Various – Pioneers of Electronic Music

For a lot of electronic music fans, the pioneers of electronic music would be Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulze, or Vangelis. For younger fans, they might be Derrick May, Juan Atkins, or Jesse Saunders.

This CD really goes “back in the days” to the days when electronic music was in its first heyday in the academic world. It collects works created at the Columbia-Princeton Music Center, one of the more important early centers for electronic music. Included are works by Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening, Pril Smiley, Bulent Arel, Mario Davidovsky, and Alice Shields. The works selected are from 1952 to 1971.

The music of Pioneers of Electronic Music is experimental, and will be enjoyed by those that are excited by experimental music. The tracks are often dissonant and atonal, while many of them may remind you of background music for scary movies of the 60’s.

Ussachevsky’s  “Sonic Contours” explores splicing and tape manipulation of recorded piano sounds. The sounds are reversed, sustained, echoed and otherwise manipulated. The music is fairly open; at most Ussachevsky has two or three sounds occurring at once. One section of the piece contrasts slow echoed sounds with what sounds like twelve-tone serial lines in the upper registers of the piano. Another section sounds like Ussachevsky just improvised piano gestures while using tape echo to create a background of fading repeats.

Luening contributes five pieces. Each features tape-manipulated flute sounds. “Low speed” is a slow piece that takes flute improvisations and combines them with flute that has been slowed down, dropping the sound an octave, or sped up, raising the pitches. The result is quiet and somber. “Invention in Twelve Tones” continues in a similar vein. It has two sections. The first part is just flute playing serial melodies with extended tape echo. The second section adds sped-up flute to this. “Fantasy in Space” contrasts several flute lines that have been treated in various ways. One flute plays with heavy tape echo, making it sound muted and far away. Another part plays without any effects. “Incantation” is the most experimental of the Luening pieces. Here he works with Ussachevsky and use manipulated flute, piano and voice. The vocals are loaded with strange tape effects, creating a haunting effect. The flute and piano are drenched in reverb. The overall effect is haunting. Luening’s “Moonflight” continues his use of manipulated flute. Again, he drenches most of the flute parts in echo or reverb, but he also contrasts this with a untreated flute part.

Ussachevsky’s “Piece for Tape Recorder” takes things into more experimental territory. This piece is composed of tape manipulations of a limited set of sounds. He took things like the sound of a single gong strike, the sound of a jet plane, and piano sounds, and treated and collaged the sounds to try and create a piece with some logical continuity. This work works best when he explores the pure sound of the manipulated tape elements. It’s less successful at combining them into a coherent whole.

Pril Smiley’s “Kolyosa” jumps things up 15 years to 1970. By this time, electronically synthesized sounds had become common. This piece contrasts long and short percussive sounds, and is made up of almost completely non-pitched material. The piece builds to climax by increasing the density, volume and pitches of the sounds, and then dies to silence.

Bulent Arel’s “Stereo Electronic Music No. 2” a small range of parts and sounds, and contrasts slow-moving drones, with fast sequenced gestures. While this piece is carefully crafted, the result is sounds surprisingly similar to Vangelis’ improvised Beaubourg.

Next, Ussachevsky contributes several analog electronic pieces. “Computer Piece No.1” is built from a variety of source materials, including computer-generated sounds and recorded audio. Ussachevsky’s approach is the same as he used in this earlier music, so the effect of the music is similar, even though it uses more exotic sounds. His “Two Sketches for a Computer Piece” are completely electronic, and are the result of using a computer to sequence pitches.

Davidovsky’s “Synchronisms No. 5” combines live performance with electronic elements. The live sounds come from various percussion instruments, and electronics are used largely to extend the palette of percussive sounds. The piece is made up of extreme contrasts of tempo and dynamics, and much of the interest results from the synchronization of the electronic and acoustic sounds.  

The last cut on the CD, Alice Shield’s “The Transformation of Ani”, is from 1970, uses only manipulated versions of the composers voice. Shields manipulates the sounds so extensively, though, that she is still able to turn it into a tremendous range of sounds. The text is taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. She combines the manipulated vocal sounds with her voice quietly speaking the text. This piece is haunting, because her treatments transform her voice into something barely recognizable as human.

Because of the limited number of artists, “Pioneers of Electronic Music” can’t be seen as comprehensive. If you’re looking for an overview, or a greatest hits of academic electronic music, this isn’t it. What it does do is provide a excellent introduction to the style of experimental sound manipulation pioneered at the Columbia-Princeton Music Center.

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