[This article originally appeared in the May 1981 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]
ELECTRONIC MUSIC IN THE United States is thirty years old this year. In 1951, Vladimir Ussachevsky, then a new member of the Columbia University music department, began manipulating recordings of instrumental sounds on the department's recently acquired Ampex 400 tape recorder. At that time, tape recorders had been available for only a few years; the Ampex 400 was the first commercial machine that was capable of professional-quality reproduction. Multi-track recorders did not exist; synthesizers and computer music systems were to come more than a decade later.
Ussachevsky's initial experiments opened the door to a vast new area of musical creativity in which a musician could literally handle sounds one at a time—cut them up, reverse them, change their speed, electronically operate on them in dozens of different ways—and finally organize them into a complete piece of music.
Working with composer Otto Luening and engineer Peter Mauzey, Ussachevsky, in the years following 1951, developed what we now call the Classical Studio Technique—the use of individual electronic sound-generating and -modifying instruments, a bank of tape recorders, and a versatile mixing console to construct music directly on tape, without the constraints usually associated with real-time performance. The first public concert of Ussachevsky's electronic music was given in May 1952 at Columbia University's McMillan Theater. The results of Ussachevsky's collaboration with Luening were first presented publicly at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in November 1952. At that time, critic Oliver Daniel suggested that the new "instrument" be called a "tapesichord," and that the music produced by this new means be called "tape music." The term "tapesichord" didn't stick, primarily because the production of tape music requires a multiplicity of devices, rather than a single instrument. The term "tape music," however, has come to mean any music produced directly on tape, regardless of the nature of the original sound sources. Tape music thus became the pragmatic American answer to the more rigorously-defined French musique concrète (which allowed only the use of acoustic sound sources) and the German elektronische musik (which allowed the use of only electronic sound sources), which were being concurrently developed in Paris and Cologne, respectively. Today these distinctions are seldom made. Tape music has grown to be called simply electronic music.
The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center came into existence as a formal organization in 1959. The Center was organized by Ussachevsky, Luening, and Princeton composer Milton Babbitt, to provide the facilities necessary for composers to work with tape manipulation and sound synthesis. The initial funding, a five-year $175,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, was used to design, build, and staff the "first adequately-equipped electronic music studio in the United States." Today, the Center boasts five complete studios: three tape studios at Columbia, one tape studio at Princeton, and a studio housing the RCA Mark II Electronic Sound Synthesizer. These technical facilities are the means through which dozens of experienced composers and hundreds of composition students have learned, practiced, and developed the skills of electronic music composition.
The Center is, above all, an organization of musicians who compose and teach as a community. The techniques that have been developed and are practiced at the Center, and the sizable body of music that has been produced there, are close reflections of the unique talents of the Center's founders and the composers and technicians with whom they worked. Thus it is appropriate that this account of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center's musical and technical achievements be told in the words of the Center's founders and members. Before we hear from them, however, we should find out a bit more about who they are.
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was born in China in 1911 of Russian parents. Everyone in his family was musical: His mother taught piano, his sister played piano and violin, and his brother was a composer. Vladimir himself studied piano and learned Russian choral music as an altar boy. As a teenager he earned a modest living by playing piano for silent movies and Russian gypsy music in restaurants.
Ussachevsky arrived in the United States in 1930, intending to study electrical engineering at Caltech. He found a national economy that was stumbling headfirst into the depths of the Great Depression. There were virtually no jobs for electrical engineers. Following friends' advice to seek a career in a field in which he had already developed his talent, he worked as a musician, first tuning pianos, then "playing piano, singing, and barking like a dog" in a vaudeville act. During those days he lived at the house of a painter who had a large record collection. Vladimir recalls, "I had a good background in Russian choral and romantic music, but I never heard any Bach or any symphonies until I came to the United States. I avidly listened to the records in that collection, and learned a good deal of Western music."
Ussachevsky's compositional talent was discovered when he entered Pasadena Junior College as a music student. He then received a tuition scholarship to Pomona College, where he was awarded the Piano Prize and earned a B.A. in music in 1935. Ussachevsky earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York. His doctoral dissertation was his composition Jubilee Cantata, which was commissioned by Pomona College and composed during the years 1937-38.
