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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution
Richard Taruskin

It was the advent of the tape recorder, the development described at the beginning of this chapter, that rescued Varèse from his creative hiatus and brought about something of a futurist resurgence, coinciding with the emergence of the postwar avant-garde. That made it possible to look upon Varèse's compositions of the 1920s and 1930s not only as quaintly heroic echoes of an exhausted past but, just as plausibly, as harbingers of an abundant future. He found himself cast as a mentor to a new generation of composers, and became the only member of his generation to apply himself to the new technology of “organized sound,”25 to use the term Varèse offered (in an article published in 1940) as a means of evading “the monotonous question: ‘But is it music?’ ” The question was inevitable, since the new medium of electronic music was able at last to fulfill John Cage's prediction of 1940 and “MAKE AVAILABLE FOR MUSICAL PURPOSES ANY AND ALL SOUNDS THAT CAN BE HEARD,” and do it in a way that was entirely practicable. (Cage, too, had offered, “if the word ‘music’ is sacred,” to call the activity he foresaw “organization of sound” and the composer an “organizer of sound.”) That meant all at once admitting to the domain of music a wide variety of sounds for which no musical notation existed and to which no existing rules of composition were applicable. But as Varèse somewhat gloomily predicted in “The Liberation of Sound,” “I am afraid it will not be long before some musical mortician begins embalming electronic music in rules.”26

From the beginning, composers of electronic music formed themselves into two main camps, replicating the division that previously existed between the Futurists, who wished to encompass the whole universe of life-sounds into their music, and the Synthesists, as we may call them, who sought sounds specific to the new medium (hence detached, in the manner of abstract art, from the sound repertory of lived reality). The former, who came first chronologically, were the composers of musique concrète, a music that advertised itself, and sought its justification, on the basis of its relationship to the sound-world of “concrete” sensory reality.

The term was coined in 1948 by Pierre Schaeffer (1910–95), a sound engineer employed in Paris by the Radiodiffusion française, the French national broadcasting network. The idea went back directly to Filippo Marinetti's prewar sintesi radiofonici, and indeed, Schaeffer's first concrète compositions were made by montaging sounds preserved on phonograph discs, usually in “locked grooves” that created ostinatos the way tape loops would later do. One of the earliest such pieces, Concert de bruits (“Concert of noises”), broadcast over the French radio in 1948, harks back even in its title to the language of Futurism. Its movements included an Étude aux chemins de fer (“Railroad study”) and an Étude aux casseroles (“Saucepan study”). A couple of Schaeffer's early studies, Étude violette and Étude noire, were based on the sounds of Pierre Boulez's piano playing.

“Real” Vs. “Pure”

fig. 4-4 Pierre Schaeffer, pioneer of musique concrète.

Schaeffer was quick, however, to avail himself of the new possibilities of splicing and of speed and envelope alteration that the new medium of tape editing allowed. Together with Pierre Henry (b. 1927), another sound engineer at the radio studio who had had some formal training in composition, Schaeffer founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (1950), and began issuing fully formed compositions on tape: the first was called Symphonie pour un homme seul (“Symphony for one man alone”), and consisted entirely of manipulated body sounds, not limited to those produced by the speech organs. The masterpiece of the original musique concrète studio was Henry's Orphée, or “The Veil of Orpheus” (1953), a ritualistic drama, existing only as sounds on tape, that graphically enacts the death of Orpheus, torn limb from limb by the Bacchantes. The voyeuristic (or should we call it auditeuristic) preoccupation with violence completes the parallel with Futurism. It provoked a violent counterdemonstration from the audience at Donaueschingen in 1953.

Once tape recorders were installed, many of the prominent postwar avant-gardists, including Messiaen, Boulez, and Stockhausen, paid visits to Schaeffer's studio at Paris Radio. But after a couple of desultory experiments they drifted off again. Only Xenakis stayed, working with musique concrète into the 1960s, and reveling like Henry in a poetry of violence that, in his case, served to sublimate his wartime experiences in works like Diamorphoses (1957), which incorporated the sounds of jet engines, earthquakes, and automobile crashes.

