Electronics are a Musical Fact (Part 1)

I strongly suspect that, in spite of decades of technological progress, many modern musicians and composers of classical or ‘art’ music are uneasy about making electronically produced sounds an integral part of their work*. Granted, more and more composers are making use of them, but they are still not a staple of the modern symphony orchestra or the average music festival commission.

This was brought home to me by my teacher Joseph who observed during one lesson that, although recording technology was available in the lifetimes of Liszt, and Wagner we have no recordings from either of them. He supposed that these 19th Century celebrities simply didn’t see the new technology as part of their work. Even in the 20th Century, as Jazz and popular music were fast colonising the new world of bakelite discs and radio broadcasts, classical composers were still very slow of the uptake. One can of course point to the quality of electronically produced sounds as a pretty good reason for classical composers eyeing (or is it ‘earing) these new sounds with suspicion. Maybe the likes of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were just less discerning when they made their groundbreaking records back in the ’20s and ’40s, and didn’t mind that records sounded scratchy. However, I find this unconvincing. Even considering contemporary musical culture with its seemingly limitless possibilities for electronics, it is clear that pop music has far more of an affinity with new technology.

To take one example more or less at random, Simon Bainbridge had the world premiere of his The Garden of Earthly Delights premiered at Cadogan Hall as part of the BBC Proms (and incidentally broadcast on BBCR3), Muse’s latest offering Madness, was premiered without any live contribution from the musicians at all being broadcast solely on BBCR1 (incidentally it will also be performed live at some later date but were not really sure when this is and it probably won’t sound as good as the studio recording anyway).

Nonetheless, whether its recording, editing, broadcasting, streaming, typesetting, printing, studying or listening art composers are surrounded by electrical devices created specifically for creating music . If the power ran out, the composers life would be changed dramatically. Yet actual performances of ‘serious’ electronic music are very much on the fringe of the concert hall tradition where the inheritors of Beethoven prefer to keep the concert hall as he would have known it. Even such a guiding light as Boulez, author of such groundbreaking electronic works as Dialogue de l’hombre double and Repons seems to spend more time on his wholly ‘acoustic’ pieces Derive 2 and Sur Incises both of which were recently revised and toured.

In as far as concert music is reflects its wider culture, such apparent indifference to electronic sound is dangerous. For Liszt and Wagner an electric light would have been about the limit of their involvement with such innovations. We cannot say the same. We have made electronics a staple of our musical lives in every conceivable way except the most important one. We have embraced modernity outside of the concert hall on the condition that it is only allowed in on sufferance.

This is not to say that electronic works don’t feature in the canon of great 20th and 21st Century music. They do, but what has been a fringe interest for art-music composers should, I believe, become an integral feature of our work, and our anxiety over using electronic sounds more widely needs, somehow to be overcome. That said, deep-seated anxieties surrounding electronics don’t come from nowhere and it hardly needs pointing out that there is a right and a wrong way to make electronic music. These  sounds are still, to all intents and purposes new. They deserve to be treated with the care and attention that has always characterised our tradition. That however, is something for another post. We need is progress, not a revolution.


*sounds on electronic tape, fm radios, synthesisers, electronic processing or any sounds that come out of speakers or a gramophone etc.


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