What is the best way to listen to early electronic music? On CD, on vinyl, or on original equipment? This blog explores these questions.
I have a large collection of recordings of early electronic music. I enjoy listening to them, and I also enjoy listening to live performances, both old and new. I own some original equipment, and I have my own hardware and software for recording old analog tapes. I am interested in the technical aspects of recording and reproduction.
The question “what is the best way to listen to early electronic music?” has many possible answers because there are many different kinds of music and many different kinds of listeners. Some listeners might prefer the sound quality of CDs or vinyl LPs (or even cassette tapes or reel-to-reel tapes). Others might prefer an open-reel tape recorder or even one of the old tape machines that were used to compose this kind of music in the 1950s and 1960s. Still others might be interested only in modern performances of “classical” (or “new”) works by composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gy��rgy Ligeti, Pierre Schaeffer, Olivier Messiaen, Pauline Oliveros, Luciano Berio,
I’m often asked what the best way to listen to early electronic music is. My answer is, aside from live performance, it’s almost always going to be a recording. But not just any recording: an original pressing of a vintage LP (or 78 rpm disc or tape).
This may seem like a strange thing for someone whose job is to preserve early electronic music to say. After all, the nature of preservation is that you’re constantly trying to make something accessible and usable in new ways that weren’t available at the time of its creation. And for many other genres of music, such as jazz or classical, there are enormous benefits to re-recording these works on modern equipment with modern techniques. There can be similar benefits for electronic music as well.
But I believe there’s a special case to be made for listening to vintage recordings of electronic music. First, because many of the composers themselves believed that you could only truly hear their work on original instruments, and they often created custom equipment that was used only on their pieces and then destroyed or disassembled after they were finished creating them. Second, because electronic music exists at the intersection of aesthetic and scientific practice: composers are both making art and conducting research into sound itself. Third, because the production practices
I study how people listened to early electronic music.
Right now I am working on a book about the different ways people listened to the earliest electronic recordings. My book focuses on the United States, and especially New York City. It is also motivated by my sense that there are lots of fun stories about how people encountered these sounds. The stories are weird, but they aren’t outlandish. They don’t involve secret societies or conspiracy theories, though they do involve some unusual characters.
I have been researching early electronic music for a long time. My first introduction came in 1997 when I started working with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop archive at the University of East Anglia (UEA). I realized then that there was a lot of interesting material that no one had ever studied. Although there had been a few very good books written about the history of electronic music (most notably in America, Joel Chadabe’s Electric Sound), no one had yet taken an “archival” approach to this history.
After receiving my PhD in musicology from Columbia University in 2007, I was fortunate to receive an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellowship at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (NYPL), where I worked with the
There is no shortage of historical recordings of early electronic music. In fact, there are far more recordings than can be easily accommodated by the active listening habits of the average person.
In order to make the most of these recordings, it is important to have an understanding of the context in which they were composed and performed. This blog aims to provide a user-friendly introduction to early electronic music for those who want to listen actively and understand what they are hearing.
I’m a fan of early electronic music and I have a lot of fun listening to the records I buy. The problem is that there’s something about the way those records sound that makes it hard for me to get excited about them. They’re just not as interesting as they could be.
I’ve been thinking about this problem for years now, and I finally realized what the problem is: The sound of early electronic music is too clean.
The early pioneers of electronic music from the 50s through to the 70s were a motley crew of composers, engineers, and experimentalists. Working with early analogue synthesisers and tape machines they forged a new sound of electronic music that was futuristic, otherworldly, and sometimes even frightening.
In time the earliest pioneers would be joined by others who wanted to join in with this new world: musicians and producers whose backgrounds were primarily in rock music, like Brian Eno; people who had been trained as classical composers, like Karlheinz Stockhausen; people who had been trained as jazz musicians, like Laurie Spiegel.
This eclectic mix of artistry is what makes listening back to this era so interesting.
Before long, much of the world’s music will be made like this:
It is not an accident that a computer is used for this demonstration. Computers are the natural medium for a certain kind of music, because they are not physical objects. Computer music can be copied perfectly and distributed at almost zero cost. This means that electronic musicians can work in relative isolation, using the internet as their main means of distribution – which is fortunate, because few such musicians have access to record companies or radio stations.
Not all electronic music is made with computers. Analogue synthesizers, samplers and sequencers can be used to make electronic music without a computer being involved at all. But computers give the musician more control over both sound and structure, so it has become the norm to use them when making electronic music.
The first generation of electronic musicians were aware of their unusual situation. They were pioneers in a new musical world, where what mattered was sound quality rather than playing skill or songwriting talent.