Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind: Switched-On Bach (1968)

Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind: Switched-On Bach (1968)

On top of being the first classic record to earn a platinum disc, Switched-On Bach would eventually change pop music, rock and traditional music forever. It started a huge line of imitators and delighted an audience that since then looked at the electronic music with suspicious eyes. Before S-OB electronic avant-garde was barely considered and deemed not interesting economically. Wendy Carlos fixed this problem:

“I thought that if I offered people a little bit of traditional music, and they could clearly hear the melody, harmony, rhythm and all the older values, they’d finally see that this was really a pretty net new medium”

Walter Carlos studies piano, shows interest in physics and has experience as a sound engineer. He graduates in music composition at Columbia with Otto Luening and Ussachevsky. In 1966 Bob himself deliver her first Moog; thanks to Bob Shwartz help, a colleague at Gotham Recording Studios, Walter's apartment in West End Avenue became a small recording studio. Bob spends a whole weekend in the West End controlling the rig functioning of the instrument, it is the start of a log and productive union: Carlos suggests a few changes and this would lead to the creation of portamento and switch. During these ears Moog travels between Trumansburg and New York with his prototypes, listening to Walter's advices. At Gotham Studios Carlos meets Rachel Elkind, arrived from San Francisco aspiring to become a jazz singer and ended up working as an assistant and eventually a music producer in the music industry. Rachel describes her first encounter with Wendy:

“loathe at fist sight. We didn’t care for each other at all. It took us about a year before I started bugging her to collaborate with me or produce me”

When Rachel listens to a version of a Bach's Sonata she rapidly understands the potential of the work. Wendy does not think about realizing a Bach's cover album yet: it is Rachel's idea. The two of them start writing the first movement of the Third Concert of Brandenburg: Wendy works with the Moog and Rachel advises for sound that are non too similar to the ones used by an orchestra. The pitch should be familiar albeit different. By the end of summer '68, S-OB is finally ready and Columbia offers a contract. Success is finally at reach, but Walter is in that period starting the transformation in Wendy with hormonal therapies and a following pioneering procedure in 1969. Carlos has no social life at this point, has no public appearances and doesn't see other musicians. After the tragic concert with St.Louis Orchestra in 1969, Wendy will refuse forever to play in public. As a Mirror of Carlos' personality, S-OB is not fit to be played live. Rachel too is going trough rough time, the public does not acknowledge her work:

“Having built up Walter Carlos, I also got tired of people thinking that I was there serving tea”.

The huge effect of S-OB will create some problems even to others that it's composers; the record worries orchestra musicians that think their work is no longer needed due to the use of synths. Avant-garde composers and musicians are also concerned about the popularization of their projects in Carlos' works. For all these reasons the American Federation of Musicians and producers sign a contract that bans the use of Moog from the production of commercial jingles. The debacle finds closure with the intervention of lobbyist Walter Sear that explains to the AFM that a Moog needs a musician to be played… After changing the history of music, Wendy and Rachel will continue to work together. After the storm they realize: The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969), Switched-on Bach II (1973), Switched-On Brandenburg (1979) Orange Clockwork OST (1972) and The Shining OST (1980).

Bob Moog describes the audience reaction at the AES meeting in New York (1968)after the Third Concert of Brandenburg:

“I put the tape on, and I wanted to let it run. So I just walked off the stage into the back of the room. And I can remember people’s mouths dropping open. I swear I could see a couple of those cynical old bastards starting to cry. At the end, she got a standing ovation, you know, those cynical, experienced New York engineers had had their minds blown”

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Eliane Radigue (1932)

Eliane Radigue (Paris, January 24th, 1932)

Eliane Radigue starts her work as a composer in the Fifties. In 1955 she meets Pierre Schaeffer, director at Radio France d'Outre-Mer and of the musique concrète laboratory at RTF (Radio Télévision Française), she becomes his pupil. The following year Schaeffer deems Eliane independent enough to work alone at the RTF's labs: he writes a letter to the agency department in Nice that refuses the access to the student.
Between 1958 and 1967 Eliane takes a break from electronic music: she spends more time with her husband, the artist Arman, and their three kids. After divorcing from her partner, Eliane gets back on track and attains an assistant position for Pierre Henry at Studio Apsome where she creates some sounds for her works. In this period Eliane uses a feedback composing technique and tape recorders. In 1969 Radigue publishes her first work, a double 45 rpm record, limited to 250 copies, republished in 2000.
During the Seventies she moves to the States, finding a lot to share with New York's minimalist scene. The american musical environment is not the only reason pushing Eliane overseas: in America the availability of synthesizers, Moog, Buchla, modular systems is far higher, all these are machines that allow the production of sound with a level of control impossible with the old recorders. In 1970 she is invited to New York University in order to share Morton Subotnick's studio with Laurie Spiegel. She remains there until June 1971 realizing a few pieces with a Buchla. In New York she literally falls in love with ARP 500, the instrument that she will use continuously until 2000.

