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  • Majella Clarke

Early Audio Technology's Influences on Composition and Music


During the second industrial revolution, where electricity was changing the distribution of sound and society experiences music, new possibilities opened up on innovation with respect to musical instruments and musical expression. It was a tumultuous time in music history, with public resistance to new music forms and styles, which are difficult to imagine in today’s circumstances. For examples, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a riot in Paris, in the same year, 1913, as the SkandelKonzert in Vienna (featuring compositions by Webern, Schönberg, Berg), experimentalism in the arts was propelled by scientific innovation.


In the same era of the early 20th Century, new instruments were being developed. The Telharmonium (the first electric organ) was patented by Thadeus Cahill, he went on to invent three versions (MARK I, MARK II and MARK III) between 1897 and 2010 (Author unknown, in 120 years of Electronic Music), before going bankrupt in 1914. In 1920, Russian physicist, Léon Theremin, invented an instrument called the Teremin, which was based on research using proximity sensors, it became a very popular instrument to include in experimental and avant-garde music of the 20thCentury, see Glinsky & Moog (2000). The Ondes Martenot was an electronic instrument invented by Maurice Martinot in 1928 and was designed to play the microtones of Hindi music and produce continuous pitch glissandi. Laurens Hammond developed Cahill’s Telharmonium further into what became the first electronic organ that saw distribution of the electric organ Hammond, at scale. Further developments to the organ have rise to synthesized sound, see Eargle (1995).

At this point, it is worth now reviewing a few examples of how these technologies from the first half of the 20th century influenced music and sound in the artistic sphere. Many Avant Garde and experimental composers, artists and scientists, made use of the aforementioned technologies adding to repertoire that departed from the pure human-mechanical sound and introduced the human-mechanical-electronic sound.


In 1929, Joseph Schillinger wrote the First Airphonic Suite for Theremin and Orchestra, which was premiered in the USA with Leon Teremin as the soloist. Oliver Messian played a key role in gaining recognition for the Ondes Martinot, composing many pieces featuring chamber and orcherstral works (e.g. Fête des belles eaux, Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine, Turangalîla-Symphonie, Saint François d’Assise, Le Merle noir). Recent compositions still use the Ondes Martenot, for example Thomas Bloch composed Formule in 1995. Other contemporary composers that composed specifically for the instrument include Bohuslav Martinu, Oliver Touchard and Lindsay Cooper, see Bloch et al (2004).


With respect to audio technologies, avant garde composers also incorporated such technologies into their compositions. For example John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 is composed for 24 performers on 12 radios and a conductor, see sample score in Figure 2 on the following page. Cage has other compositions which included the radio in the performance which included Speech 1955, Radio Music and Music Walk, see Nicholls (2002). Karlheinz Stockhausen instrumented the Microphone in several of his compositions including the famous Mikrophonie I and Mikrophonie II.


Not all avant-garde, indeterminate music must get complex in notation, like Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I. John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 using 24 performers on 12 radios is a comparably simple score. On one hand, Cage does not get complex with notation, rather he uses conventional musical notation to guide the performance with radios – though the performers have much less control over the sound output from the radio.


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