top of page

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