Making a living as a composer was even harder in 1938 than it is today, so Vladimir returned to California, earned a college-level degree in education, and taught high school music until he joined the Army in 1942. The Army, seeking to utilize his experience, first put him to work as a vaudeville entertainer, then sent him to perform secret research at the OSS in Washington. After the end of the war, he and his wife taught briefly at a prep school in Vermont, after which he accepted a teaching position at Columbia. "I was the most junior of the music faculty," Vladimir explains. "It was my job to look after all the audio equipment. I was fascinated with the tape recorder—I don't know why. I immediately began to do a lot of recording."
Vladimir Ussachevsky has served as chairman of the Committee of Direction of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center since its founding in 1959.
grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he exhibited a talent for audio electronics at an early age. "We ran our audio lines all over the neighborhood. We got the wire for the lines by unwinding old loudspeaker field coils. We would play records and make announcements to our friends and neighbors—as far as half a mile!" Peter entered the Columbia University Engineering School in 1948, received his B.S. in '52, and remained through '58 to complete his graduate work. He worked at WKCR, the campus radio station, as an undergraduate. It was here that he met Ussachevsky and began an association that continues to the present time.
Upon earning his Professional Engineer degree, Mauzey became director of engineering of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. He was responsible for setting up the Center's studios, designing and specifying equipment, and setting technical standards. In 1962 he joined Bell Laboratories. His current work there is in the field of data communications. In addition, he remains associated with the Center as an unofficial consultant.
Incidentally, I was one of Mauzey's students in 1956, when he was a teaching assistant at the Columbia Engineering School. In his electronics laboratory courses, Mauzey exhibited an unusual ability to teach us budding engineers how to design equipment that worked and stayed working. However, he never talked in class about his work with Ussachevsky.
was born at the turn of the century on a farm in rural Wisconsin. His father was a professional musician with an active interest in new musical and technical developments; his older brother was an engineering student at MIT. Otto remembers that, when he was a young boy, the heavy publicity surrounding Thaddeus Cahill's Dynamophone (Telharmonium) caused some excitement at home. Later the family bought a phonograph, which Otto and his brother experimented with. He recalls, "After we listened to the records, we stuffed pillows in the horn to see how the sound changed. Then we took the horn off, and changed the motor speed. It was a big laugh for us, but I never forgot it. That was my first confrontation with the fact that there might be something going in music other than what we inherited."
When he was 12 years old, Otto went to Europe to study music. There he encountered innovative musical thoughts, which were defining the direction of twentieth-century music. Arnold Schoenberg was promoting the idea of klangfarbenmelodie (tone color melody), while Busoni was preoccupied with the new musical resources that were emerging from the technology of electricity. Upon returning to the United States, Luening studied acoustics, then began using acoustic relationships as elements in his compositions.
In 1944, Luening left the position of chairman of the music department at Bennington College to join the music faculty of Columbia University. Several years later, Ussachevsky attended one of Luening's composition seminars and, in 1951, introduced Luening to his initial experiments in tape manipulation.
Otto Luening has been a member of the Committee of Direction of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center since its founding. Although semi-retired, he composes and teaches regularly. His autobiography, The Odyssey Of An American Composer
, has just been released by Scribners.
was born in 1916 and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. He remembers learning to play the violin at age four, and the clarinet when he was eight. Through elementary and high school he immersed himself in music, playing "every kind of reed instrument" in the school band, arranging and playing in the jazz orchestra, and writing pop tunes. In 1931, at the ripe old age of 15, he entered the University of Pennsylvania. Milton recalls, "I actually wanted to go to Tulane in New Orleans, but their minimum age was 16." Two years later he transferred to New York University and "went completely into music."
After receiving his degree in 1935, Babbitt studied composition privately with Roger Sessions for three years. "In those days there were virtually no graduate degrees for composers. I wouldn't have survived as a composition student if I didn't have a wealthy father who wanted me to study music."
