The launch of the American Symphony Orchestra’s “Orchestra Tech” Initiative this October seems an appropriate occasion to survey the history of American music for orchestra and electronics. Before beginning, however, we need to define our terms and set boundaries. Specifically, three words–“American,” “electronic” and “orchestra”–can be, and have been, interpreted in various ways. Regarding “American” music, I’ve decided to focus on music of the United States, including music by émigrés, in full realization of the fact that Canada and Mexico are equally “American” (and that the Canadian contribution to this history is highly significant). By “orchestra,” I mean not only the traditional large (post-Romantic) symphony orchestra, but other ensembles as well – certainly the small neo-classic chamber orchestra, the string orchestra, and even chamber ensembles of twelve or more players.
What do we mean by “electronic” music? As we know, that term–or the more inclusive one “electro-acoustic” music–refers not only to the modification of natural sounds by electronic means, but the use of oscillators, generators, and computer programs to create sound, and performing scenarios ranging from tape playback, to real-time “live” performance, to computer interface. And when we combine “electronic” and “orchestral” concepts, the possibilities multiply further. Some composers have employed pre-recorded tape as one element in an otherwise “orchestral” texture. But others have preferred to modify the sounds of acoustic instruments by electrical means. Still others have explored the use of electronic instruments within the orchestral fabric: music-making devices played in real time by human beings, but driven by electricity. And, perhaps stretching the definition of “orchestra” to its limits, some composers have created “orchestras” consisting entirely of such electronic instruments. Consider John Cage’s ensemble of 12 radios, or Joseph Schillinger’s equally provocative consort of 14 theremins. And, as the technologies evolved during the twentieth century, so too has the music.
Before 1950, electronics were more a curiosity than a vital medium, often added to the orchestral palette more for effect than purely for art’s sake. But, from the early 1950s to late 1970s, the worlds of orchestral sound and electronically-generated sound frequently collided in great explorations by many important American composers. Since the 1980s, the field has continued to evolve but has become more the domain of a few significant specialists. But, with events like the multi-year Orchestra Tech Initiative on the horizon, the future may yet offer a second golden age of music for the orchestra involving circuits of some sort.
A perceptive statement made early on by Schillinger should serve as a rallying cry: “Music plus electricity equals the sound of the twentieth century.” Events have proven him right — and that sentence will look even more prophetic in the twenty-first!