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Crosscurrents in Electronic Tape Music in the United States

My Book/eBook: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

Continuing our geographic excursion on crosscurrents in early electronic music, this episode focuses on magnetic tape works created in the United States from 1950 to 1970. Whereas the French and German so-called schools of electronic music were founded around national radio facilities, there was no such equivalent in the United States. Instead, what we had here, was a smattering of studios found at universities, regional radio stations, and private individuals. This essentially decentralized approach in the United States, without a single institution or pedagogical framework for producing electronic music, led, I believe, to the amazingly diverse styles and approaches that were taken. We have the cinematic creations of Bebe and Louis Barron, the indeterminate or randomized creations of John Cage, various styles of academic music emerging from Columbia University, Mills College, Brandeis, and the University of Illinois, the experimental work of individual radio producers who were interested in tape manipulation, and the astounding work of individual artists at their own studios as represented by Gordon Mumma and Tod Dockstader. Women were also among the vanguard of electronic music in the United States. Among them, we will listen to works by Bebe Barron, Wendy Carlos, Jean Eichelberger Ivey, Pauline Oliveros, Alice Shields, and Pril Smiley. In addition, we will touch on works by Jim Fassett, Kenneth Gaburo, Henry Jacobs, Otto Luening, Harry Olsen, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and the esteemed African American composer, Olly Wilson.

The history of American electronic music on magnetic tape is a not a continuum of gradual improvements and developments, threaded together like a strand of DNA. It is largely an explosion of parallel activities all inspired by the ability to record and edit sounds. Found sounds, acoustic sounds, instruments, electronic sounds, nature sounds. It was all game and it was all happening at the same time by the many different schools of thought about what modern music could do with electronics. We will celebrate this turbulent frenzy of activity by hearing some selected examples from those times. I am presenting these in chronological order. If you go look over the playlist for the details you may be surprised, for example, by what was happening at the same time at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and the work of Tod Dockstader with his sonorous “anarchy of noise” coming out of the Gotham Recording studio in New York. Interestingly, Dockstader’s application to work at the Columbia-Princeton studio was rejected by the institution’s heads at the time. Or the contrasting experiments occurring at the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor and the San Francisco Tape Music Center almost in 1965. A dip into the archives is all one needs to understand that everything was happening in all directions at the same time.

This audio journey begins with Bebe and Louis Barron, four years before their work on the film Forbidden Planet would be known. Bebe once told me about a work they produced in 1950 called “Heavenly Menagerie,” a 7-minute work that would have been the first piece of abstract electronic music made on magnetic tape in the United States. Without a copy of that work to hear, we turn instead to the year 1952 and their soundtrack to “Bells of Atlantis.” Then we will hear John Cage’s revolutionary exercise in tape editing called Williams Mix. The Barrons also contributed to that project by recording hundreds of remote sounds for Cage. Still in 1952, we will hear three works by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky that were presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in October of 1952. They came at electronic music from a more classical point of view, offering up pieces that had form and structure and often used instruments such as the flute, which Luening played. These works were realized in the makeshift Tape Music Center at Columbia University, the precursor of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.

From the early to mid 1950s we’ll hear some tape experiments intended to appeal to the broader radio broadcast audience, created independently by Henry Jacobs at KPFA in Berkeley and Jim Fassett, a CBS radio musical director with a nationwide audience for his Sunday program called Strange to Your Ears.