Babbitt joined the Princeton University faculty in 1938. When the Second World War began, he was "tapped" for secret work. He remained in government service and away from music composition until 1947. After a brief fling in the commercial music arena (he wrote a musical comedy which Gunther Schuller is currently reviving), Babbitt returned to Princeton. He learned of Luening's and Ussachevsky's experiments, but did not actually collaborate with them until the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center was organized. He is one of the Center's founders and a member of the Committee of Direction.
In addition to the founders, six composers and technicians who have participated in the Center's activities will help tell the Center's story:
was born in Constantinople in 1919 and graduated from the Ankara State Conservatory in Turkey in 1947. Upon graduation, he pursued an active career as pianist, conductor, and composer, performing contemporary as well as classical music at concerts and over Radio Ankara. In 1951 he studied sound engineering at the French Radio Studio, where he first became acquainted with musique concrète. From 1951 to 1959, Arel was tonmeister (master sound engineer) and musical director of Radio Ankara, during which time he experimented with electronic music composition for a few radio-play soundtracks and compositions for tape and acoustic instruments.
Arel began working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center as a Rockefeller research fellow, and has actively participated in the Center's activities since then. He is currently a member of the music department of the Stony Brook campus of the State University of New York, where he heads the electronic music studio.
studied music in Argentina, where he was born in 1934. He visited the Tanglewood
music festival in 1958 as a young but already established composer. Here he met Milton Babbitt, who invited him to the Center. Davidovsky arrived in 1960 on a Guggenheim fellowship, and has been active in the Center since then. Later this year he will assume the chairmanship of the Center's Committee of Direction when Ussachevsky retires.
began part-time work at the Center while she was still an undergraduate music major at Bennington College. Her early jobs were secretarial in nature, but she turned to teaching and composing shortly after receiving her degree. She and fellow staff member Alice Shields share the responsibility for teaching first-year composition students how to use the Center's facilities.
has been associated with the Center since his graduate composition student days at Columbia. He received his D.M.A. in composition in 1977, and is currently working at the Center under a Guggenheim fellowship.
began studies at the Center as a graduate student in 1962, and received her Master's degree in composition in 1965. Her activities and accomplishments since then are well known to Keyboard
readers. [Ed. Note: For an interview with Carlos, see Keyboard, Dec. '79]
graduated from the Columbia University Engineering School with a B.S. in Computer Science and an interest in audio electronics. After serving an internship of sorts under Peter Mauzey, deCarvahlo began full-time engineering work at the Center in 1977. He currently oversees the development and maintenance work at the Center, especially equipping the studios with computer instrumentation.
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Professor Ussachevsky, how did your experiments with tape recorders begin?
The Columbia music department applied for money for a tape recorder in 1950, and received the grant in 1951. It was considered a big investment, since up to that time the total yearly budget for audio equipment for the entire department was about $1,000. When the tape recorder—it was an Ampex 400—and microphone arrived, I immediately began to do a lot of recording. I recorded the concerts at McMillan Theater, where many of the music department performances were staged. Then I began experimenting with recording piano tones. The tape recorder had a speed change switch, so I could double or halve the speed of the original tone. Shortly after that, I learned about tape feedback from Peter Mauzey.
Vladimir came over to the campus radio station where I was working. He was interested in the station's tape recorder, which I showed him. It was a Magnacord with a speed change switch and the ability to reverse the direction of the tape travel under capstan control. Vladimir was interested in these features. He was especially interested in tape feedback, which I showed him by mixing some of the recorder's output from the playback head with the input signal. Shortly after our meeting, I built two small boxes for Vladimir. One was a mixer for controlling tape feedback, with an earphone amplifier so he could hear the feedback as it occurred. The other was a simple multi-input mixer that allowed a microphone signal to be mixed with other sound sources.
The Ampex 400, Peter's two boxes, plus a borrowed pair of earphones and a second recorder, were what I started with. There was no formal program, no research grant. I did experiments, and then put a few simple pieces of music together, on my own time. I played my first composition at a Composer's Forum concert at McMillan Theater on May 9, 1952.
