The College Music Society
During the early days of electroacoustic music, the language used by composers and critics alike in describing this new phenomenon reflected uncertainty. Instances occurred where there were no distinctions made between instrument and music, between vocabulary and compositional technique, between medium and style. In the face of few distinctions, the new machine(s) spawned intriguing experiments-music in which machines imitated the sounds of acoustic instruments, and vice versa, music in which acoustic instruments mimicked machines. Yet pieces exhibiting these sound clones seemed more like testings of the new voice than compositions or artistic statements. Composers lacking imagination could hide too easily, drawing attention to the novelty of the voice and away from the lack of content.
From the first complete concert of electroacoustic music, critic Jay S. Harrison saw the possibilities of the new medium. His review from October 29, 1952 in the New York Herald Tribune, trumpets his enthusiasm.
. . . the result is as nothing encountered before. It is the music of fevered dreams, of sensations called back from a dim past. It is the sound of echo, the sound of tone heard through aural binoculars.
Once seen as the equivalent designation as piano music or orchestral music-that is, as music for a new medium that is electronically generated-electroacoustic music became easier to judge with regard to quality and imagination. The music began to reflect these new distinctions.
That same year, 1952, Eric Salzman wrote of Luening and Ussachevsky in the Columbia Spectator, that "Although they have hardly begun to understand the field that they are opening up, their first compositions have a poetic quality that is more than mere novelty. This is definitely music!" And earlier in the same article, "At present, the only limits in sight seem to be the composer's imagination and knowledge of his equipment."
Harold Schonberg was one of the first critics to point to a number of pitfalls peculiar to the medium, still considered new in 1964. In a New York Times review from September 1 of that year, he states:
Part of the boredom was due to the fact that the various composers employing the most up-to-date of media, simply had little talent. They have heard various electronic music examples from studios in New York, Cologne and Utrecht, and they go around copying the sounds and adding little of their own.
They have discovered a few devices that they endlessly repeat. Endlessly. . . . And the tonal language of what could be one of the most exciting of postwar musical phenomena has been compressed into a few standard glurps, blops and fizzes."
In that same 1964 review, Schonberg singled out Mario Davidovsky (Synchronism #1 for stereophonic tape and live flute) and Luciano Berio (Momenti) as having "some ideas."
Not much change had occurred in the years between 1964 and 1969, according to Schonberg. Yet it is strikingly ironic that in Switched-on Bach, Schonberg saw a way out of the prevailing dilemma in electroacoustic music at that time. Speaking of "growing pains," (New York Times, February 16, 1969, A Merry Time with the Moog?), he states:
From the beginning I have been fascinated with electronic music, but in the last few years have been unhappy with the turn it took. The vocabulary of most electronic music had been reduced to a few types of sounds . . . that soon became terribly hackneyed. Part of the trouble was in the limitations of the RCA Synthesizer and other equipment for electronic music. And part was in the orientation of many of the composers working in the medium. They attempted a serial approach to electronic music, and the results were as dull as they were in most other serial music. One prevalent theory about electronic music was that it should be a thing in itself. Composers would not think of trying to reproduce the sounds of orthodox instruments. Their esthetic forbade it.
But a looser age seems to be upon us, and Switched-on Bach is an indication of a new turn in the approach. It is a welcome trend. This type of music can take the medium out of pure abstractionism.
. . . What composers of electronic music should be doing is creating their own kind of music. [Emphasis added]
In retrospect, perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of electroacoustic music is not that its medium acts as a voice of our age reflecting technological advances and new attitudes. That's a given. Rather, it has served as a stimulus to composers' imaginations, calling them, like a 20th-century Siren, to visit unexplored sonic frontiers. It is for composers who choose this medium to hear the Siren's song, explore those frontiers, then come back and tell us-relate to us-their unique version of the journey.
Margaret M. Barela
Statement by Otto Luening
By the electronic treatment of sounds produced on existing and new instruments in such a way that new acoustic relationships are highlighted, I believe that new, strange, beautiful, musically usable sound material emerges. By combining superimposed fluid rhythms, rhythmic tapestries can be produced which no other method can achieve.
To make these into new forms expressive in content is my aim.
That the forms will cause new and different psychological reactions seems obvious and it is possible to say that this music knocks at the door of the unconscious.
I envision a music which spans the primitive and the highly sophisticated, the occident and the orient, and brings to people a freshening of the spirit.
That this adventure into new land needs to be made soberly, and with great responsibility as to the ultimate psychological and artistic effects on people, seems worth emphasizing. Also that there will be multiple paths.
Music Written for the (Tape) Recorder
New York Herald Tribune, October 26, 1952
Any one who has ever absent-mindedly put an LP record on a turntable set for the old 78 r.p.m. is apt to have been struck by the potentialities offered for musical composition by late advances in mechanical reproduction. The shock of hearing a familiar piece radically accelerated and heightened in pitch beyond recognition may be followed by the fascination of the new sound world evoked. It has seemed inevitable for some time that an enterprising group should come along to harness these potentialities. The nucleus of such a group has been formed by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, both members of the music faculty of Columbia University. Their latest experiments will be demonstrated at Tuesday's concert of the American Composers Alliance and Broadcast Music, Inc., at the Museum of Modern Art.
Mr. Ussachevsky's first experiments were revealed last March at a Composers Forum, and during the summer Mr. Luening worked intensively with him during the Composers Conference at Bennington College [Vermont]. Since Mr. Luening not only composes but plays the flute as well, he added a surprising new ingredient.
