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A history of electronic music
August 10, 2014 11:33 PM   Subscribe

In These Hopeful Machines "James Gardner traces a personal path through the evolving world of electronic music – and meets some of the people who made it happen. In six content-rich episodes he looks at over 100 years of recording techniques, electronic instruments and gizmos, and their use in popular music, art music and their position in Western culture."

This series from Radio New Zealand is constructed in a manner similar to Strictly Kev's Raiding the 20th Century (previously), with narration and interviews over a non-stop mix of the music being talked about. It's a comprehensive, if necessarily personal, look at the history of electronic music, I think getting a spot-on balance between art music and popular music. Each episode has an extensive bibliography and links:
  1. Everything Audible in the World Becomes Material, "Recording and electricity crack open the world of sound. What happens next?."
  2. Raindrops In The Sun, "New musics rise from the secret projects and surplus junk of World War II."
  3. Fag ends and lollipops, "The BBC Radiophonic workshop takes electronic music from highbrow drama to primetime TV and school playgrounds."
  4. I was Born to Synthesize "In the 60s, it is 'Sex, Drugs and Moogs' as rock adopts electronics, while synths sell soda on Madison Ave."
  5. Load Your Program. I am Yourself., "Born of war and raised on mainframes, computer music comes of age in the 70s and hits the charts thanks to the sampler."
  6. A Dance To The Music of Time, "For many people, electronic music is now synonymous with Electronic Dance Music. Has the laptop really brought about the democratization of music?"
And there are links to transcripts of the interviews at the program's index site
posted by coleboptera (27 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, great post, thanks! I look forward to listening to these this week.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:01 AM on August 11


"Has the laptop really brought about the democratization of music?"

Well… I dunno but… it's made it more bleepy!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:41 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Get your Moog on, too ...
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 4:39 AM on August 11


This previous MeFi post might be of interest.

I haven't watched it in a while so I have no idea if the YouTube links have been nuked by the copyright bots yet or not.
posted by Gev at 6:03 AM on August 11


Fantastic post!
posted by saulgoodman at 6:26 AM on August 11


Agreed, thanks for posting this coleboptera.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:40 AM on August 11


This is wonderful, and thanks especially for linking to the transcripts.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:08 AM on August 11


Thanks for calling my attention to this! I've listened to the first episode and thoroughly enjoyed it.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:17 AM on August 11


Wow. I also had no idea that James Gardner was living in NZ now.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:24 AM on August 11


"Has the laptop really brought about the democratization of music?"

As a lifelong musician and music teacher, I've been thinking about this one pretty seriously for a while now, and have concluded that, yes, in terms of reifying musical ideas, it has. If one has musical creative impulses, there is no longer a need to spend years learning to play an acoustic instrument with skill, and to learn a fairly complex notational/theoretical system to transcribe what you imagine for others to play.

The initial stage of democratization was of course amplification/recording, which allowed a handful of players to make a big sound, allowing players to more easily work by ear. But now, a kid with a laptop can have an vast world of sound available, in a number of graphical formats--not just standard notation--that allows them to move ideas from imagination to sounds so easily, and in so many ways. And then of course numerous tools to alter, shape, modify those sounds however they'd like. They can even use software that will notate for them.

Musical amateurs now have truly powerful, accessible tools of musical creation and dissemination literally at their fingertips, so, yes, I think that is a real democratization of musical creation (and the vast accessibility to music now available to so many is the democratization of musical listening and taste).

So I don't take that as the flippant question it may initially appear to be.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:39 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


On a tangent, I always wonder why the emphasis on laptops in particular. Desktops still have a better price/performance ratio, and while it's probably no longer true, internal audio interface cards used to perform better than external ones.

The justification for laptops is they're lighter to carry around if you're playing out. But I'd think for most "bedroom producers" that isn't even an issue. I've been doing this seriously for ~12 years and the only time I worked on a laptop was a NaSoAlMo where I was intentionally working in a minimal way.

Dollars saved by going with a fast desktop vs. a shinier laptop are dollars that can go into plugins and sample collections and better monitors and all the other things.
posted by Foosnark at 8:13 AM on August 11


The argument can be made that music and simple musical instruments were already inherently democratic, needing only perseverance and a modicum of talent to produce something to get your village/school/bar dancing. Whereas expensive electronics and software make music democratic only if you are already privileged enough to own the equipment.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:31 AM on August 11


As a lifelong musician and music teacher, I've been thinking about this one pretty seriously for a while now, and have concluded that, yes, in terms of reifying musical ideas, it has. If one has musical creative impulses, there is no longer a need to spend years learning to play an acoustic instrument with skill, and to learn a fairly complex notational/theoretical system to transcribe what you imagine for others to play.

