Electronics has changed everything: The thin line between the avant-garde and popular music worlds

Updated: Jun 1, 2019

‘Electronics has changed everything in music.’

‘Electronics has changed very little in music.’

‘We have extended our bodies and our consciousness in ways undreamed of.’

‘We are still dancing, singing monkeys.’

(We were dancing, singing monkeys before we became jabbering apes.)

- Warren Burt

Progress in music is directly related to the needs and desires of composers. Composers have historically altered sounds to create the timbres of their imaginations. In the 20th century, composers have seen the emergence of electronic technology as a means to expand and enhance their aural palette. Musical pioneers of the early to mid 20th century devised ways to use analog and digital machines to create and manipulate sound. Such experiments have directly led to the production techniques used in the popular music of today. Could it be that the chasm between avant-garde music and commercial music is not as great as many “experts” believe?

Avant-garde composers and musical instrument builders have always been interested in creating a new aesthethic; a new world of sounds. During the electronic age, composers have accepted that any sound that can be heard, should be just as available as any other sound for musical purposes. Through various new technologies including: the electric organ, synthesizers, tape effects and digital technology, composers now have unprecedented access to the sounds they wish to control. In the “orchestra” of the electronic musician, the artist can choose from a tire squealing, a shattering window, or a gun shot, just as easily as a flute, violoncello, or a set of tubular bells.

The concept of “schizophonia” is pertinent in the world of both avant-garde and popular electronic music. R. Murray Schafer defined “schizophonia” as “the pathology of the technical reproduction of sound. Original sounds are tied to the mechanisms which produced them” yet “electroacoustic sounds are copies severed from their natural sources.” Schafer, along with Jonathan Sterne, assume that this juxtaposition is a “disease” that preys upon music in the technological age. However this concept is missing out on the fact that musical aesthetic has completely changed from the live venue to recordings. Even the concept of “live” music performance has changed from that of a band to that of DJ in many cases. Now even the audience is a crucial part of the performance, particularly in modern popular dance genres.

Historically, the mainstreaming of new technologies is quite common. There once was a radical technology introduced that made use of a technique of beating strings under tension with variable force. People were stunned and probably considered this instrumental anomaly a fad that would never catch on. In fact, it was Domenico Scarlatti who was the ‘first great advocate’ for this instrument. If you haven’t guessed what this is, it’s the pianoforte; commonly shortened to just ‘piano’. Another example of a new technology transforming music is the use of linked-key mechanisms and valves found on today’s flute. Previously pitches were controlled by covering holes bored into the instrument. Almost immediately the mechanical innovation faced great opposition from musicians who believed it was taking away from the “art” of flute playing; although this sentiment did not hinder the valved flute from becoming the modern standard. One more example is the 19th century player piano which produced sound mechanically by means of a perforated paper roll. At first, pianists and piano salesmen felt that a machine to produce music was both “ridiculous” and “preposterous.” Critics argued that the mechanical instrument could not compare to that of a human, and its music was cold and dull due to lack of imperfection. By the end of the century, however, the instrument became accepted as a means of musical enjoyment; and by 1920, composers had more than embraced it as a means to increase their artistic control over a composition.

The situation surrounding electronic music is nearly a mirror image of that with the player piano. Many composers, musicians and listeners believed that electronics– and eventually computers– removed the human element, and therefore the authenticity of the musical experience. Such issues, both for and against, were the topic of the day for the early 20th century German school of Frankfurt philosophers. (These issues have filled many papers in themselves.) At first only a hand full of brilliant engineers and avant-garde composers were interested in the field of electronics in music, but just as the player piano found a place in the musical soundscape, so did electronics.

The aesthetic behind the incorporation of electronics into the “art music” world was that of Dada and Futurism. The Futurist movement was fascinated with machinery, technology and a resistance to the status quo. The most prominent of these composers was Luigi Russolo whose musical experiments led him into new directions compositionally and instrumentally.

