The Best History of Electronic Music and Today’s Modern Support : The history of electronic music predates the rock and roll era by several decades. Most of us weren’t even on this planet when it began its often obscure, underappreciated, and misunderstood development.
Today, the collection of ‘otherworldly’ sounds that began almost a century ago, may no longer seem strange and quirky as the new generation has accepted most of it as mainstream, but has had a bumpy road and, in finding broad audience acceptance, has been slow. .
Many musicians – modern proponents of electronic music – developed a passion for analog synthesizers in the late 1970s and early 1980s with signature songs such as Gary Numan’s breakthrough, ‘Are Friends Electric?’. It’s in this era that these devices have become smaller, more accessible, more user-friendly, and more affordable for many of us.
In this article I will try to trace this history in easily digestible chapters and offer the best examples of today’s modern support.
For me, this is the beginning of a new era. To make electronic music, it’s no longer necessary to have access to a tech-filled space in the studio or live. Until recently, this was only the domain of artists like Kraftwerk, whose arsenal of electronic instruments and custom-made gadgets could only dream of for all of us, even if we could understand the logistics of their function.
Therefore, as I grew up in the ’60s & ’70s, I had little knowledge of the complexities of work that had set the standard in previous decades to reach this point.
The history of electronic music owes much to Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). Stockhausen was a German Avante Garde composer and a pioneering figure in electronic music from the 1950s onwards, influencing movements that would eventually have a strong impact on names like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Brain Eno, Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, not to mention The Beatles’ experimental work and others in the 1960s.
His face is seen on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, the master of 1967’s Opus The Beatles. But let’s start by traveling a little further back in time.
The Turn of the 20th Century
Time stopped for these stargazers when I initially discovered that the first documented exclusive electronic concert, not in the 1970s or 1980s but in the 1920s!
The first pure electronic instrument, the Theremin, which was played without touch, was invented by Russian scientist and cellist Lev Termen (1896-1993), circa 1919.
In 1924, Theremin made his concert debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic. The interest generated by the theremin drew audiences to concerts staged across Europe and the UK. In 1930, New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall experienced classical music performances using only a series of ten theremins.
Watching a number of skilled musicians play this terrifying-sounding instrument waving around its antennae must be exhilarating, surreal, and foreign to pre-tech audiences!
For those who are interested, check out the recordings of virtuoso Theremin Clara Rockmore (1911-1998). Lithuanian-born Rockmore (Reisenberg) worked with his inventor in New York to perfect the instrument during its early years and became the most acclaimed, brilliant and acclaimed performer and representative of his entire life.
In retrospect Clara, was the first famous ‘star’ of original electronic music. You won’t find a more terrifying but beautiful classical music show on the Theremin. She must be my favourite!
Electronic Music in Science Fiction, Cinema, and Television
Unfortunately, and mainly because of the difficulty in mastering the skill, the Theremin’s future as a musical instrument was short-lived. Eventually, he found a niche in 1950s Sci-Fi films. The 1951 classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, with a soundtrack by influential American film music composer Bernard Hermann (known as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, etc.), is rich in an ‘extraterrestrial’ score using two Theremins and other electronic devices fused with acoustic instrumentation.
Using the technology of the Theremin vacuum tube oscillator, French cellist and radio telegrapher, Maurice Martenot (1898-1980), began developing the Ondes Martenot (in French, known as the Martenot Wave) in 1928.
Using a standard, familiar keyboard that a musician can more easily master, the Martenot instrument succeeds where the Theremin fails to be user-friendly. In fact, it became the first electronic instrument successfully used by composers and orchestras of its time to date.
It was featured on the theme of the original 1960s TV series “Star Trek”, and can be heard on contemporary recordings by the likes of Radiohead and Brian Ferry.
The expressive multi-timbral Ondes Martenot, although monophonic, is the closest instrument of its generation I’ve heard to close to modern synthetic sound.
“Forbidden Planet”, released in 1956, was the first major commercial studio film to feature an exclusive electronic soundtrack… in addition to introducing the stunning Robbie the Robot and Anne Francis! The groundbreaking score was produced by the husband and wife team of Louis and Bebe Barron who, in the late 1940s, founded the first private recording studio in the US to record electronic experimental artists such as the iconic John Cage (whose own Avante Garden challenged the very definition of music!) .
The Barrons are generally credited with expanding the application of electronic music in cinema. With a soldering iron in one hand, Louis builds circuits which he manipulates to create many of the strange and ‘unnatural’ effects and motifs for the film. Once done, this sound cannot be replicated as the circuit will intentionally overload, smoke, and burn to produce the desired sound output.