"Tape-recorder music" is the present description for the experiments, since the flexibility of magnetic tape, the ease of erasing and splicing is a dominating factor. Peculiar reverberation, available on the finest tape recorders (not on the ordinary "brush" type), accounts for its uniqueness as much as anything else. Its identification with the Parisian Musique Concrète, which I discussed in these columns in August, 1950, may easily be exaggerated. Musique Concrète emphasizes sound produced electronically or by objects other than musical instruments, whereas the New York group, while occasionally embracing the speaking voice, concentrates at present on flute and piano, used together or separately.
The Parisians are interested in the reverberation that follows the inception of a sound, too. But they primarily isolate it from the impact that occurs at the moment the hammering device and the object collide. The local group combines the original sound and the reverberation. The latter is controlled in a special way to set up its own metrical beat to accompany the original sound-a beat like the pendular fade-in-and-out of shortwave broadcasts.
To distill this special quality out of reverberation, both composers have been in constant touch with audio-engineers; among them, Howard Sterling, president of Wave-Forms, Inc., and Peter Mauzey, graduate student in engineering at Columbia University. The principle of this special resonance is what is known to electronic engineers as "mismatched impedence." Electronic experts regard it as a distortion to be eliminated for good recording, reproduction or transmission. It is a kind of interference caused by defective wiring. But Messrs. Luening and Ussachevsky have mobilized it as an advantage.
Because of the purity of its harmonic overtones, the flute lends itself especially well to a highly serviceable type of reverberation which provides a curious counterpoint to the original note. By means of earphones, the composer may hear the reverberation his tones are creating while he produces them. It lingers long and high above the tone, so that he may choose his next tone to make a fitting counterpoint to the lingering reverberation created by the overtones of the previous tone. Mr. Luening describes the sensation of playing against oneself as "weird" and the shimmering resonance of the high-pitched ostinatos engulfs him like an "undertow" through which he must battle to maintain a straight line.
The composer may improvise not only against reverberation, but against material that may be combined in a montage of tapes. The material may be simply another version of what he is playing, the result of running the tape half, twice, three times or even four times the original speed. Whatever it is, he hears it, like the reverberation, through the earphones as he goes along. His ear must be alert and keen to pick the tone to add to the montage already accumulated. Each tape may be separately controlled in dynamics and timbre. Mr. Luening, having to support the flute with two hands, relies on his collaborator at the controls. Mr. Ussachevsky composes with one hand at the controls and one on his piano, which is barricaded behind tape-machines, wires and mikes, and has controls built on to it between him and the keyboard.
Occasionally a faithful reproduction of a musical line is set in relief against variously distorted lines. Distortions may be created through means other than variable speed, dynamics or reverberation. Both composers frankly admit they have just tapped the surface of the field. They dream fondly of having one day the resources for a laboratory and further equipment. Sometimes change of speed gives a hum or shriek, and filters are needed to eliminate this. Also, they have not even begun to tamper with such expedients as running a tape backwards.
What is Offered By the Electronic Age?
PAUL HENRY LANG
New York Herald Tribune, April 18, 1960
Those of our readers who read my review of David Tudor's piano recital last week may have wondered why the music critic of a leading newspaper would waste time reporting such an outrageous travesty of music. But the critic's duty is not restricted to the fashionable subscription concerts and opera: he must quarter, like a guard dog, to see whether there is anything hidden in the cover.
Mr. Tudor belabored the piano with fingers, fists, gloves, and brass knuckles, and even the most ardent friends of ultra-modern music had to admit that this was palpably nonsense. Yet the works performed, or at least some of them, were printed by a reputable publisher; Mr. Tudor himself is a very able pianist; and there was a public that paid admission fee-public recognition is mandatory.
One might suppose that these composers are like little girls who would cut up the family lace to make pretty dresses for their dolls, or little boys who would experiment with a new pen knife on the Sheraton. They do not seem to know the value of what they destroy; they do not even realize till too late that they have destroyed it and with it their own chance of properly enjoying it.
But that is too simple and charitable an explanation; people in the cutthroat music game are not that naive. In fact, these men represent the lunatic fringe of a respectable group of avant-gardists made up of a curious combination of musicians, engineers, scientists, and gadgeteers who maintain that music as we have known it is a thing of the past. Everything that music has accomplished in the past is insignificant compared to what is ahead of us in the electronic age. The history of music begins now.
We may find a parallel to this startling idea in works of obsolete theology, and particularly, perhaps, in attempts to deduce the date of the end of the world from the Scriptures. Here is truth. It must be true because the writer believes that it is true. Yet the facts contradict it. The world did not come to an end last Thursday afternoon-neither did music. During the same week when I heard the senseless thumping of the piano I also heard the new string quartet of Elliott Carter. It proved to be a masterpiece, a truly modern work, not entirely within the realm of it and totally undisturbed by other scientific theories or empirical nonsense.
The march of time gives a new physiognomy to style, but not a new heart; the heartbeat of culture remains the same. The elements become more numerous, but the essence remains unchanged, the combination is endless, but final perfection is unique.This is the pole toward which the compass of genius points. It follows the inscrutable laws in the sign of different ideals, with constantly changing exteriors.
But the change is external. And though renewal gives the impression that it achieves more than its predecessors, it is nothing but the old struggle for the unattainable. It is always the rising sun that is greeted as the only true sun, that of change, evolution, and progress, and yet the sun is always the same. Progress is nothing but movement, struggle; but in art the final value is unchanged, as Mr. Carter so eloquently demonstrated.
However, this time a really new sun has been discovered. Not by the enfants terrible Mr. Tudor presented the other day, but by serious and responsible individuals. Perhaps it was bound to happen, and it was undoubtedly accelerated by our abiding faith in "science" and the machine.