At that time I was director of the Bennington Composers Conference, which is held every summer at Bennington College. When I heard what Vladimir had done, I asked him to pack up his equipment and bring it up to the conference. I said to Vladimir, "Let's do some experimenting. I've got my flute, and I can improvise with my voice." So up he came and we started to work together, experimenting with clarinet, violin, flute, and piano tones. We were interested in bending and reshaping the resonance of those instruments. We worked with sound-on-sound and reverberation, mostly because we didn't have anything else to work with. Finally we decided, "Let's get some shape into these sounds and make little pieces." So we made some tiny compositions. We played the pieces at a cocktail party at the conference. After our performance, several composers congratulated us, telling us that we had hit a new frontier, a new horizon. Then Oliver Daniel invited us to play the pieces at a Museum of Modern Art concert. Henry Cowell invited us to work at his farm in upstate New York. We did "Fantasy In Space" there. Then we brought the equipment back to Vladimir's apartment, where he did "Sonic Contours."
When did you learn about the work of the European electronic music composers?
Ussachevsky: My wife and I spent sometime in France in 1950, but I didn't meet any of the musique concrète people then. In 1953 I attended the First Congress of Experimental Music, in France. There I met Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henri, and some other composers. I had a chance to visit their facilities, which were much more extensive than those which I was using. I particularly remember their Phonogen, which is basically a tape player with provision for keyboard-controlling the tape speed. The French Radio broadcast compositions by John Cage, Christian Wolff, and myself, which I had brought with me. I then visited Karlheinz Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert at their studio in Cologne. They were just in the initial stages of setting up, but they had the Bode Melochord, which was a very useful tone source. I believe that I was the first American composer to visit that Cologne studio.
What were the developments that led to the establishment of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center?
Ussachevsky: Our initial concerts in 1952 got us nationwide publicity. We applied for and received a grant in 1953 that enabled us to have a total of three tape recorders, a Krohn-Hite filter, an oscillator, and a good two-channel mixer that Peter designed and built. The equipment was set up in my or Otto's apartment. We'd set up the tape recorders in the kitchen and the microphone in the living room so we wouldn't pick up the machine noise. Fortunately I had a tolerant wife and neighbors. This is how we did "Rhapsodic Variations" and "Poem In Cycles And Bells."
Mauzey: I was a graduate student and teaching assistant at the Columbia Engineering during the years preceding the founding of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. I worked for Vladimir on a very part-time basis. My job was to translate musical requirements into electronic hardware. I spent lots of time discussing effects with Vladimir, and if he wasn't satisfied with the effects he was getting, we would try something else that would produce effects that he might like. I knew about things like filtering and reverberation from my work in broadcasting and audio, but it didn't occur to me at the time that it would turn out to be as interesting to the rest of the world as it was to Vladimir. It struck me as strange that a serious musician would be interested in these strange sounds. Since then it hasn't surprised me as much, because I learned that musicians have a great interest in sound and they don't like to confine themselves to just those sounds that can be created by conventional instruments. Apparently this is not a new phenomenon. Musicians have been that way for a long time. That is one of the reasons why there are new musical instruments.
Ussachevsky: By 1955, we had a small studio on the Columbia campus. A second grant enabled us to enlarge the studio and to travel to Europe to be in touch with developments there. In 1957, the studio was finally installed in permanent headquarters in McMillan Hall. We were not yet teaching then, nor was the studio set up enough for composers besides Otto and me to use.
What were the basic ideas behind the establishment of the Center?
Luening: We wanted to provide a center where composers could work and experiment without having to contend with the forces of commercialism. Most of the European studios were associated with radio stations, but we felt that wouldn't work here because the forces pushing out work toward commercial exploitation would be too intense. We felt that the correct place was a university, where you have poets, literary and theater people, and acousticians on whom you could try out all this stuff with an audience and get reactions. At the same time you could feed it to students and make the studio available for people to work in, to experiment on a high level.
Ussachevsky: The original vision was of a distributed facility. There would be separate studios at Columbia, Princeton, University of Illinois, University of Toronto, and a fifth University. We would all cooperate and exchange information and ideas. But then the Rockefeller people, whom we had already approached, said to us, "Look, you two and Babbitt are good friends. You are able to collaborate easily. We think the studios should be set up at a central location. Why don't you three submit a proposal on that basis?" So we proposed a larger Center with facilities that were comprehensive enough to invite composers.