As a result, they were all recorded to tape and Bebe shifted for hours on reels that edited what was deemed usable, then re-manipulated this with delays and echoes and creatively dubbed the final product using multiple tape decks.
In addition to this painstaking method of working, I felt compelled to include what is, arguably, the most enduring and influential signature of electronic Television ever: the theme of the long-running 1963 British Sci-Fi adventure series, “Dr. Who” . This is the first time a television series features an electronic theme only.
The theme for “Dr. Who” was created at the legendary BBC Radioponics Workshop using tape loops and test oscillators to run effects, recorded them onto tape, then re-manipulated and edited by another Electro pioneer, Delia Derbyshire, interpreting compositions from Ron Grainer.
As you can see, the general use of electronic music in vintage Sci-Fi is a major source of the general public’s perception of this music as ‘otherworldly’ and ‘strange-sounding’. This remained the case until at least 1968 with the release of the hit album “Switched-On Bach” performed entirely on the Moog modular synthesizer by Walter Carlos (who, with a little dissection, later became Wendy Carlos).
The electronic music profile of the 1970s was broadened with the breakthrough of bands such as Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, and especially the 1980s when it gained more mainstream acceptance.
Mid 1900s: Concrete Music
In its development until the 1900s, electronic music is not only limited to electronic circuits that are manipulated to produce sound. Back in the 1940s, a relatively new German invention – the reel-to-reel tape recorder developed in the 1930s – became a subject of interest to a number of European Avante Garde composers, most notably French broadcaster and radio composer Pierre Schaeffer (1910) . 1995) who developed a montage technique he called Musique Concrete.
Musique Concrete (meaning sound that exists ‘real world’ as opposed to artificial or acoustic sound produced by a musical instrument) broadly involves splicing together segments of recorded recordings containing ‘found’ sounds – natural, environmental, industrial and human – and manipulating them with effects such as delay, reverb, distortion, speed up or slow down tape-speed (varispeed), reverse, etc.
Stockhausen actually put on a concert using his Musique Concrete work as a backing tape (at this stage electronic and ‘real world’ sounds were used on the recording) on which live instruments would be played by classical performers responding to their moods and motives. hear!
Concrete’s music had a far-reaching impact not only on Avante Garde and the effects library, but also on contemporary music of the 1960s and 1970s. An important work to examine is the Beatles’ use of this method in groundbreaking songs such as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, ‘Revolution No. 9’ and ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, as well as Pink Floyd’s albums “Umma Gumma”, “Dark Side of the Moon” and Frank Zappa’s “Thick Gravy”. All used cut-up tape and homemade tape loops are often put straight into the main mixdown.
Today this can be done simply using digital sampling, but yesterday’s heroes worked hours, days, and even weeks to complete the four-minute masterpiece! For those of us who are contemporary musicians, understanding the history of electronic music helps in appreciating the quantum leap technology has taken in the last period.
But these early innovators, these pioneers – there are many more to come – and the important figures they influenced who came before us, created the revolutionary foundation that has become our electronic music legacy today and for this I pay homage to they!
1950s: First Computers and Synths Played Music
Move forward a few years to 1957 and the first computer enters the electronics mix. As you can imagine, it’s not a portable laptop device but it takes up an entire room and user-friendliness isn’t even a concept. Nonetheless creative people continue to push boundaries.
One of them was Max Mathews (1926-) of Bell Telephone Laboratories, New Jersey, who developed Music 1, the original music program for computers on which all subsequent digital synthesis was based. Mathews, nicknamed the ‘Father of Computer Music’, using an IBM digital Mainframe, was the first to synthesize music on a computer.
In the climax of Stanley Kubrik’s 1968 film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, Mathews uses the 1800s song ‘Daisy Bell’. Here the musical accompaniment is done by its programmed mainframe along with the computer-synthesized technique of human ‘singing’ voice that was pioneered in the early 60s. In the film, when the computer HAL rewinds, ‘he’ returns to this song, a tribute to ‘he’ own origins.
1957 also saw the first advanced synth, the RCA Mk II Sound Synthesizer (an improvement from the 1955 original). It also featured an electronic sequencer for programming music performance playback.
This massive RCA synth was installed, and still is, at the Columbia-Princeton Center for Electronic Music, New York, where the legendary Robert Moog worked for a time. The University and Technology Laboratory was the main home for synth and computer music experiments in that early era.
