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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Noises from the Past

I've been writing about the history of electronic music for many years, but I know that a book is no substitute for hearing the music.

With the launch of my podcast in August 2020, I've opened up my archives of historic electronic music recordings to share with other interested listeners. I hope that by sharing these vibes from the past and give you the enjoyment that electronic music can bring. The music heard on this podcast comes from my Archive of Electronic Music, my subterranean repository of vintage recordings spanning the years 1915 to 1985. Although I’m not opposed to including something more recent if it fits with the podcast theme.

This edition of Noise and Notations provides my notes for episode 2 of the podcast. You can access the podcast here.

This episode features some historically interesting works consisting largely of noises. Some date from the days of 78 rpm recordings, some from the era of electroacoustic tape music, still others exist as recordings of live performances. Most of these tracks are excerpts of longer works so that I could fit them all into the podcast. No editing has been done other than to occasionally shorten the original track, as noted.

I’m offering these works in chronological order. In doing that, I originally thought that the evolution of noise music would be pretty dramatic over time. However, what I actually found was that noise used in music from the 1920s and 30s bore more similarities than contrasts to music of later decades. Noise is innately shocking, energizing, and befuddling all at the same time. Perhaps the only real difference between now and the past is our acceptance of noise as an element of music.

Among the 12 tracks that follow are an original 78 RPM recording of a Futurist noise intoner, an optical recording of a film soundtrack, loud and controlled feedback using the human voice, a tiger purring, voices modified and jumbled, a cybersonic live performance with a horn. Among other tracks. There is also a brief excerpt from a typing lesson and the sound of a Pulsar recorded by NASA.

Notes on the featured works follow.

1. Antonio Russolo, Chorale and Serenata 1924

Antonio was Luigi Russolo’s younger brother. Working with his older brother Luigi, they constructed noise making instruments for the Italian Futurists art movement. Collectively, these instruments were called intonaroumori, or noise intoners. These were intended to introduce non-musical sounds into music that was otherwise composed for small instrumental ensembles. This happens to be the only known recording of an original noise intoner, made in 1921 and released on a 78 RPM record in 1924 in Italy.

2. Walther Ruttmann, Wochenende (Weekend), 1930

The technology of optical sound—photographic impressions made on film that could be played back as sound—came into being around 1929. In 1930, Ruttmann used optical sound to create a work for radio consisting of edited noises and sounds gathered around the city of Berlin. It was originally broadcast in Germany in 1930.

3. Else Marie Pade, Symphonie Magnetophonique, 1958

Pade was a pioneering composer of electronic music in Denmark. She had been schooled in the French and German schools of tape composition and by the mid-1950s was experimenting with compositions for Danish radio where she worked. She often used concrete sounds and noises in her work. Symphonie Magnetoponique is her most extensive tape work. The entire work is nearly 20 minutes and consists of sounds that make up an ordinary day—chatting people, traffic, children playing, office noises—all carefully edited represent 24-hour in a typical day in Copenhagen.

4. Robert Ashley, Wolfman, 1964

This piece is from a sound-sheet issued by Source Magazine No. 1 in 1967 of a recording from around the same time. For Wolfman, Ashley exploited a simple phenomenon that we’ve all experienced. When amplification is loud enough and a microphone close enough, feedback will occur. For this piece, Ashley faced a microphone, positioning it directly in front of his mouth and slowly pronounced words. The highly amplified loudspeakers would feed back. He controlled the feedback and distortion by changing the shape of his mouth cavity and moving his tongue about. Accompanying him was a tape of some electronic music.

5. John Cage and David Tudor, Variations IV, 1965

Of the tracks I’m including in this episode, this one is probably the best known. Cage was famous for having declared as early as 1937 that musical sound could incorporate noise. He wasn’t the first to advocate the value of noise, but he was perhaps the most famous. After Cage said that, it was as if all bets were off when it came to using noise. That being said, it really took many long years for the idea of noise in music to emerge from the realm of purely experimental music. Now, elements of noise are commonly used in music in many ways such as the use of samples or soundscapes mixed with music. Variations IV is “for any number of players, any sounds or combinations of sounds produced by any means, with or without other activities.” For this performance, the score consisted of seven points and two circles on a transparent sheet that are to be used in conjunction with a map of the performance venue. Seven tape recorders played prerecorded snippets of music and other sounds, some distorted, and the operation of the tape recorders was determined ahead of the performance by chance. The score carefully set out the spatial locations of sound sources and was adapted for the performance space at hand, in this case an art gallery in Los Angeles. This recording is from 1965. The premiere performance in 1963 lasted six hours. What the recording is unable to capture is the spatiality associated with the particular venue and the liner notes fail to mention the process.

6. Olivetti typewriter record lesson, 1968

A snippet from an Olivetti typing lesson, 1968.

7. Annea Lockwood, Tiger Balm, 1970

Another work issued on a sound-sheet from Source Magazine in 1971, Tiger Balm is an exploration of the other side of noise: sounds that can be calming, contemplative, and dreamlike. The sound of a cat purring, a tiger growling, an airplane overhead, some human sounds, all mixed and often distorted. For live performances, Lockwood would supplement the tape sounds with live sounds, such as rustling grasses.

8. Laurie Spiegel, Four Short Visits to Different Worlds: Mines 1971

This work by Laurie Spiegel preceded her stint at Bell Labs as an innovative computer composer. At the time of this recording, she was working with a Buchla analog synthesizer at Mort Subotnick’s studio in New York. This work is short and is presented in entirety. When I first listened to this, I hadn’t thought that it was synthesized noise. But it was. It’s just that Siegel disguised the signal so well, she told me, “modulating a sine wave with white noise generator of the Buchla to get that fuzziness, that amorphous quality into what would otherwise have been too clear and simple a sound, a pure sine tone.” She also told me this interesting fun fact: “At some point in 1971 or so there was a period when one of the Buchla’s oscillators started making some extraneous noise. Instead of considering it a problem, those of us who were using the system including Rhys Chatham and Eliane Radigue each worked that unavoidable noise into our music as though we had each intentionally created it.”

9. Pulsar, NASA recording, 1975

A noise from space, courtesy of NASA.

10. Gisele Ricard, Je Vous Aime, 1980

Ricard was long established in the Quebecian world of Canadian electroacoustic music before creating this piece in 1980. Jeh-voo-EM is composed largely of voices, young and old, talking and singing, processed and edited as a dense assemblage and colliding noise sounds.

11. Gordon Mumma, Cybersonic Horn Performance Live, 1980?

The origins of this recording are mysterious to me. I think it dates from the 1980s. I have two versions, neither with much documentation so I assume that they are unofficial. But I think this may have taken place in the Netherlands. This piece bears some similarity to Ashley’s Wolfman in that it is largely dependent on the dimensions of the space to manage the distortion. The work featured is Horn for cybersonic console and probably Gordon’s French horn. The cybersonic console monitored the resonances of the horn in the performance space and adjusted its electronic circuits to complement these resonances. The resulting performance alternates between horn playing with electronic sounds articulated directly by horn sounds.

12. Operating Theater (Roger Doyle), Rapid Eye Movements, 1981

Operating Theatre was a music theatre group formed by Irish actress Olwen Fouéré and composer Roger Doyle. Using a mixture of electronic and acoustic sound sources, this tape piece combines noises and instrumental tones into a kind of dreamlike sequence of interesting sounds that reveal little about the sources.

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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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