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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Crosscurrents in Early Electronic Music of Canada, Part 1

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.


This episode continues my crosscurrents series, an exploration of early electronic music studios around the world with representative works. This podcast is the first of two parts on tape music from Canada. Here, we cover the early era spanning the years 1955 to 1972.

The story of early electronic music in Canada mostly revolves around two university studios and a legendary electronic music instrument designer who provided equipment for both. The studios were the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio founded in 1959 and the McGill Electronic Music Studio in Montreal which was established in 1964. Providing equipment to each was Hugh Le Caine, an engineer with a background in physics who had worked on perfecting radar during World War II. In the 1950s and 60s, while working at the National Research Council in Ottawa, Le Caine turned his attention to electronic music and invented several unique pieces of equipment and instruments for the electronic music facilities at Toronto and Montreal. Hugh Le Caine also occasionally taught courses in electronic music at McGill.


The core equipment of the Toronto studio was on loan from the National Research Center at which Le Caine was employed. The NRC helped to maintain the instruments and Le Caine himself collaborated with composers on the development of new instruments.  After moving from its original location in “an old house on campus” the studio was located in a 1200 square foot, air-conditioned space in the Edward Johnson Memorial Faculty of Music Building.  Some of the equipment found in the original Toronto studio during its first three years included:

•          Multi-Track playback recorder with spring reverb, also known as the Special Purpose Tape Recorder (Le Caine)

•          Hamograph, an amplitude-control device whose output was used to control other components of the studio, such as the oscillator bank. It had 6 rhythm tracks, called “control loops” whose speed could be adjusted to shift tone and add echo. (Le Caine)

•          Spiral-form steel mesh reverberation unit (Le Caine)

•          Oscillator bank with organ-style keyboard and band-pass filter (Le Caine)


The bespoke nature of this technology made working there a matter of becoming familiar with the unusual instrumentation. Like the French and German studios, however, Toronto was yet another example of the ingenuity with which the technological challenges of making electronic music were overcome. One goal was clearly to minimize the amount of manual tape editing necessary for a composer to complete a piece of music. This was accomplished by the various voltage-controlled devices invented by Le Caine, allowing musicians to experiment in real-time with a variety of audio functions.


The electronic music studio at McGill University in Montreal was founded five years after the Toronto studio. The studio was founded and directed by István Anhalt, a Hungarian-born composer who was on the faculty at McGill, some of whose work is heard in this episode. By some accounts, this studio was an eccentric place in a conservative music school. Once again the NRC, where Le Caine was employed, provided the equipment on long-term loan. Some of which included:

•          Multi-Track playback recorder with spring reverb, also known as the Special Purpose Tape Recorder (Le Caine)

•          Serial Sound Structure Generator, voltage-controlled sequencer (Le Caine) with on-board square wave generators and controls over tempo, rhythm and amplitude.

•          Oscillator bank with 13 voltage-controlled tone generators (Le Caine). Later upgraded to a 24-oscillator model, also by Le Caine.

•          Spectogram, an optical reader for programming the oscillator bank (Le Caine)

 

But the story of early Canadian electronic music on tape doesn’t end with the studios of the University of Toronto and McGill University. These institutions were soon followed by programs at other schools as well as the work of independent composers who sometimes worked in them. Among the works heard in this episode are electronic works created at the University of British Columbia in in Vancouver where the World Soundscape Project originated, and the Sonic Research Studio of Simon Fraser University, also in Vancouver. We’ll hears works from the Vancouver studios in this episode and also part two.


Among the independent composers at work during these formative years, Norma Beecroft had a long-standing relationship with the studio in Toronto, having practiced there from 1967 to 1976. She was already an established composer of orchestral and instrumental music, having studied piano and flute in Canada and attended graduate courses in composition in the UK and Europe. Upon returning to Toronto, she began to integrate tape works with her instrumental sounds, as in From Dreams of Brass and Two Went to Sleep for soprano, flute, percussion, and tape, both heard here.


Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux was another important female composer who experimented with electroacoustic music from time to time with some amazingly original and fresh results. From 1968 to 1971 she studied musique concrete with Pierre Schafer in Paris, and we will hear two tracks, Trakadie and Zones from the period immediately following this.


I have included details for all of the tracks heard in this episode in the playlist on my podcast website. The playlist also includes start times for all of the tracks so that you can easily locate where they begin and end.


