Category Archives: Early Electronic Music

“Think of a sound. Now make it. Any sound is now possible.”

FirefoxScreenSnapz001Contributor T. Fine recommends these excellent pieces on early electronic music.  First, a really fun circa 2006 Australian documentary film:

…And a reminder that the MOMA is still running its “Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye” series:

Moma_Aria_radioIn describing some of the musical objects in their collection, the curators write, “…MoMA was the first museum in the world to collect such objects, beginning in 1932, (and) also pioneered the live presentation of some new music technologies. For instance, Russian émigré Vladimir Ussachevsky performed the first tape-music concert in the United States at MoMA in October 1952. And though the Museum’s collection does not include a synthesizer, it presented the famed Moog synthesizer as a live performance instrument for the very first time on August 28, 1969, changing the course of music history and influencing decades of future instrument design.

moog_in_the_Garden Herb_at_moogLearn more about this historic event at the MOMA’s blog.

A DIY Electronic Music Studio circa 1971

Texas_studio_1971Today on PS dot com: a 1971 article by one Robert C. Ehle on the subject of ‘The Electronic Music Studio.’

Download here: Elec_Music_1971

The article includes a schematic for an audio-triggered frequency divider (ala early ‘woodwind synthesizers’) and some interesting other bits, such as discussion of tape-based time compression (which we covered earlier,,,  click here for that article).

Tape_TimeCompresion_1971Bleep Bleep.

Bloop Bloop.




Suzanne Ciani profile in TECHNOLOGY magazine, 1982

Ciani_face_82Suzanne Ciani is a name that should be familiar to many of you.  Considered to be one of the true innovators of electronic music, Ciani found great success as a sound-designer for television and radio commercials in New York in the 70s and 80s.  After a very lucurative career, she returned to California and began a 2nd career as a recording artist; her music is often generalized as ‘new age,’ not surprisingly.

Ciani_HomeStudio_82There is just a ton of information online regarding Ciani and her work; I suggest you start here and here. Also if there is anyone out there who wants to redesign her website HOLY SHIT it’s like 1997 up in there.  Jesus.  Anyhow, I was at an estate sale recently, some real eccentric types; in the LPs were such gems at the United States Of America, Holy Modal Rounders, and The Remains. Not your typical 60s rock albums.   The piles of musty old magazines included graphic-designer fav U&lc, an old issue of Viva, and something called TECHNOLOGY, which was on its 2nd edition, 2nd issue by March of ’82.  Sorta like OMNI minus the fiction, TECHNOLOGY featured this profile with Ciani, which I think may have been lost to time… until now.  I offer it to you here:

DOWNLOAD: ciani_1982

Author is one Stephen Kindel.  The focus is very much on the economics of being an in-demand synthesist, which may have just been some 80s yuppie zeitgeist shit, or maybe some part of the magazine’s editorial mission.  Either way, it’s Karl Marx’s fucking nightmare.  Enjoy!   Oh, and here she is around the same time on Letterman, doing some sorta wacky proto Liz Lemon-meets-Kate Bush schtick.  Love it.

The Best Books About Synthesis History You’ll Ever (be unable to) Read



I was recently at the excellent DOX center in Prague to see a mid-career retrospective of the Czech composer/artist Milan Gustar. Gustar could be described as a minimalist electronic composer.  His pieces seem concerned with the perception of sound and with systems of describing, organizing, and controlling sound.  One of the two pieces on display for actual playback (as opposed to simply a graphic score) was his TWIST; it was quite beautiful, and you can hear it here.  Anyhow, Gustar’s work has unsurprisingly also taken him into the realm of research, and at the DOX I was able to purchase the two above-depicted hardbound Czech-language volumes, approx. 400pp and 500pp respectively.  Although I can decipher very little of the text, these books are incredibly fascinating, with hundreds of photos and diagrams, and offer an extremely detailed account of the history of electro-mechanical instruments (vol. 1) and electronic instruments (vol. 2).  You can read detailed descriptions of both books at these English-language links  – VOLUME 1; VOLUME 2.  As far as I know, no texts with this degree of detail exist in the English language.  And remember, we always have Google Translate if you need to know roughly what’s being communicated – just type the Czech into the translation widget and cross yr fingers.

Anyhow, just a ton of stuff to dig into and use as a springboard for your own research and/or gear-hoarding activities.  The books are quite affordable, approx.  $30 US each, and you can purchase them by writing directly to the publisher at the email address here….

Tubon_1966 Stratosphere_Guitar_1958 Mixturtrautinium Kawai_EP_308_s EMS_KB1 Cullulophone_1927 ASYZ_2_1971

It Could Have All Gone So Differently

SoundInZ_CoverI was at the always-wonderful CCA recently looking for some new readings to bring to this semester’s Soundtrack course at SASD.  So far I have only gotten through one of the volumes I purchased, but it is really something else and I’d like to recommend it unreservedly to all my readers.  “Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia,” written by Andrey(i) Smirnov, was published this year by Koening Books, ISBN 987-3-86560-706-5.  You can buy it here in the US and here in the UK.

There is far too much revelatory information in this 261pp book for me to offer a thorough description, but suffice to say that between the 1918 Russian revolutions and the complete implementation of brutal Stalinist Totalitarianism in the mid 1930s there flourished a brief period of radical utopian thinking in the Soviet Union which expressed itself throughout the arts.  Many of us are familiar with the new and highly influential Soviet graphic forms that emerged in this period; less documented are the incredible new directions in sound and audio that were undertaken.  This book attempts to change that, with biographies of leading Soviet sound experimenters of the period, including Arseny Avraamov, who undertook intense experiments in graphically-drawn sound intended for playback via film-projector photocell.

