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Crosscurrents in Early Electronic Music: Italy—Part 1

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

Continuing our geographic excursion on crosscurrents in early electronic music, this episode focuses on classic tape music from Italy from the 1950s to 1970.

The key studio in Italy was the institution set-up by the national broadcasting system, the RAI Studio di Fonologia Musicale in Milan. This studio was known for inviting composers from many countries to practice their composition with electronic music on magnetic tape. People including American John Cage, Belgian Henri Pousseur, and Swedish composer Bengt Hambraeus were amonth these established visitors who all did some experimental work at the RAI at the invitation of the studios founders, Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna. But I want to focus on the works of key Italian composers that took place during this important period in the history of electronic music and will feature tape pieces especially by Berio, Maderna, Luigi Nono, and the sound designer and engineer of the studio, Marino Zuccheri. Every studio seemed to have its resident genius engineer, and in Zuccheri, the RAI was no exception. It is actually the case that many composers, including Berio, Cage, Maderna, and Nono often shared credit for the electronic realization of their works with Zuccheri. We will also hear a work credited solely to Zuccheri himself as he was often asked to provide electronic scores for radio, television, film, and exhibitions.

In other crosscurrent episodes I presented the electronic music created on tape at the GRM studios in Paris, famous for its musique concrete, and the WDR studio in Cologne, famous for its electronic signal generation. The RAI studio in Italy was also run by a state broadcasting system, but there was little in no dogma around how music could be composed or the sounds of which it consisted. Instead, what we can hear in this episode is the steady evolution of sounds and works, from short to long, each focusing on a singular theme or experiment, and often imbued with the beauty of Italian classical music, such as operatic voices. There is also operatic drama and a great emphasis on using the voice as a sound source for modifying on tape. This output was so rich that I’ve needed to divide this episode into two parts. This part will feature the works from the state-sponsored RAI studio. The next episode in this series will feature works of three independent studios from the same era, one run by Pietro Grossi in Florence, one by Teresa Rampazzi in Padua, and one by Enore Zaffiri in Turin.

Each of the studios in Paris, Cologne, and Milan had their particular setups for creating electronic music. There was the audio desk in Paris, the lab of tape contraptions for making loops and modifying sounds in Cologne and then there was the setup in Milan. From its start, the studio was built around six custom rack-mounted components, all integrated into a mixing panel. The desk where musicians worked was with an equalizer to help mix the sound. The racks consisting of audio generators including 9 sine wave oscillators, 1 white noise generator, and 1 pulse generator, sound modifiers such as plate reverb, octave filter, high pass filter, low-pass filter, variable band-pass filter, third-octave filter, ring and amplitude modulators, and a patching panel for mixing. What this setup represented was a starting point for every composer and I think this enabled them to focus on the composition rather than engineering the sounds. Perhaps this is why there is a kind of sound palette associated with works created at the RAI. See if you can recognize the metallic clanging, the softly billowing sine waves, the abrupt interruptions of white noise, and the haunting, almost horn like sounds of audio signals run through filters and reverb. For the electronic musician, visiting the RAI studio was a bit like stepping inside a ready-made instrument with endless permutations of sound possibilities. Listen to the whole of these works, and try to recognize similarities in the kinds of sounds being used. You will be experiencing the imprint of the great, RAI studio. It closed in 1983 but is now preserved in the Museum of Musical Instruments in Milan.

Episode 100

Crosscurrents in Early Electronic Music: Italy—Part 1


Berio, Maderna, Zuccheri, RAI Studio di Fonologia Musicale (RAI), Milan

1. Luciano Berio, “Mutazioni” (1955) from Prospettive Nella Musica (1956 RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana). The first complete tape work by Berio at the newly founded RAI studio, which he was running with composer Bruno Maderna. Sound engineering by Marino Zuccheri. Berio and Maderna kept an open mind about the music that would be produced under its roof. They did not align themselves aesthetically with either the musique concrète approach taken in Paris or the serialist, rules-based composing style of Cologne. “Bruno and I immediately agreed,” explained Berio, “that our work should not be directed in a systematic way, either toward recording acoustic sounds or toward a systematic serialism based on discrete pitches.”[1] As a consequence, Alfredo Lietti Marino Zuccheri, engineers for the studio, filled it with equipment that appealed to a wide spectrum of compositional needs. In 1956, studio no. 3 at RAI had a custom-built cabinet with six vertical racks consisting of audio generators (9 sine wave oscillators, 1 white noise generator, 1 pulse generator), sound modifiers (plate reverb, octave filter, high pass filter, low-pass filter, variable band-pass filter, third-octave filter, ring and amplitude modulators), and a mixing panel. Several tape recorders were available mix and match sounds. You can almost sense the excitement of the creation of these foundational works as each composer brought their own individualism to the sound a translated that into electronic music. 3:36

2. Berio & Maderna, “Ritatto di Città (poema radiofonico)” (1955) (1955 RAI). File from the RAI Archives. This is an excerpt from a radiophonic production that was 26’ long. 6:05

3. Bruno Maderna, “Notturno” (1956) from Prospettive Nella Musica (1956 RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana). Maderna’s first official solo tape work produced at the RAI studio. From an original disc released by the RAI in 1956. 3:24

4. Luciano Berio, “Perspectives” from Prospettive Nella Musica (1956 RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana). An eight-part work of experiments in transforming musical sounds and rhythms with electronic manipulation. 6:36