1960s: Dawn of the Moog Age
The logistics and complexity of composing and even having access to what were, until then, musician-unfriendly synthesizers, led to a demand for more portable playable instruments. One of the first to respond, and certainly the most successful, was Robert Moog (1934-2005). Its synth can be played using a familiar piano style keyboard.
Moog’s plug-in type of bulky carrier-phone modular synth cable isn’t one to be transported and arranged with any ease or speed! But it received a huge boost in popularity with the success of Walter Carlos, as previously mentioned, in 1968. His record-setting LP (Long Player) “Switched-On Bach” was unprecedented as it was the first time an album had appeared in full. synthesized music, as opposed to experimental sound pieces.
This album is a complex classical music show with multiple multi-tracks and necessary overdubs, as the synthesizers are monophonic only! Carlos also created the electronic score for “A Clockwork Orange”, Stanley Kubrik’s disturbing 1972 futuristic film.
From this point on, the Moog synth was prevalent on a number of contemporary albums of the late 1960s. In 1967 “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd” Monkees became the first commercial pop album release to feature a modular Moog. In fact, singer/drummer Mickey Dolenz bought one of the first units sold.
However, it wasn’t until the early 1970s, when the first Minimoogs appeared, that interest developed seriously among musicians. This small, portable unit with a beefy sound has a significant impact on being part of the live music kit for many touring musicians for years to come. Other companies such as Sequential Circuits, Roland and Korg began producing their own synths, giving birth to a musical subculture.
I can’t close the chapter on the 1960s, however, without referring to Mellotron. These electronic-mechanical instruments are often seen as primitive predecessors of the modern digital sampler.
Developed in the early 1960s in England and based on the Chamberlin (a complex US-designed instrument from the previous decade), the Mellotron keyboard triggers pre-recorded cassettes, each key corresponding to the pitch and pitch equivalent of a preloaded acoustic instrument.
The Mellotron is legendary for use on The Beatles’ 1966 song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. A bank of flute tape is used in the haunting introduction played by Paul McCartney.
The instrument’s popularity grew rapidly and was used on many recordings of the era such as the highly successful Moody Blues epic ‘Nights in White Satin’. The 1970s saw it increasingly adopted by progressive rock bands. Electronic pioneer Tangerine Dream featured it on their early album.
With time and further advances in microchip technology, this charming instrument has become a relic of its time.
1970s: The Birth of the Vintage Electronic Band
Tangerine Dream’s early albums such as 1974’s “Phaedra” and Brian Eno’s self-composed ‘ambient music’ and on David Bowie’s “Heroes” drew interest in synthesizers from musicians and audiences alike.
Kraftwerk, whose seminal 1974 album “Autobahn” was an international commercial success, took the medium further by adding precision, pulsating electronic beats and sublime synth rhythms and melodies. Their minimalism denotes a cold, industrialized and computerized urban world. They often use vocoders and speech synthesis tools such as the ‘Speak and Spell’ robotic voice emulator, the latter of which is a learning aid for kids!
Although inspired by Stockhausen’s experimental electronic work, as an artist, Kraftwerk was the first to successfully combine all elements of music and electronically generated noise and produce an easily recognizable song format. The addition of vocals to many of their songs, both in their native German and English, helped them gain universal recognition as one of the pioneers and most influential performers of contemporary music of the last half century.
The 1978 Kraftwerk gem ‘Das Modell’ reached the number one spot in the UK with a reissued English version, ‘The Model’, in February 1982, making it one of Electro’s earliest chart toppers!
Ironically, it takes a movement that has nothing to do with EM (Electronic Music) to facilitate wider mainstream acceptance. The punk movement of the mid-1970s, particularly in Britain, brought with it a unique new attitude: one that prioritized self-expression over performance dexterity and formal training, as embodied by contemporary progressive rock musicians.
Metallic punk’s early aggression morphed into a less abrasive form during the late 1970s: The New Wave. This, mixed with the comparative affordability of many small, easy-to-use synthesizers, led to the commercial synth boom of the early 1980s.
The younger generation is just starting to explore the potential of this instrument and is starting to create soundscapes that challenge prevailing contemporary musical perspectives. It doesn’t come without battle scars though. The establishment of the music industry, especially in its media, often degrades this new form of expression and presentation and wants to throw it into the dustbin of history.
