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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution
Richard Taruskin

As will become increasingly clear as this book nears its end and the narrative approaches the present, the truly revolutionary aspect of electronic music was the new relationship it made possible between composers and works. The composer of an electronic composition can produce a “score” exactly the way a painter produces a picture or a sculptor produces a statue: what is produced is a unique original “art object” rather than a set of directions for performance. And therefore, obviously, “score” is the wrong word for it, since a score is something written, and electronic music can dispense with writing. It created the possibility of a postliterate musical culture. It spelled, potentially, the beginning of the end of the culture of which this book is a history.

But then, the literate tradition of music has never entirely supplanted the preliterate tradition, and there is no reason to expect that the postliterate will ever entirely supplant the literate. There will always be a social use for live musical performances of many kinds, and some of these will go on being literate, at least as long as anyone can foresee. The end of the literate tradition will require the end of all its social uses, and of all social relations based on literacy. Such a society is beyond present imagining.

The social question is fundamental, as the history of electronic music itself has demonstrated. One of the medium's prime attractions, for some composers, was its promise of “asociality,” the unexpectedly literal realization, in all its logical consequences, of the utopian individualism that was modernism's chief inheritance from romanticism. To put Milton Babbitt's celebration of the absolute control he could now exercise over the electronic medium side by side with his earlier call (in “Who Cares If You Listen?” quoted in chapter 3) for “total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from [the] public world” so as to secure “complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition” is to see how fundamentally social the issues involving this (or any) kind of music inevitably remain, no matter how tall the ivory tower, or thick its walls.

That is one paradox. Recalling the point made at the end of chapter 3, that American academic serialism was the most perfectly and exclusively literate of all musical repertories, will uncover an even more fundamental one. The means that Babbitt chose for protecting his purely literate domain from social mediation—namely, the electronic elimination of the performing “middle man”—was precisely the means through which the need for literacy might be transcended. You could not ask for a better illustration of the law of unintended consequences, or of “dialectics,” the tendency of extreme positions to engender their opposites or negations.

As Varèse already noted, Babbitt had no intention of giving up scores, since the score was the only place where the integrity of his compositions could be demonstrated. And yet not even Babbitt could bring himself to give up public performance of his compositions, even the electronic ones. Not even he could face the complete elimination of the social aspect of music making when, thanks to electronics, that became a practical possibility, even though he had called for precisely that when it was just a utopian dream. The best evidence of his step back from the brink is the existence of Vision and Prayer and Philomel, compositions that combined the electronic medium with a live performer, indeed a spectacular virtuoso, a diva.

From the very beginning, in fact, the contradiction between the potentially asocial electronic medium and the eminently social convention of the public concert was perceived as a problem to be solved. Audiences, assembled in a darkened hall, all facing an empty stage, felt imprisoned. Putting a pair of speakers on the stage provided a focus for the audience's gaze, but made them feel silly. And then there was the problem of knowing when to applaud. It could be solved by raising the house lights (analogous to raising the piano lid at the end of Cage's 4′33″), and Luciano Berio experimented (at least once, in a concert the author attended) by having an actor slowly rise from a chair and take off his jacket over the duration of the performance. (The experiment does not seem to have been repeated; the fact that the author cannot recall what piece it accompanied may suggest the reason.) At other concerts, the audience was invited to walk around as if contemplating sculpture. But despite everything, the discomfort audiences felt was acute—and understandable, as long as no real-time musical performance was taking place. You might as well ask them to come to a concert to listen to the same records they could listen to at home, albeit on superior equipment.

From the beginning, then, there was pressure to integrate electronic music into conventional performance media. We have seen some responses to this pressure even earlier than Babbitt's vocal works, in Varèse's Déserts and the concerted pieces for tape and orchestra by Luening and Ussachevsky, in which taped sections alternated with instrumentally performed ones. Yet an earlier example was Musica su due dimensioni (“Music in two dimensions”), by Bruno Maderna, composed at the Cologne Radio studio in 1952. This solution, while effective enough in a given instance (and, in the case of Déserts, conceptually meaningful), was obviously a makeshift. Alternation of media, even if as skillfully dovetailed as Varèse managed in Déserts (the unpitched percussion providing a bridge between the media) was not the same as integration; and the longer it was tolerated, the longer it seemed that a true solution was only being postponed.

