A table with a variety of electroacoustic music gear. Image courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates for NYCEMF and the New York Philharmonic Biennial)
The Opportunity of Electroacoustic Musicology

The Opportunity of Electroacoustic Musicology

I want to start this post with a challenge to my musicologist colleagues (I hope there are musicologists reading NewMusicBox), but it is really a call to action for us all. The exploration of electroacoustic music, its historical and social dimensions, is long overdue. In fact, as so many pivotal figures pass away, I cannot fathom why there has not been a rush to collect primary source material, let alone to interpret it. The lack of this activity spurred the creation of the Video Archive of Electroacoustic Music and gave the collecting of oral histories urgency when my wife and I started in the 1990s. Much as we both care about this work, we are no longer able to collect these oral histories, yet this work is increasingly important today. It was alarming to us at that time that no one had captured the stories of electroacoustic music’s pioneering composers and engineers.  Though aware of the great work being done by Vivian Perlis at Yale, we knew that no one had yet filmed the stories of figures such as Bebe Barron (composer of experimental electronic film scores and collaborator with John Cage, Earle Brown and others) who was very ill. Neither was there much about the founders of any of the first studios in the USA, including the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, San Francisco Tape Music Center, University of Illinois studio, and Bell Laboratories. We rushed to capture what we could, given scant resources and the many other demands on our time. We were certain then that whole careers could be made mining these materials if only someone could preserve the stories. And today there remain untapped opportunities to do critical archival work, to interpret the stories, and to study the music itself.

Engineer Bill McGinnis in the electronic music studio in his home.

Bill McGinnis, the first engineer of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (before Don Buchla came in). Photo taken in 1998 when we interviewed him in his home studio in San Francisco.

Twenty years since we began our collecting, electroacoustic music is still essentially unclaimed territory—especially outside of its popular music dimension. It seems ironic that, in a time when we fetishize even the most mundane activities and record them with our phones, there is still such little effort made to capture and interpret this pivotal transformation of music.  There have been a few modest bright spots, including the conference on the late electroacoustic works of Luigi Nono at Tufts that I was pleased to participate in this past March. Alas, this seems to be the exception, which leads me to revive my speculations on some of the forces that have delayed the development of a subspecialty in electroacoustic musicology. I write this with the hope that things may be poised for a change and that some of you will take up the challenge.

Composers and musicologists still do not communicate with each other very much or very well.

Why then has this work been slow to start, and what might change the situation? For one thing, composers and musicologists still do not communicate with each other very much or very well. This is true even at my own educational institution, where relations between programs are excellent and we actually all like one another.  I contend that there is still too much of a separation, often due to historical animosity and unfortunate, longstanding battles over turf.  These are destructive and if we do not put them to rest and start doing more to think as one profession, we will continue to fade into irrelevancy. I do not object to the study of popular music, but I do not subscribe to an idea, gaining in currency, that turning to the study of popular genres is the path to relevancy in music education. Instead, I propose that a more robust conversation about musical ideas and the creation of new work, the kind of conversation found in all of the other arts, is essential. Such a profession-wide conversation is currently lacking. I mention this larger issue here because there are lots of dimensions to electroacoustic music that make it fertile ground for engendering a lively and productive scholarly argument of the kind we desperately need.

Another factor to consider is the technology of electroacoustic music, which presents both opportunity and obstacle.  On one hand, the novelty inherent in the constant flow of new music hardware and software products is attractive to a broad segment of the technology-worshiping public.  The energy of invention around this marketplace is alluring, lending a pseudo-scientific legitimacy that other music does not enjoy. Old technology—say, a violin—becomes invisible to us, but this means that instead of being diverted by the instrument itself, we are more likely to engage with the music. The violin is very little changed over its several hundred years and has ceased to be a novelty, so we are able to ask instead: what new musical ideas can this instrument express? In fact, fewer people than ever study the music itself, which is part of a larger problem, but this also explains something about why we are stuck in the starting gate with electroacoustic music.

