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La fabbrica illuminata (excerpt, 1964)
Luigi Nono

While most of his colleagues were at least sympathetic with various leftist causes, the Italian composer Luigi Nono (1924-1990) was a devout Communist who believed that art must be of service to social progress. Nono had no compunctions combining the avant-garde compositional techniques of the mid-20th century (integral serialism, indeterminacy, electronic sound production, and tape collage) with explicit political messages. This stance put him in conflict with figures such as John Cage, whose happy-go-lucky embrace of anarchic individualism Nono saw as naive and politically dangerous. His 1964 composition La fabbrica illuminata (The Illuminated [or Englightened] Factory) was one of the most striking manifestations of Nono’s politically committed approach to experimental music. Based on texts by Giuliano Scabia and Cesare Pavese, this piece for soprano and four-channel tape incorporates manipulated sounds from the factory floor and the noise of political demonstrations. Nono intended La fabbrica illuminata as a “sonic diary” to record the inhumane treatment of auto workers in Genoa, Italy. But Nono also wanted to intervene directly in the struggle: he envisioned his music being piped in over loudspeakers during the workers’ protests.

Source: La fabbrica illuminata


Played 501 time(s).

June 26, 2013, 2:56pm

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Doris Norton: “Machine Language”

From the album Artificial Intelligence (1985)

Italian-born composer-producer Doris Norton is one of the unheralded champions of early electronica. Norton’s music from the 1980s occupies the stylistic intersection of synth-pop, industrial, and techno music.

Long before launching a solo career, Norton was the voice of the Italian progressive rock band Jacula, led by her husband, Antonio Bartoccetti. The group released two albums in 1969 and 1972. Norton’s own work began to appear in the 1980s. Some of her earliest tracks, such as “Eightoeight” and “Underground” (both 1980), with their syncopated drum machines and clockwork sequencer lines, strikingly anticipate what would later be known as techno. (These tracks bear comparison to Charanjit Singh’s legendary 1983 record Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat). 

Norton’s mid-decade releases are classic musical documents of the dawn of the PC era. She embraced the personal computer as a musical instrument uniquely capable of realizing her artistic visions: 

In the late sixties I had already conceived computers as “personal.” I have always trusted in the benefits of  solitude; [being] alone means freedom… What’s better than a “personal” computer for materializing ideas, by oneself? [source]


Albums such as Personal Computer (1984) were sponsored by Apple (and featured the company’s logo prominently on the cover) while Artificial Intelligence (1985) was purportedly created entirely via computer keyboard, whence the MIDI information was fed to a Roland JX-8P synthesizer. Later albums Automatic Feeling (1986) and The Double Side of Science (1990) were underwritten by IBM. 

While the beat-oriented style of Norton’s music aligns her with such global fellow-travelers as Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk, her championing of the PC as a tool for self-sufficient musical creativity also connects her to more artsy musicians such as Pietro GrossiLaurie Spiegel, and the League of Automatic Music Composers. Norton’s predilection for the bright, glossy timbres of early digital instruments also recalls Hubert Bognermayr and Harald Zuschrader’s bizarre 1982 one-off Erdenklang.

While her music remains largely out of print and inaccessible, Norton’s early records have recently begun to receive the inevitable rediscovery treatment. Her 1981 album Raptus was re-released in 2011 by Italian label Black Widow Records, and her other albums from the early 80s are likely soon to follow.

Played 503 time(s).

May 01, 2013, 7:00am

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Douglas Leedy: “Silent Night”

From the album A Very Merry Electric Chrismas to You! (1971)

Coming at the tail end of the post-Switched-On Bach ”Moogsploitation” craze of the late 1960s, Douglas Leedy's A Very Merry Electric Christmas to You! is a lovely and musically sensitive synthesis (pun intended) of timeless holiday melodies and the cutting-edge electronic music technology of its time.

Leedy is an American composer, conductor, and musicologist whose slim discography belies his many years of activity in a variety of genres. In the late 1960s he taught at UCLA, where he also established an electronic music studio. Later he abandoned 12-tone equal temperament and pursued a musical style inspired by modal scales, minimalist repetitive patterns, and Carnatic Indian musical traditions. Since 2003, he has published music under the name Bhisma Xenotechnites.

