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

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

During the 1950s, theremins continued to appear in orchestral situations, such as Bernard Herrmann‘s score for the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but tape music had become the biggest news item within the musical community. Experimentation with sounds recorded on magnetic tape, altered, and then “frozen” for playback in concert, had spread from France to Germany and then to North America. There was widespread fascination with the newfound medium; combining it with that of the orchestra seemed a natural (almost inevitable) union. Composers were naturally excited by the thought of having the “fixed” medium of tape placed in contact with live human performance. There seemed to be unlimited potential for creating a new kind of ensemble music, with unparalleled variety of situations and scenarios. And the orchestra seemed a perfect live foil for the electro-acoustic medium. The power and volume of loudspeakers could easily compete with that of the full orchestra. Conversely, the delicate timbral nuances of tape music could dovetail nicely with solo and chamber-like passages within the orchestra. In fact, for variety of tone color and dynamic range, the orchestra was the equal of the tape studio or synthesizer (minus the power cord or wall outlet). Finally, the union of forces had strategic, political attractions (for both sides). Composers saw that the glamour, prestige, pomp, and sheer sex-appeal of the symphony orchestra could lend legitimacy to their electronic experiments, and orchestra directors, managers, and boards concerned about audience-building knew that orchestral-electronic works were bound to attract public attention.

Much “orch-tech” music created during the 1950s and ’60s used tape parts created by assembling and splicing many fragments of sound material (natural, everyday sounds, or those of acoustic instruments, or electronically generated ones) – in short, by the use of musique concrète techniques. Beyond the creation of the tape, however, composers were also faced with another pressing issue: the relationship between the live and electronic forces — whether the orchestra and tape would be heard simultaneously, as elements of a single texture, or as separate (even possibly independent) components, whether conceived as “cooperative” partners or “confrontational” adversaries, whether spatially integrated or antiphonally separated.

In the earliest works, live and recorded materials were presented in alternation, with virtually no overlapping of the two. This relationship can be observed most clearly in the pioneering music of Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, who were not only the two composers who had organized the MOMA concert of 1952, but also ground-breakers in the creation of music for orchestra and tape. Three works in particular–the Rhapsodic Variations (1953–54), A Poem in Cycles and Bells of 1954, and the 1960 Concerted Piece for Tape Recorder and Orchestra–exemplify the strength of their unique collaboration. The last-named of these pieces is especially interesting, in that the two composers contributed separate sections. Luening’s part (the first half of the work) uses concrete sounds exclusively and alternates orchestra with tape, while Ussachevsky’s half has moments of synchronized integration, and explores electronic as well as natural sounds. The early “orch-tech” approach exemplified by Luening and Ussachevsky served as a model for other composers of this period. Their influence can be felt in such works as Edgard Varèse‘s 1954 Déserts for chamber ensemble and 2-track track tape. We can also find examples of music for orchestra and tape in which the recorded material is “natural” rather than “manipulated.” Expressively, these run the gamut from Alan Hovhaness‘s 1970 work for recorded whale sounds and orchestra And God Created Great Whales–a serious, reflective essay on the subject of species preservation–to Gary Smart‘s 1973 Del Diario de un Papagayo using a tape of the composer’s pet parrot, a versatile creature apparently capable of speaking a number of languages and singing operatic arias (!) to boot.

During this same period, however, composers of a different stylistic bent – particularly the serialists, with their special concern for precision, careful calibration, and greater control over musical parameters – became increasingly interested in electronic instruments known as “synthesizers.” The first of these was the legendary RCA Synthesizer of the 1950s, highly complex in its operation and massive enough to take up an entire wall. During the ’60s, “synthesizers” of another species became widespread, as a number of manufacturers began to produce smaller, more accessible units also bearing that name. Modular voltage-controlled Moog, Buchla, and ARP instruments allowed one to control the creation, modification, and temporal succession of sounds (and virtually eliminated laborious tape-splicing); consequently, they became the centerpieces of studios on many American university campuses. “Orch-tech” works of this era with a strong focus upon tightly organized, calibrated relationships include the 1960 Contrastes no.1 for string orchestra and electronics by Mario Davidovsky, Milton Babbitt‘s 1967 work for the same forces called Correspondences, and Charles Wuorinen‘s Orchestral and Electronic Exchanges of 1965 — for which the taped sounds were created using the RCA Synthesizer, and during which the orchestral and electronic forces alternate with each other in what seems to have become a classic relationship.