This new sun beats down upon a curious musical landscape in which the physical phenomenon called "sound" is equated with art. Granted that the musical sound is entirely within the province of the science of acoustics; but there is a decisive difference between mathematical-physical theories and the actual effects of music as an art. This is where the new composer and his scientist associate are gravely in error, for they create a false relationship between acoustics and music, between objective nature and subjective art.
Their electronic instruments may produce all manner of interesting sounds, but there is a fundamental difference between a mathematical-objective tone and a musical-subjective tone, between physical and esthetic pitch, and between acoustical and psychological dynamics. The creative process in music is subject neither to physics nor to mathematics, for it is an artistic thought process virtually independent of the natural sciences. We are not dealing with physics but with music, not with science but with an art; it is the human element that is decisive, not the machine.
No matter how earnestly the scientist tries to fix standards the true musician will never accept them unconditionally. Our friends of the electronic tube claim that civilization has finally progressed so far as to make possible the creation of absolutely pure and correct tones synthetically, free of the fallibility of the human element. But it is precisely in these human frailties, in the expressive impurity of "conventional" musical instruments, and in the insecurity of the human finger and larynx that life and humanity are revealed.
The danger of confusing the materials of music with music itself was foreseen by an old eighteenth century savant by the name of Johann Jacob Engel. It might be a good idea to revive his penetrating observation.
"The musician should always attempt to convey feelings rather than depict their actual causes; he should present the state of mind after contemplation of a certain matter rather than that matter itself."
Electronic Game: Its Ground Rules
PAUL HENRY LANG
New York Herald Tribune, (no date)
The recent controversy in this column about electronic music really left the public on the sidelines. We threw the ball back and forth, but the ground rules were not explained, and some readers have wondered what the game was about. Since electronic music will figure in the news more and more, perhaps we should examine the premises from which it proceeds.
Most American exponents of the new musical faith are not typical representatives of the species. They are "conventionally" trained musicians, some of them of a rather conservative bent; they are merely engaged in a sort of experiment with new tonal resources which they apply more or less in the time-honored manner. This is a harmless pastime, although actually the one legitimate facet of electronic music, for eventually these new tonal resources will be harnessed, and in the hands of truly creative artists will undoubtedly prove useful.
Reject the Human
But the authentic electronic schools in Germany and France reject the human, creative element and maintain that music is a purely physical-mathematical process. This is where the electronic composers are gravely in error, for they, and their engineer colleagues, offer a false relationship between science and art, between objective nature and subjective art, unacceptable to either true art or true science.
The musician's opposition to all this rests on the essential difference between the physical and the esthetic definition of time, tone, pitch, rhythm, and dynamics. To the artist the former looks like a kind of science fiction, for he knows that the core of the musical process is an artistic thought process virtually independent of the natural sciences. This has been recognized by eminent thinkers for the better part of a century and ever since musical esthetics and criticism have been considered an integral part of the history of ideas. Wherever we look we shall see that this is true and that the conflict between physics and esthetics is a very real one.
First let us examine the role of time. This is not the place to attempt a discussion of the niceties of the theory of relativity; suffice it to say that the physical concept of time, the measuring units of which are constant whether seconds or light years, has neither content of its own nor any relations to man. Entirely different from the cosmic-objective time of the physicist is the humanly subjective time of music. It comes literally from within man, from his heartbeat and from his breathing, wherefore it is essentially variable and elastic. As a matter of fact, before the advent of the practical metronome, musical time, that is tempo, was reckoned from the normal pulse of a man.
Nothing is more disastrous from the artistic point of view than a physically accurate tempo and rhythm. Many sensitive musicians recoil from the uniformity even of music played for dancing-Johann Strauss himself was notorious for his inability to waltz! The rubato-literally "robbed" time-by which certain notes are deprived of part of their value or given more than their graphically prescribed length, and other similar devices as old as music itself, are purely personal artistic means of expression that can neither be standardized nor codified, nor produced artificially.
What must be most baffling to the scientist is the seemingly contradictory artistic satisfaction we can derive from diametrically opposed interpretations of the same work. A symphony played by Furtwaengler or Toscanni can be poles apart, and the Italian's tempos very likely twice as fast as the German's, yet both are acceptable on the day they are heard, while on the next day we may reject both of them. "Totally irrational," the scientist would say; yes, it is, but then music is not physics.
Pitch is the next consideration. Physically, pitch is determined by the number of vibrations a second called "frequencies." The physicists swear by them, watching their gauges and meters for accuracy, for they will not accept any ambiguity when it comes to mathematical figures, and some of the more advanced electronic composers use them in lieu of musical notation. To the physicist B, at the frequency of A is an absurdity. Yet when Bach composed his B minor Mass it surely was in A minor if not lower. The musician is not bothered by absolutes, he can get used to the new relative values, which may be unscientific, but artistically are altogether satisfactory.
There are tiny variations even in tempered tuning which are very personal and expressive, for, artistically speaking, pitch is flexible. This does not mean the kind of substantial deviation from the composer's suggested notes that Maria Callas indulges in, but almost imperceptible differences.
Poor beggars, these musicians. They know nothing about physics, mathematics, electronics, and yet in some curious way, illiterate as they seem to be compared to the learned electronic composer, they really know what they are doing. I should like to recommend to the electronists a favorite document almost a thousand years old. A cleric learned in the science and philosophy of music was amazed at the skill of the minstrels who in those days were considered the dregs of humanity. Surely it must be a special grace of God, said the savant, that permitted these lowly creatures to play "correctly" without the slightest knowledge of the theories and doctrines of music. All of which goes to show that not science and technology but man is the measure of all things musical.