The Darmstadt “zero hour” impulse required a different high-tech outlet: that of elektronische Musik, which in its original German formulation did not have the general applicability of its English counterpart, “electronic music,” but referred to music based exclusively on electronically synthesized sounds—the purer, the better. Synthetic sounds carried no stigma from the world of entertainment, whereas the often amusing or terrifying musique concrète was reminiscent of radio sound effects and the soundtracks of films or animated cartoons. For composers in the Germanic modernist orbit, who set enormous store by the romantic concepts of ernste Musik (“serious music,” as against “entertainment”) and of artistic autonomy, the neutrality of synthesized sound, its freedom from worldly associations, constituted its chief appeal. (They were obviously unaware of the associations that had accrued to the theremin, and later to the trautonium, in Hollywood.)

The German hub of operations for electronic music, as mentioned in chapter 1, was the studio at Radio Cologne that was set up in 1951 with the aid of the American occupying forces, under the direction of Herbert Eimert (1897–1972). Eimert, an early follower of Schoenberg and an authority on twelve-tone music, saw electronic music not as “the great opening up of music to all sounds” that Cage had predicted, but rather as a source of new “parameters” for serial manipulation (overtones, for example, governing timbre), extending the serial reach far beyond what was measurable or controllable on conventionally played instruments. “It is certain that no means of musical control could have been established over electronic material had it not been for the revolutionary thought of Anton Webern,” Eimert asserted. “Talk of ‘humanized’ electronic sound may be left to unimaginative instrument makers,”27 he added with characteristic intolerance. We know by now whom he had in mind.

The symptomatic early electronic compositions from Cologne were the two serial Studien (1953, 1954) by Stockhausen, constructed from the purest sound of all, that of “sine waves,” single frequencies without any overtones, obtainable only under laboratory conditions in the studio, never in nature. They are produced by audio generators or oscillators, which can be programmed to emit sounds with prespecified, artificially simple overtone structures, all named from the way their waves look when analyzed by another studio instrument, called the oscilloscope, and displayed on its screen.

The overtoneless signal produces a waveform like a sine curve as plotted by trigonometry students on graph paper. A signal with artificially emphasized even partials produces a waveform with flat peaks, and is therefore called a square wave. One that emphasizes the odd partials looks like the cutting edge of a saw on the screen and is called the sawtooth wave. Another generator produces “white noise,” the hissing sound of the full frequency spectrum in simultaneous display. White noise can be processed through a “band-pass filter” to produce sounds of indefinite pitch but identifiable register. Other sound-modifying devices include modulators and reverberators. The first suppresses the fundamentals of two sounds and replaces them with their sums and/or differences; the second enhances sounds by allowing them to echo in an acoustical chamber of variable size.

Stockhausen's Elektronische Studie II (1954) was the first electronic composition to be issued not only as a prerecorded tape but also as a published score (Fig. 4-5). The notation resembles conventional musical notation insofar as it is a pair of grids, a vertical grid to represent greater and lesser quantities and a horizontal grid to represent elapsing time. It has three levels. The one on top measures the frequency range of the sine-wave bands in hertz, or cycles-per-second (cps). The one in the middle is a simple centimeter scale to measure duration (at a rate of 76.2 centimeters of unscrolling tape per second). At bottom is a dynamic scale to measure increasing and decreasing sound volume in decibels. The relationship between diagonals and verticals represents the sound “envelope”: a vertical line represents a sudden attack or cutoff. Diagonals, depending on their declivities, represent faster or slower crescendos and decrescendos. As already observed in chapter 1, the relationship between the score and the sound in an electronic composition is not the usual one, since there are no performers whose actions need to be prescribed. Conceivably, the score of Stockhausen's study could be used to duplicate the composition in the studio, as an architect's plan can be used to duplicate a building. But there is no practical need for such duplication in the case of electronic music, since a second tape recorder can instantly and automatically record, hence duplicate in playback, the sounds emitted by the original tape.

