Support American Mavericks with your purchases
  • News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment
American Mavericks home page

From Moog to Mark II, to MIDI to MAX
Wendy Carlos, Morton Subotnick

The first piece of music written specifically for a record, rather than for performance, appeared in 1967. Here's how it happened.

One day in 1966, a man in a suit appeared at Subotnicks apartment in New York claiming that he was the head of Nonesuch Records, and saying he wanted to give Subotnick a $500 advance on an electronic piece for a recording. Subotnick had never heard of Nonesuch Records, and threw the guy out. But just in case, he checked around, and found out that there was a new record label called Nonesuch. The next day the man returned offering $1,000. This time, Subotnick accepted.

Morton Subotnick was at the time a professor at New York University, and best known for providing electronic music for a discotheque called The Electric Circus. He had started out on the West Coast with a wildly experimental crowd at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. They used to do things like place a fish tank in front of a large piece of music paper and play the fish as though they were notes moving on a score. It was the sixties.

Well, at the Tape Music Center Subotnick got to work with a new piece of equipment called the Buchla Box, named for its inventor Don Buchla. A step up from the Moog Synthesizer, the Buchla Box added a pressure-sensitive keyboard and a built-in sequencer - an automation device with which a composer could store a sequence of notes or pieces of information. The sequencer freed composers from having to put together electronic music from individual bits of tape, since the sequencer would play a whole stream of notes at one push of a button. When the Tape Music Center closed in 1966, Subotnick headed for New York. Together, Subotnick, the Buchla Box, and the thousand dollars made a splashy new piece of electronic music called Silver Apples of the Moon.

It's difficult to imagine now, with electronic music surrounding us, what a brave new world Silver Apples of the Moon seemed to open up. Before that, electronic music was something painstakingly put together with tiny bits of tape spliced together on splicing blocks by professors working in electronic studios in the basements of universities. Suddenly, Subotnick was producing record-length works with a wide-ranging palette of sounds never heard before. Electronic music was no longer just a spooky concoction of bloops and bleeps. It growled, it rumbled, it chirped, it could slowly transform its textures at a leisurely, symphonic pace. And Subotnick, who has rarely done anything in his life that he wasn't the first to do, embarked on a series of groundbreaking recordings: The Wild Bull in 1968, Touch in 1969, Sidewinder in 1971, Four Butterflies in 1973. For once, instead of using recordings as documents of live performance, a composer was producing music intended to be listened to on a home stereo. Sidewinder, for example, started out sounding like a rattlesnake, gradually metamorphosing into different textures.

These weren't the only events turning public attention to the potential of electronic music. By the late 60s, rock groups had begun to see synthesizers as a glamorous addition to their acts. Keith Emerson bought a Moog synthesizer to use with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Pink Floyd incorporated one in their album Dark Side of the Moon. [Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon] Perhaps the most publicized development, though, was a 1968 record called Switched-On Bach, in which several works by old Johann Sebastian Bach were recreated on a synthesizer. It wasn't an easy feat. Its creator, Walter Carlos, had to painstakingly sequence all of the music, constantly recalibrating the synthesizer because of pitch drift. But the record was a tremendous popular success, and Carlos followed it up with groundbreaking electronic film scores for A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. In the 70s, he became the first musical celebrity to undergo a sex-change operation, changing his/her name to Wendy Carlos in 1979. Carlos spent months electronically colorizing Bach's music. Today, any technologically gifted teenager with a computer and the right software could recreate that feat in a couple of days.

We are surrounded by electronic sound. The Mavericks shows are electronic, since they're coming through your loudspeakers. Before 1980, the term "electronic composer" meant something specific, someone who worked in a large studio with other composers and technicians, surrounded by primitive synthesizers run by paper drives, and huge mainframe computers that took up entire rooms and had to be independently programmed for each command. The advent of personal computers in the early 1980s, and an explosion of digital technology, changed that forever. Electronic keyboards that carried a price tag of $25,000 in 1980 were down to $1,200 five years later. By the mid-1980s, any working stiff could have sound-manipulating power in his basement that put the great electronic studios of the 1970s to shame.