1980s: The First Golden Era of Electronic Music for the Masses
Gary Numan arguably became the first commercial synth megastar with the 1979 “Tubeway Army” hit ‘Are Friends Electric?’. Sci-Fi elements aren’t too far off once again. Some of the pictures are taken from the Sci-Fi classic, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. The 1982 hit film “Blade Runner” is also based on the same book.
Despite ‘Are Friends Electric?’ featuring backing drums and conventional bass, the dominant use of Polymoogs gives this song a very distinctive sound. This record was the first synth-based release to reach number one chart status in the UK during the post-punk years and helped usher in a new genre. No more electronic music and/or synthesizers being dumped on mainstream sidelines. Fun!
Further developments in affordable electronics technology put electronics right in the hands of young creators and began to transform professional studios.
Designed in Australia in 1978, the Fairlight Sampler CMI became the first commercially available polyphonic digital sampling instrument but its high cost meant it was only used by the likes of Trevor Horn, Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel.
However, by the middle of the decade, smaller and cheaper instruments hit the market like the Akai and the ubiquitous Emulator Sampler that live musicians often used to imitate the sound of their studio recordings. The sampler revolutionized music production from this point on.
In most major markets, with the eligible exception of the US, the early 1980s were commercially attracted to electro-influenced artists. This is an exciting era for many of us, myself included. I know I’m not alone in turning off distorted guitars and amps and immersing myself into a new universe of musical expression – the world of abstract, non-traditional sounds.
Domestically, Australian synth-based bands Real Life (‘Send Me An Angel’, album “Heartland”), Icehouse (‘Hey Little Girl’) and Pseudo Echo (‘Funky Town’) began charting internationally, and more experimental electronic music. outfits such as the Beheaded Head and the SPK have also developed cults abroad.
But in the middle of the decade, the first global electronic wave lost its momentum amid the relentless resistance fueled by the old-school music media. Most of the artists who started the decade as largely electro-based either disintegrated or heavily hybridized their sound with traditional rock instrumentation.
The United States, the world’s largest market in all respects, remained on the wing of conservative music for much of the 1980s. Although synth-based recordings made it to the American charts, the first being the 1982 US chart top of the Human League ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby?’, overall it was several years before mainstream America embraced electronic music, where it consolidated. itself as the dominant genre for musicians and audiences alike, worldwide.
1988 was a defining year for electronic music in the US. Often maligned by the press in their early years, it was Depeche Mode who inadvertently – and mostly unconsciously – spearheaded this new attack. From their cult status in America for most of the decade, to their new high-play rotation on what is now called Modern Rock radio, at big stadium shows. Electro shows playing in sold out arenas were not common in the US at that time!
In 1990, fan chaos in New York to greet the members at a central record store made TV news, and their “Violator” album beat Madonna and Prince the same year making them a US household name. Electronic music is here to stay, without a doubt!
The 1990s and beyond: The Second Golden Era of Electronic Music for Masses
Before our ‘star music’ secured its grip on the US mainstream, and while it lost commercial ground elsewhere during much of the mid-1980s, Detroit and Chicago became modest laboratories for the Electronic Music boom that would be seen in the 1990s and beyond. . Enter Techno and House.
Detroit in the 1980s, a post-Fordist US industrial desert, produced a more European-influenced Techno. In the early to mid 80’s, Detroiter Juan Atkins, an obsessive Kraftwerk fan, along with Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – using often borrowed primitive equipment – formed the backbone of what would become, along with House, the music club culture that dominant worldwide.
World. The widely referenced artists who informed Techno’s early development are European pioneers such as the aforementioned Kraftwerk, as well as Yello and British Electro acts such as Depeche Mode, Human League, Heaven 17, New Order, and Cabaret Voltaire.
Chicago, a four-hour drive away, simultaneously watched the building develop. The name generally comes from “The Warehouse” where various DJ-Producers performed this new mix of music. House has its roots in 1970s disco and, unlike Techno, usually has some form of vocals.
I think Giorgio Moroder’s mid-’70s work with Donna Summer, especially the song ‘I Feel Love’, was crucial in appreciating the burgeoning ’70s disco influence on the Chicago House.
A myriad of variants and sub-genres have evolved since – across the Atlantic, reworked and back again – but in many ways the popular success of these two core forms revitalized the entire Electronic landscape and associated social culture.
Techno and House help deeply challenge mainstream and Alternative Rock as the preferred listening choice for a new generation: the generation that grew up with electronic music and takes it for granted. For them, music is always there.
The history of electronic music continues to be written as technology advances and people’s expectations about where music can be taken continue to push it forward, adding to its vocabulary and lexicon.