The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center was founded to put the new RCA Music Synthesizer to work in an academic music environment. We’ll hear some fairly ordinary demonstrations by one of its inventors, Harry Olsen, from 1955 plus a landmark piece by composer Milton Babbitt who put the synthesizer to task realizing serial compositions. Other composers who got a start at the Columbia-Princeton studio will also be heard and include Wendy Carlos with “Dialogs for Piano and Two Loudspeakers,” Pril Smiley with “Eclipse” originally composed for four separate tracks and a specifically-structured audio distribution to surround the audience from four corners of a room, and Alice Shields with a piece based on the processing of her own vocal sounds. From the University of Illinois we’ll hear work by Olly Wilson and Kenneth Gaburo. Pauline Oliveros and Steve Reich both composed tape delay works at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Composer Jean Eichelberger Ivey realized “Pinball” at the electronic music studio of Brandeis University based the sounds of a pinball machine, Tod Dockstader from New York created a drone piece based on the sounds an electric guitar for which he created a doppler effect that sounded like so many racing cars, and Gordon Mumma in Ann Arbor realized The Dresden Interleaf which had a middle section comprised of the “harrowing roar of live, alcohol-burning model airplane engines.” (Mumma)

Episode 99

Crosscurrents in Electronic Tape Music in the United States


1. Louis and Bebe Barron, “Bells of Atlantis” (1952), soundtrack for a film by Ian Hugo based on the writings of his wife Anaïs Nin, who also appeared in the film. The Barrons were credited with “Electronic Music.” The Barrons scored three of Ian Hugo's short experimental films and this is the earliest, marking an early start for tape music in the United States. Bebe told me some years ago about a work called “Heavenly Menagerie” that they produced in 1950. I have written before that I think this work was most likely the first electronic music made for magnetic tape in the United States, although I have never been able to find a recording of the work. Bells of Atlantis will stand as an example of what they could produce in their Greenwich Village studio at the time. They were also engaged helping John Cage produce “Williams Mix” at the time, being recordists of outdoor sounds around New York that Cage would use during the process of editing the composition, which is described below. The Forbidden Planet soundtrack, their most famous work, was created in 1956. 8:59

2. John Cage, “Williams Mix” (1952) from The 25-Year Retrospective Concert Of The Music Of John Cage (1959 Avakian). Composed in 1952, the tape was played at this Town Hall concert a few years later. Premiered in Urbana, Ill., March 22, 1953. From the Cage database of compositions: “This is a work for eight tracks of 1/4” magnetic tape. The score is a pattern for the cutting and splicing of sounds recorded on tape. Its rhythmic structure is 5-6-16-3-11-5. Sounds fall into 6 categories: A (city sounds), B (country sounds), C (electronic sounds), D (manually produced sounds), E (wind produced sounds), and F ("small" sounds, requiring amplification). Pitch, timbre, and loudness are notated as well. Approximately 600 recordings are necessary to make a version of this piece. The compositional means were I Ching chance operations. Cage made a realization of the work in 1952/53 (starting in May 1952) with the assistance of Earle Brown, Louis and Bebe Barron, David Tudor, Ben Johnston, and others, but it also possible to create other versions.” This was a kind of landmark work for John as he explored the possibilities of working with the tape medium. It is the only work from this period, created in the United States, for which there is an original recording of a Cage realization. He also composed “Imaginary Landscape No. 5” in 1952 for 42-disc recordings as a collage of fragments from long-playing records recorded on tape (he preferred to use jazz records as the source), put together with the assistance of David Tudor. Though some modern interpretations exist, there is no recording from the 1950s of a Cage/Tudor realization so I am unable to represent what it would have been like at that time. 5:42

3. Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, “Moonflight” (1952) from Tape Music An Historic Concert (1968 Desto). This record documents tape pieces played at perhaps the earliest concert of American tape music at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 28, 1952. Realized at the composer’s Tape Music Center at Columbia University, the precursor of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. 2:54

4. Otto Luening, “Fantasy in Space” (1952) from Tape Music An Historic Concert (1968 Desto). Realized at the composer’s Tape Music Center at Columbia University, the precursor of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. 2:51

5. Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, “Incantation” (1953) from Tape Music An Historic Concert (1968 Desto). This record documents tape pieces played at perhaps the earliest concert of American tape music at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 28, 1952. Realized at the composer’s Tape Music Center at Columbia University, the precursor of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. 2:34

6. Henry Jacobs, “Sonata for Loudspeakers” (1953-54) from Sounds of New Music (1958 Folkways). “Experiments with synthetic rhythm” produced by Henry Jacobs who worked at radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley. Jacobs narrates the track to explain his use of tape loops and recorded sound. 9:29