Today, the term "electronic composer" pretty much ceased to mean anything. Rare is the composer today who hasn't used electronics for some aspect of his or her work. Some composers have let the computer write the music. Others have used the synthesizer as an instrument in an ensemble. Trent Reznor showed how the computer could transform pop music by creating the recordings of his virtual rock group Nine Inch Nails at home with music software, sometimes without any live input. Today there are thousands of teenagers sitting at home making their own music on their laptops. Computer-synthesized orchestras are so widespread in film scores that you can rarely tell whether the instruments ever existed acoustically. We are indeed surrounded by electronic music.

Of course, it took some mavericks to get us started in that direction. The electronic impulse began in 1877 when Thomas Edison - one of the great mavericks of all time - recorded himself reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a tin-foil cylinder. The flat vinyl record appeared in 1894, becoming obsolete almost a century later. Magnetic tape debuted in 1927, although not until World War II was it developed, for espionage purposes, to sufficient quality for musical recording. The first stereo tape recorder came on the market in 1949, and we started having concerts of electronic music only three years later. In 1952 the first concerts of electronic music were given by two unlikely, old-world figures at Columbia University, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening.

Ussachevsky was born in Manchuria to Russian parents; Luening to German parents who returned to Germany in his youth. Both had written traditional, European-style music by the time Columbia University acquired a tape recorder in 1951 and put Ussachevsky in charge of it. Using flute and piano as sound sources, they experimented with tape delay, running the tape backwards, slowing it down, splicing off the attacks of notes. Ussachevsky used piano sounds in his piece Sonic Contours, as well as bits of conversation between himself and his wife. Luening's piece Low Speed slowed down flute tones well below the range of the instrument. The October 28, 1953, concert at the Museum of Modern Art that included these works made Luening and Ussachevsky famous.

Meanwhile, other musicians were searching for tones not just recorded and altered, but electronically produced. First there was Thaddeus Cahills Telharmonium, unveiled to the public in New York in 1906 - a kind of Muzak machine intended to pipe electronic versions of classical literature into restaurants. Far more lasting in its influence was the Theremin, invented by Leon Theremin and first demonstrated in Moscow in 1920. Theremin made waves, literally and figuratively, by producing music seemingly out of the air, moving his arms in space around a pair of metal rods. Sent to America in 1927 not only to market his new machine but to engage in industrial espionage for the Soviets, Theremin took America by storm. 1930 saw a concert of ten theremins at Carnegie Hall.

Though the theremin was advertised as an instrument any amateur could learn, it actually required tremendous discipline and dexterity. Theremin virtuosos like Clara Rockmore became stars in the 1940s, playing tunes from classical literature like "The Swan" from Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals. [Clara Rockmore recording] Perhaps more than any electronic instrument since, the theremin seeped into pop culture via soundtracks for movies like It Came from Outer Space and the theme song for the Green Hornet TV show. (The often cited Theremin use in the Beach Boy’s song Good Vibrations was actually another instrument, the “Electro-Thereminâ€, built by Bob Whitsell in 1958, and was mechanically controlled using only a single sine wave, rather than the spatially controlled, multi-harmonic overtones the original Theremin possessed.)

However, Theremin himself disappeared mysteriously in 1938, leaving a wife behind in America. For 29 years, no one in the West know whether he was alive or dead. Back in the Soviet Union, Theremin had been arrested as an enemy of the state, and spent nine months in one of the most fearsome of Siberian prisoner camps, Kolyma, where men died by the hundreds every day of starvation and overwork in the Northern hemisphere's bitterest cold. Deemed an important scientific asset, however, he was taken back to Moscow to do top secret work on airplane design before being siphoned into the world of espionage. He was allowed to travel only after perestroika, and made return trips to Europe and the U.S. in 1989-1991, shortly before he died.

Luckily, the Theremin lived its own life without him. In 1949 a 15-year-old boy named Robert Moog read an article on how to build Theremins, and began producing them. They sold quickly, and within five years he and his father had interrupted his college studies to form the R.A. Moog Co. Moog did research on voltage-controlled oscillators and amplifiers, and by 1964 had constructed his own Electronic Music Module," later advertised as a synthesizer. A huge, imposing black box dotted with knobs and holes for cables, the Moog Synthesizer was the beginning of an apparently endless series of electronic sound-generation machines.