Russolo's Intoharumi

Based on this aesthetic Luigi Russolo published his manifesto “L’arte dei Rumori” (or “The Art of Noise”) in 1913. Russolo created intoharumi (literally intoners) or noise machines to perform Futurist music based on pure noises. Russolo wrote, “life is accompanied by noise...” and he felt that this noise should be incorporated into the world of music. His ideas soon permeated into the world of concert music. Soon after the idea of noise instruments became available, composers such as Érik Satie and Georges Antheil incorporated them into their compositions. (Satie used starter pistols, typewriters and foghorn in his ballet “Parade,” while Antheil included electric bells, propellers, siren and player piano in his “Ballet Mécanique.”) Russolo’s impact has been so great on the field of electronic music that the 1980s popular music group The Art of Noise took their name from Russolo’s manifesto. The group made a conscious effort to continue Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète with a beat.

The earliest electronic instruments were not entirely successful musically and were physically cumbersome. Thaddeus Cahill’s 1906 invention of the Dynamaphone, also knows as the Telharmonium, was constructed to be a means for music to be played over the telephone wires to a distant listener. Sound quality was poor and it did not function very well. It was over 60 feet in length, weighed over 200 tons, and cost over $200,000. However it was still praised by composer Luigi Busoni as the first facilitator of “scientifically perfect music.” Noted avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse followed Busoni’s example and sought ways to employ electronics to add to his sonic library.

The earliest successful electronic instrument was the Hammond organ invented in 1935 by Laurens Hammond. The term ‘Hammond’ became so ubiquitous that when people referred to the Hammond organ, they simply said “Hammond”. The Hammond organ featured drawbars that allowed the operator to modify the sound. The Hammond quickly went from an avant-garde invention to an instrument at home in the “pop” music field—a clear sign of things to come.

Since the 1950s, as accessibility to technology increased and its prices decreased, popular music has become linked to consumerism in the capitalist marketplace. Commercially appealing works began to incorporate new musical technology already in use by the forefront composers. One of the most prominent works to bridge the avant-garde and popular genres was Wendy (née Walter) Carlos’ “Switched on Bach,” a runaway success in 1968. On “Switched on Bach” Carlos performed well known Bach keyboard works using a Moog synthesizer.

The Moog synthesizer, invented by Robert Moog in 1964, quickly became a staple in experimental music and found its way into popular keyboardists arsenals. Much like the Hammond, the Moog gave artists control over timbre; however, instead of using a series of drawbars, the Moog player controls voltage using patch cords and dials. The extensive list of Moog users includes composers Herbert Deutsch, Morton Subotnick, and Vladimir Ussachevsky; as well as pop artists Keith Emerson, Chick Corea, Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga and the Beatles.

“[Yoko Ono] is the world’s most famous unknown artist:

everyone knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” -John Lennon

Yoko Ono, a performance artist from Japan was heavily influenced by her friends, cutting edge composers John Cage and La Monte Young. She created music in of the Fluxus style (a 1960s electronic genre) within a rock music studio. Yoko has earned a notorious reputation for her influence on her husband John Lennon, and consequently the most successful rock band of all time, the Beatles. Perhaps this influence was not as negative as many fans and “experts” would like to believe. Not only did exposure to the avant-garde music scene inspire the Beatles, it is the very reason they stayed on top of the popular music world after their rise to fame as merely “bubblegum pop” stars.

The Beatles are one of the first, and certainly the most famous, rock and pop group to include a Moog in their recording process. However they did hire a professional, Mike Vickers, to help them create their patches. After all, the Moog was (and is) an elusive piece of equipment that requires hours of practice to fully grasp. At one time or another all of the members of the group experimented with the instrument. Yet Paul McCartney’s use of it on his Abbey Road (1969) track “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. During the instrumental solo section in the song, McCartney plays a definitive Moog solo with a ribbon controller. (A ribbon controller is much like a track pad for a synthesizer. It changes the set musical parameter by moving the hand up and down its surface.)