“Real” Vs. “Pure”

fig. 4-5 Karlheinz Stockhausen, Elektronische Studie II (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1954).

There is even less practical justification for the “Hörpartitur” created ex post facto for Artikulation, Ligeti's Cologne exercise of 1958, described and displayed in chapter 60. Its status was rather that of a poster or an art print advertising the work of the studio (and, in cold-war terms, advertising the support “Western” governments were prepared to invest in avant-garde activities for their propaganda value). But that was not the only propaganda context into which the new musical medium was inserted from its very infancy. The rivalry between musique concrète and elektronische Musik quickly became the latest bout in the old contest between French clarté and esprit (clarity and wit) and German Tiefgründigkeit (profundity), and between the agreeable naturalness of French art and the labored artifice of German. An official statement issued by the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète and reprinted on the first European commercial recording of tape music (Panorama de “Musique Concrète,” issued in 1957 under the auspices of UNESCO), started right off with the warning:

One of the most common errors with regard to musique concrète is to confuse it with its very different rival, Electronic Music, which originated in Germany and which is entirely concerned with the artificial, electronic manufacture of sounds, built up from a basic sinus tone. In truth, so far from eschewing “sound realism” by relying on the electron, musique concrète makes use of real sounds, which are natural, rather than synthetic, in order to rework them with the aid of special instruments such as the tape recorder (phonogène)…. Musique concrète stems more from acoustics, therefore, than from electronics.28

This mini cold war was breached somewhat in 1956 with Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge (“Song of the youths”), an electronic fantasy inspired by the parable from the biblical Book of Daniel about the survival of the Three Holy Children Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzar's burning fiery furnace. The music places the sound of a boy's voice chanting the biblical text together with electronically synthesized signals, but the two layers are kept distinct. Even the recorded voice was manipulated according to serialist principles, as were the “trajectories” by which the sound was circulated among the five groups of playback loudspeakers that were set up for the first performances. (The version of Gesang der Jünglinge that was issued on a commercial stereo disc a few years later had to be mixed down to two channels, so that much of the serially structured “directionality” of the original was lost.) The second version of Stockhausen's Kontakte (1960) breached another divide: it adds a layer of live performed music (piano and percussion) to a previously completed “pure” electronic score of the same name (1959), thus bridging the gap between music performed in real time, in which notation carries out its usual task, and music definitively fixed on tape without mediation. The piece also marked a veer away from strict serialism toward the collage-like “moment form” that Stockhausen developed as a response to Cage's indeterminacy.

Later still, Stockhausen began applying his collage techniques to concrete sounds, often prerecorded music. His Hymnen (1967) is based on the sounds of national anthems from around the world, often set together in a kind of electronic counterpoint that Stockhausen called “intermodulation,” whereby the sounds of two or more anthems would be mutually modified by the use of a ring modulator, the studio device that adds and subtracts the frequencies of sounds while suppressing their fundamentals. Stockhausen intended intermodulation as a metaphor for international cooperation, or, more generally, for “the universality of past, present and future, of distant places and spaces.”29 Like Scriabin a half century before him, the composer began to advertise (and perhaps conceive of) his music as a means for actually producing the social and historical changes that it symbolized. Like Cage, Stockhausen began at this point to assume the role of a spiritual guru.


(25) Perspectives on American Composers, p. 32.

(26) Ibid.

(27) Herbert Eimert, “What Is Electronic Music?” Die Reihe (English-language edition, trans. Leo Black) I (1959): 6, 9.

(28) Panorama of Musique Concrète (London/Ducretet-Thomson DTL 93090).

(29) Karlheinz Stockhausen, liner notes to Hymnen für elektronische und konkrete Klänge, Elektronische Realisation WDR Köln (Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft 139421/22 Stereo).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004006.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004006.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004006.xml