7. Jim Fassett, track “B2” (Untitled) from Strange To Your Ears - The Fabulous World of Sound With Jim Fassett (1955 Columbia Masterworks). “The fabulous world of sound,” narrated with tape effects, by Jim Fassett. Fassett, a CBS Radio musical director, was fascinated with the possibilities of tape composition. With this recording, done during the formative years of tape music in the middle 1950s, he took a somewhat less daring approach than his experimental counterparts, but a bold step nonetheless for a national radio audience. He hosted a weekend program called Strange to Your Ears to showcase these experiments and this album collected some of his best bits. 8:15

8. Harry F. Olsen, “The Well-Tempered Clavier: Fugue No. 2” (Bach) and “Nola” (Arndt) and “Home, Sweet Home” from The Sounds and Music of the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer (1955 RCA). These “experimental” tracks were intended to demonstrate the range of sound that could be created with RCA Music Synthesizer. This was the Mark I model, equipped with a disc lathe instead of a tape recorder. When it was upgraded and called the Mark II in the late 1950s, it became the showpiece of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Here we listen to three tunes created by Harry F. Olsen, one of the inventors, in the style of a harpsichord, a piano, and “an engineer’s conception of the music.” 5:26

9. Milton Babbitt, “Composition For Synthesizer” (1960-61) (1968 Columbia). Babbitt was one of the only composers at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center who composed and produced works based solely on using the RCA Music Synthesizer. Most others took advantage of other tape processing techniques found in the studio and not controlled by the RCA Mark II. It took him quite a long time to work out all of the details using the synthesizer and his meticulous rules for composing serially. On the other hand, the programmability of the instrument made it much more possible to control all the parameters of the sound being created electronically rather than by human musicians. This work is a prime example of this kind of work. 10:41

10.Tod Dockstader, “Drone” (1962) from Drone; Two Fragments From Apocalypse; Water Music (1966 Owl Records). Self-produced album by independent American composer Dockstader. This came along at an interesting period for American elecgtronic music, sandwiched between the institutional studio work being done at various universities and the era of the independent musician working with a synthesizer. Dockstader used his own studio and his own devices to make this imaginative music. This was one of a series of four albums featuring Dockstader’s music that were released on Owl in the 1966-67 timeframe. They have all been reissued in one form or another. Here is what Dockstader himself wrote about this piece: “Drone, like many of my other works, began life as a single sound; in this case, the sound of racing cars. But, unlike the others, the germinal sound is no longer in the piece. It's been replaced by another a guitar. I found in composing the work that the cars didn't go anywhere, except, seemingly, in circles. The sound of them that had interested me originally was a high to low glissando the Doppler effect. In making equivalents of this sound, I found guitar glissandos could be bent into figures the cars couldn't. . . . After the guitar had established itself as the base line of the piece, I began matching its sound with a muted sawtooth oscillator (again, concrete and electronic music: the guitar being a mechanical source of sound, the oscillator an electronic source). This instrument had a timbre similar to the guitar, with the addition of soft attack, sustained tones, and frequencies beyond the range of the guitar. . . . The effect of the guitar and the oscillator, working together, was to produce a kind of drone, with variations something like the procedure of classical Japanese music, but with more violence. Alternating violence with loneliness, hectic motion with static stillness, was the aim of the original piece; and this is still in Drone, but in the process, the means changed so much that, of all my pieces, it is the only one I can't remember all the sounds of, so it continues to surprise me when I play it.” (From the original liner notes by Dockstader). 13:24

11.Wendy Carlos, “Dialogs for Piano and Two Loudspeakers” (1963) from Electronic Music (1965 Turnabout). This is an early recording of Wendy, pre-Switched-on Bach, from her days as a composer and technician. In this work, Carlos tackles the task of combining synthesized sounds with those of acoustic instruments, in this case the piano. It’s funny that after you listen to this you could swear that there were instruments other than the piano used, so deft was her blending of electronic sounds with even just a single instrument. 4:00