Dictatorship of the Tube
PAUL HENRY LANG
New York Herald Tribune?, (no date)
The recent "concert" by the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center at Columbia's McMillin Theater was an interesting affair which may have far-reaching consequences. Martin Bernheimer, who reported the event in the Herald Tribune, quoted Jacques Barzun's introductory remarks, to wit: "The old style has been worn out; there is nothing to say in it, so a new language must be created."
That the electronic composer is trying to create a new language is certainly true, and the distinguished Dean of Columbia University correctly stated his creed, but I wonder what the eminent composers of non-electronic music, who happily still predominate in the music faculties of both universities and who seem to be getting along quite well with this worn-out language, think about this rather premature funeral oration.
Could it be, by chance, that the electronic composers, especially the recent converts to the new medium, found this thousand-year-old language of the "old style" not exhausted but a bit formidable to cope with, and therefore took refuge in a new language which, since it has neither grammar nor syntax, can accommodate virtually any one?
The great composers before the advent of total serialism, no matter how free they were, no matter how proudly they rejected the idea of dependence on others, bowed before the laws of their art, and in their observance became, without loss to their own genius, parts of the whole of our culture. It is only thus that art can live and propagate.
Schoenberg's twelve-tone school, now held outmoded by both the total serialists and the electronic composers, was still a perfectly logical and justified system of composition, and when used with freedom and imagination produced masterpieces. The danger originated in the camp of the so-called total serialists who refused to permit any freedom to the creative mind. The dyed-in-the-wool member of this sect is a mere tool, carrying out the dictates of a doctrine; he is not really a composer but a performer of sorts, not an artist but an artisan. Total serialism was a short street leading to a dead end; the only remaining step was to jettison the last surviving vestiges of "traditional" music and turn to the machine.
The electronic composer broke the continuity of history, he invented a new art the way a technologist invents a new procedure. But the technologist never intends to change the laws of nature whereas the electronic composer does wish to change the laws of art, threatening everything we have known and cherished. The question therefore arises: "Has it any place in the continuation of an organic musical culture?"
This demands an answer which cannot be derived directly from the historical evolution of the art of music. We cannot say what art will be in a hundred years and therefore cannot determine the undisputed value for the future of electronic music. But we can be sure that we must not permit speculation as to future styles to influence the esthetic judgment of the present. Such speculations may explain certain phenomena, they cannot evaluate them, and they cannot dispute the fact that the spirit of music has departed, esthetics have given way to acoustics. Is it not ironical to recall that Saveur, the founder of modern physical acoustics was a deaf man?
The Vital Roots
The solution of the problem of music today is not to bow to the dictatorship of the electronic tube, but to adapt the thousand-year-old musical culture of the West to the conditions of our day. We cannot stand in our tracks, and it is certainly of even less use to cut ourselves off from everything that we have achieved during this millennium as the electronic composers suggest. A new art will surely come, as it always has, and undoubtedly some of the resources hit upon by the electronic composer will be part of it. But if this hope in a future art makes us accept the inanities given us under the heading of electronic music, we must guard against tolerance of their philosophy. If we destroy our faculty to hear and appreciate music we shall have lost all means with which to welcome the new. Such a situation will surely be created if we abandon our entire musical heritage as being incapable of further development.
It is to be noted that this tragi-comedy is taking place under the auspices of two celebrated universities with the support of the Humanities Division of the Rockefeller Foundation. Although many of our young composers are bewildered and perplexed, it is not their musical resources that are exhausted-they have lost their bearings. And now the university, of all places, invites them to find solid ground under their feet by learning in a school of liberal arts, how to write music that is no longer subject to esthetic judgment.
Unless the young composer forgets altogether what he learned in his justly famous courses in the humanities given in both universities, he will have the uneasy feeling that the Bachelor or Master of Arts degree he earns is a counterfeit degree.
Music: Honor to a Modern Master
Works by Varèse are Played at Town Hall
Nocturnal Receives World Premiere
New York Times, May 2, 1961
In the notes for the Edgard Varèse program at Town Hall last night there was a striking quotation by the composer: "Contrary to general belief, an artist is never ahead of his time but most people are far behind theirs."
The program demonstrated a number of things about this saying. The sounds conjured up both with conventional instruments and by electronic means, showed that Mr. Varèse is indeed a man of his time. That is, he mirrors its sounds. And the event proved that those who have been behind the 75-year old composer are now catching up with him.
One says this because there was an audience of 1,100 persons. And they were fashionable and musically knowing people. At the end they rose en masse and cheered the composer. This remarkable tribute from people who were miles away from being beatniks proved the extent to which Mr. Varèse has won his points. These people accepted him as a modern master.
We live in a world of railroad yards, of ports in which great ocean liners come and go, of cities that have ambulances, that dash shrieking through traffic, of airports and of air raids. And Mr. Varèse utilizes all the sounds these things make. We also live in a world that has brought closer jungles with chattering monkeys, shrilling insects, screaming parrots and mysterious rapping sounds. Mr. Varèse utilizes these jungle sounds too.
The question is has he organized all these sounds-and many others that he has imagined, as well as reproduced-into music. This listener's verdict is in the affirmative. And it is music that is fundamentally human, despite so many inhuman sounds. What it seems to demonstrate is the human condition that was always mysterious and strange because of natural forces and that has now been made more terrifying by man's own inventiveness.
"I have lost my brother." This is one of the few intelligible outcries in Nocturnal, the piece that had its world premiere on this occasion. And this was not a fortuitous statement, just as the occasional human sounds in the all-electronic piece, Poème electronique, were not fortuitous.