I used to be bitterly resentful about the use of drum machines because I came into music as a 15 year old kid who played drums in bands around Panama City Beach, a scene that was extremely blue collar in its outlook and tended to view being a working performing musician as a sort of untouchable ideal, and coming up in that culture, there was often a lot of bitterness about electronic music. I always argued that drum machines were taking jerbs away from real hard-working drummers like me (at the time, we were one of PCB's only frequently gigging bands that played primarily original material, which was hard enough act to pull off for its own reasons, so I had an especially big chip on my shoulder on this topic).

But gradually, I transitioned into a more leading songwriter/guitarist role in other bands as I took up guitar and vocal duties to try to marry my love of writing with my musical pursuits, and by the time I moved to Tallahassee a few years after high school, I had begun opening up to the idea that maybe electronic music wasn't the antichrist. A few years later, my wife and I released an album that was largely electronic (with live guitar and vocal performances sampled and looped) and made heavy use of drum machines and even canned loops (I don't tend to use pre-packaged loops anymore, and didn't use them much even then, but at the time, I definitely felt a little like I was betraying my principles using them at all). The thing that's become more and more evident to me over the years as I've gotten deeper into the recording production process and learned more about the history of recording technology, is that recording is a completely distinct art from musical performance and always has been. The goal of a good recording is to be a good recording, not to faithfully imitate a great live performance. The best studio recordings can't necessarily even be properly executed live, and while this used to offend my sense of "authenticity," I realize now recorded music has always been fake: from the very beginning, the recording process has used elaborate artificial mechanisms like reverbs and compression to achieve its effects, and you generally even have to perform using different techniques to achieve the best recorded results.

All the same, I think the real potential for these new technologies comes not in how easily they allow amateurs to begin making music with little effort, but in the new array of tools and techniques they offer experienced and skilled musicians with a particular creative vision that may go beyond what their own personal resources would normally allow. We should expect to see a generation of artists in the future who develop and apply entirely new approaches to composition by using the recording process itself as a tool for crafting, refining and building their work. We've reached the point where the recording studio itself is its own unique kind of musical instrument in the rights hands, and I think that's a very exciting place to be.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:44 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


is that recording is a completely distinct art from musical performance and always has been.

Very true, and you would loooove this book. I had the privilege of taking Albin's class on this topic years ago, and it was revelatory.

The argument can be made that music and simple musical instruments were already inherently democratic, needing only perseverance and a modicum of talent to produce something to get your village/school/bar dancing. Whereas expensive electronics and software make music democratic only if you are already privileged enough to own the equipment.

Definitely, but that seems to me to be a different kind of 'democratization' than I was mentioning. Conceptual/skill accessibility is different than literal material accessibility, though both matter if we are to consider the idea comprehensively.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:01 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


"Has the laptop really brought about the democratization of music?"

Yes, in good ways, and bad. Having worked in the electronic music industry for several years, it has been both a boon and a bane, depending on one's perspective.

The democratization and decrease in the price of music making tools - especially software - has been revolutionary in that it permits more people to participate in music-making. That said, accompanying this revolution has been a massive uptick in the sheer volume of really awful music, along with the assumption by too many that they are "musicians" with a capital "M" just because they can touch an iPad and play some pre-made loops, or rattle on some song via auto-tune.
posted by Vibrissae at 9:02 AM on August 11


ahem. "in the right hands"; music in the "rights hands" usually just sucks.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:02 AM on August 11


has been a massive uptick in the sheer volume of really awful music

As always, Sturgeon's Law applies.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:21 AM on August 11


NB: the title of the 5th program is a quote from Emerson Lake & Palmer's "Karn Evil 9".

Which is apparently not otherwise cited, though their "Trilogy" is.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:08 AM on August 11


That said, accompanying this revolution has been a massive uptick in the sheer volume of really awful music, along with the assumption by too many that they are "musicians" with a capital "M" just because they can touch an iPad and play some pre-made loops, or rattle on some song via auto-tune.

I don't think it's electronic music per se that is behind this. What changed is that recording, editing, mixing, and mastering (the techoology, though not always the skill) moved out of expensive studios into peoples' pockets, at the same time that distribution moved out of giant record companies to the internet.

But before that, there was my neighbor with the guitar and encyclopedic knowledge of four chords who was going to be the next country-rock star. There was Aunt Petunia with the untuned piano in the parlor and her books of simplified popular songs with the notes conveniently numbered.

I have mixed feelings about it, being a formerly-semi-pro-now-amateur-again musician who grew up learning to play instruments and learning music theory and composing stuff on staff paper and going to rehearsals and playing in front of audiences, and now can easily be lumped in with all those 13-year-old EDM "producers" with their loop collections and pirated software. Using 90% canned stuff they can end up with results that sound "more pro" and better to an undiscerning ear. But if that brings them joy, is there really any harm in that?
posted by Foosnark at 10:40 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


"Has the laptop really brought about the democratization of music?"