The Beatles, and their producer George Martin, are now known for employing some of the avant-garde electronic music manipulation techniques in the studio; in fact, the Beatles ceased public performance in 1965 after their music became impossible to replicate outside the studio.

The Beatles did for pop music what avant-garde composers John Cage, Edgard Varèse, and Karlheinz Stockhausen had done for “classical” music; they exposed the listener to a new sonic landscape. The Beatles’ used tape loops and “sea-gull” style guitar timbres on the track “Tomorrow Never Knows” from the album Revolver (1966). They also experimented with backwards tape on the b-side “Rain” (1966), synthesized and manipulated calliope on Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (1967), and atmospheric, cricket-like tape effects during the transition from Abbey Road’s “Here Comes the Sun” and “The Sun King”.

Through Yoko Ono’s influence, John Lennon became interested in the works of Cage and Stockhausen (in fact, Stockhausen appears on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). This influence directly lead to the famous Beatles’ piece “Revolution 9” from their eponymous 1968 album (which is commonly referred to as “The White Album” by fans.) “Revolution 9” seemed “revolutionary” to listeners who had never before been exposed to a “sound collage.” However much like the music of The Beatles’ avant-garde contemporaries and predecessors, “Revolution 9” consisted of a montage of tape loops. Yoko Ono can be heard singing in a high soprano and George Harrison added recitative.

Soon after The Beatles officially parted ways in 1970, the music world was inundated with electronic music. Carlos’ albums were selling quite well, proving that electronic music has a permanent place in the “Classical” music listener’s collection. But popular music fans were equally enthralled by synthesized and manipulated sounds. Music quickly became more and more about who produced it, not just recorded it. Record producers became stars in their own right. This was particularly prevalent in the disco and dance genres. Producers Giorgio Moroder and Freddie Perren were celebrated for their sound creation and arrangements for 1970s singers Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor, as well as 1980s bands including Devo and The Human League.

Popular musician and producer, as well as “serious” composer, Brian Eno, is the perfect example of an artist who blends the “avant-garde” aesthetic with that of the mainstream listening public. Eno released pop records with his glam rock band Roxy Music. The glam rock style is the epitome of commercial music with garish shows and catchy tunes. However Eno, originally a visual artist and fascinated with minimalist painting, quickly became wrapped up in the sonic ocean of “ambient music.” His Music for Airports (1978) was an innovative work because it was written for a location, rather than from it. Eno was interested in creating not only a new way to think about musical composition, but also a new manner in which to listen to it. Eno could be easily dismissed as a “frivolous rock star;” however, he proved that even those without an avant-garde background can be a crucial part of its repertoire and philosophy.

During the 1970s and 1980s, electronic music found a new home in several new musical genres. Yet before this new genre could take off, the electronic music world would discover a whole new method of sound creation. In the early 1970s, John Chowning, a “high art” composer and Stanford University Professor, developed a revolutionary new way to synthesize sounds. This was frequency modulation (or FM) which is a method in which one can create the synth sounds that are as dynamic as naturally occurring sounds. FM varied from earlier synthesis techniques which were not able to create the complexity of “natural” or real instrument timbres. By 1974, Yamaha had licensed Chowning’s FM and incorporated it into their DX-7 commercial synthesizer. The DX-7 only cost $2,000 and made creative possibilities seem endless. It not only made more natural timbres than previous synths, it also was much easier to work with due to providing more musical control with fewer knobs. In merely five years (1983-1988) Yamaha had sold over 160,000 units to both institutions, composers and pop musicians. Once again the avant-garde and popular genres were working closer together than it may seem.

In 1983, programmers introduced a technology which had the largest effect on avant-garde and popular music— MIDI. MIDI (or Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a method to connect synthesizers to each other and to a computer. Since the late 1970s, programming technology was available for drum machines and step sequencers which enabled songwriters, performers and composers. Musicians, who had previously had to depended on other musicians to play or create demos, now had the ability to do it all on their own. As a result, the number of live music venues decreased. Some feared that this was the end for the professional music scene; yet, this was not a death-blow to the music world as new technologies such as turntables, samplers, and dance clubs prevailed. But with MIDI, not only were musicians able to program their musical data into a machine, they could do so in real time.