Mr. Varèse came here from France in 1915, when he was 30. Two of his pieces, Offrandes of 1921 and Intégrales of 1926, dated from his early years here. What was striking about the program was how these works foreshadowed the later works that were to come-even to the creation of sounds by conventional instruments that were later to become familiar as the sort of sounds to be made by still-to-be-invented electronic devices.
The program also included a new version of Ecuatorial that substitutes an eight-voice male chorus for the single bass voice and two oscillators for the theremin. And the final work was the deeply impressive Deserts of 1954.
The program which as conducted by Robert Craft, was one of the Composers Showcase series that Charles Schwartz directs. Normally, it would have been at the Museum of Modern Art, but that auditorium, with its small stage, was not large enough to house so big an enterprise. And it was a big undertaking that employed large forces, as well as many loudspeakers. It went off with perfect smoothness. Not the least of its excellences was the appearance of Donna Precht, the sensitive soprano, who was heard in Offrandes and the new Nocturnal.
Edgard Varèse Program
PAUL HENRY LANG
New York Herald Tribune, May 2, 1961
Conductor, Robert Craft; soloist, Donna Precht, soprano. The program: Intégrales for Orchestra; Ecuatorial for Men's Chorus and Orchestra; Poème electronique for Electronic Equipment; Offrandes for Soprano and Orchestra; Nocturnal for Soprano, Men's Chorus and Orchestra (first performance); Déserts for Orchestra and Electronic Equipment.
Just as the older work of art was described as parallel to nature, so some of today's art might be described as parallel to the machine product. Architecture has to a great extent come to terms with the machine age; the other arts still largely cling to forms and methods of the age of handicraft. How far this is due to economic reasons and how far to reasons of prestige, the desire of the artist to remain an "artist" in the older meaning of the word, it would be difficult to say. At any rate, of late we have seen many men who came to the arena after the war, engineers, scientists, and composers manques, rally behind the movement to adjust music to the machine age.
Most of them are suspect, and in some instances I would even question their honesty, but last night we heard one of the real pioneers who was at it when such things were not at all fashionable, when some of the much-publicized and well-supported heroes of machine-made music, both here and abroad, were in diapers or were just discovering that to composer with ordinary human means is beyond their powers.
Edgard Varèse, who settled in this country almost half a century ago, started his career as a French musician befriended by Debussy and, in his case undoubtedly more important, by Busoni, the fantastic dreamer of unborn musical systems. Mr. Varèse states that he has been called a pioneer "(perhaps) because I was the first composer to explore, so to speak, musical outer space."
But only half of last night's program was beyond the gravitational pull of our earthly music, the other half, Intégrales, Ecuatorial, and Offrandes was of this world, though one needed a little oxygen to stay alive in its atmosphere. This vital aid was withheld by Robert Craft, the conductor. One has no particular difficulty in following Mr. Varèse's earlier works, but if the percussion instruments get out of hand musical definition disappears.
Some of this music struck me like a succession of dreams which come and go without beginning and end, yet at times it has the attraction of a dream which leaves a sense of unfulfilled delight. I also had the impression that the composer seems continually to be fighting a tendency for human nature to come breaking in. This took the form of a pathetic little oboe solo, or a sudden jazz rhythm, or a very old-fashioned harp glissando, or a familiar horn call. Surprisingly enough, these little accidents tended to destroy the dream effect.
When the composer really reached outer space, in his electronic music, I realized that there is as yet no bridge between such a composer's thought and the critic's mind, though whether this applies to me alone I do not know. I am not convinced that progress means that something new is coming in at the expense of something being lost, therefore all we can do is to rely on Mr. Varèse's testimony, necessarily fallible, like all human evidence, but unquestionably sincere. His eager and arduous inquiry commands our admiration as does the craftsmanship that can shape such incoherent material into even momentary organization.
Mr. Craft, an earnest, scholarly, and devoted musician, is not a very skilled conductor. I am convinced that these pieces can be made more enjoyable by a more refined and better balanced delivery. Among the other human artists, Donna Precht, a charming and fresh-voiced soprano, deserves compliments for singing a very difficult part with brave resolution and adroitness.
Music: Concert Without Performers
HAROLD C. SCHONBERG
New York Times, May 10, 1961
When the curtain went up last night at the McMillin Theatre, the stage was bare save for six acoustic suspension loudspeakers. The audience looked at the speakers. The speakers looked back at the audience. The audience broke into applause. The speakers did not applaud back. We have finally arrived at music without performers.
The occasion was a program of works produced at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Composers represented were Mario Davidovsky (from Argentina), Halim El-Dabh (from Egypt), Bulent Arel (from Turkey) and several Americans-Vladimir Ussachevsky, Milton Babbitt, Otto Luening and Charles Wuorinen.
Electronic music has been around long enough to make last night's affair no great novelty; but the medium is still new, brand-new, radically new. It uses new sounds, new instruments, new tonal organizations, and demands from the ear a new adjustment.
Electronic music marks a complete break from the past. Even in the most advanced works of the twentieth century-the dissonances of Bartók, the serialism of Schoenberg and Webern, the music of chance of Stockhausen and Cage-there is a certain contact with reality. Live musicians are used, and standard instruments are played. Here there is nothing of that.
It is not hard to see the attraction it holds for the younger composers. They have a new tonal universe, uncharted and unknown, in which to disport, to set out claims and to make their very own. And all of this has taken place only within the last few years. It was shortly after World War II that tape recorders began to come into use; and it was perhaps inevitable that composers should start investigating the potentialities of the electronic medium.