A Very Merry Electric Christmas to You! features mostly “straight” arrangements of Christmas tunes, with some tracks (such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The First Noel”) showing off Leedy’s not inconsiderable classical chops in florid variations on melodic themes. In his version of “Silent Night,” a gently modulated electronic drone provides a perfectly soporific accompaniment to the lilting melody.

The album was produced at the UCLA electronic music studio and features both Moog and Buchla synthesizers, as well as a mysterious touch-controlled instrument called the “Ognob Generator,” a tiny custom-build device created by Leedy with the assistance of W. R. Biglow, Jr.

Leedy’s two other electronic albums, The Electric Zodiac (1969) and Entropical Paradise (1971) show his more experimental side. Entropical Paradise, for example, is a two-hour work comprising six “sonic environments” created by free-running generative synthesizer patches.

Not surprisingly, A Very Merry Electric Christmas to You! was not the only Moog Christmas venture of the period. The Moog Machine’s Christmas Becomes Electric, a decidedly tame introduction to the synthesizer, actually predated Leedy’s record by two years.

Played 101 time(s).

December 20, 2012, 5:10pm

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Kabutogani: “Kuril Probe”

From the album Vector (2010)

Kabutogani (Japanese for “horseshoe crab”) is a solo project of an anonymous French electronic music producer. The 2010 album Vector (spelled, in an apparent nod to Soviet Futurism, in Cyrillic on the album’s cover) was released on the renowned German label Mille Plateaux, which has championed the genre of “glitch music" since its release of the first installment in the Clicks & Cuts series in 2000.

The sound palette of Vector will be familiar to aficionados of the genre: piercing high-frequency sine waves, swelling white-noise washes, mechanical clicks and whirs, and sequenced percussive bursts construct a musical mise-en-scene that is both evocative and forbiddingly abstract. To my ears, the album recalls the meticulously controlled sound-world of German composer Carsten Nicolai (AKA Alva Noto) or the somewhat noisier acoustic repertoire of the Finnish noise duo Pan Sonic

Well polished and at times even borderline formulaic, Vector works within a relatively narrow ambitus of aesthetic effect. Like a laser focused on a single point, it bores into your ears with its unremitting machinic rhythms and brittle digital timbres. In a track such as “Kuril Probe,” the elements come together to create a delicately structured sonic experience that, for all its “post-digital” coldness, attains an almost classical state of equilibrium.


Played 161 time(s).

November 18, 2012, 12:34pm

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Matmos: “Rainbow Flag”

From the album Supreme Balloon (2008)

The American electronica group Matmos is anchored by the duo M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, who form the nucleus of a protean musical collective that has enjoyed the collaboration of many illustrious musicians, including Björk, Sun Ra collaborator Marshall Allen, and vintage electronics guru Keith Fullerton Whitman.

Matmos made a name for themselves beginning in the late 1990s with their imaginative and exquisitely musical collages of recorded sounds. Combining rigorous sonic empiricism with a Dada-esque search for the absurd, the group’s self-assembled catalog of samples reads like a Borgesian taxonomy of the bizarre:

Amplified crayfish nerve tissue, the pages of bibles turning, water hitting copper plates, liposuction surgery, cameras and VCRs, chin implant surgery, contact microphones on human hair, rat cages, tanks of helium, a cow uterus, human skulls, snails, cigarettes, cards shuffling, laser eye surgery, whoopee cushions, balloons, latex fetish clothing, rhinestones, Polish trains, insects, life support systems, inflatable blankets, rock salt, solid gold coins, the sound of a frozen stream thawing in the sun, a five gallon bucket of oatmeal.

Having built their reputation on their skillful deployment of “found sounds,” Matmos took a surprising turn with their 2008 album Supreme Balloon, which eschews meticulous sample-work for the lush, rubbery tones of old-school synthesizers and drum machines. (The album comes with the disclaimer “no microphones were used at any point.”) Among the diverse menagerie of instruments heard here are the mysterious “Electronic Voice Instrument” and the one-of-a-kind Coupigny modular synthesizer housed at the studios of INA-GRM in Paris.