My relationship to cars is a pretty good analogy to how I’ve worked with synthesizers: They look shiny, sexy, and inviting at first, but once I drive one a little, it becomes just a way to get from point A to point B—at least until something goes wrong.

The obsession with the devices of electroacoustic music is as much a problem for composers as it is for scholars. Music by definition is highly abstract, and thinking in music is hard, even more so when there are frequently no scores to consult.  It is much easier to become immersed in the features of some new “toy.” The non-abstract, concrete aspects of music hardware and software make these much easier to relate to than music itself.

I confess that the allure of the first synthesizers in the 1960s was one of the things that drew me into composing electroacoustic music. At the time I was in high school, I had been composing for a couple of years and quite accidentally was lent an ARP Odyssey synthesizer. I had heard Mort Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon and was frustrated not to be able to get similar results from this keyboard-reliant minisynth.  Over the subsequent years, as I was introduced to many other analog synthesizers from Moog, Buchla (the one used by Subotnick), Serg, EML, and others, and each time found I was working against rather than with the differing architectures. I really wanted the machine to become almost invisible and to allow me to make the music I was hearing. My relationship to cars is a pretty good analogy:  they look shiny, sexy, and inviting at first, but once I drive one a little, it becomes just a way to get from point A to point B—at least until something goes wrong.

Still, as a steward of one of the remaining Buchla 100 systems, I have an acute awareness that the history of the technology is also in need of attention. There are many stories that need to be told through this lens: How is it that the Buchla and the Moog are fundamentally similar, yet so different? What are the relationships among the musical approaches composers take and the idiosyncrasies of particular technology? I am ultimately, however, much more interested in the music that this technology allows us to create, and I imagine that at least some musicologist colleagues would be, too. But if there is little work being done on the history of the instruments, there is even less addressing the music itself. For perspective, consider again how a historical change in our relationship to the instruments is part of this mix. It would seem odd to point out that there is a much larger body of work on the piano music of Mozart than on the evolution of the piano, yet in electroacoustic music, this balance is reversed. All of the energy in the room is constantly sucked up by the vast and ever-expanding array of new products, and so little is left to consider what is being achieved musically with these tools. I think we all recognize this phenomenon, but that recognition has not changed anything much in the forty years I have been in the field.

Closeup image of an old patch-cord synthesizer

Electroacoustic musicology, far from being a narrow subspecialty, could develop as a broad range of investigative possibilities, many organically interdisciplinary in nature.  The relationship to the history of science and technology is perhaps the most obvious, but there are many other linkages.  And as much as I argue here for this work as a branch of so-called “art music,” the connections to the world of popular music represent the richest pathway between the academy and the larger public.  Having collected the oral histories, I often feel too that one especially ripe approach would be ethnographic.

It would seem odd to point out that there is a much larger body of work on the piano music of Mozart than on the evolution of the piano, yet in electroacoustic music, this balance is reversed.

As I mentioned in my previous post, electroacoustic music inhabits a network of communities, some organized around institutions and others around compositional approaches or particular technologies.  If one adds the recognition that there is a large body of music without notated scores, the similarity to the world of the ethnomusicologist is inescapable.  Ethnographic work though is only one possibility of many.  The field is wide open and accessible on multiple levels to any ambitious and pro-active scholar who is willing to eschew the conservative canon in favor of a somewhat more recent and— arguably—field-changing history.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

10 thoughts on “The Opportunity of Electroacoustic Musicology

  1. Ted Gordon

    Hi Eric,

    As a PhD candidate working on a dissertation on Bay Area experimental music and technology in the ’60s, I couldn’t agree more. The emergence of electroacoustic music in the 20th century is a very valuable field of study, not only because it can yield a deeper understanding of the (very great) musical works that have been gathered into this category, but also because it can allow us to re-think the relationships between composer, performer, instrument, and “work”.