5. Bruno Maderna, “Música su Due Dimensioni” from História da Música Eletroacústica (1958). 7:10

6. Luciano Berio, “Momenti”(1960) from Images Fantastiques (Electronic Experimental Music) (1968 Limelight). This release was an American collection of European electronic music released on the Limelight label, a subsidiary of Philips. Although released a few years after “Momenti” was available elsewhere, this was an album that captivated my imagination at the time. You hear Berio’s innate sense for fashioning unique sounds and rhythms with this sound material, adding some reverb to give it depth, producing audio that is reminiscent of natural sounds, but transformed to give it an other-worldly quality. 7:02

7. Bruno Maderna, “Dimensioni II (Inventione su Una Voce)” from Musica Elettronica / Electronic Music (1994 Stradivarius). Anyone familiar with Italian new music will know the name of Cathy Berberian. She was an American operatic mezzo-soprano and for a time (1950-64) was married to Luciano Berio. She was a kind of muse for the modern composers at the Milan studio, lending her incredible vocal capabilities to tracks that could then be transformed into electronic music. One such famous piece, not included here because it is so familiar, is “Thema (Omaggio a Joyce)” by Berio. Instead, I wanted to feature another tape piece, this one by Maderna, because he not only transforms Berberian’s voice using electronic techniques but allows her to express herself as well in some unmodified sections. This marks a period where Maderna was longer magnetic tape pieces, ten minutes or more each. Unlike his shorter, more frenetic works, these longer pieces gave him time to develop themes, apply long silences, and structure his works around variations on his audio materials. 10:52

8. Luigi Nono, “Omaggio a Vedova” (1960) (1976 Wergo). A magnetic tape work by another outstanding contributor to electronic music in Italy, Luigi Nono. Like Berio, Nono went on to be better known for his instrumental and vocal compositions. This work is an homage to artist Emelie Vedova. Note that we feature another homage to Vedova from 1967 later in the podcast, “Parete 1967 _1” by Marino Zuccheri. 4:52

9. Niccolò Castiglioni, “Divertimento” (1960) from Elektron 3 (1967 Sugar Music). Produced at the Studio di Fonologia Musicale di Milano. Castiglioni was an Italian composer, born in Milan who later came to the United States to teach composition at the University of Michigan. This work sounds a bit like chirping insects and is the only tape piece he produced at the RAI. 2:38

10.Bruno Maderna, “Le Rire” (1962)” from Musica Elettronica / Electronic Music (1994 Stradivarius). Another long-form tape piece by Maderna. The voices heard and processed are those of Maderna, Cathy Berberian, and the sound designer Marino Zuccheri. The sounds in the beginning are modulated by sine waves and filters, plus some occasional ambient sounds like footsteps and rain. The second part of the work, beginning around the 11-minute mark, switches to more traditional musique concrete sounds reminiscent of drums, flutes, as well as white noise. 15:53

11.Luigi Nono, “La Fabbrica Illuminata” for voice and magnetic tape (1964) from Luigi Nono La Fabbrica Illuminata (1968 Wergo). Nono was also expanding his use of electronic sounds and wrapping them in vocal music. This work combines sounds created at the RAI with vocals written for a choir ( Chor Der RAI Mailand) and sopranos (Carla Henius). Marino Zuccheri helped Nono with the tape music. 16:28

12.Jon Hassell, “Music for Two Vibraphones” (1965) (1965 RAI). Yes, this is the Jon Hassell, the American composer and trumpeter. I know he is American, but I couldn’t resist including this brief track that he recorded while in Milan in 1965. To my ears, this has an especially digital sound, especially when you consider how time consuming it must have been to assemble the opening sequence using tape editing. It is also a work of contrasts, with the explosive opening section giving way to about a minute of extremely quiet, almost ambient sound to close the work. 2:43

13.Marino Zuccheri, “Parete 1967 _1” (1967) from Parete '67 Per Emilio Vedova (2018 Die Schachtel). The sound mixer and designer at the RAI studio, Zuccheri often appears as a credit on works created in the studio. Working as a sound technician after World War II, Zuccheri was transferred to the RAI headquarters in Milan where he met Luciano Berio. He was instrumental in developing the system and layout of the Studio di Fonologia Musicale, where he worked until 1983. His close collaboration with the composers working at the Studio, above all Berio, Maderna and Nono, gave rise most of their notable tape pieces. Visitors, such as John Cage, were quick to acknowledge his steady hand as chief orchestrator of sound and engineering at the studio. He was often asked to provide electronic music for broadcast and film productions, of which this is one, a collaboration with Emilio Vedova for the preparation of the Italian pavilion of the Montreal Expo. 15:03

14.Luigi Nono, “Contrappunto Dialettico Alla Mente” (For Magnetic Tape)(1968) from Roland Kayn / Luigi Nono – Cybernetics III / Contrappunto Dialettico Alla Mente (1970 DGG). Another one of Nono’s exquisite works combining vocals and electronic music on magnetic tape, recorded at RAI. In this work you can see how Nono complements the sound palette of the usual RAI sounds with sounds that are uniquely presented by human voices. Chorus, Coro Da Camera Della RAI; Conductor, Nino Antonellini; Soprano Vocals, Liliana Poli; Other Voices, Cadigia Bove, Elena Vicini, Marisa Mazzoni, Umberto Troni. 19:48

Opening background music: Bruno Maderna, “Serenata III” (1962)” from Musica Elettronica / Electronic Music (1994 Stradivarius). 11:20

[1] Joel Chadabe, Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 48

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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