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Music in the Late Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution

Music and Electronic Media; Varèse's Career

CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.1

John Cage, “The Future of Music: Credo” (1940)

When the young John Cage made that boldly capitalized prediction, it seemed like one more fantasy among the many he enunciated in that brash utopian Credo, already sampled in chapter 2. And yet, unbeknownst to him or to his audience, the practical means for implementing it were already at hand. Five years earlier, at a 1935 radio exhibition in Berlin, the German firm AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitäts Gesellschaft or “General Electric Company”) demonstrated a new invention called the Magnetophone, a device for converting sound signals into magnetic impulses that could be stored indefinitely on a paper tape coated with a metallic oxide, and then reconverted (or “played back”) into sound. Actually, the concept of magnetic sound recording had been described theoretically half a century before that. An ancestor of the magnetophone called the Telegraphone, a Danish invention that recorded sound magnetically on a thin metal wire, was exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, and received a prize. (Wire recorders were not definitively supplanted by tape recorders until the middle of the new century.)

Early magnetophones and wire recorders produced a playback of limited frequency range, seriously distorted by background noise, or “hiss.” Nobody foresaw any immediate musical applications for such machines. AEG envisioned the magnetophone as an office dictation device, or a means of storing radio programs like news bulletins for rebroadcast. Besides radio stations, early customers included the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, which used it to record confessions, among other things. But during the war, when German technological advances were hidden from Allied view, the magnetophone was improved to the point where it surpassed the dynamic and frequency response of disc recordings; and the use of a supersonic bias frequency in the recording process dramatically reduced the background noise.

By the early 1940s, German companies were using tape recorders as an intermediate stage in the production of commercial music recordings, rather than recording the sound directly on disc. Not only was the sound quality thereby improved, but also far more could be recorded at a stretch than the amount that could go on a single 78 RPM “side.” For the record, so to speak, the earliest continuous tape-recorded opera performance to be commercially released on disc was of Abu Hassan (1811), a one-act “Turkish” singspiel by Carl Maria von Weber. It was originally recorded “live” for broadcast on Radio Berlin in 1944, with the young soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, later a great international diva, in the role of Fatime.

Above all, however, tape recordings were easy to handle and manipulate, and made composite editing possible. Good “takes” of different passages could be spliced together. All of a singer's best notes could be included in a single finished product. Performances on records could be made literally flawless, simply by splicing out and replacing all the flaws. The standard joke of the recording studio became the one about the soloist, admiring the playback, being teased by the recording engineer: “Yes, don't you wish you could play like that?”

After the war, the American occupying troops were amazed to find the improved tape recorders in every German radio station. All of AEG's patents having fallen into Allied hands as spoils of war, the machines could be duplicated and marketed in the victorious nations without payment of royalties. The first American tape recorders were produced in 1947 by the Ampex Company, copied from a pair shipped home from Radio Frankfurt by John Mullin, a sound engineer who was serving with the U.S. Army communications corps. One of Ampex's first customers was the crooner Bing Crosby, who began tape-recording his weekly programs at his convenience for later broadcast.

Soon it became apparent to alert musicians that the same advantages in handling and manipulation that served the purposes of commercial recording could also serve the purposes of composition. The cutting and splicing techniques that improved live-recorded performances could also be used to create all kinds of sound collages. In addition, playback speed could be varied, with consequent alterations to the pitch, rapidity, and timbre of recorded sounds. Connecting (“patching”) the playback head of one tape recorder to the recording head of another made it possible to store the altered sounds for use in composition.

But that was only the beginning. By reversing the positions of the tape spools on the “deck” of the recording machine, tapes could be played backward, with radical alteration to sound “envelope” or attack-decay properties: a tone played on the piano, for example, became a whooshing, accelerating crescendo to an abrupt cutoff. A length of tape could be spliced into a continuous loop that produced an ostinato effect when played back. Such ostinatos could be montaged into patterns and textures without limit. Additional recording-studio devices like echo chambers, sound filters, and mixers could be patched into the recording circuit for further alterations to sounds stored on tape.

Composers were standing ready to exploit these new possibilities, especially in the ranks of the newly resurgent postwar avant-garde, all warring factions included. Though they may have disagreed about everything else, they were united in greeting the new technological marvel. For “zero hour” types, it offered the most dramatic chance to wipe the slate clean of all existing traditions and techniques. In his 1940 lecture, Cage already hailed the advent of the first genuinely “twentieth-century means for making music.”2 For control freaks, it offered an unprecedented degree of determinacy, since at the splicing block the most complicated or exacting rhythmic relationships (for example) could be worked out in terms of finely measured lengths of tape—the most literal instance imaginable of the “spatialization” of music mooted at the end of chapter 3.

Milton Babbitt, for one, was thrilled by “the notion of having complete control over one's composition, of being complete master of all you survey.”3 At the opposite extreme, that of radical indeterminacy, Cage was also celebrating the possibility “for composers to make music directly, without the assistance of intermediary performers”4 —more evidence that the perceived polar opposites of advanced music making were united in a common commitment to technological research and development. Cage joyously foresaw the obsolescence of musical notation. For devotees of liberation, whether of sounds or of people, endless prospects loomed.


(1) John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1966), pp. 3–4.

(2) Ibid. p. 6.

(3) Milton Babbitt, in Joel Chadabe, Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997), p. 18.

(4) Cage, Silence, p. 4.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-004.xml