"I work within the sound; with the ARP I program a base and with the power meters I engender minimal variations. These slow variations are one of the elements that force the sound to evolve and do not allow it to be identical to itself. This is what I was and I am interested in, but I can't do it with digital machines. The ARP is an instrument with extremely good sound quality, relatively easy to use and flexible in terms of manipulation and, lastly, very precise. I could not play with preset sounds. I like to play in grey zones, where the ear gets lost and this erraticism gives rise to a space of liberty. And paradoxically the end product is not improvisation! It is not possible to improvise."

In 1973 she teaches electronic music at the University of Iowa and California Institute of the Arts. In 1974 Terry Riley calls her to Mills College where she has the opportunity to work with Pauline Oliveiros and Maggie Payne. After playing "Adnos" at Mills College, some students define her music as "meditative". Eliane starts to approach Tibetan Buddhism. She spends the next three years with Guru Kalu Rimpoche, involved exclusively into meditation. She gets back to electronic music in 1979 with "Adnos II" followed by "Adnos III" in 1980. Between 1980 and 1990 she composes "Trilogie de la Mort", a three hours piece inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In 200 the French Governments grants her a "Bourse à la Création" thank to which Eliane composes "Songs of Milarepa" and "Jetsun Mila", dedicated to the tibetan saint and poet that lived in the XI century. During the same year she records her last electronic piece, "Ile Re-sonante", awarded at Linz Ars Electronica in 2006. In 2001 she starts to write music for acoustic instrument and teams up with The Lappatites, a computer improvising group.

A Portrait of Eliane Radigue (2009) from Maxime Guitton on Vimeo.

"I Believe that even sounds have their personality and this provides the awareness of the time that they need. There are sounds that need more time to tell their story. Others are more chirpy, rapid. I try to respect every sound's time…" Eliane Radigue

Friday, February 5, 2010

Alice F. Shields (1943)

Alice F. Shields (Manhattan, New York, February 18th, 1943)

In 1950 Vladimir Ussachevsky (Columbia University) and Otto Luening (Princeton University) set up the Electronic Music Center. Based in New York in one of the areas of Columbia University, the Center gets legitimated in 1959 thank to a Rockefeller Foundation. EMC's aim is to teach to young musicians the new techniques of electronic music; the instruments (oscillators, phonographs, microphones, sequencers, electronic organs, filters, recorders and much more) were at the complete disposal of the students for recordings and live-sets. From 1959 to 1970, when the studio's direction is entrusted to Ussacevsky, the most famous artists and composers visit, study or work at the EMC.
Alice Sherds gets to the Columbia in 1961 to study music and literature. After following Jack Besson's composition lessons, she graduates and becomes Ussachevsky teaching assistant, Besson's counterpointed professor. From 1965 to 1982 she is technical instructor and associate director at the Princeton-Culumbia Electronic Music Center.

“When in 1964 I walked into the building for the first time, I could see and hear the laboratory monkeys screeching in their cages. Such was the building in which the Electronic Music Center existed, and for at least twenty years nurtured the creation of hundreds of wildly diverse works of art.”

Brilliant mezzo-soprano, Alice strait to mix her voice recording with loops, feedback, oscillators and filter generated electronic music. In 1965 she studies singing with Helen Merritt; in 1968 she realizes Study for Voice and Tape, synchronizing vocal recordings with synthetic sounds on tape created with a Buchla. The blending of electronic music and opera air will be the leitmotif of Alice Shields' research activity: from 1966 to 1968 she works to lake George Opera Festival and in 1970 she directs her frost opera, Odyssey. Voice becomes a real instrument in Shaman, electronic opera realized at the American Chamber Opera Company in 1987. Alice Shields works today as a composer in et opera's environment and she is well known for her contribution to the field with extra-classic sources (indian music, native american symbols and so forth).

"The Sunbather

She, sun
beating, walloping,
(save yourself, idiot)
--dead tired, can’t make it
(save yourself, idiot)

and she smothering you
you lie stinking, hot and nude on an asphalt roof.

She whacking, pummeling you,
my advice is, Complain.
--and then your bellow is beefed and gutted,
spat with smirking cheeks over the parapet.

Wide scraping sun-hips skin you, flail you,
idiot, idiot,
and you graveling there nude on asphalt,
and you ecstasy in your bright bloody face."
--Alice Shields

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Maddalena Fagandini - BBC Radiophonic Workshop

During WWII women start to get access to typically manly jobs. Hiring young girls as engineers and radio technicians allows radios to fill the gap left by men on war duty:

“ There was a tradition of using women as engineers and technical people in radio. This happened during the war when all the gentlemen went off to fight the war. There was quite a cut back after the war when the surviving gentlemen came back and wanted their jobs, of course, naturally, but it was still thought that women had done well.”

