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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution
Richard Taruskin

Tape music came to America somewhat by accident. Vladimir Ussachevsky (1911–90), then an instructor in music at Columbia University, obtained a grant in 1951 to purchase a pair of Ampex tape recorders on behalf of the department for recording “Composers Forum” concerts on campus for library preservation. The tape recorders and microphones were stored between concerts at Ussachevsky's home or in his office, and he began amusing himself by recording and transforming the sounds of his own piano playing, eventually with the help of an engineer from the university radio station, who created a device for obtaining and controlling “feedback,” a type of mechanical reverberation produced by feeding the output of a tape playback into the same tape recorder's recording head.

Ussachevsky presented some of these “experiments,” frankly so called, at a Composers Forum of his own on 8 May 1952. Only one, “Underwater Valse” (a demonstration of feedback) was given the dignity of a title. A review by Henry Cowell, in his day also an enthusiastic experimenter with new sounds, welcomed the feedback device less as a technical breakthrough than for the poetic feelings that it evoked. That would be typical of American musique concrète, which generally preferred to work its surrealistic transformations on prerecorded musical sounds rather than on “natural” or environmental ones. Of the feedback, Cowell remarked that

One would not expect such a series of mechanical repetitions to be related to human experience, yet to nearly everyone the effect seems to suggest some half-forgotten, elusive experience. Several people have testified independently that the sounds correspond to what is heard at one level of consciousness during the process of going under an anesthetic; others recall having heard such automatic sounds in dreams.30

Ussachevsky's extension and expansion of instrumental ranges and timbres was also acclaimed. “An A two octaves below the lowest A on the piano was produced by playing a recording of the lowest A at one-fourth speed,” Cowell marveled. “The fundamental pitch was inaudible, but its powerful low overtones produced an otherwise unheard-of timbre.” Whether experiments or compositions, these early efforts of Ussachevsky's were issued on a commercial recording (Sounds of New Music, Folkways, 1958) that gave them permanent status as the earliest “classics” of American electronic music.

One of Ussachevsky's Columbia colleagues, Otto Luening (1900–96), had been a disciple of Busoni's in Switzerland during and immediately after World War I, and was therefore predisposed to take a lively interest in Ussachevsky's tape experiments, seeing in them the promise of finally realizing Busoni's romantic vision of “free music.” He invited Ussachevsky to present his experiments that summer at a composers’ conference in Bennington, Vermont, and, a former professional flautist, began making experiments alongside him, so that the early sound repertoire of American musique concrète now included the manipulated sonorities of their two instruments, along with sounds of percussion and of conversational speech.

The results of their summer's work were unveiled at a widely publicized and reported concert of “tape music” held on 28 October 1952 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Leopold Stokowski, the superstar conductor who had led the premiere performance of Fuleihan's theremin concerto during the war, and of Varèse's Amériques before that, was on hand to lend some glamour to the occasion and to make some introductory remarks. They were remarkably to the point: “I am often asked: What is tape music, and how is it made? Tape music is music that is composed directly with sound instead of first being written on paper and later made to sound. Just as the painter paints his picture directly with colors, so the musician composes his music directly with tone.”31 In the audience that evening, entranced, was Luciano Berio, then living in the United States on a fellowship. On his return home, he made contact with Bruno Maderna, the somewhat older Italian avant-gardist who had already taught at Darmstadt and worked both at the Paris musique concrète studio and at the Cologne studio for elektronische Musik. Together they established the Studio di Fonologia Musicale at the state-supported radio station in Milan, for which Berio received funding by agreeing to furnish electronic soundtrack music for a series of films to be shown on Italian television.

The Milan studio, thanks to its exceptionally well endowed facilities, its attendant concert series and newsletter, and above all the government grant money it was authorized to dispense, became another magnet, alongside Darmstadt, for international talent. Its first creative emission, a joint composition by the two directors, was Ritratto di città (“Portrait of a city”), a collage of city sounds through the course of a working day, assembled in conscious tribute to the pioneering efforts of the futuristi for broadcast over the station that supported the studio.