The Moog was matched at Columbia University by the Mark II synthesizer, which filled most of a room, and contained 750 vacuum tubes driven by two paper drives. Its synthesizer units were capable of producing sawtooth waves and noise, and of controlling the pitch, envelope, volume, and spectrum of the waves produced. Extremely difficult to operate, it allowed four melodies at once. The first pieces produced on it were by Milton Babbitt, such as his piece Ensembles of 1964.

Max Mathews

Meanwhile, a whole other stream of electronic music was developing independently at Bell Labs in New Jersey: computer music. The great pioneer here was Max V. Mathews, who was hired by the acoustic research department of Bell Labs in 1955 to help develop computer equipment to improve telephone sound. In the course of his work, he invented a converter that could convert sound into digital information for computer use and then refigure it back. Mathews, a violinist himself, immediately realized that this made it possible to generate music via computer. He developed a sound-generating program called Music I, and in 1957 he, along with Newman Guttman and John Pierce (who coined the word transistor), created the first computer-generated music.

The first computer music piece was almost nothing - a little ditty by Guttman called In the Silver Scale. Early computer music pieces were written by technicians, not musicians. Notably, however, Mathews made a piece called Numerology in 1960 in which, for the first time, one sound gradually morphed into another, a piano tone into a bowed string. More famously, it was Mathews who computer-synthesized a version of the old song Bicycle Built for Two, which was later used in Stanley Kubrick s 1968 film 2001, A Space Odyssey, where it is famously sung by Hal the computer as he is being disconnected and his early memories are flashing by.

From 1970 to 1985, electronic music technology received a complete makeover almost every year. The first computer music was made by punching IBM computer cards in stacks of maybe 3,000 for a few seconds worth of music, sending those cards out to a mainframe computer for processing, then having the resulting number-coded tape run through a digital-to-analogue converter to get actual sound. This extremely slow method was quickly superseded. In the early 1980s, the entire field was revolutionized, once again, by the advent of the personal computer, and also by the move toward a universal standard for computer music controls.

In 1981 technicians from three companies - Roland, Oberheim, and Sequential Circuits - met to design a universal interface for electronic instruments, so that equipment from different manufacturers would all be compatible within one system. By 1983 they had come up with something called MIDI: Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Through MIDI, all electronic keyboards (and eventually electronic wind instruments, guitars, and drum machines as well) could hook up to computers for interactive sequencing, sound manipulation, playback, recording, and so on. The sequencing Subotnick had achieved in Silver Apples of the Moon was now even easier.

As an assistant to Max Mathews, New York composer Laurie Spiegel was in on these developments from the beginning. She was not only a computer technologist but a folk musician and lute player, and her music didn't sound anything like the bloop-bleepy cliches of the genre. In a piece from the 1970s called Appalachian Grove she morphed some a mandolin into a trumpet, with charming melodicism. Later, Spiegel invented an interactive software program called Music Mouse, which allowed any interested amateur to elicit huge cascades of mutating sound just by moving a mouse. Many people, including pop musicians, used Music Mouse to create their own music, bringing up some interesting copyright problems: was the music theirs, or Spiegel's, or a collaboration? But the best results came from Spiegel herself, who, as in her 1990 composition Riding the Storm, could create shimmering orchestral textures of bells, drums, and rattles just by slight moves of her wrist.

Yet another revolution came about because of the sampler. Technically speaking, a synthesizer creates electronic sounds from scratch, while a sampler records sounds from the real world. It can then reproduce them, play them backwards, slow them down, or gradually change them into different sounds.

Carl Stone is one of the leading pioneers of the sampler, and also one of the first of a new breed of composer we're already seeing a lot more of. He performs his computer music live but almost without moving: sitting at a table and staring into the screen, his face illuminated by its faint blue glow. Stone, from San Francisco, uses samples from other music along with software that will loop them and transform them in real time. One of his most delightful pieces - and one thing you need to know about Stone is that all his pieces are named after restaurants, usually Asian ones - is called Shing Kee, and it's awfully difficult to tell at first what the sound source is. Give up? What Stone's done is taken a recording of the Japanese pop singer Akiko Yano singing a song from Schubert's classical song cycle Die Winterreise, and then loop it, broadening the length of the loop until you can hear more and more. Working with samples in a computerized context, you begin to realize how much information our ear processes to recognize all the sounds we hear every day.