The catchy and charming flavor of Supreme Balloon is at times reminiscent of the music of Felix Kubin. But there are plenty of proverbial razor blades in this colorful candy, and more than enough sonic weirdness to avoid alienating devotees of their earlier and more experimental work.

Played 205 time(s).

October 07, 2012, 9:40pm

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Richard Pinhas: “The Western Wall, Part 2”

From the album: L’Ethique (1982)

Richard Pinhas, the Sorbonne-educated student of philosophical rock star Gilles Deleuze, is best known as the prime mover behind the pioneering instrumental rock band Heldon, featured previously on Acousmata. Pinhas first began releasing records under the name Schizo in 1972. The first Heldon album appeared in 1974, and Pinhas put out his first solo LP in 1977. These projects are all characterized by powerfully evocative instrumental tracks laden with pulsing sequencers and Fripp-esque guitar filigrees. Though heavily influenced by the German Krautrock phenomenon, Pinhas’ music is more dramatic and developmental, and at times approaches the large-scale formal ambitions of progressive rock. Taken together, Pinhas’ albums from the 1970s and early 1980s represent an ambitious attempt to unite the experimental tendencies of rock and electronic music—the guitar and the synthesizer. 

The ensemble Pinhas put together for L’Ethique could be seen as a kind of supergroup of 1970s French avant-rock, featuring three alumni of the legendary “concept band” Magma: Clement Bailly (drums), Patrick Gauthier (synthesizer), and Bernard Paganotti (bass). In “The Western Wall, Part 2,” the group delicately constructs a wall of sound around a single, repeated synthesizer melody, creating a musical mise-en-abyme that summons a mood of epic melancholy.

Played 493 time(s).

September 20, 2012, 9:49am

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Paul Dolden: L’Ivresse de la Vitesse

From the album L’Ivresse de la Vitesse (1994) 

Take the symphony orchestra, pass it through the sieve of digital recording and signal processing, apply a heavy dose of mind-bending montage effects, and you have an approximation of L’Ivresse de la Vitesse  by Canadian electroacoustic composer Paul Dolden. In this work, Dolden uses computer audio technology as “a platform from which to launch or capture otherwise impossible musical performances,” creating a “virtual orchestra” through the layering and manipulation of hundreds of individually recorded tracks.

While the work of his peers such as Francis Dhomont and Robert Normandeau belongs clearly to the French musique acousmatique tradition stemming from the mid-century work of Schaeffer and Henry, Dolden’s musical style is harder to pin down. At certain moments one can hear hear a connection to early works of American “tape music” from the 1950s, such as Vladimir Ussachevsky's Fantasy in Space, in which flute recordings are used as the basis for surrealistic, deep-sea soundscapes. Much of Dolden’s music from the 1990s has an undeniable over-the-top sensibility that could be characterized as post-modern maximalism—pieces such as Revenge of the Repressed - Resonance #2 suggest John Zorn or even “plunderphonics” pioneer John Oswald)—while the earlier music represented on this album, Veils (1984-85) builds a gorgeous edifice of electric drones.


About L’Ivresse de la vitesse (Intoxication by Speed), Dolden writes:

The title is an allusion towards my current artistic intentions which involve the speeding up of an excess of musical ideas so that the composition and its materials exhaust themselves in the shortest time possible. The intoxicating aspect of speed is evoked by using primarily fast tempo markings and rapid changes in orchestration, density and dynamics. These elements can be particularly sped up to the point of exhaustion and intoxication in the digital audio studio which is limitless or virtual in its color and density possibilities.

Played 211 time(s).

September 07, 2012, 9:23pm

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Keith Fullerton Whitman: “Generator 5”

From the album Generator (2010)

Keith Fullerton Whitman is a one-man army of electronic music. I first knew of him as the proprietor of Mimaroglu Music Sales, a premiere source for rare and hard-to-find albums within a broad experimental/electronic spectrum. Later, I learned that Whitman was also the main figure behind Creel Pone, a mysterious label devoted to releasing small print runs of CD re-releases of ultra-rare LPs, presented as “Unheralded Classics of Electronic Music - 1952-1984.”