Three of the early classics of the emerging repertoire of tape music were created at the Milan studio. The philosophy that reigned there was intentionally eclectic, in implied criticism of the respective purisms of Paris and Cologne, and the works produced covered the gamut of existing techniques. Berio's Thema (1958), subtitled “Omaggio a Joyce,” is widely regarded as a masterpiece (perhaps the masterpiece) of musique concrète. Its sound source was a reading by the composer's wife, the American singer Cathy Berberian (1925–83), of the first page from the eleventh chapter (“Sirens”) of James Joyce's epic novel Ulysses (1922):

  • Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing.
  • Imperthnthn thnthnthn.
  • Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
  • Horrid! And gold flushed more.
  • 5 A husky fifenote blew.
  • Blew. Blue bloom is on the.
  • Goldpinnacled hair.
  • A jumping rose on satiny breast of satin, rose of Castile.
  • Trillin, trilling: Idolores.
  • 10 Peep! Who's in the …. peepofgold?
  • Tink cried to bronze in pity.
  • And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.
  • Decoy. Soft word. But look: the bright stars fade.
  • Notes chirruping answer.
  • 15 O rose! Castile. The morn is breaking.
  • Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.
  • Coin rang. Clock clacked.
  • Avowal. Sonnez. I could. Rebound of garter. Not leave thee.
  • Smack. La cloche! Thigh smack. Avowal. Warm.
  • 20 Sweetheart, goodbye!
  • Jingle. Bloo.
  • Boomed crashing chords. When love absorbs. War! War!
  • The tympanum.
  • A sail! A veil awave upon the waves.
  • 25 Lost. Throstle fluted. All is lost now.
  • Horn. Hawhorn.
  • When first he saw. Alas!
  • Full tup. Full throb.
  • Warbling. Ah, lure! Alluring.
  • 30 Martha! Come!
  • Clapclap. Clipclap. Clappyclap.
  • Goodgod henev erheard inall.
  • Deaf bald Pat brought pad knife took up.
  • A moonlit nightcall: far, far.
  • 35 I feel so sad. P. S. So lonely blooming.
  • Listen!
  • The spiked and winding cold seahorn. Have you the? Each, and for other,
  • plash and silent roar. Pearls: when she. Liszt's rhapsodies. Hissss.

This prose poem represents music overheard by several of the novel's characters as they walk the streets of Dublin. It is virtual verbal music, reverberating with sounds of hoof beats (thnthnthn), coins in pockets (jingle jingle), birds at dawn (notes chirruping answer), foghorns (far, far). It plays with homophones (Blew. Blue bloom; Ah, lure! Alluring) and alliterations (Liszt's rhapsodies. Hissss) like surrealist song poetry. It names instruments (fife, tympanum, flute, horn), and even alludes to (or parodies) the titles of once-famous songs and arias: “When the Bloom Is on the Rye” (l. 6); “Goodbye, Sweetheart, Goodbye” (l. 20); “Tutto è sciolto” (All Is Lost) from Bellini's opera La sonnambula (l. 25); “M'appari” (When First I Saw) from Flotow's opera Martha (l. 27); “Tis the last rose of summer/Left blooming alone” (l. 35). There is even applause (Clipclap. Clappyclap). The whole chapter is often compared with a musical composition replete with thematic development, “tonal” modulation, onomatopoeia, counterpoint, recapitulations and so on, though literary analysts differ as to what form—sonata? fugue?—is being mimicked.