How did the RCA Synthesizer come to be part of the Center's facilities?
Babbitt: At first the RCA Synthesizer was not part of the proposal. However, I had been interested in that machine for quite some time. When RCA unveiled their first synthesizer, the Mark I, Dr. Harry Olson came over to Princeton and asked if he could try some of this stuff on the music students. Frankly, the students were put off. That's when I began talking with Olson in more detail. The second [Mark II] synthesizer, which is the one at the Center, is entirely different in technical detail from the first. The Mark I was used to make one record, then turned over for voice research. The Mark II, some say, was built for use in commercial recording. RCA made some very slick arrangements on that machine—sort of Mantovani pop. But the recordings were never released. At first RCA was interested in building a second Mark II for the Center—if we could raise the half-million dollars or so that it would cost. It was not possible for us to raise that kind of money. Even the five-year Rockefeller Foundation grant that was given to set up the entire Center would, in its entirety, have paid only one-third of the synthesizer's projected cost. Then RCA said, "We'll rent the machine to you, but we want to maintain it." So that's how the Mark II came to be part of the Center. We rented RCA's Mark II for a nominal monthly amount for the first 20 months or so of the Center's existence. Then RCA agreed to turn the machine over to us outright for some token amount, one dollar or so.
Once the Rockefeller grant was awarded, how long did it take to set up the Center?
Mauzey: The Rockefeller grant enabled me to work full time as director of engineering of the Center. Setting up the Center was not a simple matter of buying the equipment we needed. Back then there was much less to buy than there is now. We were able to buy tape recorders and monitor systems, and some oscillators and filters. Nearly everything else, including the mixers, we designed and made here. We built some special devices to find out what you could do with them. Some of them turned out to be useful, and others didn't. There was virtually no literature to study that would tell us what to buy, or how to make what we needed.
Babbitt: The RCA Synthesizer had to be completely documented and partially rebuilt when we got it. Since it was a prototype, the design work wasn't finished, and the drawings for it weren't complete. Peter and his assistants went over the instrument from one end to the other. It took more than a year just to get it working completely. The Mark II originally had an elaborate disc recorder that was mechanically synchronized to the paper programming roll mechanism. For our purposes we could not use the disc recorder; it was unworkable for serious experimental composition. So Peter removed the disc mechanism and fixed up a tape machine so that it would start the paper roll going at a point on the tape where the oxide coating had been scraped away.
Ussachevsky: In addition to setting up tape studios, we equipped McMillan Hall with a playback system that was suited to our needs. We bought 30 KLH-6 speakers, and built a mixing console with 12 outputs. Even today there is not another performance hall with such a system, as far as I know. In addition to the studio next to the McMillan Theater, we took over some space in the old Sheffield bottling plant just beyond the edge of the campus, and set up two tape studios and the Mark II there. We finally had adequate space to set up properly in this building. You might say that the Center was officially set up when we gave our first public concert of works produced with the new facilities in 1961. However, by that time we were in full swing. Bulent, Mario, and several other composers had already made pieces here.
What technical guidelines did you establish when you set up the Center's facilities?
Mauzey: We tried to make things as simple as possible. Whatever we did was sound engineering design, conservatively done. I don't think it was anything more than that. I'm a conservative designer by nature. In addition to that, I had a lot of experience when I began to design equipment for the Center. I knew from my experience at the radio station how important reliability was and what would happen if you pushed things too much.
How has the equipment in the Center's studios evolved to the present?
