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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Electronic Literature

The Marriage of Electronic Music, Poetry, and Literature

For this episode of the podcast, I explore some of the ways that electronic musicians have brought literature and poetry to life through music. All of the works heard in this episode have origins in the printed word. Whereas poetry, fiction, and drama can be read on the page, music can be used to provide an entirely new dimension to language. Electronic music can be used to provide a provocative background to words, some atmosphere if you will. But it can also be used to explore the sonorities of language itself, transforming it, multiplying it, and allowing words to communicate in heightened ways.

I'm hoping that the works I featured are a good starting point for exploring this topic further. I invite you to dip into the world of electronic music and literature further. A good place to start would be the composers I included here. The playlist for this episode explains each track and identifies the literature being used in each case.

We begin with a tape piece from 1958 by Luciano Berio. Omaggio a Joyce is based on a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses. The vocalist is Cathy Berberian, Berio’s wife at the time. This was produced in the RAI electronic music studio in Milan, Italy, one of the key European studios of the 1950s. It is an exercise in classic tape manipulation of recorded sound. This release on the Philips label is shorter than the one released around the same time on the Turnabout label in America. It omits the spoken sequence at the beginning where Berberian recited the words prior to them being modified by studio processes. This is a classic example of working with recorded sound to transform it into an abstract expression of itself.

About the same time that Berio was making Omaggio A Joyce, John Cage and David Tudor were staging a performance that Cage called Indeterminacy. Indeterminacy was not so much a Cage musical composition—it is not listed in his catalog of composed works—as a way to combine readings from John’s collected anecdotes to some electronic music performed at the same time by David Tudor. This was often a way that they closed their lecture and performances. So, what you will hear is Cage reading some stories, often pausing according to the preplanned timings he applied to the material using chance operations, and Tudor making music at the same time. This is followed by a performance of Roaratorio: An Irish Circus On Finnegans Wake, a radio play produced in Germany in 1979. Here, Cage reads passages from Finnegans Wake, also by James Joyce, for voice, tape, and any number of musicians, optionally on tape. The score does not specify the book, Finnegans Wake, so it can be applied to any other work of literature. These two examples of Cage—Indeterminacy and Roaratorio-- represent his use of language with other sounds, often one obscuring the other. After 1979, Cage became interested in greater extensions of the spoken word, but without accompaniment. Both of these works are quite long in entirety, so I choose 10 minutes from each to showcase here.

Next, a brief sojurn into Shakespeare. Back in the early sixties, the BBC produced a series of recordings Shakespeare. For each recording, incidental music and sound effects were provided on tape by the Radiophonic workshop. In this short example, we’ll hear actor Richard Burton and the electronic music of Desmond Leslie. This is purely programmatic music, having a supporting role for the actors. But I think you’ll see that the music creates a marvelous atmosphere for the drama.

Then we will hear some contemporary poetry in a section of Music for the Quiet Hours by Sam Shackleton and vocalist Vengeance Tenfold. The poetry is spoken and modified, with delay for example, but not unrecognizably. In a way, the words are hung out to dangle on a very strong bass line, which pulls them together as you listen.

The next work is from the outstanding artist Lily Greenham. She was Danish by birth, moved to Vienna and then to the UK where she recorded experimental text-sound works. She was first a poet but then got into producing experimental music with her words. She called this work ‘Lingual music,’ noting that they were distinct from her conventional poetry because these works could not be performed live. Traffic dates from about 1972-1975. Greenham loved using tape loops to introduce patterns that would materialize and disintegrate as you listened to her music. Like the Berio work, this piece strongly abstracts the words and provides another dimension of meaning to the words being spoken.

Anne Clark is another poet turned musician. Her first album, The Sitting Room, featured these two works, Swimming and An Ordinary Life. These were accompanied by the haunting synthesizer sounds and vocal effects, again underscoring the impact of the language.

Now we come to a couple of additional dramatizations of famous literature. Creating music based on literature was a thing in the UK in the mid-seventies. We’ll hear a portion of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Rick Wakeman, based on the novel by Jules Verne. Note the Minimoog part about midway through and the strange bass line under the melody. I’m not sure if that was intended or some evidence of an equipment glitch, but it’s very cool. This was a live performance. Then we'll hear Alan Parson’s Project version of “The Raven.” This is taken from an album called Tales of Mystery and Imagination and captures some of the words from the story by Edgar Allan Poe.

