strange things.

In 1953, the Louisville Orchestra commissioned me, and I invited Ussachevsky to join me in producing a piece for electronic music and symphony orchestra. This was an assignment. But will this ever work with symphony orchestra? Well, somebody had to do it. So we said OK. I took the commission, and said to Ussachevsky, "Come on, let's try this thing. See if we can make it work."

So we did this first piece called Rhapsodic Variations, which was premiered in March, 1954. It was credited for being the first performance of taped music with symphony orchestra. And from then on, the balancing of electroacoustic sounds with instruments or voice became my main interest. This first orchestra balance, which was a great problem, had to be solved.

Stokowski came after us again, and asked us to write a two-and-a-half minute piece for the television audience that would be of interest to them, and do it any way you want. So we had the laboratory, and Ussachevsky's room, and we figured out a piece called Incantation. What we had was our own voices, the flute, the piano, a couple of dishplates, some recitation by me, and a few other things that went on.

On this one, we had to learn precision within a short time span-very good training to make a statement that is more an aphorism, a slogan, a poem rather than a big dramatic philosophical statement. That's good, too. Both are good. But we chose to make the more concise statement-and still with balance to it. With this one, he told us we had two minutes and thirty-five seconds-something like that.

Now the funny thing that happened next was that the American Mime Theatre asked us to write a score for them, for miming. They like to mime. What we had to do, though, was that they made a plan, and we saw a rehearsal. We had to learn the notation indicating where they were with the lights and the movement. We then packed the laboratory into the car again and went up to the MacDowell Colony, and there we had to time that thing without seeing anybody, through notation and memory. We then had to get it back in time for the dress rehearsal at the Mime Theatre. They took it on, and it worked. We were very proud as professionals who took the assignment and then did it, from beginning to middle to end. It was performed a few times.

We made it our point, at that point-as professionals-that we were always going to take these assignments. Each one was an experiment that had to be done as a finished problem, and then tested with an audience to see how they feel-not just how we felt in expressing ourselves. We had to see if we were really moving it across-communicating.

Now, my acoustic research had led me to meet with a lot of people. They realized that I hadn't had any education, and so everybody was willing to talk. And so by asking questions of some very eminent people, I got quite a lot of information. Among it back in time for the dress rehearsal at the Mime Theatre. They took it on, and it worked. We were very proud as professionals who took the assignment and then did it, from beginning to middle to end. It was performed a few times.

We made it our point, at that point-as professionals-that we were always going to take these assignments. Each one was an experiment that had to be done as a finished problem, and then tested with an audience to see how they feel-not just how we felt in expressing ourselves. We had to see if we were really moving it across-communicating.

Now, my acoustic research had led me to meet with a lot of people. They realized that I hadn't had any education, and so everybody was willing to talk. And so by asking questions of some very eminent people, I got quite a lot of information. Among the ones that I got in contact with were Dr. Fletcher, Dr. Pierce, Dr. Goodman, Max Matthews-all at Bell Telephone Lab-and the Messrs. Moog, Buchla and Ketoff (who was in Rome).

That was the extent of my acoustic knowledge.

In 1955, the Rockefeller Foundation gave a grant to us to take a look at the whole scene in the United States and Europe. So Ussachevsky and I made this trip. After seeing everything here and in Europe where we met several people, had all kinds of meetings, and read all kinds of articles, we suggested that in the United States we should have a university council. Instead of doing it through radio stations, which were commercial, we would do it through universities, which were educational. You had a science department, you had literature, you had music, you had everything else-money and all, too.

We wanted to get it started as a council. Actually, the Rockefeller Foundation said, "Look, you don't want a council." There were a lot of universities, like Stanford, Illinois, Toronto, Mills College, and other ones that have done some experimenting in this. Rockefeller said, "You'll never get the councils. You'll only have meetings all the time. You won't get anything done. Why don't you work together with Princeton. You and Princeton (that's Ussachevsky and myself) seem to get along with [Milton] Babbitt and [Roger] Sessions. We'd be able to get something done. You wouldn't be fighting all the time, competing." That's very good advice. We got together and made a common cause. And we then worked toward getting this Columbia/Princeton thing settled.