These potentialities are endless. The music heard last night was fairly representative. A composer can use the human voice or chorus with electronically synthesized background (Mr. Ussachevsky), or he can work entirely from electronic sources (Mr. Davidovsky, Mr. Arel and Mr. Babbitt), or he can use the violin, with synthesized accompaniment (Mr. Luening). Or he can combine chamber orchestra and voices with electronics (Mr. Wuorinen).
And the stereo fanciers can then go noisily mad. In addition to the six speakers on stage, there were thirteen additional ones spotted through the auditorium. Many of the composers used extreme separation of sounds-that is, confined the sound to one channel at a time before combining them. This was hi-fi stereo with a vengeance.
But, what about the music itself? Well, some of it has a certain amount of shock value, and some of it showed what the medium is heading to. There were no real surprises, though. The music already on records from the Cologne studios, from the Dutch school and from the Paris electronic studios of Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer had already acquainted many listeners with more or less, the kind of music heard last night.
Strictly speaking, when confronted with so new and unprecedented a medium, the listener should have about the same opinion of it as he has about Einstein's Unified Field Theory-great respect mingled with total incomprehension. But, after all, experienced listeners by now do have a certain amount of experience with the medium-even those who own tape recorders and play a 7-1/2 i.p.s. tape at 3-3/4 or 15 i.p.s. Or even those who are ham operators and tune into a narrow band. The sounds are not altogether dissimilar.
The impression last night was primarily that here was a group of composers frankly experimenting with a new medium-more or less like a bunch of bright children with new, complicated toys. Whatever the amount of organization that went into the composition-and one assumes that there was a good deal of organization-the result more often than not sounded like sound for sound's sake.
Which is as it should be, at this stage of the game. The electronic medium can and will be used as a potent expressive weapon in the hands of a skillful composer. The guess here is that more and more it will follow along the line of the Luening work-that is, used as an adjunct with standard instruments and with the symphony orchestra or in the opera house. Halim El-Dabh's Leiyla and the Poet caused some nervous laughter and some booing, but in some respects it was the most interesting piece on the program, precisely because it hinted at a means of intensifying human feelings as opposed to complete impersonality.
Whatever the eventual form electronic music will take, it is coming on fact. More and more composers are getting interested in it; and the public had better become reconciled to the idea. The next decade is going to hear more new sounds, expressed
in new forms, and possibly with color spectra or even abstract art itself backing it up, than one entire history of music up to now has been able to deliver. It is an honest-to-goodness revolution, and it is just starting.
Concert of Electronic Music: program of works composed at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. At McMillin Theatre.
Electronic Study No. 1 by Mario Davidovsky; Leila and the Poet-from Electronic Drama No. 1 by Halim El-Dabh; Creation-Prologue and Part I by Vladimir Ussachevsky; Composition for Synthesizer by Milton Babbitt; Stereo Electronic Music No. 1 by Bulent Arel; Gargoyles by Otto Luening; Symphonia Sacra by Charles Wuorinen.
Nothing But Us Speakers
HAROLD C. SCHONBERG
New York Times, May 21, 1961
Electronic Music Bids Fair to Be Important Art Form of Future
Reviewing the concert of electronic music at the McMillin Theatre, we mentioned that it was a break from the past. Edward Tatnall Canby, for instance, writes that "the new area is showing itself every day more clearly in just the opposite light, a new medium for the continuation of the ground principles of the past, which are inescapable whenever sound is to be organized into coherence." Mr. Canby goes on to quote Jacques Barzun, who in his introduction to the concert pointed out that all musical instruments other than the human voice are in a way "machines."
This, to us, is chop-logic. Until now, human beings have been concerned with making music as well as creating music. At the concert at McMillin Theatre there was nothing on stage 'cept us loudspeakers. And those speakers produced sounds that were unknown, for all practical purposes, twenty years ago. If this is not a break from the past, what is? The fact that these sounds are organized by a composer does not lessen the rupture.
Nor does the fact that electronic music has had its predecessors lessen that rupture. Milton Babbitt has pointed out that Thaddeus Cahill, the inventor of the electric typewriter, was running around in the Eighteen Nineties with his telharmonium. According to the Encyclopedia Americana, this was a device invented "to produce music by means of dynamos transmitting vibrations from a control station to receiving telephones." In those days there was no such thing as a vacuum tube, and the telharmonium, which can be seen in the Smithsonian Institution, weighed tons.
And, in the Nineteen Thirties, there were experiments involving direct recording on sound film, in which the information was traced directly by hand on the sound track. There also were those of us who played records backward-good, clean fun that didn't do the record any good, but which did create a new world of sound.
The sponsors of the concert apparently were a little worried about the bare (except for speakers) stage and its psychological impact on the audience. During several sections of the concert, colored lights were played on the stage, the idea being to give the listeners something to hold on to. Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening, both of whom participated in the concert, admit that this was an experiment. Mr. Babbitt is against it.
"For the first time," he says, with some satisfaction, "the audience really has to listen. This kind of music demands total concentration." The implication was that there can be no footloose conductor, no hand-waving instrumentalist, to distract one's attention.
A bare stage, with an audience surrounded with music from front, back, sides and upstairs does required some adjustment from the listener. The music is a totally new tonal spectrum to begin with; and on top of that its method of presentation gives it a ghostlike, unworldly, impersonal, science-fiction cast. It gives the feeling of something antiseptic, untouched by human hands. It also contains a strong element of parody, sometimes on purpose; sometimes by accident.
At times the sounds resemble a violin; then they shimmer into something vaguely like that of an inhuman voice; then they spread out and vaporize into a chorus; then they disappear into the music of the spheres-the kind of music that the radio telescopes are trying to pick up from distant universes.