Next up is Silver Apples from their first album in 1968. “Dust” is one of the poems that they produced for the album. The electronic sounds were created by a collection of audio oscillators modified by guitar pedals and all mixed together. These extraordinary musicians had dreams of rock stardom, a dream left unresolved. Instead, they occupy a narrow strata of artists who imagined where electronic music would eventually lead.

From the world of contemporary classical music, we have Alice Shields' work Study for Voice and Tape. This was based on a poem by Alice and produced at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1968. She used her prerecording singing voice synchronized with electronic sounds on tape, often a technique used at that time. A Buchla synthesizer was the source for much of the electronic sound. This work trades similarities and contrasts of the singing voice and electronics.

Then we will hear Three Poems of Gunter Grass, part 1 by Ronald Perrera. In this work, the poem is read and then sung to the accompaniment of electronic sounds and a small instrumental ensemble. Note the contrast to Shield’s work, which uses the voice and electronics more abstractly.

Next we have Europa by John Hill, with a poem by Ian Michaels that is ready by Susan Christie. This is from a never-released album created in 1970, so the sounds of the Moog Modular synthesizer will be familiar to you. Walter Sear provided the patches on the Moog. This is pretty much a straight reading with electronic accompaniment.

Finally, I am delighted to feature four short tracks from Ruth White and her album Flowers of Evil from 1969. Ruth programmed the Moog Modular, which she owned, composed the tape, and even translated and read the poems by Charles Baudelaire (Shar BODE-lair). Ruth pretty much work on her own, self-producing a fantastic series of electronic music albums that combined elements of the abstract with contemporary classical, forging a truly experimental path for herself.


1. Luciano Berio, "Thema (Omaggio A Joyce)," from Orient-Occident/Momenti-Omaggio A Joyce/Continuo/Transition 1 (1967 Philips). Composed by Luciano Berio at the RAI studio in Milan. Vocals, Cathy Berberian. The piece dates from 1958-59. An exploration of editing and tape composition with the voice as a key source of audio material. This is an interpretative reading of the poem "Sirens" from chapter 11 of the novel Ulysses by James Joyce. This release on the Philips Prospective 21e Siècle is shorter than the one released around the same time on the Turnabout label in America. It omits the spoken sequence at the beginning where Berberian recites the words prior to them being manipulated on tape.

2. John Cage/David Tudor, "Side 3" excerpt from Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental And Electronic Music (1959 Folkways). John Cage reads previously prepared stories and anecdotes, David Tudor performs electronic music at the same time with no Earthly connection between the two. This was a long-standing performance practice of theirs and I saw them do this several times.

3. John Cage, "Part One (To Line 220)" from Roaratorio: An Irish Circus On Finnegans Wake (1992 Mode), excerpt, for speaker, Irish musicians and 62-track tape. Speaker, John Cage. Production: WDR, Köln; Süddeutscher Rundfunk, Stuttgart; Katholieke Radio Omroep, Hilversum; Technical cooperation: IRCAM, Paris. First transmission: 22 October 1979, WDR3-Hörspielstudio. This score is a means for translating any book into a performance without actors, a performance which is both literary and musical or one or the other. In this case, the book was Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. The text of Roaratorio was published separately as Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake. This was part of the evolution of Cage's interest in creating works of text for performance with music and other activities. It further evolved into his use of texts by Henry David Thoreau for which he used chance processes to derive a text for solo vocal performance.

4. Shakespeare, excerpt, (1962 Odhams Books Ltd.). BBC radioplay production with musique concrète by Desmond Leslie. King Henry is played by Richard Burton. Electronic music provided on tape for a set of Shakespeare play productions. This short. 2 and a half-minute segment is from Act IV, Scene 3 and gives you an idea of how the sound effects was joined with the dialog. This was a common outlet for electronic music in the UK.

5. Shackleton, “Music For The Quiet Hour, Part 2,” excerpt, from Music For The Quiet Hour (2012 Woe To The Septic Heart!). Vocals, words (poetry), Vengeance Tenfold; Composer, producer, A. Gerth, K. Biswas, Sam Shackleton. A collaboration between producer Shackleton and vocalist Vengeance Tenfold. Beats, bass and rhythm patterns provide a backdrop for some stark poetry. This is a portion of a longer work that whose overall length is about an hour.

6. Lily Greenham, “Traffic” from Lingual Music (2007 Paradigm Discs). Reissue of text-sound works made by Danish concrete poet Lily Greenham, probably between 1972-75. Hugh Davies is credited with assisting on the electronics for this work. Voice: Lily Greenham.