The twelve-tone composers were, of course, not the only ones attracted by the idea of uniting synthesizer and orchestra. Morton Subotnick, working on the Buchla voltage control system, created two such pieces during the 1960s, both entitled Lamination, and both exploring ways in which orchestral “extended techniques” — fluttertongue, key pops, glissandi, singing into one’s instrument and the like — might mirror prominent timbres of the tape part (in this instance, drawn from the composer’s own Silver Apples of the Moon). Donald Erb, using Moog instruments to prepare his tape, explored similar tone-color juxtapositions in the 1973 Autumnmusic and 1975 Music for a Festive Occasion.

By this time, synthesizer manufacturers had begun to produce less modular, more portable units that could be used in live performing situations – designed for a growing market of rock musicians, no doubt, but equally stimulating to creators of so-called “serious” music. A portable Moog or ARP instrument, performed on the concert stage (and sharing that stage with an orchestra) could be employed to heighten and spotlight the unpredictability of live performance – perhaps a performance that encourages improvisation and chance. Furthermore, the portable synthesizer looks so exciting up there; moreover, the sheer choreography of activating it, of making it “speak,” might add a theatrical, visual element. (Shades of Schillinger and his theremin suite of 1929!) It’s not surprising, then, that some composers would want to explore the “concerto” genre for live electronic soloist and symphony. One particularly interesting example was created by John Eaton for performance on an instrument called the Synket. Eaton had discovered the Synket (created by Paul Ketoff) while in residence at the American Academy in Rome, and was inspired by it to compose his 1966 Concert Piece for synket and orchestra. Eaton’s interest in microtones led him to separate the orchestra into two groups, each tuned a quarter-tone part, with the synket part functioning as “mediator.”

Theatrical aspects of orchestral “live electronics” were bound to go beyond the concerto-like presence of a synthesizer soloist. By the 1970s we might be more likely to find an on-stage multi-layered texture (both sonic and visual!) involving a combination of synthesizers, traditional acoustic instruments, and amplified instruments. For example, the score of David Del Tredici‘s Final Alice (1975) calls for amplified soprano solo and an orchestra that includes theremin, saxophones, banjo, mandolin, and accordion. Similarly, Donald Erb’s 1970 Klangfarbenfunk makes use of a rock band with electric guitar and bass, amplified orchestra instruments, and electronic sounds.

It’s just one step beyond this to the creation of an entire “orchestra” of electronic instruments: a consort of portable voltage-control synthesizers, and/or modified (amplified, reverberated, etc.) acoustic instruments. This tendency had been growing within the pop world of the late 1960s and early 70s, with entire bands–from the Grateful Dead to Frank Zappa‘s Mothers of Invention–hooked up to filters, ring modulators, and feedback devices. The Don Ellis Orchestra of that era was particularly “electrified,” not only with amplification and sound modification units, but tape loops and an electric keyboard. In the so-called “serious” concert arena, Morton Subotnick created a comparable electronic orchestra of sorts in his mid-70s trilogy of Butterfly works. For this series of pieces, Subotnick added another factor to this equation: the use of inaudible “ghost tape” signals which alter instrumental timbre, thereby controlling various parameters of the orchestral performance.