Beyond this staggering curatorial work, Whitman somehow finds time to make his own music, as well. His earliest records, released under the moniker Hrvatski, trafficked in an EDM-inspired sound with heavy doses of sonic weirdness. Later work under his own name explored a more free-form approach to electronic composition that nonetheless betrayed Whitman’s intimate familiarity with the deep history of the genre.

I was fortunate to hear Whitman’s recent performance at the Sonic Acts festival in Amsterdam, where he unleashed a brutal, 10-minute fusillade of raw analog noise in swirling quadrophony. The tone of the music on Generator is for the most part much more reserved, dominated by gently churning sequencers, pure electronic waveforms, and a cumulative, layering approach to compositional form. In its directness, whimsy, and sheer joy in the phenomena of sound, Whitman’s Generator recaptures the experimental spirit animating the best of the electronic music tradition.

Played 251 time(s).

July 25, 2012, 11:13pm

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Bernard Parmegiani: ”Matières induites”

From the album De natura sonorum (1975)

French composer Bernard Parmegiani (1927-) belongs to what could be called the second generation of composers working in the French tradition of musique concrète—the first generation comprising the movement’s founder, Pierre Schaeffer, and his gifted erstwhile pupil, Pierre Henry. After Henry’s acrimonious parting with Schaeffer in 1958, a number of younger composers came to work with Schaeffer at the newly founded Groupe de recherches musicales. This illustrious cadre included among others Iannis XenakisIvo MalecLuc FerrariMireille Chamass-KyrouFrancois Bayle, and Parmegiani.

Bayle and Parmegiani in particular were associated with the emergence of a distinct aesthetic known as musique acousmatique or “acousmatic music.” The term “acousmatic” had been introduced in the 1950s by Pierre Schaeffer to describe the listener’s separation from the acoustic source through the mediation of recording and reproduction technology. (“Acousmatic” derives from the ancient Greek word for listening, from which this blog also takes its name.) It was later extended by Parmegiani and Bayle to encompass a distinctive approach to composition in the electroacoustic medium. Acousmatic music in this sense means music specifically conceived for reproduction via loudspeakers, taking advantage of a situation in which the listener is confronted with an entire world of sounds whose origin could be familiar, ambiguous, or completely unknown. The acousmatic composer seeks to compensate for the lack of visual stimulus by provoking powerful “sound images” (images-de-son) in the listener’s imagination.


Parmegiani’s groundbreaking 1975 composition De natura sonorum (the title is a play on the Roman poet Lucretius' philosophical poem De rerum natura, “On the Nature of Things”) was intended as a fundamental, probing investigation into the essence of sound. The first six movements focus on the relationship between electronic and instrumental sounds, while the second half of the work contrasts electronic and concrete sound sources. While some movements, such as “Géologie sonore” and “Conjugaison du timbre,” dilate on slowly unfolding dronescapes in which gradual shifts in texture constitute the primary musical interest, the dominant mood throughout the work is mercurial and skittish. The frequent juxtaposition of contrasting timbres and sonic envelopes calls to mind Arnold Schoenberg’s concept of Klangfarbenmelodie, a logic of musical organization based primarily on variations  of tone color.

"Matières induites" (Induced Materials) is conceived as a continuous transition between different sonic "states" suggested by a wide palette of sounds including wooden and metal wind chimes, falling rain, and nails, coffee beans, and grains of rice dropped on sheets of glass and cardboard. Each succeeding state is "induced" from the preceding on the basis of certain morphological similarities in sound structure. Parmegiani writes, "Just as molecular effervescence creates transformations of state, in this movement it would appear that the different stages of the sound material are produced from each other, as if by induction. Here one is directly confronted with the theme of metamorphosis. It is an old idea in my work, passing in a systematic and continuous way from one material to another. Does listening to this constant transition from one state to another tell us anything about the nature of sound?" 

Played 183 time(s).

June 05, 2012, 10:26pm

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James Whitney: Yantra (1958)

Music by Henk Badings

American experimental filmmaker James Whitney created Yantra over a period of eight years (1950-1958) by punching pinholes in a 5” by 7” inch card and painting tiny dots on another card below; this process was repeated for each frame. Originally conceived as a silent film, Yantra was later paired with an electronic composition entitled Cain and Abel by the Dutch composer Henk Badings. The title of Whitney’s film is a Sanskrit word with a fascinating double meaning: it can signify either “instrument,” “machine,” or a mandala-like pattern, either real or imagined, which serves as an object of focus for meditative practice. This polysemic ambiguity is fitting for Whitney’s film, which employs modern technological means to create states of spiritual ecstasy.

