Stars, Stripes, Batons and Circuits: American Music For Orchestra and Electronics

Although changing technology has always been a factor in the history of art, the interaction of the two forces has often occurred gradually and without much fanfare. By contrast, the growing relationship between electricity and music-making (from the earliest twentieth-century developments until now) has been a rather public affair – often the cause of consternation, hand-wringing, and widespread misconceptions (especially about the supposedly anti-humanistic effects of science on modernist art, and the belief that this new approach was related to a single “style,” linked with a particular esthetic).

With the benefit of hindsight, we in the twenty-first century may simply think of electronic developments as the equivalent of a new instrument (more accurately, a collection of instruments), extending our definition of what is performable. These developments, or instruments, have led to revised textural concerns, extended vocabularies, and inevitably to new stylistic priorities. But there is no single “electronic style.” In fact, the opposite is true: musical composition and/or performance by means of electricity, especially during the first flush of experimentation after World War II proved to be esthetically and stylistically neutral, applicable to a near-infinite range of approaches.

The very beginnings of electronic music, however, were stylistically rooted in the Post-Romantic esthetic of their time. From the turn of the century through the 1940s, electronic developments were primarily centered around the creation of instruments for live performance – well-suited to the projection of sweeping, lyric melody, with the added attraction of unique timbre and the potential for striking vibrato and glissando effects. (It is not surprising that the theremin and ondes martenot — the two best-known instruments of that early era — were often used to perform arioso passages of Puccini and Rachmaninoff.) The earliest American works for orchestra and electronics use these instruments, showcasing their eerie, otherworldly qualities to create programmatic and/or dramatic music. Miklos Rozsa‘s 1945 film scores for The Lost Weekend and Spellbound, included the theremin, and Edgard Varèse‘s used two ondes martenots projecting the “exotic” quality of distant cultures in his Ecuatorial (1932-34), which was based on Mayan texts.

An extra-musical agenda of another sort, however, lies behind Joseph Schillinger‘s First Airphonic Suite (1929) for theremin and orchestra – a celebration of the technology itself, even a hymn of praise to the new century. (Incidentally, Professor Theremin was soloist for the first performance.) A similar quality also pervades those early twentieth-century works which employ technological artifacts, rather than “dedicated” instruments, as sound producers within large ensembles – for example, George Antheil‘s use of airplane propellers in the Ballet Mecanique, or the sirens which appear in Varèse’s Ionisation. (Incidentally, both of these works are scored for percussion “orchestra,” further reinforcing their sense of commitment to modernism.) In all these instances, composers chose electronic means to further various extra-musical ends, whether eerie, exotic, psychological, futuristic, social, and/or political.

But there were always those for whom electronic devices held more strictly “musical” attractions. Some became intrigued by their unique tone color (not for programmatic reasons, but purely timbral ones. Others admired their resonance, their weight, and their precise control over intonation. It may be worth noting, in this context, that the theremin was used by Stokowski in 1930 to reinforce the double basses in the Philadelphia Orchestra; it was replaced in the mid-1930s by an ondes martenot.

After the post-war musique concrète experiments of 1948, however, and particularly after the historic Luening-Ussachevsky MOMA concert of tape music (1952), American composers began to discover that this new medium had other musical ramifications of staggering variety. It became apparent, in fact, that the phenomenon of pre-recorded sound and tape playback lent itself to whatever esthetic direction one might have. Some composers, with stylistic affinities to the twelve-tone and emerging serial movement, were struck by the new medium’s capacity for dealing with issues of phenomenal precision, accuracy, virtuosity, and sensitive calibrations of detail. From an opposite point of view, those interested in improvisation, indeterminacy, ritual, and “theater” could delight in the possibility–through tape manipulation–of transforming the everyday sound world into a “mysterious” dreamlike haze. Others were concerned with exploring the ways in which electronic patterns might heighten a textural fabric of many layers, or the placement of familiar music in a collage of newly-colliding contexts, or the location of electronic sounds in space using the antiphonal placement of loudspeakers. All of these, appropriately, reflect the major directions of non-electronic concert music after 1945.

From Stars, Stripes, Batons and Circuits: American Music For Orchestra and Electronics
by Elliott Schwartz
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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