All of the music at this concert was produced at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Headquarters are in a building in the upper West Side of Manhattan. The jewel here is the RCA, Synthesizer, which took two and a half years to build and is the only one of its kind. Tape-playback equipment surrounds this computer-like collection of oscillators, frequency generators, resonators, compensators, filters, tubes, condensers and resistors. It is a marvelously versatile electronic gadget, which can create its own tones within (and without) the audible spectrum, transpose them, modify them, delay them and do anything that the manipulator wishes.
As in any computer, it is programmed by binary coding. Strictly speaking, a composer working with it should have a working knowledge of mathematics through at least, calculus; enough electronic savvy to read a complicated circuit diagram, and enough technical know-how to troubleshoot with a soldering iron and oscilloscope. Electronic music can, of course, be created without the RCA Synthesizer; and it is, in Cologne, in Milan, in Utrecht and elsewhere. All that are needed are a couple of four-track tape machines, speakers, oscillators, filters and waive-form generators. Plus whatever icing on this cake, in the form of electronic refinements, that the budget will take.
Musically the possibilities seem endless. With the performer eliminated, the composer can make insane demands and know that they will be met. Speed, range, accuracy, complexity, number of voices, timbre, tiny pitch differentials (want the octave broken into exactly sixty-seven equal components? we can do it for you)-the only limitation is the ingenuity of the composer plus what the human ear and mind will take. And the ear is versatile enough to accommodate itself to almost any conditions. Even the mind has been known to break itself of preconceived notions and make a fresh start. Whatever the composer wants to do, the machine stands ready to do for him.
The music departments of Princeton and Columbia report that more and more youngsters are being attracted to the medium. The next few years are going to see a period of experimentation, and a great deal of activity along these lines. There will be screams from some of the public that the art of music is going to hell on an electronic broomstick propelled by square waves. But the art of music never comes to an end; and one of these days a composer will come along who will consolidate the medium into an art form.
Immediate applications are easy to see. A composer writing an opera on the Faust legend, for example, can now have a Walpurgisnacht that Satan himself would be proud to call his own. Speakers all over the opera house would put the audience right in the middle of the inferno. The electronic effects would, of course be supplementing the standard orchestra. Pierre Henry, in Paris, has already hinted at this kind of a music in his "Orpheus," which combines electronics with the usual instruments of the orchestra.
How Charles Ives would have loved this! He had a tendency to think of music stereophonically. He would have synthesized a Civil War march in B flat on one set of tapes, and had them softly played on one set of speakers. Across the auditorium would be another Ives march in A. He would then bring both marches, louder and louder, down front until B flat and A collided in the biggest, grandest, most sumptuous and stupendous and satisfactory collection of discords that ever satisfied the questing soul of a composer. And, with Ives, it would have made esthetic sense. One of these days we'll be hearing it from the Ives of the oncoming generation.
Music and Musicians: The Chaos Machine
PAUL HENRY LANG
New York Herald Tribune, May 28, 1961
Dear Professor Lang,
Your second-hand report of what I am supposed to have said in opening the concert of Electronic Music at Columbia University shows again how hard it is to insinuate a fresh notion into the mind even of the judicious and the interested. The thought-cliche on the given subject is automatically substituted for the unfamiliar idea.
What I told the Columbia audience, without dogma or advocacy, was that if they wished to understand what they were about to hear they must lend their minds to it. To do so they must assume-not believe, or conclude, but assume-that previous means of musical expression were exhausted. I pointed out that this assumption is made by composers every time a style changes and by concertgoers every time they adjust their ears and their expectations to the divergent styles offered them, from Bach to Mozart to Alban Berg.
I added that perhaps some would think electronic music outside the definition of art and inside that of pure noise. I tried to deal with that point in a manner I shall not bother you with.
I consider it more important, not indeed to correct a mis-quoting of my remarks, but to draw the lessons once again that the arts require more discipline of mind and emotion than is usually available. It is because audiences and critics approach the new in the self-indulgent mood of a political crowd at a rally-hostile or infatuated-that the history of artistic change is such a sorry spectacle of fighting in the dark.
Jacques Barzun's letter, which appears on this page, takes exception to words attributed to him in the review of the opening concert of the Electronic Music Center at Columbia University, from which in turn I quoted in my last Sunday's column. Neither Martin Bernheimer, who reviewed the event, nor I intended to imply that the statement necessarily represents Dean Barzun's own stand, and regret that such an interpretation might be drawn. Mr. Bernheimer stated that the composers "disclosed fidelity to their creed as outlined in Jacques Barzun's introductory remarks," while in my own words "the distinguished Dean of Columbia University correctly stated the electronic composers' creed." This we believe made it clear that the statement that "the old style has been worn out; there is nothing to say in it, so a new language must be created," was a summation of the "creed."
No historian of Dr. Barzun's stature would resort to the crude finality of this statement, which is indeed a "thought-cliche," yet this very statement has repeatedly been made, notably by the priests of the Delphic temple of electronic music in Cologne, and parroted by French and American disciples. For indeed the electronic leaders have time and again explicitly asserted the demise of the "old style" and inferentially denied the possibility of its continuation.
The "scholar" may be content with his documents, the theologian with his dogma, but the creative artist and the critic must be acutely aware of the discords of experience. Criticism must recognize that the unfettered human mind will not tolerate the negative solution. it is then not so much the "theory," or their failure, in my opinion, to be true creative artists that I object to in our electronic friends, but to their posture in the presence of art.