A yantra is an instrument designed to curb the psychic forces by concentrating them on a pattern, and in such a way that this pattern becomes reproduced by the worshiper’s visualizing power. It is a machine to stimulate inner visualizations, meditations, and experiences… (Heinrich Zimmer, quoted in Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema)

Although James Whitney and his brother John were best known as filmmakers, they were also closely involved with electronic music. In 1940, they built an instrument in which swinging pendulums traced sine patterns onto a strip of optical sound film, allowing the superimposition of simple waveforms into complex timbres. (This instrument, which constitutes a remarkable precursor to later experiments with magnetic tape, was described by John Whitney in the article “Moving Pictures and Electronic Music” in volume 7 of the German modernist journal Die Reihe.) The Whitney brothers created a series of five stunning Film Exercises using this device in 1943-44, works which feature a radical and unprecedented combination of abstract imagery and synthetic sound.

April 27, 2012, 6:02am

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Ernst Krenek: Excerpt from Spiritus intelligentiae sanctus (1955)

From the album Spiritus intelligentiae sanctus / Klangfiguren

In the third and final installment of a series of posts highlighting the early productions of the West German Radio Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, we hear one of the first attempts to blend synthetic tones with the human voice. Ernst Krenek's Spiritus intelligentiae sanctus makes an interesting parallel with Karlheinz Stockhausen's groundbreaking composition Gesang der Jünglinge, created around the same time.

Both compositions combine electronic sounds and vocal timbres, although Krenek’s approach in this regard was relatively traditional in comparison to Stockhausen’s. Both works were also based on religious texts—Krenek and Stockhausen were devout Catholics, and understood their works in the grand tradition of sacred music. Krenek even labelled his composition an “Easter Oratorio.” (This religious sincerity was lost on some critics: the German musicologist Friedrich Blume castigated such works as musical blasphemy in a controversial 1958 lecture portentously entitled “Was ist Musik?”)

Unlike most of the composers working in the Cologne studio in the 1950s, Krenek was a well-established figure in European modern music. Still, his Spiritus intelligentiae sanctus shows a youthful eagerness to explore the new possibilities presented by the electronic medium. Krenek tweaked the sine wave generators to create a slightly “squished” scale with 13 tones to the octave, instead of the customary 12, casting a strangely distended coloration over the music. The combination of pure sine tones, dissonant “tone mixtures,” and angular, ring-modulated vocal lines likewise contributes to an eerie and unsettling musical mise-en-scène.

Played 169 time(s).

January 03, 2012, 8:28pm

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Karel Goeyvaerts: Composition No. 4 with Dead Tones (1952)

From the album The Serial Works (#1-7)

In this second installment of a series of three posts exploring the early productions of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, we hear a remarkable and little-known work by the Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts (1923-1993).  

Composed in 1952, but realized in sound nearly three decades later, Composition No. 4 comprises a basic sound material of four tones, identical in pitch, timbre, and duration with each appearance. (Hence the “dead tones” of the title.) Technically, these tones are what were called Tongemische, or “tone mixtures”— that is, artificially generated tones consisting of sine waves in non-harmonic proportions to the fundamental frequency. The only variation in the piece is in the duration of the silences between each iteration of the tones, which is altered according to serial procedures. As the interjections of silence between each tone gradually increase and decrease over the course of the composition, the four sonic layers of the piece are brought out of phase and back into phase again. The result is a remarkable phenomenon of motion in stasis, a slowly shimmering stillness that musicologist Hermann Sabbe has anointed the first ever piece of “process music.” For Sabbe, “Composition No. 4” is also an early example of conceptual art, being based on a simple generative idea that could be realized in any number of ways. (Goeyvaerts did not specify the pitch of the tones, only their duration and timbral quality.)