The invention of MIDI coincided with the advent of personal computers. The Commodore C64 and Apple II (pictured above) were released with the Macintosh following in 1984. As a result, a new market for consumer music studio production and live production software emerged. With the aid of software such as Cakewalk, Cubase, eMagic’s Logic (later acquired by Apple) or Cycling ’74’s Max/MSP, any musician– pop or avant-garde– can have an unlimited “orchestra” at their disposal any time they desire.

As personal computers were becoming musical instruments, another previously avant-garde instrument was coming into its own as “pop”, the turntable. Back in 1960, John Cage was the first composer to use the turntable as an instrument in his work “Catridge Music.” Cage put DJs on stage with turntables that had had their styluses replaced with any small enough object, including springs, twigs, guitar strings, broom straws and/or pipe cleaners. Cage’s instruments produced complex tones, similar to those of a marimba. He scored the piece using a series of images to instruct the players, rather than a traditional score.

“Turntablism” was naturally incorporated into the mainstream music oeuvre. Its techniques fall right into the timbrel sensitivity and ironic collage aesthetic. DJs merged together various genres and styles of music approximately 20 years after Cage first brought them onto the stage. Famous DJs, such as Grandmaster Flash and Christian Marclay, turned the turntable into a virtuosic musical instrument by using the earlier avant-garde techniques as splicing, scratching and back-cuing. By 1999, turntables were outselling guitars! Today, DJs are using digital turntables which interact with their advanced MIDI systems.

Max Patch Example

One of the most important MIDI and digital audio manipulation software available is Max/MSP (simply referred to as Max). Max is a graphical programming language developed by Miller Puckette and refined by David Zicarelli in the 1980s. Max is commonly used in art music due to its ability to “interact” with a live performer and its ability to work with video, not just audio. The genre bending rock group, Radiohead, employs Max in their live shows. The band’s guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, studied with a professional, avant-garde composer to learn how to use it. Radiohead is a prime example of the fuzzy line between the avant-garde and pop music worlds. When interviewed, Greenwood often cites the influence of great art composers on the band. Greenwood describes himself as “evangelical” when it comes to avant-garde tools for rock musicians. He believes that Max provides a “pure” form of sound manipulation.

“What has become interesting in the idea that artists are people who specialized in judgement, rather than skill. And this of course, re-opens the question of who can use that job description?”-Brian Eno

The field of electronic music is increasingly becoming central to the field of entertainment music. Although early electronic music was exclusively experiment, most of today’s electronic music is created for film, rap, techno, pop or rock genres. There is a debt that these popular musicians have towards the original innovators of electronic techniques; however, many of the latest innovations are being done in pop music studios. The relationship between the avant-garde and the commercial music industries circumvents a complete block, not a mere one way street.

The avant-garde and the pop musicians today share an equal enthusiasm for the latest technology. The scholarly journal, Computer Music Journal, has the same number of advertisers (30% of the periodical is ads) as any “pop” music magazine. More and more software is being released for the home music studio and the role of composer as “creative genius” is being democratized. Apple’s GarageBand, for example, allows any Macintosh user with little to no musical experience the ability to create and produce music. Along with free software, such as Audacity and Soundhack, the home office is becoming the birthplace of music. Some rock artists are actively encouraging the trend; Nine Inch Nails released GarageBand tracks for their fans to manipulate as they pleased in 2005. Singers-songwriters Peter Gabriel and Todd Rundgren did a similar techniques by including CD-ROM programs on their albums, XPlora1 and No World Order respectively, which allowed the listener to control the mix with their home computer. Morton Subotnick and the “grandfather” of computer music, Max Mathews are both advocates— they agree that the listener should become a performer as well.