The boasted aim of total serialists and electronic composers is to write music free from the impurities of human impulse, and particularly from the taint of esthetic judgment. Their compositions no longer convey states of mind, thought or passion: they give us acoustic impressions, acoustic relationships and contrasts, as if man consisted of nothing but a pair of ears that take in vibrations and respond to nothing else. Such abstractions are miserably meaningless in the face of life.
Varèse the Loser
Their products prove to be-at least for the time being-artistically useless acoustic-physiological irritants, for the composer who attempts to combine electronic music with human (or "traditional") music is decidedly the loser. I have noticed this recently with Edgard Varèse. The composer has something to say, and while he moves under his own power what he says is interesting, but as soon as he adds to his own imagination that of the machine his artistic personality is completely awash.
Nowhere do the electronic composers and their apologists raise the question what such an altogether unprecedented technique, in order to succeed, must exact from the established musical language. And here I must disagree with Dr. Barzun, who says that the assumption that previous means of musical expression were exhausted "is made by composers every time a style changes." New styles have until now been new uses of the same basic means; and this is true even of the most advanced modern music. But unlike all previous composers, the electronic ones totally discard the traditional means and, even more radical, reject the old aims; they are offering a complete and irrevocable tabula rasa.
The music on which they are turning their backs, "from Bach to Mozart to Alban Berg," is an art based on experience and imagination, not on accidental sounds obtained through the manipulation of mechanical devices, or the dice-throwing of the total serialists. Composers, from Perotin to Carter, had, and still have, infinitely more possibilities and variants at their disposal than the impoverished experiments, and if perchance they select the impossible, the genre or the material raises its own warning voice in good time. Since the electronic composer recognizes no genre and his material is undefined, his music shows no connections with the visible world. At most the individual sound effects he produces are interesting.
Every productive artistic revolution is only partial innovation, a modification of certain points of the status quo, because to upset the previous order altogether is to produce chaos. In the chaos created by electronic music the practitioners and their apologists cannot see which are the real values in the new, the elements capable of development, and the relativity of the results. They exaggerate and become propagandists, but propaganda is a poor weapon against the bastion of esthetics.
Beauty in art cannot be expressed by means of the exact sciences such as acoustics. Goethe was very indignant about Newton's optical theory, but it was not the theory itself he found fault with, rather with the fact that the great physicist dealt with colors as optical quantities, and no more, whereas the great poet justified their value and existence on the grounds of beauty. Like color to the eye, sound is the delight of the ear; it creates moods, it exalts, it nourishes the soul. During the night, when the colors hide, and during silence when the sounds rest, man feels the great void.
It is the beauty of this sound, its sorcery and deep mystery, that the electronic composers now want to capture and express with their soulless machines, but beauty can be expressed only in poetic terms and justified with metaphysics, not acoustics. It is the glory of the mind to be full of images, and it is a loss if the images are abandoned for abstractions. Only the poet of abundant imagery can take for subject matter the teeming recesses of the mind, save them from cold abstraction, and make them live.
Piano, Percussion, Tapes for Avant-Garde
New York Herald Tribune, Spring 1964
Karlheinz Stockhausen had a one-man show of his music last night at Hunter College.
There were five works by the young German avant-gardist, mostly dating from the late '50s and all using piano, percussion, tape or some combination of the above. They all had the fascinations and limitations so characteristic of Stockhausen's work.
Each work is built up out of great sonic layers and densities-whether of single isolated tones or great clusters of fluctuating sound. In every piece, the scheme for the work is exactly equivalent to the composition itself; each piece is, in a sense, its own analysis.
Several of Stockhausen's works are, in fact, properly only schema for an unlimited number of possible actual realizations. The Zyklus for one percussion player is a kind of one-man percussion ring-around-the-rosy, a carefully arranged circle of things to hit, bang and scrape about which the percussion player makes his appointed rounds. The structural idea is that of a circular card file of variable contents in which letter Z is somehow merged into letter A.
Making pieces out of the idea of continuities and discontinuities is typical of Stockhausen and his Kontakte for electronic sounds, piano and percussion does just that-and at quite some length too. The purely electronic swooshing, hissing and grumbling on the tape is consciously manipulated to approach the live metal, wood and skin timbres of piano and percussion.
Tape and performers actually interact on a carefully graphed field of action; even the loudness of the tape channels in actual transmission was varied by Stockhausen himself from his seat in the audience. This kind of schemed, plotted interaction and variability has become central to Stockhausen's ideas and music and, indeed, to most of the current avant-garde.
The Piano Piece XI of 1957 was one of the first European works to use the notion of controlled variability, an idea that was in fact imported from America. Nineteen small musical snippets are scattered on a large sheet of paper and the pianist, according to rather carefully detailed instructions, chooses his own, supposedly unpredetermined order. The other piano piece on the program, No. VII, is an older work in the post-Webern, punkt-musik style of 1954.
One other piece remains to be described, the Refrain for three players, a piano and percussion work whose sound repertory includes various vocal vowel and consonental [sic] sounds-a cluck of the tongue and an ooo and eee or two from deep down. This is a relatively closed piece whose musical sequence and contents, except for a significant and variable interpolation, remains fixed. It is the most elegant of the works and the only one in which specific sound values, as opposed to just variable schemes of ranges of sounds, seem to have been taken into consideration and used with care.
The program was originally billed as a lecture-recital with the title, "The Development of Musical Form Since 1951." But he skipped the lecture-a familiar one that he has given often in Europe and here as well-preferring instead merely to suggest that each new work today must find its own form that can never be repeated (but surely, in the deepest sense, that was always true of great artistic creations), that there are no true formal archtypes [sic] anymore (a suggestion that would probably serve to invalidate at least the form of the form lecture that he did not give) and that the audience would be best referred to the music (suggestion accepted).