    Ethnography, oral history, and interviews have been crucial to my research—and your archive has been an amazing resource. (Thanks again!). I’ve met quite a few colleagues—often also graduate students—at conferences who are also working on electroacoustic music, music technology, and institutional support for these projects in the mid-century. So, if all goes well, keep an eye out for some new articles and (hopefully) books in the coming years.

    I also think that it is crucial for historians to approach this field in a way that remains open: to different notions of authorship, to different (and more) voices, and very importantly, to critique. Musicology, as a discipline, is very good at the analysis of objects; and if there’s anything that the rise of electroacoustic music has done, it has been to challenge the “object-hood” of music. In scholarship, as in music, I think that we should strive toward an ethos of openness and experimentalism—learning from the actual lived practices of composers and applying those principles to how we as scholars participate in this community. As the ethnomusicologist Phil Bohlman writes, “Music may be what we think it is; it may not be.”

  2. Eric Chasalow

    Thanks Ted. I am glad to know the archive was useful for your research AND that there are others doing this kind of investigation. I am hopeful too, but still concerned about our perpetuation of very conservative subspecialties .

  3. Michael Robinson

    Music is an uncontrollable entity. You can’t really tell it what to do. Hide as we might, and as clever as we hope to be, it becomes devastating in either child-like wonder or the child-like brutal honesty of exposing the emperor wearing no cloths.

    Gustav Mahlar was being honest, not humble, when he stated: “An artist shoots in the dark, not knowing whether he hits or what he hits.” When I related the Austrian composer’s thought to Pandit Jasraj, a titan of Hindustani music, he instantly replied: “That man was very wise.”

    If we tether our ship too close to the shore of past successes, a leak will likely appear to sink us. And if we head out into the open water without a compass we may find new land, but we may drown too … and not necessarily in the Sea of Love, but perhaps the Sea of Oblivion.

    There’s nothing I can do about my distaste for the term “electroacoustic”. I didn’t like it from the first. It’s too clinical and academic sounding. My eyes begin to glaze over by the fourth syllable. (And by this definition, the Beatles and The Doors made such music where the term is even more drastically limiting.) I took one small step in the right direction by naming my instruments “Meruvina”, with “vina” being the Sanskrit word for musical instrument, and “Meru” being a mythological Hindu mountain coinciding with the initials for Michael Eric Robinson, which is my full name.

    As Ravi Shankar (his birth name was Robindro or Rabindra Shankar) first pointed out, “ethnomusicology” is an unfortunate term because it presumes that one group is the norm while others are inferior outsiders whose only virtue is a curious exoticism. Its better to retain the term “musicology” and simply designate what music one is focusing on without any implied hierarchy.

    My original motivation for moving beyond writing liner notes for my own albums into musical topics beyond my own music was a frustration at reading articles and books about music that frequently feel short by missing the point or merely repeating weak clichés. Sometimes composers and musicians know more about music than scholars. Ravi Shankar’s book, “My Music, My Life”, is easily the most important work on Indian classical music I have come across. Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Bill Evans were not writers, yet their words about jazz remain the most eloquent and meaningful.

    But I couldn’t agree more with the author about having a living museum or museums where we may see and hear the Sal-Mar Construction created by Salvatore Martirano in its full glory, or a room where one may experience the tools and materials Iannis Xenakis used to construct his astonishing compositions. I’m just not sure what to name such a place, leaning towards the actual names of the artists or their primary instrument featured, perhaps on a rotating basis, with the name of such museum(s) being something innocuous, perhaps the name of the principal donor. And like most of us, I will admit to hoping to be included in such a place(s) where visitors may both hear and see how machines are sometimes cajoled into making magic.