The first composer to make a specialty of integrating electronic music into live performances was Mario Davidovsky (b. 1934), an Argentine composer who settled permanently in the United States in 1960, originally as a protégé of Babbitt, with whom he had studied at Tanglewood. At Babbitt's invitation, Davidovsky began working (on a Guggenheim fellowship) at the newly founded Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. After an initial effort—Contrastes for string orchestra and electronic sound (1960)—in a slightly overlapping alternation mode, he began the series of Synchronisms on which his reputation is chiefly based.

As the title suggests, these pieces are counterpoints of electronic sounds and virtuoso performances on a wide variety of instruments or (in one case, no. 4, composed in 1967 on the text of the thirteenth Psalm) voices. The challenge, for composer and performer alike, is to match the virtually unlimited electronic sound spectrum by exploiting the extended playing techniques that new-music performers were then pioneering. The conception proved extremely fruitful; as of 1997 Davidovsky's Synchronisms numbered eleven in all.

One thing that helped make the series so successful was Davidovsky's refreshingly practical and flexible approach to the technical challenges he had accepted, despite what might otherwise seem the purism of his approach to the medium (admitting only synthesized sounds, never concrète). The interaction of the taped and live components is not always precisely calculated. As Stravinsky discovered as early as the 1920s, when he attempted a scoring of his ballet Svadebka (or Les Noces) accompanied by player pianos, it is virtually impossible to synchronize live music with the absolutely fixed speed of mechanical reproductions; human beings, no matter what their intentions or professed attitudes, have great difficulty “feeling” music that way.

Accordingly, Davidovsky attempted exact coordination only in short passages of intricate counterpoint; elsewhere, in more extended passages in which one component clearly accompanied the other, “an element of chance is introduced,” he has written, “to allow for the inevitable time discrepancies that develop between live performers and the constant-speed tape recorder.”53 What Davidovsky, no doubt a bit jestingly, called chance was actually just a bit of leeway in the synchronization of parts. Another potential pitfall was the discrepancy between the equal-tempered tuning of the instruments and the unlimited continuous pitch spectrum available to the composer of electronic music, which Davidovsky did not wish to give up. He resorted to subterfuge. “Use is made,” as he put it,

of tonal occurrences of very high density—manifested for example by a very high-speed succession of attacks, possible only in the electronic medium. Thus, in such instances—based on high speed and short duration of separate tones, it is impossible for the ear to perceive the pure pitch value of each separate event; though in reacting, it does trace, so to speak, a statistical curve of the density.54

In other words, to recall Babbitt's investigations at the synthesizer, the machine is quicker than the ear. A big barrage of tiny, machine-produced pitched sounds can defeat the best-trained ear's powers of discrimination and counter the sense that the tape is out of tune with the instruments. Davidovsky's machine, however, was not the synthesizer. “Classically” trained in the techniques of the early electronic studio, Davidovsky cut and spliced every one of the sounds in his “statistical curve” (and it is a special pleasure to point this out since, unlike Berio, Cage, or Babbitt, Davidovsky has never complained—that is, bragged—about his heroic investment of Sitzfleisch).

Davidovsky's Synchronisms are often viewed as the electronic counterpart to Berio's Sequenzas, virtuoso studies for solo instruments, of which the first, for flute, was composed, for the Italian new-music star Severino Gazzelloni, in 1958. (This famous series eventually numbered fourteen, the last being for cello.) Davidovsky's Synchronisms No. 1 (Ex. 4-5), completed in 1963, was also composed for flute. It was written for Harvey Sollberger, one of the founding members of Columbia's Group for Contemporary Music. (Most of the Synchronisms were written for the members of the group as it evolved; in 1971, Synchronisms No. 6, composed for Robert Miller, the Group's pianist, received the Pulitzer Prize.)

Synchronisms No. 1 requires two performers, since the tape part must be recued, as is especially evident at the end, when it returns, after a lengthy flute solo, to articulate the final cadence. (See the “start/stop” at the end of Ex. 4-5, the last page of the score.) Different performances can thus have differing lengths: Sollberger's own recorded performance lasts 4′15″, while the one recorded by Samuel Baron, an eminent flautist of an older generation, takes only 3′43″. Even electronic music, it seems, can admit “interpretation,” if the composer is willing to allow it.

Big Questions Reopened

ex. 4-5 Mario Davidovsky Synchronisms No. 1, end


(53) Notes to Composers Recordings CRI SD-204 (1965).

(54) Ibid.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004010.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 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004010.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 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004010.xml