From the beginning of the Center, we planned to have four tape studios that were as nearly identical as possible, so that one could learn in one studio, then easily transfer his or her technique to any of the others. We began with the basics—four two-track tape machines, one or two four-track machines, a power oscillator for tape speed changing, monitor amplifiers and speakers, a few oscillators and filters, reverberation, and a mixer. The equipment was the best we could buy: Ampex recorders, EMT reverberation plates, and mixers that Peter designed to state-of-the-art professional audio standards. We purchased or built more specialized equipment as time went on: Bode ring modulators and frequency shifters, our own electronic switches, Moog voltage-controlled amplifiers, envelope generators, and envelope followers, and Buchla modular synthesizers. Now we are introducing computer control. Virgilio has built a specialized microcomputer that is capable of complex control of each channel of a 1/3-octave filter bank, for instance. But the splicing block, the tape machine, and the mixer remain the heart of our compositional equipment in the tape studios.
At the present time, how many composers can the Center accommodate?
About 40, of whom half are students and the other half are on the Center's staff or are visiting composers.
What kind of instruction in electronic music has the Center provided?
Even before the Center existed, I taught a course in electronic music techniques and literature at Columbia. Today, every graduate student in composition is required to take at least one year of electronic music com-position. Many study for two years.
Each first-year graduate student is given access to one of the studios for at least eight hours per week. For one of those hours, either Alice Shields or I work with the student on a one-on-one basis. In this way they very quickly learn their way around the studios.
The student’s study with us through lectures, seminars, and informal discussions, as well as in the studio. But we are not dogmatic. We don't want a school of little clones. We tell the students, "This is how you do it. Now go ahead." We try to get them to experiment.
Besides teaching university-level courses, what other educational activities do members of the Center conduct?
From the very beginning, Vladimir and I went to meetings of the Audio Engineering Society and the Acoustical Society of America, to tell interested people what we were doing. We felt that we were supposed to come out with information, not to hog it. We felt that we should let the word go out and be tested in the regular world.
Besides appearing at technical society meetings, we regularly presented seminars, workshops, and concerts at universities and conservatories around the country. Because of the interest we have aroused, many visitors come through the Center's studios to actually see how the equipment was set up.
How are students taught at the Center?
When I arrived in 1960, there was no pedagogical system at all. Milton spent a Sunday afternoon showing me the RCA Synthesizer. At the end of the session I was so discouraged I felt like taking a plane home. But I stayed. Vladimir showed me how to work the tape equipment, then assigned me to assist Bulent, who had arrived one year earlier. Bulent was my first real teacher. He would explain something technically, then illustrate it with sound. During the years after the Center opened, the medium was just starting to unfold. Everybody was working from scratch. There was a variety of people, opinions, and esthetics. We all learned a great deal from each other.
The music, rather than the techniques of the equipment, was always paramount. Vladimir, Otto, and Milton were all music lovers. An appreciation of the artistry behind composition and performance was poured into you in natural ways. We heard a lot of avant-garde music that they had access to, especially European music. Some of it was not electronic, but was pertinent to our interests.
Our procedure differed from that of the European studios. In Europe an electronic composer expected a technician to be on hand all the time to execute his or her wishes. I thought that this was a difficult position to put a composer in. For practical purposes, he or she would be deprived of the possibility of manipulating and experimenting. At the Center, technical people give lectures or sometimes assist composers with technical problems. Generally, we assist composers as much as they need, then leave them on their own. Students are urged to get on their own as soon as possible and learn how to use the equipment.
For me, the most important part of learning electronic music at the Center was the creative activity that goes on there, and the atmosphere created by the people in charge. The musical substance is paramount. Fancy equipment, in itself, isn't worth anything.
What attributes do you look for in deciding which composers or composition students to accept?
Some musicians come to electronic music for its technical side. They see it as a thing in itself, separate from traditional music. On the other side is the traditional musician at his worst, who thinks that music never changes. Electronic music composers must tread the middle ground. Their music must be accessible, yet have aspects that bring you way out to new land.
A person studying electronic music composition must have a thoroughly rigorous training. Today's equipment can be operated even by non-musicians. The danger is that it becomes like the movie camera that everybody has in the closet, but that very few people use professionally. In addition, some manual dexterity is necessary. In the early days, many gifted composers could not make it because they were manually awkward. Splicing a tape together was an excruciating experience. These people did much better with more advanced equipment, like computers, where they didn't have to use their hands as much.
People not enrolled at Columbia have to have either some reputation or clear accomplishment in composition in order to use the Center's facilities. We do make a distinction between student composers and visiting composers.