BBC's Radiophonic Workshop is one of the best examples of this revolution: Daphne Oram works there, after founding the department in the April of 1958, as well as Maddalena Fagandini, Delia Derbyshire and Elizabeth Parker. The first experiences realized by the radios' ladies owe a lot to musique concrète, born from Pierre Schaeffer imagination in 1948. This new wave gets profoundly rooted inside the BBC because of the lack of instruments available within the radio in order to produce electronic music. On the other hand, in order to produce concrete music, only a few environmental recordings are needed that will be edited later with filters. At a time when synthesizers were not created, Maida Vale Studios were equipped with old tape recorders, 12 test oscillators borrowed from other BBC departments and other small instruments that could generate noise. With the few money available to found the Workshop, the engineers buy used equipment from the Portobello market and in 1970, thanks to Peter Zinovieff, the BBC finally buys three VCS3 and one EMS Synthi 100 modular system. The lack of economic help o the workshop from the BBC is due in part to the success that the workshop achieves with the existing instruments and to the fact that this new way of making music gives rise to a number of concerns within the Fifties' general public; some doctors pointed out to the BBC directors that the workers engagement with the workshop should not be longer than three months. The continuous contact with those kind of sound would make the employee demented. The workshop's technical benightedness made some discontinue, other withstand. In 1959, Daphne Oram leaves the workshop and Maddalena Fagandini takes her place. After climbing out of the gutter from the BBC's italian department, Maddalena gets relocated to the Maida Vale Studios. She composes and realizes a few jingles and effects required by the scripts with was she has; she inevitably gets influenced by musique concrete. With a few oscillators she realizes the sound effects and the soundtrack for the rework of Cocteau's Orphée. With Delia Derbyshire, a fine master of mathematics and their application in music, joining the team, the workshop's activity undergoes a keen change and experimental production soars. In 1962 George Martin, at the time at the BBC's music library, records with Maddalena "Time Bit" under the "Ray Cathod" alias. This is the first single published by the Radio Workshop composed using an interval signal created by Maddalena herself. A few months later Martin discovers the Beatles. Revolver would be influenced heavily by Martin's experience at the workshop. Between 1965 and 1966, after the revolution carried by the first Moog synths, Maddalena decides to commit herself to TV productions. It is plain to see that from then on electronic music would become an independent discipline requiring specific training and instruments to it's perfumers.

“Interestingly it wasn’t me but the sounds themselves that were suggesting what to do. You learn that the secret is in the material itself and not a mathematical calculation in your head. Its there somewhere for you to listen and find it. It has its own rhythm. You push it around at your peril. You have to let it happen, let it be. Then you can play around with what you know about music to help construct sound which makes musical sense to people listening.” Maddalena Fagandini

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Daphne Oram (1925-2003)

Daphne Oram (Devizes, Wiltshire, December 31st 1925 – Maidstone, Kent, January 5th 2003)

After graduating at the Sherborne School for Girls, Daphne Oram starts teaching piano, pipe organ and composition. In 1942 the Royal College of Music offers her a job but Daphne opts for a Junior Studio Engineer position at the BBC. At 18 years of age she starts to familiarize with synthetic sounds and starts her first experiments with tape recorders. In the Fifties she gets promoted to Studio Manager. After a trip to Paris to the RTF studios she imports the musique concrète's techniques to the UK. Thank to Daphne, in 1957 the BBC creates the first soundtrack composed exclusively with electronic sources: in order to realize Amphitron 38 she uses a sine wave oscillator, an old tape recorder and a few filters. With Desmond Briscoe she starts to get commissions for, among others, "all That Fall" by Samuel Beckett. In 1958, sponsored by BBC, Desmond and Daphne establish the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In October of the same year, the radio will send her as representative to the World Exhibition in Brussels. The "Journées Internationales de Musique Expérimentale" gather the major bleeding-edge composers of the time; Daphne notices her outdated knowledge mainly due to the BBC's lack of interest in innovation. She leaves the Radio and in 1959 she creates her own Oramic Studios for Electronic Composition in Fairseat, Kent. Daphne's universe starts to expand: she starts to work with televisions, radios, theaters, opera authors (Thea Musgrave and Ivor Walsworth), cinema (she realizes the sound effects for Jack Clayton's "The Innocents"), expos and shows. In 1962 she receives a grant for the Oramics' development, a composition methane developed within the BBC Workshop. The Oramics is a machine working with a 35 mm transparent tape where the author draws an alphabet of symbols. Going through photoelectric cells, the symbols are transformed into sounds with specific amplitudes, pitches, frequencies and length that are transferred onto tape. The first composition with this technique is Contrasts Essonic (1968). Daphne makes history being the first woman ever directing a musical studio, to found her own and to create a new electronic musical instrument. In 1971 she writes "An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics" where she researches on music in a philosophical way. In 1990, because of health problems, she stops her works. In 2003 she dies, leaving a vast archive to what will follow "Oramics", posthumous anthology of her work.