In the meantime, the temporary laboratory was moved around from Ussachevsky's apartment to mine. While we were doing all this grant stuff, and the studying, we did some of the research on the Olsen Belar Synthesizer Mark II. I found out I was already an old man at that time-52 or 53, and I figured I was too old to do the technical stuff. I could do it, but [I was] too slow. So I worked with technicians at the time.

Now, this is another thing, the value of time, and I always advise all of my young students. My advice to them and to almost everybody around now: don't die young. You have to live over a span to see what happens with some of this stuff.

For instance, Gargoyles, oddly enough, has become a kind of a repertory piece. The violinists like it. They put it on concerts. They played it in London, and just recently in Baltimore. And they do it, not because it's some big deal with electronic music, but a damn good concert piece for them to play. It's interesting, because that has to do with a certain kind of perception which I've become interested in, which I'll later go into a little bit more.

We went through this whole thing, and from 1955 through 1958, Ussachevsky and I carried this thing. We had to keep doing this alone. We didn't have the university helping us. We had to put our own money into this thing, and do all of this experimenting and everything else. But we had to do another thing about it, which is interesting for this congress at this moment in the development of where we are now. I was occupied in getting the electronic music center established. This meant lectures, articles, demonstrations, explanations, radio interviews, committee meetings and individual conferences to explain the need for a center, and to explain what we were doing. They didn't know the language. We had to explain to everybody in different ways what we were doing. Finally, they gave us $175,000. The Rockefeller's said to start the Columbia/Princeton Studio, which we did-with Ussachevsky and myself from Columbia, and Sessions and Babbitt from Princeton. Ussachevsky became the chairman. He was very good about getting [publicity about the program] out. My first suggestion was that the center should be made available to any qualified graduate fellow working in the field, regardless of nationality. Here was a chance to learn the language. And the first ones that we had came from Japan, France, Turkey, Argentina, Egypt and the United States. And among the ones that were very early in the studio who came over to see it was Dr. Abram Moles who came to visit and worked in the studio, and of course, [Mario] Davidovsky and [B?lent] Arel. Davidovsky now directs the studio. In time, it became a very impressive international list [of people] who used the studio as a workplace. Esthetics were not imposed on them by anybody, but everybody worked along his own line of esthetics. We played the first concert of music in May, 1961. The works of Davidovsky, [Halim] El-Dabh, Ussachevsky, Babbitt, Arel, Luening and Charlie Wuorinen.

My Gargoyles, which still happens to survive, was the first one with live [acoustic violin] instrument and synthesizer. It received rather favorable comment, although a lot of the other music didn't. The press now said that this [new music] opened real possibilities. I went on, and did other things with [the new medium]. I did a ballet for Humphrey Weinman, a big one.

My own aim for the Columbia/Princeton electronic music center was to have it function as a pilot project for the field in the United States, and to help get centers established in the United States as a result of our investigations, available to the United States and internationally. Now the Universities of Illinois, Toronto, Stanford and Mills College had already taken some steps in investigating this [new medium]. The Barons (Louis and Beebe) had a private studio. John Cage worked in it along with Morton Feldman and a few others. They were experimenting, but they didn't handle it so they could get into universities. Universities have science departments, literature departments, halls, some money, that they could get. Or they could get grants, which was easier.

We worked very hard to get things going. We finally did get a grant, and then Ussachevsky did a great deal as coordinator to help spread this idea of the studio into other universities and to help them get started.

My own interest was perception. [The question is] no longer just, "Can I make it? Is that the only thing we can do? Can I make this?" But also, "Can I make [this into music], and do I communicate with anybody in some way?" They don't have to like it or dislike it, but "Am I making the communication?"

This is all I have to say for now.