We have selected people who not only were academically oriented, but also had some sense of adventure, of experimentation. You might say that our influence has been benevolent. We drew the line only to prevent things from getting out of hand and the kooks from taking over.
How would you describe working in a classical tape studio from a musician's point of view?
You're forced to use a splicing block and to layer things on many tape recorders. This creates a concern for the details and intricacies of a composition. In fact, when Mario discusses a string quartet with a composition student, he is concerned with the same things as he is when he discusses an electronic piece. Working with four tape recorders is just like composing a string quartet, in my opinion. Although our studios are equipped with synthesizers, we do not permit our students to use them until the spring term. Confining them in this way to tape manipulation forces them to go slowly enough to think about what they're doing.
The aspects of electronic music that are idiosyncratic to the medium are of interest to me: the very precise ways that dynamics can be controlled, the articulation of notes with very rapidly varying levels, the production of short sounds in rapid succession, the designing of envelopes, and so on. In fact, the shaping of envelopes is equivalent to performance for me. It is the most important aspect of my composition, enabling me to make phrases that are vital, alive, and elegant. I am also interested in the timbral aspects of electronic music, but only to make long sounds interesting. This is difficult in the electronic medium because equipment generally is not sophisticated enough to do, for instance, what a violinist does.
I generally work by developing sound materials from simple sources, then using these materials in many places. For instance, one of my most successful sound transformations I got by accident when I had tape feedback on and changed the tape speed. The switch click got picked up and repeated. It deteriorated into a steady state of some sort, acquired a strange quality, and then didn't deteriorate any more. I used that sound in a couple of my early pieces. After that, I combined the sound with the same sound transposed up and down two octaves, and made a melody by speed transposition. It was like a tremulous voice, but had a strange electronic quality. I used that sound in several of my other pieces. A resource like that is available for use in different circumstances, variations, and modifications. Every composer has a few of these basic sounds, and these give him access to a whole world of sound through successive transformations and recordings.
Is it true, then, that the musical experience of working in a tape studio depends on the composer's style as much as on the equipment?
Davidovsky: That's certainly true. Within a couple of years after I started working at the Center, I developed a technique that was sufficient for the needs that I had. I generally use the tape medium to build filigree-like textures of short, carefully shaped sounds. I am not involved in layering as much as, say, Vladimir is, so the mixer is not as important to me. I found that I was able to solve my problems with the tape by combinations of medieval surgery and advanced electronic equipment. I enjoy using my ingenuity. I get involved with the sounds as a carpenter gets involved with wood. For me there is an almost physical satisfaction in dealing with all this matter. For some other composers, the satisfaction is of a different sort.
Professor Babbitt, what is it like to compose on the RCA Mark II?
Babbitt: My music uses precise, intricate pitch and rhythmic structures. The Mark II allows me to extend what I had tried to do in my conventional music that made it hard to perform. When I began working with the Mark II, I was anxious to achieve things that I knew could be heard and discriminated by careful listeners. I was concerned with rhythm in every sense of the concept. Every performer knows that the mental concept of time is very different from the mental concept of pitch. Anyone can put a finger down and adjust the pitch of what he hears, but the notion of controlling the temporal progression of a piece in one's head is very, very different. The primary problem in performing much of contemporary music is the rhythmic problem, and above all the ensemble rhythmic problem. That's where the rehearsal time goes, that's where the performers are inadequately trained. The hand is seldom faster than the ear.
That problem is solved on the Mark II. Time is a continuity on the paper roll, just as it is on a piano roll. You can punch in an attack or decay at any point on the roll. What I love about the machine is its man-machine relationship. I can hear what I am doing exactly as I do it, at any speed.
People still don't know everything the ear is capable of perceiving. When we began working with the Mark II, we found that the so-called psychoacoustical principles in the literature were usually totally wrong for musicians. Any number of "universal laws" turned out to be preposterous. Our engineers developed abilities to hear far beyond those of sophisticated musicians, just by working with the machinery.