Arseny_Avraamov_Soundtrack_1930Evgeny Sholpo’s work is also covered in some detail, especially his Variophone series of…AAWs?  Analog Audio Workstations?  Essentially these were analog, graphically-interfaced additive synthesizers/sequencers… WHICH WERE MADE IN THE 1930s.  Good lord.  Here’s a clip:

EvgenySholpo_Variophone_v4_1940Above: an image of the final iteration of the Variophone c. 1949

If the music itself sounds a bit regressive, this is due in large fact to the repressive political regime already in place by the early 1930s which sought to eliminate abstract and ‘avant garde’ artwork; many of these same composers and thinkers had been intensely involved with microtonal and ‘noise’ musics only a decade earlier; and many of these Soviet visionaries of the 1920s and 1930s were either executed or consigned to labor camps and/or tweedy backwaters as a direct result of their unconventional formal experiments.

Shumoviks_in_sessionAbove, ‘Shumoviks,’ or, roughly, sound-designers, perform some foley work as directed by Vladamir Popov, who composed sound-design for film with graphic renderings as depicted below:

VladamirPopov_Foley_scoreThere is just such a wealth of fascinating ideas and weird dead ends (often, quite literally dead-ends, as the work of many of these pioneers was ended by their execution or exile) explored in this book; really a new wonder on every page.  If you were ever enthralled by the genius of Leon Theremin and his well-documented contributions to modern music and electronics, well guess what: there were dozens of other geniuses working alongside him, mining different but equally adventurous veins, and now their stories are finally being told in the English language.  Had their work not been terminated and repressed by the terrible Stalinist state regime, we would likely have incredibly different audio-tools in our hands today.  If you work in sound-design, audio software development, or use synthesizers in your musical work, you must read this book.

All images in this article are scanned from the book reviewed here.

Suicide Manual

TAB_666_ExperimentingIn NYC in the mid-seventies, an electronic-based band arose amongst all the guitar punks, a band that was known as much for their confrontational post-beatnik vocals as for the strange and intense sounds that emanated from their famously homemade electronic sound equipment.  A band who has become, in the decades since, one of the few acts that is truly ‘required reading’ in the lexicon of avant-garde rock n pop.  Or, as James Murphy so brilliantly puts it in his apocryphal tale of musical uber-taste, “I was there, in 1974, the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City… I was working on the organ sounds…with much patience” (skip to 2:50… or, actually, don’t… this song kinda rules).

So yeah I am talking about Suicide.  If you don’t know ’em, check ’em out…  it is amazing+terrifying that this record came out in 1977…  truly truly AOTT.  And plainly awesome too.  I really love this band, and they inspired me greatly in the early 2000s, when I was performing with a punk band in Brooklyn using an analog drum-machine rig based around some old Roland beatboxes, voltage controlled filters, and a CV-generating homemade theremin to control the whole thing.

LISTEN: The_Flesh_Gallows

This felt fairly fresh to me in the year 2001; so that fact that Suicide was doing this same thing 25 years early was mindblowing.  I had to wonder; how the hell did these guys make all the stuff?  Even in the year 2000, DIY’ing synth equipment was fairly unusual for rock musicians; but in 1975?  That was like black magic!  Well I think I found the grimoire.

NEways… kinda a long setup to what will be…  the first OUT OF PRINT BOOK REPORT we’ve had in a while.  And oh boy will there be more coming.  I was recently at a really fascinating estate-sale somewhere in Marin County, California, where I met an elderly engineer who sold me a library of ancient audio-tech books and wished me luck on my travels… the pick of the litter was the above-depicted “Experimenting With Electronic Music,” by Robert Brown and Mark Olsen.  Published in 1974, it is TAB books catalog number 666.  No joke.  This just keeps getting better.

ARP_2500The book starts with some fairly uninteresting discussion of various commercially-available synthesizers circa ’74, but soon gets into a wealth of both schematics and ideas regarding DIY’d audio electronic circuits.  Here’s the TOC:

TAB_666_ContentsThere’s a ton of great stuff in here, and while I honestly have no idea whether or not the particular transistors spec’d in these circuits are still available, I would imagine that there are subs available…  even if you never build anything from the book, I think anyone with an interest in early electronic music will find it fascinating.  Here’s a few projects that I plan to do at some point:

PhotoElectric_Modulator Tremolo_Schem BandSelect_Audio_filter“Experimenting with Electronic music” is available from a few sellers on Abe Books.  It ain’t cheap, but I’ve been digging for these sorta books for 20 years now and this is the first copy I ever came across.

Max Neuhaus, Electronic Music Pioneer

Above: Neuhaus at work on an aquatic sound installation

Download a three-page article by Joan LaBarbara on the 1970’s work of sound-installation artist Max Neuhaus, originally published in High Fidelity, 10.77:

DOWNLOAD: MaxNeuhaus_HighFidelity_Oct1977

Apologies for the less-than-stellar scan quality.  Neuhaus created some incredible pieces in his time, pieces that attempted to use sound to expand spatial experience in unexpected ways.  He is very much the forefather to such contemporary artists as Janet Cardiff.  As LaBarbara (herself an experimental composer) sagely writes, “Neuhaus’ works focus on that most important function of the composer in society, of retraining ears and minds…”