I recognize this as a journalistic synecdoche, but taken literally, I'm skeptical that the democratization of music—whatever that means, exactly—is the result of laptops or computers. After all, a recorder, or a set of bongos, or a cheap guitar costs less than a laptop and a beginner's proficiency can be acquired on those for the effort it takes to learn ProTools well. So it isn't as if "democratic" avenues to music making haven't been available before. Rather, I think, if music has been democratized, it's been because it's become more acceptable to see that any sound, or organization of sounds, can be "music." At points throughout the 20th century, sometimes the electronic production of sound facilitated this aesthetic, sometimes it followed it, but I think it's overly determined to say that electronics, or particularly the laptop, brought it about.

Relatedly, David Toop, in interview, makes an interesting distinction between producing music with software and composing in more traditional ways. The production of music on a computer, he suggests, is more akin to the manipulation of line, color, and volume in a 2D space, than is traditional composition on an instrument. He talks about "designing" music and "composing" music. (Tho, given his career, I don't think he values one style over the other.)
posted by octobersurprise at 11:49 AM on August 11


I've composed both ways, and I think the differences can be overstated. When I was composing with live rock bands we looked at songs as parts (patterns) repeated a set number of times with variations in much the same way (at an abstract level) as loop-based composition works. When recording, we spent inordinate amounts of time trying to nail the performances to eliminate unintentional variation in the performances. With loop based production methods, the workflow can be streamlined significantly, and you can more easily control when and how much variation you introduce into a repeated pattern. Now using step-writers and midi scores to compose may be different, but remember, many classical composers worked out their compositions in their heads and composed directly to print, so they weren't necessarily composing on instruments in a lot of cases either.

Before about 20 years ago, if you wanted to record a decent two-to-three song demo to shop around, it could easily cost over a grand to get into a decent studio (my collaborators and I blew way too much money in the late 80s and early 90s renting eight track analog multitrackers or paying hourly rates to people with very crappy project studios--forget any advanced editing or effects processing capabilities). Now, you can invest that same seed money in the right pieces of lower-end recording gear and be up and running with your own production capabilities that are vastly superior to what even top-tier groups like The Beatles had access to early in their careers.

The recording production side has been greatly democratized in my opinion, from the POV of giving more people a chance to produce recordings that can compete on an equal footing with the bigger industry produced stuff without requiring access to as much capital. Of course, people still have to learn how to produce good recordings, and the fundamental techniques really haven't changed all that much, but access to studio time isn't the big hurdle it used to be. Distribution and promotion are different problems, of course, and I don't think I'd say that music in the popular culture has been democratized as much or as quickly--then again, there are more popular artists like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis cropping up now who produce and release their own recordings without big labels backing them. And I don't know, maybe over-democratization can be a problem too, since too crowded a market can make it harder for people to connect with the music that works for them.

tl;dr: Some things have gotten more democratic; other things not so much. It's all a rich tapestry.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:23 PM on August 11


Episode 4 has a tiny clip of the (probably?) first album featuring the Moog:
The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds.
This was so cool to listen to in 1969. We played it for our kids a few years ago, and just got the eye roll...
posted by MtDewd at 12:41 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


The "history of electronic music" would run more like 60 episodes than 6. For those who only have time for a glance through the window, this sounds well-produced.

Wish I could point to that 60, but no. Which is probably an OK thing, since so much of the pre-Moog history (and hardware) has been re-discovered in the past decade.

If this series wets your whistle, pHinnWeb put together a decent set of links a few years back. I wish I could point to the best history series I've heard, but sadly it's gone.
posted by Twang at 1:05 PM on August 11


Excellent post. Reminds me of the terrifically titled Gescom track "The Sounds of Machines Our Parents Used."

On a tangent, I always wonder why the emphasis on laptops in particular.

It's often shorthand to convey untethering an artist from a traditional physical studio. I remember reading that Prodigy's "Firestarter" was created on a laptop in a hotel room while they were on tour.

It's also amazing to think about all that cultural power in such a small device.

Feel the Bass Drop, It's from My Laptop.
posted by four panels at 3:10 PM on August 11


The argument can be made that music and simple musical instruments were already inherently democratic, needing only perseverance and a modicum of talent to produce something to get your village/school/bar dancing. Whereas expensive electronics and software make music democratic only if you are already privileged enough to own the equipment.

Assuming instruments and tuition are free, of course.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:56 PM on August 11


I'm delighted people have enjoyed this post - it was my first and I was very nervous.

If you really want to go nuts with the old beep-boop there is also UbuWeb's History of Electronic / Electroacoustic Music (1937-2001) and many of the individual volumes of the Avant Garde Project (previously) also cover electronic music. If you can track it down (I don't know if it's in print still) OHM- The Early Gurus of Electronic Music is also a great compilation. And I can't believe I didn't notice this previous radio history of electronic music until just now typing this.
posted by coleboptera at 11:34 PM on August 11


I meant to include just there that the UbuWeb and AvantGarde Project links are large mostly context-less dumps of "serious" electronic music. Bear in mind that Sturgeon's Law doesn't only apply to popular culture before committing the days of listening required to go through all that. (Also, this is a better link for the Avant-Garde Project)
posted by coleboptera at 11:53 PM on August 11


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