San Francisco composer Charles Amirkhanian, on the other hand, is more interested in leaving the sounds as they are, layering them into evocative soundscapes that conjure up images in our minds. Amirkhanians Walking Tune, for example, is an homage to the composer Percy Grainger. The piece overlays solo violin with the humming of hummingbirds, the squeaking of rusty gates, and footsteps crunching on a gravel path.

Living in Cincinnati, Henry Gwiazda is a true poet of the sampler, with a whimsical approach to combining everyday noises. His real claim to fame is that he's been the leading pioneer of virtual audio, creating pieces of music in a three-dimensional space so that, with only two loudspeakers, you think you're hearing sounds above and behind you. To do that he had to use software that was developed for airline pilots that would spatially separate all the different signals they had to keep track of in their headphones.

Computer music has a public image of being grim, noisy, and austere. It certainly isn't true of the music of Paul Lansky. Originaly a 12-tone composer, Lansky became interested in speech synthesis in 1975 and never looked back. Some of his works are beautifully ambient, using the human voice to trigger halos of sound in a computerized environment. As Lansky explains it, using software he can set up what he calls dozens and dozens of tiny little [virtual] shower stalls that make the voice reverberate the way it does when you're singing in the shower. This is how he gets the gentle ambience of a piece like Word Color. [Lansky, Word Color]

One of Lansky's breakthroughs came one day as he drove out of the Lincoln Tunnel and heard a group of inner city youths hassling a cop in rap. What a wonderful use of language, he thought. This led to a series of vigorous works called Idle Chatter, just_more_idle_chatter, and Notjustmoreidlechatter, in which he ran computerized words through minimalist chord changes.

Of course, when you sample someone, you're stealing someone else's sounds. In some cases this has led to copyright problems. Rap musicians, who were quicker to pick up on the sampler's potential than composers, have sometimes gotten sued for stealing a cymbal crash from, say, a James Brown disc and using it in their own music. One composer who confronted this problem head-on was the Canadian John Oswald. In 1989 he released a controversial disc called Plunderphonics made entirely from samples stolen from other recordings and twisted, slowed down, looped, and altered. He used soundbites from the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Beethovens Seventh Symphony, Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, Dolly Parton, and Metallica, often in humorous juxtapositions. He covered himself legally, too: he sent copies of the disc out for free, and never received a penny, stating in the liner notes that no copies could be bought or sold. Even so, he was threatened with a lawsuit by the Canadian Recording Industry Association for using Michael Jackson's music, and was forced to destroy the remaining 300 copies of the disc; 700 had already been sent out. But here you can hear what a creative sampling artist can do with a Dolly Parton song.

Richard Tietlebaum

Unlike the flute or saxophone, the computer isn't just a musical instrument: it's a jamming partner. The first person to program a computer to play music beyond his own control was Joel Chadabe, in a 1970 work called Drift. One of the true maverick electronic composers has been Richard Teitelbaum, who in the '60s was the first person to take a Moog synthesizer to Europe. In Teitelbaum's music, he, or some other soloist, will play some music on a keyboard or other instrument. The computer will store that solo as information, and play it back making changes in speed, transposition, timbre, and other factors. Teitelbaum's Concerto Grosso of 1985 was written for himself, trombonist George Lewis, and reed player Anthony Braxton as soloists, accompanied by an "orchestra" of four synthesizers and two digitally-controlled pianos.

Teitelbaum likens the computerized orchestra to a psychoanalyst, taking the performers' unconscious impulses and shooting them back with a different significance. In the course of a performance he likes to overload the computer system until it goes out of control. Not for nothing has his magnum opus been a computerized opera called Golem, based on the Jewish myth of a Frankenstein-type man created to save the Jewish people, but which then had to be destroyed because it ran amok.

Many composers today use the computer as an instrument for improvisation, via a ubiquitous piece of software called Max/MSP, the Max part in honor of Max Mathews. In the hands of today's young composers, Max/MSP is a universe of its own. On the screen the program offers dozens of little boxes containing numbers or pitches, and you draw lines between them, so that the same data can control melodic curve, loudness, rhythmic attacks, any number of phenomena. The Max part of the software runs MIDI instruments like synthesizers, while the MSP part handles actual signal processing, so that you can play around with audio samples in real time. Sometimes it's difficult to hear what the relationship of the sounds might be to the composer's original input. But we live today at the very beginnings of the history of artificial intelligence music, watching curiously as a whole new way of musical thinking slowly unfolds.

End of file