In the early 1950s, Goeyvaerts and Karlheinz Stockhausen carried on an intense theoretical conversation concerning the principles of serial composition. Although the two shared a deep fascination with the technique, they diverged aesthetically: Goeyvaerts distinguished his approach from Stockhausen’s, calling the German’s music “baroque,” and claiming that he based his composition on a preconceived sonic image. Goeyvaerts, by contrast, envisioned music as (in the words of Mark Delaere) “the objectification of a spiritual idea in a structure of sound.” This distinctly modernist form of musical mysticism can be traced to such varied sources as the medieval concept of numerus sonorus—music as “sounding number,” essentially Pythagoreanism made into compositional doctrine—and the vision of a static, painterly “neoplastic music” outlined by Piet Mondrian in the 1920s. Delaere has called Goeyvaert’s early works “the most abstract compositions ever written.”

Goeyvaerts (middle) with Luigi Nono and Stockhausen (c. 1950)

Played 169 time(s).

December 22, 2011, 11:52pm

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Herbert Eimert and Robert Beyer: Excerpt from Klang im unbegrenzten Raum (1951-52)

From the album Acousmatrix: The History of Electronic Music VI

Founded in 1951, the Studio for Electronic Music of West German Radio in Cologne was one of the seminal sources of the radical new sound art that emerged in the years following the end of the Second World War. Produced with pure synthetic sound, as opposed the recorded sounds of musique concrete, the works that emerged from the Cologne studio became known as elektronische Musik (“electronic music”), a term that consequently has a much more specific and historically fraught meaning in German than in other languages.

The WDR studio would become virtually synonymous with rigorously serial compositional techniques and a dry or even abrasive sonic quality, as exemplified by the now-classic early electronic studies of Karlheinz StockhausenBut as Konrad Boehmer argues in his notes for this album in the Acousmatrix series, the various composers who worked in the studio over the span its first decade were anything but uniform in their approaches or their musical output. In the following three posts, I explore compositions from the early years of the WDR studio that demonstrate the rich aesthetic diversity of this music.

Eimert (above) with engineer Leopold von Knobelsdorff

Klang im unbegrenzten Raum (Sound in Limitless Space) is a collaboration between studio co-founders Herbert Eimert and Robert Beyer. Eimert, who would later lead the studio for many years, was a well-established modernist figure in the Schoenbergian line, having published a handbook of 12-tone composition as early as 1924. Beyer, too, had come of age as a journalist and film composer in the heady days of the Weimar Republic. In 1928 he wrote a jaw-dropping essay of techno-futurist speculation entitled “Das Problem der kommenden Musik” (“The Problem of the Music to Come”), which both cataloged the technological achievements of the 1920s and prophesied many future developments.

While the WDR’s later sound would be marked by the use of rudimentary sonic material such as sine waves, impulses, and white noise, the early experiments in the studio made use of the harmonically rich timbres of electric instruments such as the Melochord and the Trautonium. Tones played on these devices were recorded and manipulated—spliced, multiplied, and bathed in artificial reverberation—to create otherworldly soundscapes unlike anything ever heard before. (In technique, if not quite in effect, these pieces resembled the works of “tape music” created around the same time in the United States by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky.) 

This music can be heard as a realization of Beyer’s fantastic visions, recorded over two decades earlier, of “machines that make it possible to separate the voice from the body and convey it over distances, to let sounds play backward, to traverse a timbral domain of an almost cosmic expanse…machines whose power lies in their unique mastery of the laws of nature; a new objective, whose wonder lies hidden deep in the secrets of science.”

Played 139 time(s).

December 16, 2011, 10:34pm

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Raymond Scott: “Nursery Rhyme”

From the album Soothing Sounds for BabyVolume 1 (1964)

In honor of my newborn son, Felix Troutt Patteson (born November 3, 2011), I present this wonderful bit of 1960s sound design by the intrepid American bandleader, composer, and inventor Raymond Scott. Conceived as a musical soporific for small children—“an infant’s friend in sound,” as the marketing proclaimed—Soothing Sounds for Baby was a set of three records corresponding to the graded age-groups 1-6, 6-12, and 12-18 months. Using his own electronic instruments, which included some of the world’s first musical sequencers, Scott created bright, shimmering sonic textures comprised of short motivic patterns overlaid with playful melodic improvisations. 