Berio took Joyce's own procedures as his point of departure, “emphasizing and developing,” as he put it, “the transition between a perceivable verbal message and musical utterance”32 that is already present in the original. By filtering the sound of the read text, copying it, cutting and splicing it, altering its speed, reversing it, and setting it in counterpoint (and sometimes in homophony) with itself, the composer converts the words into trills, glissandos, portamentos, and staccatos, turning what was discontinuous in the original into continuous sounds (Lisztsztszt'shissssssssss) or breaking what was rhythmically continuous in the original into periodic fragments. Sometimes the process works the other way, proceeding by degrees from musical sound to intelligible speech, blurring even further than Joyce did the line dividing onomatopoeia from semantics. Either way, “I attempted to establish a new relationship between speech and music, in which a discontinuous metamorphosis of one into the other can be developed.”33 As Joel Chadabe, a composer and historian of electronic music, has commented, “Berio said it, but Joyce might have said it as well.”34

By contrast, Scambi (1957), by the Belgian composer Henri Pousseur (b. 1929), eschewed concrete sounds in favor of synthetic ones. The title means “quick changes,” or “exchanges,” and is based throughout on filtered white noise. The composer compared the process of composing it to sonic sculpture: just as Michelangelo claimed that to make a statue all one had to know was what parts of the marble block to remove, all it took to make electronic music out of white noise was knowing which parts of the sonic spectrum to block when. Inspired by Cage's lectures on indeterminacy, Pousseur cast Scambi as an “open form”: a set of specifications for filtering, volume settings, and reverberation that could be variously realized in the studio.

The version that was released commercially is the one the composer himself realized at the Milan studio, which (over his protests, so to speak) has become the “canonical” one. Berio, in collaboration with the composer, made another realization to show that it could be done, and so have various composers and studio technicians in Europe and the United States. But traditional notions of authorship have proven hardy. Despite commitment to the superficial freedom of “open form,” moreover, Scambi represents an effort, characteristic of its time, to maintain traditional reliance on a prescriptive score in a medium that threatened the preeminence of writing and the social hierarchy that writing had always underwritten.

Communicating music from composer to performers (or, as here, to “realizers”) through writing elevates the one to the status of commander and lowers the others to the status of slaves. Electronic music promised liberation from this social relation, by turning the composer into a direct and independent maker of an object comparable to those produced by a painter or a poet. Varèse had looked forward to the electronic medium as the composer's savior. “The composer,” he complained in the manifesto of 1921, “is the only one of the creators of today who is denied direct contact with the public.”35 The tape medium promised to eliminate the middleman, the performer; but in that case there would be no one to give orders to. That may be one reason why composers of electronic music seem in retrospect to have been so slow to greet it (or even see it) as the harbinger of a postliterate age.

Another early tape composer who relied extensively on scores was Cage, who welcomed the electronic medium as the answer to all his prayers, but who in the 1950s employed it as just another way of filling his chance-predetermined “containers.” These precompositional plans or composing scores, on which Cage had been basing his compositions even before discovering chance operations, went on controlling his compositional acts even after the advent of tape recording. Paradoxically, moreover, the use of taped sounds made the process of “indeterminate” composing more arduous than ever.

At Berio's invitation, Cage came to Milan in 1958 to make an electronic realization for Fontana Mix (a graphic sound container that he had already prepared and filled with live performance sounds), as an accompaniment to Aria, a collage of vocal sounds that he wrote for Cathy Berberian. The principle of tape composition in Fontana Mix was similar to the one Cage had previously employed in Williams Mix (1952), his first electronic composition. The idea of both pieces went directly back to the epigraph to this chapter, Cage's futuristic fantasy of a universal music that claimed “ FOR MUSICAL PURPOSES ANY AND ALL SOUNDS THAT CAN BE HEARD.”

Williams Mix was realized with the help of Cage's friends Louis and Bebe Barron, who had set up a little electronic music studio in their apartment where they produced soundtracks for science fiction films, eventually including some famous ones like Forbidden Planet (1956). Cage copied from them an encyclopedic library of about six hundred different recorded sounds. He cut them up into countless tape snippets, which he then stored by size in about 175 envelopes inside six big boxes labeled A through F, as follows:

  1. A. City sounds

  2. B. Country sounds

  3. C. Electronic sounds

  4. D. Manually produced sounds, including “normal” music

  5. E. Wind-produced sounds, including voice

  6. F. Small sounds requiring amplification to be heard.

Using the I Ching as described in chapter 2, Cage devised the score. Snippets from the six boxes would be spliced into eight tracks for simultaneous playback, each track a mosaic of snippets defined by coin-tossing according to source, duration, pitch, loudness, and manner of cutting. The first task was to compile a gigantic list of coin-determined specifications to guide the splicing of the master tape. As Earle Brown, who volunteered to act as Cage's technical assistant for the project, recalled:

Anybody could toss the three coins and write down heads, heads, tails, do it again, tails, heads, heads, do it again, oh, three tails …. Anybody could do it, so when anybody would come to visit, John would hand them three coins and tell them how to do it and everybody would be sitting around tossing coins. That was the composing part of it.36

The list of coin tosses was translated into a visual representation of each track of tape, drawn actual size. Then came the hard part. Putting the score under a plate of glass on a big table, Cage and Brown cut and spliced tape, laying the fragments end to end right over the score, as if following a dressmaker's pattern. They worked for five months straight, from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon.

We'd go over and paw through the envelopes until we came to the right one, as called for by the chance process. We'd pick up the envelope, take the piece of tape over, lay the tape on top of the glass under which was the score, and cut and splice exactly as was called for. Then we applied the pieces of recording tape onto splicing tape and then, between pieces of recording tape, we rubbed talcum powder so the splicing tape wouldn't be sticky. After we did this, and we'd gotten a minute or so finished, we used to go over to a studio in New Jersey to make copies on a solid piece of tape. We didn't even have a tape machine. We couldn't hear anything. All we had were razor blades and talcum powder, no tape machine, it's true. If we'd needed to use one, we could have gone to the Barrons’ studio. But John was doing it by chance. He didn't need to hear. You only need to hear when you're doing something by taste. It took so long, so bloody long, and it was boring to do all that cutting and splicing. John and I sat at opposite sides of the table and we talked about everything in the world.37

Indeed, electronic music in its infancy was probably the most labor-intensive musical medium in all of history. The attraction of the Milan Studio for Cage, when he received the invitation from Berio to produce another “mix,” was the presence there of a random number generator to take the place of the coin tossing. The cutting and splicing, however, remained. Fontana Mix, which draws on an assortment of sounds provided by the studio and by Radio Italiana, is much shorter than Williams Mix. Even so, it took four months to realize. Reacting out of hurt to the usual (but now especially unjust) allegation that writing “chance music” was easy, Cage began making preemptive jokes. He told one reporter, for example, that to write Fontana Mix he merely brought a broom into the Milan studio, swept the floor, and spliced together the leavings from everybody else's compositions.

In retrospect, of course, the hard and boring work lent a heroic aspect to the legend of the tape-music pioneers and became a point of pride. Looking back on his “Omaggio a Joyce” in a 1982 interview, Berio made the most of it:

In order to create certain effects, some sounds had to be copied sixty, seventy, and eighty times, and then spliced together. Then these tapes had to be copied further at different speeds in order to achieve new sound qualities more or less related to Cathy's original delivery of the text …. I didn't surrender to the difficulties. It's surprising now to think that I spent several months of my life cutting tape while today I could achieve many of the same results in much less time by using a computer.38


(30) Henry Cowell, “Current Chronicle: New York,” Musical Quarterly XXXVIII (1952): 600.

(31) Quoted in liner notes to Tape Music: An Historic Concert (Desto Records, DC 6466).

(32) “Interview with Luciano Berio,” in Barry Shrader, Introduction to Electro-Acoustic Music (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1982); quoted in Chadabe, Electric Sound, p. 49.

(33) Berio, “Poesia e Musica—un’ esperienza,” Incontri Musicali III (1958); quoted in Chadabe, Electric Sound, p. 50.

(34) Electric Sound, p. 50.

(35) Quoted in Ouellette, Edgard Varèse, p. 66.

(36) Quoted in Chadabe, Electric Sound, p. 56.

(37) Ibid. pp. 56–57.

(38) “Interview with Luciano Berio,” quoted in Chadabe, Electric Sound, p. 50.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 The Third Revolution. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 25 Nov. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 25 Nov. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004007.xml