7. Anne Clark, "Swimming" and "An Ordinary Life" from The Sitting Room (1982 Red Flame). Clark is a foremost British poet who fuses her texts with electronic music. This was the first of her albums. Words, Keyboards, Electronic Percussion, Water Percussion, Anne Clark; Guitar, Effects, Voice, Gary Mundy; Keyboards, Domonic Appleton, Patrik Fitzgerald; Keyboards, Electronic Percussion, Andrea Laschetti.

8. Rick Wakeman, “The Journey,” excerpt, from Journey to the Center of the Earth (1974 A&M). Recorded in concert at The Royal Festival Hall London on Friday January 18th 1974. Synthesizers and other keyboards, Rick Wakeman; Narrator, David Hemmings; drums, Barney James; guitar, Mike Egan; accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham.

9. Alan Parsons Project, "The Raven" from Tales of Mystery and Imagination - Edgar Allan Poe (1976 Charisma). Words from the tale of the same name by Poe. The Harmony Vocoder heard on "The Raven" was invented and built by EMI Central Research Laboratories.Keyboards, Alan Parsons, Andrew Powell, Billy Lyall, Christopher North, Eric Woolfson, Francis Monkman; Composed by Alan Parsons, Andrew Powell, and Eric Woolfson.

10. Silver Apples, "Dust" from Silver Apples (1968 Kapp). "INSTRUCTIONS: Play Twice Before Listening." Composed and Arranged by Dan Taylor and Simeon; Percussion, Dan Taylor; Oscillators, mixers, electronic gear (The Simeon), Simeon; Vocals, Dan Taylor, Simeon.

11. Alice Shields, " Study For Voice And Tape" from Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center 1961-1973 (1998 New World Records). Recorded Voice, Buchla synthesizer, poem by Alice Shields.

12. Ronald Perera, "Three Poems of Gunter Grass," part 1, “Gleisdreieck" from Music And Words (1980 CRI. Ronald Perera, electronic music on tape created in the Smith College Electronic Music Studio; soprano, Elsa Charlston; Conductor, Richard Pittman.

13. John Hill, "Europa" from Six Moons Of Jupiter (2009 Finders Keepers). Recorded at Sigma Sound, Philadelphia, January-August 1970, but I don't think it was ever released. Uses a Moog Modular synthesizer programmed by Walter Sear. Composed, arranged produced, Moog Modular Synthesizer, Guitar, Bass, Flute, Recorder, Hammond organ, John Hill; Drums, Percussion, Jimmy Valerio; Performer (Poetry), Susan Christie; poetry, Ian Michaels.

14. Ruth White, "The Clock," "Evening Harmony," "Lover's Wine," Owls," from Flowers of Evil (1969, Limelight). Composer, vocals, electronics (Moog Synthesizer), Ruth White; based on poetry by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Ruth White. Fantastic music from this singular composer who owned a Moog Modular Synthesizer. Her other music was often composed for media, television, and children’s records.

Archive Mix

In which I play two records at the same time to see what happens. The recordings were:

  • Lily Greenham, “ABC in Sound” from Lingual Music (1968/2007 Paradigm Discs). Recording from 1968 and includes the words of poet Bob Cobbing.

  • Arif Mardin, “The Prophet,” excerpt from side 1, from The Prophet (1974 Atlantic). Narrator Richard Harris; keyboards, Bob James, Pat Rebillot, and Ken Bichel (ARP 2600). Poetry by Kahlil Gibran.

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

The opening montage consists of excerpts from Milt Gabler and a reading of “The People Yes (Excerpt)” by Carl Sandburg and some saxophone music from Avant Slant (1968 Decca); James Joyce reading “Anna Livia Plurabelle” (1929 The Orthographic Institute); John Cage and David Tudor, Indeterminacy (1959 Folkways); Alice Shields, Dance Piece No. 3 from Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center 1961-1973 (1998 New World Records); Luciano Berio, "Thema (Omaggio A Joyce)," from Electronic Music III (1967 Turnabout); Anne Clark, "The Sitting Room " from The Sitting Room (1982 Red Flame); Arif Mardin, “The Prophet,” excerpt from The Prophet (1974 Atlantic); Ruth White, "Owls" from Flowers of Evil (1969, Limelight).

Background music is excerpted from Shackleton, “Music For The Quiet Hour, Part 2,” from Music For The Quiet Hour (2012 Woe To The Septic Heart!).

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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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