In a number of situations, the heightened sense of theater was apt to spill over, creating a circus of sensory overload – what some critics term “multi-media” – combing the antiphonal use of space, visual effects, the juxtaposition of disparate forces, and (of course) electronics as a part of the mix. A few choice examples stand out in my memory, among them Eric Salzman‘s 1968-69 The Nude Paper Sermon, with its overlay of narrator, chorus, a consort of twelve Renaissance instruments (krummhorn, shawm, viola da gamba, lute and the like), and a tape of electronic sounds. Morton Subotnick’s Play! no.2 (1964) not only has the orchestra and tape exploring spatial-antiphonal relationships, but theatrical gestures (some sound-producing, others pantomimed) and a satirical film in which the composer is prominently featured. Finally, I must mention Subotnick’s collaborative production called An Electric Christmas (December 1967), combining the New York Pro Musica (a most distinguished early-music ensemble), the rock band Circus Maximus, electronic sounds, film, and light projections on the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall – the entire evening culminating in a tutti improvisation on a fourteenth century chanson.

[A brief personal note: my own orchestral compositions involving electronics appear to parallel many of the tendencies I’ve just described. All but the last make use of recorded (but un-processed) sounds on tape. My first venture was a 1965 work called Music for Orchestra, for which the tape part – a rapid-fire collage of concrète sounds, unsynchronized in either rhythm or pitch with the orchestral material — contributed one more textural layer to an already multi-tiered fabric. The tape ran for only two minutes of the 8-minute total; its purpose (other than demonstrating my virtuoso splicing technique) was that of exploiting the existence of loudspeakers and their shock value. The tape part of Magic Music (1967), a piece with strong visual components, was related more convincingly to the orchestral (and theatrical) events. As there were only a limited number of splices, the listener could more easily recognize my sources (1940s big band music, a Bach passage for organ, and a snatch of the Beethoven Ninth).

With my 1970 Island, however, the orchestra and tape parts were tightly integrated. The electronic part (including synthesizer-generated material, amusement park arcade sounds, oom-pah band, BBC weather forecasts, bird cries, and crashing waves) was critical to the programmatic nature of the work, and to its theatrical component (lights dimming to blackness, performers moving about the stage) as well. As the tape entrances were timed to take place at specific moments within the overall narrative, there was a tape part which involved extensive starting and stopping, to be performed on-stage by a member of the orchestra. Finally, my 1975 work The Harmony of Maine, based on Supply Belcher’s eighteenth-century tune book of the same name, is a “concerto” scored for solo ARP 2600, played live on-stage, and orchestra.]

The last major development to take place during this period was the steady growth of interest in computer-generated sound. This was still the pre-PC era of large mainframe computers, and as a result access was limited to a few institutions such as Princeton and MIT. Not surprisingly, many composers exploring sound programs for the first time used the earlier synthesizer medium as a model; they quickly discovered that digital technology went beyond the old Moog or Buchla in many ways. There were no fixed numbers of oscillators or filters to limit one’s imagination; computer programs could be employed for purposes of greater control; alternatively, they could serve as a randomizing element within the musical texture, self-contained or as a means of modifying acoustic sonorities (either predictably or randomly. Two examples from the ’70s, by composers whose names are inextricably linked to this development: Tod Machover‘s 1979 Light for chamber orchestra and computer electronics, and Charles Dodge‘s Palinode (1976), commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for their inaugural concert, and which uses a tape of computer generated sounds.

Before moving on to the 1980s, I should note, with some surprise, that the two antipodal figures of the 1950s-70s, the apostles of “order” and “chaos,” Milton Babbitt and John Cage, produced relatively few works using electronics and orchestra. (Of course, each composer has created a number of important pieces that are landmarks in the history of electronic music. It may seem paradoxical that their innovations have rarely extended into the orchestral domain. But, for widely divergent reasons–as one might expect–neither of them has shown any attachment to the orchestra per se. ) Babbitt’s Concerti for violin, small orchestra, and tape (1974–6) and Cage’s 1973 Etcetera for a chamber ensemble of 20 musicians (but three conductors) and a tape of forest sounds, are the exceptional works by these exceptional figures. (Note that the Cage has been choreographed by Merce Cunningham, with the title Un Jour ou Deux.)

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

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