Composing on the Mark II is a time-consuming business. When everything is going right, when I know exactly what I want and the equipment is working properly, and if I'm lucky, I can get one minute of music out of six or seven hours with the machine. Most times it takes much longer. You have to have patience. Many composers tried working with the Mark II but gave up.
I made many tapes of perceptual effects, of the relationships between what one would expect in extrapolating from conventional musical experience, and what you get when you specify it. The capacity to hear and the interaction of the various dimensions of music affect what we perceive. All of this is at least a warning not to be glib about these things, and to recognize that when people say, "What about the human aspect?” that no music has ever been more human. The composer has the complete responsibility of specifying every aspect of his or her musical decisions. At the other end is the fact that the only limitation beyond the obvious ones is human perception.
How does an electronic music composer handle the question of notation?
Arel: In conventional music, a score exists so that the performers may recreate the work within the limits of their interpretation of that score. Since tape music exists as a final creation similar to a sculpture or a painting, there is no need for a score to perform it. The scores I wrote for my tape pieces in the early '60s were written primarily for the purpose of copyright, since copyright law at that time did not recognize music on tape as sufficient documentation for a copyright. In 1960 the Center commissioned me to write a score for my work "Stereo Electronic Music No. 1," and to devise a practical notation for electronic music sounds, which might be used as a means of symbolizing them on paper. It was a complete system of notation used to visually describe the electronic music sounds in my work specifically, and might not apply to other electronic music works. However, because of the nature of electronic music, this is the best that one can hope for.
Virgilio, what qualifications should an engineer who works in electronic music possess?
DeCarvahlo: Besides a good basic engineering education, you need a strong interest in audio, and an ability to size up what a composer wants and boil that down to a piece of actual hardware. That means that you have to have some understanding of the sort of music that the composer is into.
Will a private composer of non-commercial music ever be able to afford his own private studio?
DeCarvahlo: The most expensive part of a tape studio is the tape recorders. If the price of tape recorders ever comes down, a composer with a small budget will be able to put together a decent studio. With the new oscillator, filter, amplifier, and envelope generator IC chips that are now available, if a composer is willing to do some construction work, and to settle for semi-professional recorders, he or she could probably put together a reasonable studio right now.
Do you believe that it would be beneficial for all composition students to study electronic music?
Arel: Yes. It is part of the contemporary music language in both popular and academic music. I consider computer and electronic music as a new orchestration with unique capabilities of articulation and manipulation of sound structures. This was not possible only a short time ago. Technology continues to give us tremendously rich musical resources.
Carlos: That electronic music is a new orchestration is exactly the point. You wouldn't think of asking a composer, even if he or she wanted to write just for guitar, piano, or string quartet, if they want to learn to orchestrate. You'd be destroying the notion of what composition is all about. The present use of electronic music is the production of musical events, so you'd better know something about it.
What has the influence of the Center been on our current musical scene?
Krieger: Initially it was the equipment. People came here to learn about the technical aspects of electronic music. But no more. Now I think it's artistic. The Center has increased the repertoire, giving the best and most substantial electronic music. In my opinion this is true not only nationally but internationally. The music that has come out of the Center is simply of a higher musical substance.
Carlos: For the musician who has a synthesizer and plays it as if it were a fancy electronic organ, there may not be much influence from the Center. However, if you strip that element away from popular music, you find that the operations that were developed at the Center, and to a lesser extent in other classical studios, are also used by anyone who is involved in studio work of any sort. Live electronic processing, even from non-electronic sources, comes right from Vladimir's first frequency-shifter experiments and the like. The influence is certainly wider than it appears at first.
Ussachevsky: Two of the compositions done here [by Davidovsky and Wuorinen] have won Pulitzer Prizes. Many other works have also won awards. Several alumni of the Center have gone out to set up studios and programs in universities across the country. Many other studios were set up using our studios as models. But most important is the influence that we have had on music in general. I am glad to have had the influence by personal example and the example of our Center to have given electronic music a kind of respectability in a skeptical inner circle of serious composers.
Robert A. Moog was one of the principal figures in the development of the voltage-controlled synthesizer, and founded the company that bears his name. He has been a columnist in Contemporary Keyboard since our first issue.