12.Gordon Mumma, “Music from the Venezia Space Theater” (1963-64) (1966 Advance). Mono recording from the original release on Advance. Composed at the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This was the studio created by Mumma and fellow composer Robert Ashley to produce their electronic tape works for Milton Cohen’s Space Theater on Ann Arbor, which this piece tries to reproduce. The original was a quad magnetic tape. It was premiered at the 27th Venezia Bianale, Venice, Italy on September 11, 1964 and comprised the ONCE group with dancers. 11:58

13.Jean Eichelberger Ivey, “Pinball” (1965) from Electronic Music (1967 Folkways). Realized at the Electronic Music Studio of Brandeis University. This work was produced in the Brandeis University Electronic Music Studio and was her first work of electroacoustic music. In 1964 she began a Doctor of Musical Arts program in composition, including studies in electronic music, at the University of Toronto and completed the degree in 1972. Ivey founded the Peabody Electronic Music Studio in 1967 and taught composition and electronic music at the Peabody Conservatory of Music until her retirement in 1997. Ivey was a respected composer who also sought more recognition for women in the field. In 1968, she was the only woman composer represented at the Eastman-Rochester American Music Festival. Her work in electronic music and other music was characteristic of her general attitude about modern composing, “I consider all the musical resources of the past and present as being at the composer’s disposal, but always in the service of the effective communication of humanistic ideas and intuitive emotion.” 6:12

14.Pauline Oliveros, “Bye Bye Butterfly” (1965) from New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media (1977 1750 Arch Records). This was composed at the San Francisco Tape Music Center where so many west coast composers first found their footing: Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Jon Gibson, Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender all did work there around this time. Oliveros was experimenting with the use of tape delay in a number of works, of which “Bye Bye Butterfly” is a great example. 8:05

15.Gordon Mumma, “The Dresden Interleaf 13 February 1945” (1965) from Dresden / Venezia / Megaton (1979 Lovely Music). Composed at the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music (Ann Arbor, Michigan). Remixed at The Center for Contemporary Music, Mills College (Oakland, California). This tape piece was premiered at the sixth annual ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor where Mumma configured an array of sixteen “mini speakers” to surround the audience and project the 4-channel mix. The middle section of the piece contains the “harrowing roar of live, alcohol-burning model airplane engines.” (Mumma) This anti-war piece was presented in the 20th anniversary of the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden near the end of World War II. 12:14

16.Kenneth Gaburo, “Lemon Drops (Tape Alone)” (1965) from Electronic Music from the University of Illinois (1967 Heliodor). From Gaburo: “Lemon Drops” is one of a group of five tape compositions made during 1964-5 referencing the work of Harry Partch. All are concerned with aspects of timbre (e.g., mixing concrete and electronically generated sound); with nuance (e.g., extending the expressive range of concrete sound through machine manipulation, and reducing machine rigidity through flexible compositional techniques); and with counterpoint (e.g., stereo as a contrapuntal system).”(see). 2:52

17.Steve Reich, “Melodica” (1966) from Music From Mills (1986 Mills College). This is one of Reich’s lesser-known phased loop compositions from the 1960s. It is “composed of one tape loop gradually going out of phase with itself, first in two voices and then in four.” This was Reich’s last work for tape before he transitioned to writing instrumental music. 10:43

