History of “Noise” Esthetics that Lead to Electronic Music & Musique Concrète

There are several threads running through the course of Western Music which become entwined in the early part of this century into an esthetic responsible for the birth and continued interest in electronic music. Today we will examine some of the main strands.

  1. The use of percussion instruments — usually borrowed originally from another culture, often used to achieve an exotic effect.
  2. The use of ordinary (standard Western orchestral) instruments to depict real world sonic events, not normally associated with the more abstract qualities of music expression. —> “Programmatic Music”
  3. Next…logically…is the use of actual noisemakers themselves to lend authenticity to these same types of “programmatic” compositions
  4. Later…the influence of the Industrial Revolution.  Ferruccio Busoni published “Sketch of a New Esthetic in Music” (1907) which discusses electronic and other sound sources in futuristic music — had profound impact on Edgard Varèse (whom we will listen to later today) Other Italian “futurists” Ballila Pratella and Luigi Russolo began investigating, classifying and creating “noise” instruments. >>championed a style of music labeled “Futurism” (also occasionally known as Bruitism and sometimes even, ironically Primitivism). They “appealed for songs of the factories, warships, motor cars, and aeroplanes …(of) machine guns, sirens, and steam whistles.”
  5.  Last, but not least, the constant striving of Western composers, usually in collaboration with interested performers, to extend the know limits of a given instrument, or a given ensemble of instruments. Indeed…this idea has the longest history going all the way back to the late-1500s and early 1600s when composers first began specifying exact instrumentation and including “dynamic” (or loudness) markings in their scores. A particularly notable example from the 1600s involved and composer name Claudio Monteverdi who first called for his bowed string players to put down their bows and pluck their strings. This was such a novel idea back then that he felt compelled to write a little paragraph in the score explaining exactly how the player should perform the passage. Nowadays a composer need only put the abbreviation “PIZZ.” in the score and performers instantly know what to do.

It would be difficult to present this phenomenon in detail today in class, since the changes often take place so slowly by gradual steps that considerable historical context is often required to fully appreciate it. Also … because of the gradual, evolving nature of this area of development, many steps along the way are not very dramatic when taken by themselves.

> A few highlights along the way will suffice: After pizzicato was introduced into string literature, many other unusual techniques were developed to expand the sonic pallet of the string section: Harmonic (artificial and natural); col legno (hitting the string with the wood of the bow); hitting the body of the instrument as if it were a percussion instrument, etc.

Throughout the centuries, refinements in instrument design and virtuosos performance lead to ranges and and technical demands being extended — sometimes dramatically so. Single instruments were expanded to whole families of instruments by the 19th century [i.e. piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute … Ef soprano clarinet, Bf clarinet, Ef alto clarinet, Bf bass clarinet, Ef contrabass clarinet, etc.] In addition, a few new totally new instruments, such as the saxophone were added.

Early in the development of Western music there were a couple of specific types of composition which did the most to advance the ideas we are discussing today … all of these types fall under the general category of “Program Music” or “Programmatic Music.”

I. The “Battle” composition (the previously mentioned work by Monteverdi was one)
II. The “Storm” composition
III. The “Tumultuous Celebration” composition

Listening List for Lecture 4: Origins of Electronic Music Esthetics
1. Haydn: Symphony N° 100 in G (i.e. “Military”) — (1794)
“Battle” composition — using so-called “Turkish” style, with percussion instruments borrowed from Turkish military bands. (Mozart and many other Classical composers through Beethoven borrowed from this “exotic style of music.
…from a contemporary review printed in the London Morning Chronicle after the world premiere:
It is the advancing battle; and the march of men, the sounding of the charge, the thundering onset, the clash of arms, the groans of the wounded, and what may be called the hellish roar of war increase to climax of horrid sublimity! which , if other can conceive, (Haydn) alone can execute; at least he alone hitherto has effected these wonders.
…absolute shouts of applause. Encore! encore! encore! resounded from every seat: the Ladies themselves could not forebear.

2. Beethoven: Symphony N° 9 in d, op. 125 — (1824) “Military” music — using so-called “Turkish” style

3. Beethoven: Symphony N° 6 in F, op. 68 — (1808)
“Storm” composition >> using standard classical symphonic scoring and traditional music forms

4. Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique — (1830)
“Storm” composition >> using greatly expanded symphonic scoring and with increased emphasis on
realism at the expense of traditional music forms

5. Tchaikovsky: Overture, 1812 — (1880)
“Tumultuous Celebration” composition >> written (some 60 years after the fact) to celebrate the
retreat of Napoleon from Moscow
>>note the use of noise makers themselves to add “realism” to the celebration. (cannons, church bells)

6. Charles Ives: Decoration Day (from Symphony of Holidays) — (1915) “Tumultuous Celebration” composition

7. Eric Satie: Parade — (1917) [theatre work; collaborators included Cocteau & Picasso]
>>early example of “Futurism” uses mostly a traditional pit orchestra playing fairly conventional music, with a few notable exceptions (mostly from “noisemaker” additions to the percussion section):
#1 typewriter & cap gun #2 dynamo #3 airplane propeller #4 boat whistle

George Antheil: Ballet Mechanique — (1924) [written for film by Fernand Leger]
more fully developed “Futurism” >> written for percussion ensemble plus (original version called for) >>10 grand pianos, sirens, airplane propellers, and wade range of more typical percussion


8. Edgard Varèse: Intègrales — (1924) [also wrote Ionisation for percussion ensemble]
Fully developed “Futurism” — uses orchestra of winds, brass, & percussion. not only does he use percussion noisemakers, but virtually all of the instruments are treated in a similar manner. There is no real melody to speak of, no real harmonic progression, –– just pure sound or timbre – for it own sake – animated by rhythm. In other words even the ordinary instruments have unusual functions to fulfill >>>> in effect, Varèse has invented “electronic music” before the technology has been developed.

9. Henry Cowell: The Banshee — (1924)
>> unusual instrumental techniques<< “…listen now to Henry, himself, tell you about his piece”

10. John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes — (1948-49) “prepared piano” >> unusual instrumental technique << >>>objects are placed so they come in contact with the string as the hammer is struck