  4. H

    Faculty members need to be “willing to eschew the conservative canon,” too, otherwise it is rough going for students interested in pursuing such work. Faced with the option to study “traditional musicology” (i.e., the conservative canon) for three years — paying “my dues” before being allowed to pursue independent research (in a field such as electroacoustic music) … I felt like, what’s the point? Why am I still analyzing Beethoven symphonies when I’d like to be investigating the ANS synthesizer and the pieces and processes developed for or because of it? The work you propose — oral histories, archival work, archival preservation! — all sounds delicious … it’s where I’d want to start from, day 1, of a doctoral program … and spend five years digging deep into it. And maybe someday, programs will be able to support that, with interested/informed faculty, a smorgasbord of relevant coursework, and healthy relationships with related departments (as you mention, history of technology, or, say, critical work in machine learning) … and in a complete reversal of the way things are now, there will be that one solitary seminar in Beethoven taught by a post-doc hired who will only be around for one year.

    1. Eric Chasalow

      Hi H, All of us – especially faculty – have to think about how to make this real. And it is one of many things that need to be part of a robust conversation about music in higher ed. Best of luck to you. Eric

  5. Anne Shreffler

    Thanks for throwing down the gauntlet, Eric! The history of electroacoustic music offers multiple avenues for research, and is sorely needed. The Chasalow-Cassidy video archive of electroacoustic music provides an immense wealth of resources, just waiting to be mined! Musicologists and music theorists need to study the history of the technologies, the studios, the communities they produced, and the multiple connections between and among them; the interaction between European and American studios is especially important. I think sound studies would be an ideal place from which to explore of all these issues. This is a fairly new sub-discipline, and some important work has already been done – I’m thinking of Brian Kane’s recent book “Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice.”
    European scholars are ahead of us on this score. Elena Ungeheuer, Pascal Decroupet, Georgina Born, Angela Ida de Benedictis, Veniero Rizzardi, Nicola Scaldaferri, Laura Zattra, Thom Holmes, Kees Tazelaar, and Björn Gottstein have contributed substantially to a wide range of topics relating to electroacoustic music. There are excellent studies of IRCAM, RAI Studio di Fonologia, and the Philips studio in the Netherlands. (Much of this work is in languages other than English.) American musicology has not yet produced substantial scholarly accounts of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, the San Francisco Tape Music Center, or of any other American studios (as far as I know), nor of figures such as Luening, Ussachevsky, Oliveros, the Barrons, or even Babbitt.
    We all have a lot of work to do!

    1. Alexa Woloshyn

      The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde, ed. by David Bernstein is at least a start: it includes interviews with Oliveros, Buchla, Subotnick, and Riley (among others).

  6. Eric Chasalow

    Thanks very much Anne. This exchange of information is exactly what has been all too absent. I am aware of some, not nearly all, of the work you mention. And I am painfully aware of how much it is centered in Europe. Of course, there IS some work here in the US and, as I had hoped in writing this, people are now sending some my way!

  7. Nathan Thomas

    It’s strange that from your perspective the history of electroacoustic music seems to be being neglected. Many of my musician friends are queuing up for residencies at this or that electroacoustic music studios that boast this or that vintage electroacoustic gear. Countless reissues of classic electroacoustic music are appearing on labels such as Editions Mego, Important Records, and Sub Rosa. Institutions too have started programming events such as the Deep Minimalism festival on at the Southbank Centre in London featuring compositions by some of electronic music’s early frontrunners, going as far back as the 1950s (the majority of which happen to be female). People seem more interested in figures such as Daphne Oram and Else Marie Pade than in the vast majority of composers working today. And I’ve never heard anyone wax lyrical to me over “some new toy” in the same way that they do about that time they got to work with a Buchla or a Serge.

    None of this equates to the serious body of academic research that you are calling for of course – it’s just curious that academic interest in early electroacoustic music is so low at a time when its popularity among listeners and musicians has never seemed so high!

  8. Eric Chasalow

    Thanks – yes it’s true that interest in the old (and new) analog synths has never been higher. The field is certainly not neglected in terms of people wanting to make music. But I would like to see the field taken on as something worthy of serious historical study. There is actually is a good deal of ignorance of the history, including on the part of those really interested making music that comes out of that tradition.


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