A History of Electronic Music Pioneers [Part 1: 1750-1930]

[Note: the following text is an excerpt from an essay by David Dunn, which was written for a catalog that accompanied the exhibition: 'Pioneers of Electronic Art', held in Austria, 1992]

...One of the earliest documented musical instruments based upon electronic principles was the Clavecin Electrique, designed by the Jesuit priest Jean-Baptiste Delaborde in France, 1759. The device used a keyboard control based upon simple electrostatic principles.

The spirit of invention which immediately preceded the turn of this century was synchronous with a cultural enthusiasm about the new technologies that was unprecedented. Individuals such as Bell, Edison, and Tesla became culture heroes who ushered in an ideology of industrial progress founded upon the power of harnessed electricity. Amongst this assemblage of inventor industrialists was Dr. Thaddeus Cahill, inventor of the electric typewriter, designer and builder of the first musical synthesizer and, by default, originator of industrial muzak. While a few attempts to build electronic musical instruments were made in the late 19th century by Elisha Gray, Ernst Lorenz, and William Duddell, they were fairly tentative or simply the curious byproducts of other research into electrical phenomena. One exception was the musical instrument called the Choralcelo built in the United States by Melvin L. Severy and George B. Sinclair between 1888 and 1908. Cahill's invention, the Telharmonium, however, remains the most ambitious attempt to construct a viable electronic musical instrument ever conceived.

Working against incredible technical difficulties, Cahill succeeded in 1900 to construct the first prototype of the Telharmonium and by 1906, a fairly complete realization of his vision. This electro-mechanical device consisted of 145 rheotome/ alternators capable of producing five octaves of variable harmonic content in imitation of orchestral tone colors. Its principal of operation consisted of what we now refer to as additive synthesis and was controlled from two touch-sensitive keyboards capable of timbral, amplitude and other articulatory selections. Since Cahill's machine was invented before electronic amplification was available he had to build alternators that produced more than 10,000 watts. As a result the instrument was quite immense, weighing approximately 200 tons. When it was shipped from Holyoke, Massachusetts to New York City, over thirty railroad flatcars were enlisted in the effort.

While Cahill's initial intention was simply to realize a truly sophisticated electronic instrument that could perform traditional repertoire, he quickly pursued its industrial application in a plan to provide direct music to homes and offices as the strategy to fund its construction. He founded the New York Electric Music Company with this intent and began to supply real-time performances of popular classics to subscribers over telephone lines. Ultimately the business failed due to insurmountable technical and legal difficulties, ceasing operations in 1911.

The Telharmonium and its inventor represent one of the most spectacular examples of one side of a recurrent dialectic which we will see demonstrated repeatedly throughout the 20th century history of the artistic use of electronic technology. Cahill personifies the industrial ideology of invention which seeks to imitate more efficiently the status quo. Such an ideology desires to summarize existent knowledge through a new technology and thereby provide a marketable representation of current reality. In contrast to this view, the modernist ideology evolved to assert an anti-representationist use of technology which sought to expand human perception through the acquisition of new technical means. It desired to seek the unknown as new phenomenological and experiential understandings which shattered models of the so-called "real".

The modernist agenda is brilliantly summarized by the following quote by Hugo Ball:

"It is true that for us art is not an end in itself, we have lost too many of our illusions for that. Art is for us an occasion for social criticism, and for real understanding of the age we live in...Dada was not a school of artists, but an alarm signal against declining values, routine and speculations, a desperate appeal, on behalf of all forms of art, for a creative basis on which to build a new and universal consciousness of art."

Many composers at the beginning of this century dreamed of new electronic technologies that could expand the palette of sound and tunings of which music and musical instruments then consisted. Their interest was not to use the emerging electronic potential to imitate existent forms, but rather to go beyond what was already known. In the same year that Cahill finalized the Telharmonium and moved it to New York City, the composer Ferruccio Busoni wrote his Entwurf einer neuen Asthetik der Tonkunst ('Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music') wherein he proposed the necessity for an expansion of the chromatic scale and new (possibly electrical) instruments to realize it. Many composers embraced this idea and began to conceptualize what such a music should consist of. In the following year, the Australian composer Percy Grainger was already convinced that his concept of 'Free Music' could only be realized through use of electro-mechanical devices.
By 1908 the Futurist Manifesto was published and the modernist ideology began its artists' revolt against existent social and cultural values. In 1913 Luigi Russolo wrote The Art of Noise, declaring that the "evolution of music is paralleled by the multiplication of the machine". By the end of that year, Russolo and Ugo Piatti had constructed an orchestra of electro-mechanical noise instruments (Intonarumori) capable of realizing their vision of a sound art which shattered the musical status quo. Russolo desired to create a sound based art form out of the noise of modern life. His noise intoning devices presented their array of "howlers, boomers, cracklers, scrapers, exploders, buzzers, gurglers, and whistles" to bewildered audiences in Italy, London, and finally Paris in 1921, where he gained the attention of Varese and Stravinsky. Soon after this concert the instruments were apparently only used commercially for generating sound effects and were abandoned by Russolo in 1930.

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