Classical Music Review: New Releases

OHM : the early gurus of electronic music : 1948-1980.  Works by Maryanne Amacher, Robert Ashley, Milton Babbitt, Louis and Bebe Barron, François Bayle, David Behrman, John Cage, John Chowning, Alvin Curran, Holger Czukay, Tod Dockstader, Charles Dodge, Herbert Eimert and Robert Beyer, Brian Eno, Luc Ferarri, Jon Hassell, Paul Lansky, Hugh Le Caine, Alvin Lucier, Otto Luening, Richard Maxfield, Olivier Messiaen, Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), Pauline Oliveros, Bernard Parmegiani, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Jean-Claude Risset, Clara Rockmore, Oskar Sala, Pierre Schaeffer, Klaus Schulze, Raymond Scott, Laurie Spiegel, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Subotnick, David Tudor, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis, La Monte Young, Joji Yuasa.  Ellipsis Arts CD 3670 ().

What first strikes one on hearing these pieces is how heroic these early pioneers were.  A rather non-descript piece plays for five or six minutes, then one turns to the linear notes to discover that it took ten months and the resources of Stanford University (or Bell Labs or GRM or WDR) to realize.  Bebe Barron, one of the composers of the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet (1956), says of a collaboration with John Cage: "I was astonished when I heard the piece.  Some of the sounds would appear and disappear so quickly that you couldn't recognize the source; it made me wish that we hadn't spent so long on some of it."  Listening to the work, entitled "Williams Mix" (1952), it is difficult not to agree.  Cage got what he shot for: sonic randomness.  But that's not the point.  Look at the date of composition. Musique concrète had only been around for about four years; there is no way that anyone could have known what the thing would sound like until it was done.

It is that experimental quality which dominates this collection.  Few of the pieces collected here have the patina of a finished work of art.  We are in the laboratory, not the concert hall.  There are exceptions, mostly from those pieces which cleave closest to popular music, such as Raymond Scott's "Cindy Electronium" (1959) with its effervescent rhythm or Laurie Spiegel's "Appalachian Grove I" (1974), based on pre-Civil War fiddle music.  Holger Czukay, best known for his work with the group Can, is represented by a tape collage, "Boat-Woman-Song" (1969), which combines a droning pedal chord, a chanting women's voices and a sample (as it would be called now) from a choral work by Pierre de la Rue.  Also in this popular vein is Brain Eno's "Unfamiliar Wind (Leek Hills)" (1978-82), a lovely example of his ambient music.

Works that combine acoustic and electronic instruments also work well.  For example, the excerpt from Terry Riley's "Poppy Nogood" (1968), which has a jazzy feel abetted by Jon Gibson's saxophone; and David Behrman's "On the Other Ocean" (1977), also an excerpt from a longer piece, which features live musicians improvising with "pitch-sensing instruments."  Another intriguing piece is Vladimir Ussachevsky's "Wireless Fantasy" (1960), a simulation of a short-wave radio broadcast with Wagner's "Good Friday Music" from Parsival wafting in over the ether.

Several classic pieces are included:  Edgar Varèse's "Poem Électronique" (1958), composed for the Philips Pavillion at the Brussels World Exposition (it required 400 speakers positioned throughout the hall); Pierre Schaeffer's "Etude aux Chemins de Fer" (1948), based on tapes of trains, which I believe is the first example of musique concrète; also edits from Kontakte (Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1959-60), Philomel (Milton Babbitt, 1964), and Hibiki-Hana-Ma (Iannis Xenakis, 1970).  This last piece calls for 800 speakers, trumping Varèse!

One could cite omissions or cavil over choices, but really it would be hard to put together a better or more representative collection of electro-accoustic music from this period.  The linear notes are informative without pedantry and the design of the slipcase (including a translucent sleeve printed with a schematic of the wiring inside a theremin) is perhaps the most striking I've ever seen.  In short, a first-class collection that will serve to illuminate the genesis of this important art form.

Tony Gualtieri
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