18.Pril Smiley, “Eclipse” (1967) from Electronic Music, Vol. IV (1969 Turnabout). The selections are works by the winners of the First International Electronic Music Competition - Dartmouth College, April 5, 1968. The competition was judged by composers Milton Babbitt, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and George Balch Wilson. The winner was awarded a $500 prize. Pril Smiley was 1st finalist and realized “Eclipse” at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Smiley had this to say about the work: “Eclipse” was originally composed for four separate tracks, the composer having worked with a specifically-structured antiphonal distribution of compositional material to be heard from four corners of a room or other appropriate space. Some sections of “Eclipse” are semi-improvisatory; by and large, the piece was worked out via many sketches and preliminary experiments on tape: all elements such as rhythm, timbre, loudness, and duration of each note were very precisely determined and controlled. In many ways, the structure of “Eclipse” is related to the composer’s use of timbre. There are basically two kinds of sounds in the piece: the low, sustained gong-like sounds (always either increasing or decreasing in loudness) and the short more percussive sounds, which can be thought of as metallic, glassy, or wooden in character. These different kinds of timbres are usually used in contrast to one another, sometimes being set end to end so that one kind of sound interrupts another, and sometimes being dovetailed so that one timbre appears to emerge out of or from beneath another. Eighty-five percent of the sounds are electronic in origin; the non-electronic sounds are mainly pre-recorded percussion sounds–but subsequently electronically modified so that they are not always recognizable.” (From the original liner notes by Smiley.) 7:56

19.Olly W. Wilson, “Cetus” (1967) from Electronic Music, Vol. IV (1969 Turnabout). The selections are works by the winners of the First International Electronic Music Competition - Dartmouth College, April 5, 1968. The competition was judged by composers Milton Babbitt, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and George Balch Wilson. The winner was awarded a $500 prize. Olly W. Wilson was the competition Winner with “Cetus.” It was realized in the studio for Experimental Music of the University of Illinois. Olly Wilson wrote about the work: “the compositional process characteristic of the “classical tape studio” (the mutation of a few basic electronic signals by means of filters, signal modifiers, and recording processes) was employed in the realization of this work and was enhanced by means of certain instruments which permit improvisation by synthesized sound. Cetus contains passages which were improvised by the composer as well as sections realized by classical tape studio procedures. The master of this work was prepared on a two channel tape. Under the ideal circumstances it should be performed with multiple speakers surrounding the auditor.” (Olly Wilson. The Avant Garde Project at UBUWEB, AGP129 – US Electronic Music VIII | Dartmouth College Competition (1968-70). 9:18

20.Alice Shields, “The Transformation of Ani” (1970) from Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center Tenth Anniversary Celebration (1971 CRI). Composed at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Alice Shields explained, “The text of “The Transformation of Ani” is taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, as translated into English by E. A. Budge. Most sounds in the piece were made from my own voice, speaking and singing the words of the text. Each letter of the English translation was assigned a pitch, and each hieroglyph of the Egyptian was given a particular sound or short phrase, of mostly indefinite pitch. Each series, the one derived from the English translation, and the one derived from the original hieroglyphs, was then improvised upon to create material I thought appropriate to the way in which I wanted to develop the meaning of the text, which I divided into three sections.” (see). 8:59

Opening background music: John Cage, Fontana Mix (1958 ) (1966 Turnabout). This tape work was composed in 1958 and I believe this is the only recorded version by Cage himself as well as the only Cage version presented by itself. An earlier recording, from the Time label in 1962, feature the tape piece combined with another Cage work, “Aria.” This version for 2 tapes was prepared b Cage in February 1959 at the Studio di Fonologia in Milan, with technical assistance from Mario Zuccheri. From the Cage Database website. “This is a composition indeterminate of its performance, and was derived from notation CC from Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra. The score consists of 10 sheets of paper and 12 transparencies. The sheets of paper contain drawings of 6 differentiated (as to thickness and texture) curved lines. 10 of these transparencies have randomly distributed points (the number of points on the transparencies being 7, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 22, 26, 29, and 30). Another transparency has a grid, measuring 2 x 10 inches, and the last one contains a straight line (10 3/4 inch). By superimposing these transparencies, the player creates a structure from which a performance score can be made: one of the transparencies with dots is placed over one of the sheets with curved lines. Over this one places the grid. A point enclosed in the grid is connected with a point outside, using the straight line transparency. Horizontal and vertical measurements of intersections of the straight line with the grid and the curved line create a time-bracket along with actions to be made.”

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

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

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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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