In its intended purpose, the record was a failure, but it is now seen as a striking anticipation of the repetitive electronica to emerge in the 1970s. Originally produced in collaboration with the Gesell Institute of Child Development in 1964, Soothing Sounds for Baby was re-released on CD in 1997 by the Dutch label Basta Records, which has specialized in reanimating Scott’s discography. More recently, Soothing Sounds received the full-blown remix treatment.

On a related note, fans of Raymond Scott should check out the recently released documentary film Deconstructing Dad, produced by Scott’s son Stan Warnow and Jeff Winner.

Played 89 time(s).

November 10, 2011, 10:45pm

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Music, technology, utopia: The legacy of Pietro Grossi

Pietro Grossi: Excerpt from Create C (1972)

From the album Bit Art (2010)

On the basis of both his musical creations and his visionary perspectives on the fate of art in the digital age, the Italian composer Pietro Grossi (1917-2002) is one of the most important figures in late 20th-century music. Grossi’s career was dedicated to a radical new conception of creativity and artistic production, as both aesthetic and a social phenomena.

Like most electronic and computer music composers of his generation, Grossi began as a classically trained musician. He studied cello and composition, played in the orchestra for many years, and his early compositions from the late 1950s are for conventional ensembles such as the string quartet, albeit in a probing, post-Webernian idiom, as was the style of the time. Some of these pieces employed a pre-compositional approach known as combinatory analysis, which was inspired by Grossi’s reading of Joseph Schillinger's influential text The Mathematical Basis of the Arts.

His first contact with electronic music came in 1961, when he visited the Studio di Fonologia Musicale (Studio of Musical Phonology) in Milan, which was led by Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna. Here he realized Progretto 2-3, one of his earliest tape pieces, based on slowly changing sonorities formed by superimposed sine waves. Grossi would revisit this concept in an even more fundamental way in his later compositions Battimenti (1965). Another piece from this period, entited PG 4, was an ambient drone work created for a sound installation for an architectural exhibition in Florence.

Grossi founded the Studio di Fonologia Musicale di Firenze in Florence in 1963. It began in his home with a white noise generator and a few oscillators, filters, and tape machines. In 1965 the studio was absorbed by the Florence conservatory, where Grossi began teaching a course in electronic music, the first of its kind in Italy. In 1967, Grossi was given the opportunity to develop a music program for a GE-115 computer, provided by the Italian computer company Olivetti. Grossi programmed a number of pieces, including a fugue from Bach’s Musical Offering and Paganini’s Fifth Caprice. He also created his first original computer compositions, which demonstrated the experimental potential of the computer. All this music was included on a 45-RPM record that was sent as a Christmas present to 20,000 Olivetti customers.

In 1969, Grossi began working with computers on a regular basis at the National University Computation Center (CNUCE) in Pisa. At first the computer was able to output only a monophonic square wave of constant amplitude. Later systems allowed for variation in volume and timbre. The computer stored music as manipulable data which could be affected through a set of commands at the console, such as INVERT (to invert melodic intervals), SCALE (to change tuning), and MODIFY (to make global parametric alterations).

While many composers were drawn to the computer for its ability to perform complex musical instructions with absolute fidelity, Grossi had a fundamentally different conception of the potential of “computer music.” He saw the computer not as a means of precisely realizing the pre-formed music in his mind, but rather of liberating composition from the constraints imposed by human intelligence. Provided by humans with certain basic parameters, the computer can create music of a complexity and richness literally beyond imagination.

Grossi’s music from the early 1970s is to my ears the most exhilarating and original of his work. Pieces such as Monodia (1970) are stunning etudes in synthetic sound, using a single, monophonic sound chip to create skittering blasts of notes, twisted digital distortion, and trompe-l’oreille illusions of polyphony. Create C (1972), presented here, could be humorously described as “Ferneyhough in Super Mario World”: the primal timbres of early computer sound chips are pushed to their limits, creating a music of bewildering complexity and abrasive beauty. For all its intensity, this is still music of breathtaking, childlike directness, far from all pretense or ironic posturing. Grossi’s music not only anticipates but surpasses much of the computer music that would follow it in the 40 years between then and now.

