PRINT January 2003


Electronic Music

THE TRADITIONAL SCENARIO might be described like this: People onstage make music, and, in response, people in the audience make noise.

And if the people onstage make noise?

Sonic Youth’s contribution to the two-CD Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music 1921–2001, the first of eight planned releases on the theme, takes this situation to its logical conclusion: “Audience” is six minutes of applause taped at the end of a 1983 Sonic Youth performance in Berlin, subjected in the studio to the same sorts of manipulations that the band applies to sounds generated by their instruments. The result is punk-rock utopia: The performance provokes the audience to make music of its own. It’s the do-it-yourself ideal, elegantly achieved through the equation noise = music.

But, of course, “Audience” isn’t the same as the sound of an audience. Indeed, the only unifying element in this disparate collection—which includes musique concrète by Pierre Schaeffer, Nam June Paik, and John Cage; electronic music by Henri Pousseur, Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis, and Pauline Oliveros; and experiments by rock bands like Einstürzende Neubauten—may be the alteration of sounds after their initial generation. All these musics are creations of the era of magnetic recording. It is the plasticity of that medium which enabled Sonic Youth to transform their audience’s noise into a piece of music, just as it enabled Schaeffer, the pioneer of musique concrète, to splice together the sounds of his “Cinq études de bruits” (Five studies of noises; 1948) and spurred the creation of the first electronic-music studio, in 1951, at West German Radio (WDR) in Cologne.

Otherwise, noise and electronic music seem to have little to do with each other, and more often than not practitioners of one might take umbrage at the suggestion that they produce the other. Noise belongs to the world of performing musicians. (You can’t score noise, yet musicians can’t help but make it.) Electronic music, by contrast, was invented by composers, at institutions like the WDR, IRCAM in France, and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the United States, and the fruits of its research were immediately absorbed into the then dominant compositional language of serialism. Although live electronic performance has attracted many brilliant musicians, from David Tudor to Musica Elettronica Viva to today’s PowerBook players, electronic music’s origin as a compositional tool seems always to cling to it, whether through the very activity of programming or simply the training and predilections of its practitioners. Even the slander reflects this history: Witness the urban legend of the PowerBook musician who creates the music beforehand, pushes the play button onstage, and pretends to manipulate the keyboard.

What Sub Rosa hoped to achieve, according to the anthology’s liner notes, is an overview and celebration of the “experimental,” even “revolutionary,” in twentieth-century music, to spark discussion about what innovative qualities these works share. But innovation without category is like an avant-garde koan—what’s the sound of one person innovating?— and it takes more than juxtaposition to bridge the fundamental division in Western art music, which the terms noise and electronic music seem to reinforce, between performer and composer. What is striking in this anthology is the lack of continuity between tracks where we expect to find threads of commonality. The goals of a methodical theoretician and composer like Henri Pousseur and a freespirited improviser like Angus MacLise are so far apart that it’s hard to see what their music might share, aside from a fan base of modern-music freaks. As a result, this compilation feels more like one person’s whimsical mix tape (albeit from an excellent record collection) than substantive work toward the definition of a thriving tradition.

More successful at the latter is the three-CD box Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music, 1948– 1980, a slicker yet ultimately more provocative package that includes work by many of the same artists as Sub Rosa’s anthology. Ohm strives less to establish theoretical continuity than to demonstrate a web of influences; the liner notes, for example, consist of commentaries on each track written by other musicians. Aurally, the compilers of Ohm opted for the more predictable—but far more pleasant— strategy of associated sounds across tracks, rather than the shock of disjunction. Thus Clara Rockmore’s swooping theremin is followed by Olivier Messiaen’s equally sinuous if less familiar electronic instrument, the ondes martenot; Pierre Schaeffer’s cutup “Etude aux Chemins de fer” is followed by John Cage’s cutup “Williams Mix”; and so on. The resulting sequence makes for a very listenable, and at times delightful, set.

If listenable and “revolutionary” are mutually exclusive, Ohm might be accused of rounding off the corners of the cutting edge. But the collection is historically impeccable—with key works by Messiaen, Varèse, and Stockhausen alongside oddball pieces that deserve greater recognition, like Louis and Bebe Barron’s title track from the 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet and the cartoon composer Raymond Scott’s electronic experiments. The continuities that emerge may be no closer to Sub Rosa’s dream of “pure noise and revolt,” but listening to Ohm makes the pursuit of that dream more understandable. Music is always a sensual art, and the pleasure of Ohm offers insight into the central mystery of electronic music for many listeners: why some musicians would trade the warmth of voices and instruments for the chill of tape and electronics. Because even in experimental music, it might not mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

A musician and writer, Damon Krukowski is copublisher of Exact Change.