Playlist

 

Track Time

Start Time

Opening and Introduction (Thom Holmes)

10:36

00:00

1.    Hugh LeCaine, “Dripsody: An Etude For Variable Speed Recorder” (1955) from Anthologie De La Musique Canadienne / Anthology Of Canadian Music - Musique Électroacoustique; Electroacoustic Music (1990 Radio Canada International). One of the earliest pieces of tape music by the inventor and composer Hugh Le Caine. Also, one of the most available works from the early years when it was used to demonstrate simple techniques of tape composition. It is probably the most-played work of electronic music other than “Poeme Electronique” by Varese. Every sound in this work is based on a recording of of a single drop of water falling into a bucket, which then underwent various speed adjustments and edits to create this composition. I chose a recording from a CD compilation spanning the first 45 years of electroacoustic music in Canada. The original version of Dripsody was monophonic. Le Caine produced this stereophonic version in 1967 for Folkways records.

2:12

10:36

2.    Maurice Blackburn / Norman McLaren, “Blinkity Blank” (1955) from Anthologie De La Musique Canadienne / Anthology Of Canadian Music - Musique Électroacoustique; Electroacoustic Music (1990 Radio Canada International). Another early work of tape music from Canada, produced around the same time as “Dripsody.” As a member of the National Film Board of Canada, Blackburn created this soundtrack with Norman McLaren by hand drawing on the optical soundtrack of a short film.

5:07

12:36

3.    Hugh LeCaine, “Ninety-Nine Generators” (1956) from Pioneer In Electronic Music Instrument Design: Compositions And Demonstrations 1948-1972 (1985 JWD Music). The title refers to the 99 tones of the touch sensitive organ. Each note had a separate generator and they could all sounds at the same time.

1:42

17:34

4.    Hugh LeCaine, “Arcane Presents Lulu” (1956) from Pioneer In Electronic Music Instrument Design: Compositions And Demonstrations 1948-1972 (1985 JWD Music). Le Caine composed this using his Special Purpose Tape Recorder using individual tape playback heads for six tapes, activated by keys.

1:50

19:14

5.    Hugh LeCaine, “This Thing Called Key” (1956) from Pioneer In Electronic Music Instrument Design: Compositions And Demonstrations 1948-1972 (1985 JWD Music). Le Caine composed this using his Special Purpose Tape Recorder using individual tape playback heads for six tapes, activated by keys.

1:53

21:04

6.    Hugh LeCaine, “Invocation” (1957) from Pioneer In Electronic Music Instrument Design: Compositions And Demonstrations 1948-1972 (1985 JWD Music). Le Caine composed this using his Special Purpose Tape Recorder using individual tape playback heads for six tapes, activated by keys.

2:21

22:56

7.    Anhalt, “Electronic Composition No. 2” (1959) from Electronic Composition No. 2 ("Sine Nomine II") (1985 Radio Canada International).

8:47

25:18

8.    Hugh LeCaine, “Nocturne” (1957) from Pioneer In Electronic Music Instrument Design: Compositions And Demonstrations 1948-1972 (1985 JWD Music). This piece was played on a conductive keyboard using printed circuit keys (designed by Rene Farley) and tape delay. Notes are sounded by the pressing of a finger on the conductive surface of the keys.

3:08

34:04

9.    Norma Beecroft, “From Dreams of Brass” (1964) from Music And Musicians Of Canada Centennial Edition Vol. II / Musique Et Musiciens Du Canada Edition Du Centenaire Vol. II (1967 CBC Radio Canada). Norma Beecroft is a Canadian composer, producer, broadcaster, and arts administrator. Among the pioneering academic electronic music composers, she worked independently in the Electronic Music Studio of the University of Toronto. As a professional composer, she was one of the first non-students to be able to experiment in the new facility. There she focused on multitrack recording and looping as an extension of existing instrumental or vocal sounds. This particular work contrasts tape sounds with sung and spoken word sounds.

15:59

37:12

10.Paul Pedersen, “Themes From The Old Testament” (1966) consisting of 1) Saul And David; 2) David And Bathsheba; 3) Lot's Wife; 4) Parable Of Trees” (1966) from Paul Pedersen – Portrait Musical – Portrait No.1 (1976 CAPAC). Excerpts of a larger work. Produced in the Electronic Music Studios of McGill University and the University of Toronto. Paul Pedersen is a Canadian composer, arts administrator, and music educator. He was head of the McGill University Electronic Music Studios from 1971-1974. Concordia University in Montreal created 'The Paul Award in Electroacoustics' to celebrate Paul Pedersen's contribution to the development of electroacoustics in Canada.

