I Built It! The Built Environment In American Music

The pioneers of American electronic music were perforce instrument builders. Thaddeus Cahill built three “Telharmoniums,” or “Dynamophones,” between 1900 and 1906. This keyboard instrument produced sine-wave tones at frequencies corresponding to the chromatic scale. Like an organ, its keys were touch sensitive for dynamic control, and it included filters to provide wind- and string-like timbres.

By the mid-teens, Henry Cowell was exploring the possibility of developing a machine that could generate multi-rhythms unavailable from conventional instruments. His work with Russian inventor Leon Theremin on the construction of the “Rhythmicon” led to Cowell’s 1932 concerto with orchestra Rhythmicana. The “Rhythmicon” was refined to permit tempo modifications and produce sounds tuned to the overtone series. Charles Ives, who financed its construction, wrote to Nicolas Slonimsky, “It relieved my mind to know especially that the new one would really be nearer to an instrument, than a machine.”

This desire for new electronic instruments, enervated by the Depression and the Second World War, flourished in the 1960s. Bye Bye Butterfly and I Of IV are real-time electronic music by Pauline Oliveros, playing oscillators set above the range of human hearing. They generated difference tones of audible frequency, which she amplified and fed into a tape-delay system, which she was also playing. “The instrument is constructed carefully,” she explained, “so I can interact with it at a deep level.” Donald Buchla‘s synthesizer “was probably the first, total home-studio synthesizer in the normal sense of the word,” according to composer Morton Subotnick. The mid-’60s also saw Robert Moog‘s keyboard-controlled synthesizer. The Theremin’s spatial-control technique was taken further by Buchla’s Lightning interface design, which relies on wands and can compute directionality, speed, and acceleration. Buchla’s more-hands-on Thunder design employs touchplates to produce synthesized sound.

Harry Partch may have had no feeling for electronics, but electronic composers have certainly shown great affinity with his attitudes and methods. “I think of a sound I want to hear, then construct a device to play that sound,” said Jim Wilson, reiterating the instrument-builder’s credo. As the music-making duo Voice Of Eye, he and Bonnie McNaim have combined electronic and acoustic sounds, frequently on instruments they’ve built, such as the “Squawkbox,” controlled by bioelectricity from the player’s body. A different approach to electronics is offered by Reed Ghazala, who has used “circuit bending“: deliberately shorting the circuits of audio equipment to produce unexpected sounds. His “Video Octavox” features a synthesizer that responds to the movement of light from a television set; his various “Incantors” create random alterations of synthesized-speech. Chico MacMurtrie‘s Trigram, a self-described “robot opera,” combined 15 musicians with 35 machines of his own devising, which play music and make noise.

In the real-time performance of electronic music, a master instrument builder need never swing a hammer: Laurie Spiegel, for example, devised her Macintosh software Music Mouse to enable the performance of real-time computer music, without relying on an instrumental keyboard or acoustic or sampled sounds. Salvatore Martirano built his Sal-Mar Construction, a 24-speaker synthesizer system, to permit simultaneous creation and performance of improvisatory compositions. David Tudor, having combined live electronics with piano for John Cage (Variations II) and with bandoneon for Lowell Cross (Musica Instrumentalis), began performing on mostly custom-built modular electronic devices, many made by himself. By choosing specific electronic components and transducers and their interconnections, he defined both composition and performance for such works as Hedgehog and 9 Lines, Reflected. Jerry Hunt designed innovative computer systems and employed proximity detectors to trigger electronic sounds in his often highly energetic performances. His Quaquaversal Transmission 4 used two-way telephone lines for live interactive computer-system performance of audio, video, light systems, and micro-robotic groups.

John Bischoff, Chris Brown, Scot Gresham Lancaster, Tim Perkis, Phil Stone, and Mark Trayle formed The Hub, connecting and combining their individual computer systems to create complex, live electronic music. Tom Cameron composed and performed electronic music in real-time, combining the structure of hardware and programming with what he calls “spontaneous composition.” The Toy Symphony of composer/inventor Tod Machover uses high-tech Music Toys that he designed with the MIT Media Lab; they serve as sophisticated interactive instruments with which children can play and compose music.

With electronics, the instrument maker can also become something of a cyborg builder: Morton Subotnick employed the conductor’s baton to control the electronics in A Desert Flowers; Laetitia de Compiegne Sonami has used her “Lady’s Glove,” an elbow-length, left-handed glove with 16 pressure and direction sensors, to control a computer and create electronic sound. A further cyborg strain involves taking an instrument and redesigning it electronically. In Subotnick’s “ghost scores,” such as The Wild Beasts and Axolotl, there are no pre-recorded electronic sounds; instead, the live sound of the instrumentalist is picked up, modified, and played back during the performance over loudspeakers.

Others have pursued more extreme revisions of their instruments. The “mutantrumpet” of Ben Neill “started out as an acoustic instrument with three bells and a trombone slide, with an extra set of valves for routing the sound into the different bells. It has a number of switches, pressure-sensitive pads, and little controllers that I use to send MIDI messages to the computer to modify things as they’re playing.” Jon Hassell transformed the sound of his trumpet with tape loops, synthesizers, and other electronic systems. Jon English added a tape-delay system to his trombone for Electrombonics. Nicolas Collins employed a trombone as the controller for his digital reverb, using the slide as a digital pot, with a keypad to access the computer that manipulated the reverb. Laurie Anderson has performed on violins interfaced to a Synclavier. Multiple delay systems characterize the justly-tunedExpanded Accordion” of Pauline Oliveros, who controls the delay time using foot pedals.

“There’s always been evolution of instruments—if you just look into music history, it’s there,” observed Pauline Oliveros, whose vast experience in the field even includes a brief stint in Partch’s ensemble for Oedipus. “There are lots of reasons to invent instruments.” The most important reason remains the same, regardless of the field of instrument-building: to hear the special music that only a new instrument can provide.

from I Built It! The Built Environment In American Music
By Nicole V. Gagné
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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