Grossi’s later projects carried his radical aesthetic principles from music into graphic arts. In 1986 he developed “Homeart,” a computer program written in QBasic which created random visual patterns according to basic instructions— a kind of digital interior decoration. He later published a number of unicum books based on the Homeart program. Finally, in 1997, he and Sergio Maltagliati designed an interactive audio-visual composition called NetOper@. (This was a late manifestation of Grossi’s interest in long-distance music-making: in 1970 he established a telephone link between computers in Rimini and Pisa, and in 1974 he organized a “telematic concert” between himself in Pisa and Iannis Xenakis in Paris.  This idea would later be taken up by the American computer music group The Hub in 1985.)


The composer at the console

The emergence of the computer as an instrument of what could be called “computer-aided composition” spelled the end of the division of labor separating the functions of performer, composer, and listener. Accordingly, Grossi envisioned a fundamental shift in the meaning of composition. His class at the Florence Conservatory was open to non-musicians: the computer was to de-specialize musical production, eliminating the long, lonely hours of study required under the old regime. The liberation from the drudgery of instrumental training would free students to become more well-rounded and enlightened members of society.

Grossi encouraged his students to do away with the concept of intellectual property, instead thinking of music as a constantly changing work-in-progress of which individuals are merely the temporary custodians. Existing music was not a sacred and inviolable cultural heritage, but rather a reservoir of material for future productions. This was a kind of “remix” aesthetic avant la lettre, but with an important difference: Grossi’s notion of musical re-invention was based not on recordings, but rather on the greater malleability afforded by musical storage in terms of digital instructions. This allows for more abstract transformations. For example, a given composition, when stored as data in the computer, could be analyzed with regard to pitch content, producing a statistical table of pitch-class frequency that forms the basis for a new composition with a similar tonal “color” to the original. Analogous processes could be undertaken with regard to rhythm, dynamics, and theoretically even timbre.  Grossi writes:

Already twenty-five years ago, I was in close contact with all the researchers involved in electronic music, and we exchanged taped recordings each with a title and an author. And each time I got something, I was very happy to listen to what the other person had done. But I could also get hundreds of other pieces out of that tape by making use of the technology available at the time: variable speed tape recorders, filters, even scissors. Already we saw the prospect of freeing ourselves from the message, which earlier had been rigorously fixed on music paper and performed according to precise rules. Each tape-recorded phonic message became the point of departure for creating many others… From a set of information making up a classical, contemporary, or even extemporary piece created by the computer itself, it is possible to make an infinite series of transformations.

Grossi’s vision of the dissolution of the barriers between listeners, performers and composers was an outgrowth of the utopian thinking of the 1960s, which foresaw technological progress leading to the minimization of labor, freeing individuals for lives devoted to creative pursuits. As he put it, “[The present gives us] the image of a society characterized both by permanent education and research and by a frequent transfer from one activity to another. And in the fullness of time the leisure deriving from increased automation will give man the possibility of cultural enrichment and refinement. Today, practically speaking we have the possibility of solving our problems; the means are there—only the appropriate structures are still missing.”

Such a vision accorded with the idea of “composing” outlined in Jacques Attali's 1977 book Noise. Attali announced the arrival of a new paradigm in the history of music, characterized by the decentralized production of music outside the orbit of economic exchange. For Attali, as for Grossi, the emancipatory and democratic potential of music, aided by the development of technology, presaged a social order of equality and plenitude: Grossi invoked the words of sociologist Renato Famea, who foresaw a utopian anti-economy of “everything for everybody, effortless and valueless.” 

As Grossi foresaw, the development of technology has decentralized and democratized musical creativity. But the old ways die hard. Collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to composition are still the exception, rather than the rule. Popular conceptions—and following them, money and power—are still in the thrall of a conservative mentality that favors marketable products above experimental processes, individual geniuses above creative collectives, and technology as a means of repeating what we know, rather than discovering what we don’t. At a historical moment in which the idea of progress threatens to wither into the private accumulation of consumer gadgets amidst the general destruction of the commons, Grossi’s vision of musical politics is as distant as it is pressingly relevant.


 Still image from Grossi’s Homeart program


Played 229 time(s).

October 23, 2011, 3:49pm

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