5:47

53:10

11.Anhalt, “Cento” (1967) from Istvan Anhalt (1972 Radio Canada International).  “CENTO was composed in 1966 under a grant from the Centennial Commission, and its premiere performance took place in 1967, Canada's Centennial Year. The composer describes his work thus: ‘It is a work for a twelve-part mixed choir and two channels of tape-recorded sounds. Most of the sounds on the tape are also vocal, and it was my intention to blend, as much as possible, the live and the recorded voices. The effect I was seeking is that of a single choir performing in an acoustical space the character of which is partly real, partly unreal. "Much of the electronic equipment in both works was invented and built by Dr. Hugh Le Caine at the National Research Council of Canada.”

11:23

59:02

12.Norma Beecroft, “Two Went to Sleep” from Norma Beecroft – CAPAC Musical Portraits (circa 1976 CAPAC). Excerpt from a larger work, released on the Musical Portraits series of extended play 7-inch discs. This piece was written for soprano, flute, percussion, and tape with words by poet Leonard Cohen. It is a great example of the kind of work that combined instruments with tape.

2:49

1:10:24

13.Hugh LeCaine, “Music for Expo” (1967) from Pioneer In Electronic Music Instrument Design: Compositions And Demonstrations 1948-1972 (1985 JWD Music). Produced using Le Caine’s Serial Sound Structure Generator, a device intended to provide controls for making twelve tone serial music. Tones and other parameters were created using rotary dials on the control panel. Created for Expo ’67 World Exposition in Montreal.

2:34

1:13:12

14.Peter Huse, “Space Play” (1969) from Carrefour (Musique Electro-Acoustique = Electroacoustic Music). Fraser was a west coast person and composed this work while at Simon Fraser University. He was assistant director of the World Soundscape Project.

3:46

1:15:46

15.Hugh LeCaine, “Mobile” (1970) from Carrefour (Musique Electro-Acoustique = Electroacoustic Music). One of the first pieces of music to be composed on the NRC Computer Music System.

 

1:19:28

16.Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux, “Trakadie (3 Excerpts), For Percussion And Tape” (1970) from Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux: Musical Portrait (1976 CAPAC). This series of composer's Musical Portraits was initiated and sponsored by the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada. Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux was a Canadian composer and music educator who played an important role in the contemporary classical music scene of Canada and France from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s. Primarily a composer of contemporary classical music, she experimented with electroacoustic music from time to time with some amazingly original and fresh results. From 1968 to 1971 she studied musique concrete with Pierre Schafer in Paris, and from this period comes this work.

4:17

1:21:20

17.Michel Longtin, “La Mort Du Pierrot” (1971) from Carrefour (Musique Electro-Acoustique = Electroacoustic Music). Produced in the electronic music studio of McGill University.

5:21

1:25:34

18.David Paul, “Eruption” (1971) from Carrefour (Musique Electro-Acoustique = Electroacoustic Music). Produced at the University of Toronto, using Le Caine’s equipment, this work explores sound densities and glissandi.

6:07

1:30:56

19.Paul Pedersen, “For Margaret, Motherhood And Mendelssohn” (1971) from Carrefour (Musique, Électro-Acoustique = Electroacoustic Music). Composed at McGill University where Pedersen was director of the electronic music studio. The electroacoustic work uses fragments of speeches such as prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s and the electronic sounds were composed using Le Caine’s Polyphonic Synthesizer.

4:21

1:37:02

20.Hugh LeCaine, “Paulution” (1972) from Pioneer In Electronic Music Instrument Design: Compositions And Demonstrations 1948-1972 (1985 JWD Music). Uses Le Caine’s Polyphonic Synthesizer, a new device created by the scientist around this time. Much of this was created in real-time with little tape manipulation.

4:09

1:41:18

21.Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux, “Zones” (1972) from Carrefour (Musique, Électro-Acoustique = Electroacoustic Music). Musique électroacoustique réalisée au Sonic Research Studio, Université Simon Fraser, Vancouver. An exploration of different instrumental timbres using electroacoustic music.

9:02

1:45:22

 

Opening background music: Hugh Le Caine, Rhapsody in Blue, performed on the Electronic Sackbut (1953) from Compositions Demonstrations 1946-1974 (1999 Electronic Music Foundation)00:58; Hugh Le Caine, Safari: Eine Kleine Klangfarbenmelodie (1964) from Compositions Demonstrations 1946-1974 (1999 Electronic Music Foundation). Played on the Sonde, a Le Caine instrument that could generate 200 sine tones separated by intervals of 5 Hertz, as a demonstration of textures and densities. 3:10 (then repeated).


Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.


Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.


See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation.

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NOISE AND NOTATIONS

Electronic and Experimental Music

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

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