The Fun and Gimmick Driven Early Electronic Music: A blog around early electronic music excluding strictly classical recordings.
Welcome to another post on the “fun” side of early electronic music. This time we will be looking at a recording that is, as far as I know, the first time any “musical” sounds are made by a computer. The date is 1954 and the computer in question is the BBC Microphone Computer or BBC Midge as it was known (the name came from the University of Manchester Mark II computer which was called the Mark II while it was under construction, but once it started working they changed its name to “Manchester Baby,” so when the BBC wanted to build their own version they decided to call it Midge).
Now this computer didn’t use vacuum tubes or transistors, it used valves and instead of being built from silicon chips its logic circuits were made of thermionic valves. It also didn’t use punch cards or magnetic tape for input/output. Instead all input was done using a teleprinter and all output was done using a cathode ray tube display. You could store programs on punched paper tape or plug in various modules that contained pre-programmed instructions. The original purpose of this machine was for teaching programming not making
This is a blog around early electronic music excluding strictly classical recordings. I don’t know what the exact date range is, but I’d guess from early 60’s till mid 70’s. This is not a blog for someone looking for serious electronics or electronica, but rather a blog for people who like to explore the more fun and gimmick driven electronic music of that era.
I think electronic music can be broken into three categories:
1) The classical recordings, things like Stockhausen, Varese or Cage. These are much too serious and important for this blog, and will be ignored as much as possible.
2) The fun and gimmicky records which are the main focus here. These were often made by artists who had no musical training at all and simply experimented with sound without being bound by any rules of music theory, harmony or melody. These are usually very fascinating in one way or another since they have a certain naivety and innocence which make them very special. And they’re often very entertaining too!
3) Electronic bands like Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream (or all those hundreds of German bands on Brain). We’ll also have to ignore these since they’re just boring and uninteresting in my opinion.
This blog is about the fun and gimmick driven early electronic music. It is not about classical electronic music, which in itself would be a worthy topic but that’s too much work!
Most people think of electronic music as something futuristic. It’s not. Electronic music has been around for over 100 years. Electronic instruments have been fascinating musicians and fascinated the public alike ever since their introduction. Early pioneers like Telefunken and Oskar Sala were every bit as motivated by the fun and gimmicks of their inventions as the serious composers who used them. They were only too happy to make sounds for advertising jingles, film soundtracks, cartoons or TV shows just because it sounded new or weird. The majority of early electronic recordings were made for entertainment purposes rather than for high art.
The musical genre of “electronic music” was born when composers started to use these novel instruments in a more serious way, from around 1950 onwards. In this blog I am not interested in serialism, musique concrete or other “serious” forms of electronic music – I leave that to others. But if you want to explore the fun and gimmick driven history of early electronic music you’re at the right place!
It is the purpose of this blog to provide a guide to early electronic music focusing on the more fun and gimmick driven side of things. I will avoid the strictly classical recordings which have always been available. This is not an attempt at providing a complete guide, but to highlight some examples that are easy to find or are otherwise interesting.
Generally, most historical records of electronic music make no distinction between classical and popular styles. The definition of popular is often very broad and may include electronic manipulations of folksongs or other “ethnic” recordings, such as musique concrète, which may be considered classical by some. Unfortunately, this approach does not allow for an appreciation of how electronic instruments were used in popular music.
I have made a distinction between theatrical and instrumental early electronic music in the menu here. What defines “theatrical” is not always clear, so it is necessary to be flexible in applying these categories. For example, some albums consist mainly of narration with sound effects, but also contain incidental background music that may sound like a concert piece. In such cases I have listed these albums under “theatrical.”
I started collecting records in the late 1960s, and quickly became interested in electronic music. In retrospect, I think this was a logical interest for me given my interests in physics and history. My own musical experience was limited to playing the piano for some years, but I always had an appreciation for music of all genre.
In 1970 I started college at the University of Pennsylvania. At that time, there was no major in electronic music. The university did have a studio and equipment which students could use (after taking a course). This was the first time that I saw early tape based equipment, including reel to reel recorders and synthesizers.
The music coming out of this studio met with mixed reactions, but it was certainly unusual and creative. In addition to exploring the field myself, I enjoyed attending concerts which featured electronic music at both Penn and other local colleges.
I came away from that experience with a strong interest in early electronic music, which has continued to this day.
I am happy to announce that I have finally managed to update on my blog the three recently detailed posts that are linked below.
The first is about a set of recordings from the “American Tape Music Project” – an initiative made by the composers John Cage, Howard Hanson and Peter Stacey in 1958 and 1959.
The second one presents some examples of early electronic music composed for commercials.
And last, but not least, there are some very rare recordings of musique concrete pieces by Pierre Schaeffer and his associates at the RTF Studios (Radio Television Francaise) in Paris.
A three-part documentary about the history of electronic music. The first part covers the invention of sound recording, the second explores early tape music and the third looks at contemporary experimental electronic music through interviews with musicians involved in its creation.