"She lived music. She was as poor as a church mouse, because any money that came to her went into her music gadgets. To me she was a kindly rather eccentric aunt. But she had a very clear vision of how the computer would revolutionise electronic music." Chris Oram

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Else Marie Pade (1924)

Else Marie Pade (Aarhus, December 2nd, 1924)

Else starts to take piano lessons in secret, mentored by a teacher from the Music Academy of Aarus. Her parents would rather see an unruffled career for their daughter but Else's dreams were far away from those of a operator in WWII's Denmark. Her piano teacher soon introduces her to the Resistance environment: unfortunately they get caught by the Gestapo and, only 19 years old, Else spends eight months in Frøslev Lejr's lager. It was 1944.
Within the prisoners, Else get to know people that could understand her profound interest for music; they will later grant her a subsidy in order to study at the Music Academy.
From 1946 to 1949 Else moves to Copenhagen where she attends piano lessons at the conservatory. After getting the diploma she continues to study under Vagn Holmboe tutorship. On a 1951's night she gets to listen to a speech from Pierre Schaeefer on "Horisont" radio show: musique concrète's soul could explain the new "sound universe" musical theory. Else get impressed so much by the maestro's words that she decides to go to Paris in order to meet him. In 1952 the two of them are close friends.
After an estival summer spent at Bakken park in Dyrehaven, where some musicians were playing Stravinsky's Petrushka al fresco, Else decides to make a documentary for Danmarks Radios. She creates a soundtrack with open-air sound, music and noises from the nature, electronically edited. The piece, "One day at Dyrehavsbakken" (1954-55), is not appreciated by danish public, very closed towards avant-garde":

“People were indignant that I allowed myself to call it music.”

These harrowing denigrations notwithstanding, Else goes on with her musical research. She joins Holger Laurdsen, also employed at Danmarks Radios, who was in contact with Werner Meyer-Eppler circle and interested to electronic music. The two of them start their journey through concrete music. Holger teaches her the technical bases and, thank to what she learned, Elsa realizes the soundtrack for "Looking for a ghost" radio drama (1956). The couple, that previously used the radio's laboratory, build their own studio with imported instruments. Around them technicians, writers and amateurs discuss about musical avant-garde and listen to music. Stockhausen, Ernst Krenek and Herbert Eimert visit them very often and hold seminars. Danish composers do not appreciate Else's research and don't recognize as valid what Schaeffer or Stockhausen theorize: all new tendencies get put aside from the traditionalists. While Denmark is not interested by Else's work, Stockhausen and Boulez require her tapes to use during lessons and seminars they hold throughout Europe. These tapes are “Syv Circler” (Seven Circles), frst electronic composition in Denmark ever, and “Glasperlespillet” (The Glass Bead Game). In 1958, during Brussel's Universal Exposition, Else meets Berio and Maderna. Later on she gets to know John Cage. From 1957 things get complicated: Holger's sudden death amplifies Else's loneliness and isolation. in 1958 she writes "Symphonie Magnétophonique", a 19 mints long piece, played for the first time on Danish radio i 1959. This work describes a siphonic journey into the modern civilization with concrete music's means: everyday sounds mixed with the ones realized in studio or taken from Lauridsen archives. Everything changes in 1960 when Else divorces from her husband Henning Pade: she really couldn't be a full time producer, a single mom and electronic music composer in a hostile country anymore.

“The fact that I was a female composer - which was obviously rather unusual at the time - was not perceived as a problem by anyone. In Denmark, on the other hand, I often felt a bit ridiculed as a female composer. Even my own husband was bothered by my creating music. One might say that I was doubly isolated in Danish composer circles, partly as a composer of electronic music, partly as a woman.” Else Marie Pade

Monday, February 1, 2010

Laurie Spiegel (1945)

Laurie Spiegel (Chicago, September 20th 1945)

At 10 years old Laurie starts to play the guitar, mandolin and banjo and to study privately in London, After her Social Sciences Degree at Oxford university, she follows composition classes for renaissance and baroque lute at Julliard School under the mentorship of Jacob Druckman and Vincent Perischetti. At 20 years old she starts to write her own compositions.
In 1969, while visiting Subotnick's studio in Manhattan, she sees for the first time a Buchla 100, the same that Morton used in 1967 to record "Silver Apples of the Moon". It is love at first sight:

"An instrument (Buchla 100) that is not limited to notes but makes all kinds of amazing sounds, and I can play it myself instead of having to write down lots of little notes that I can't hear hoping someday people will play them."

After that encounter Laurie's world changes forever: everything was different, even New York's traffic is now a revelation. The Buchla was an instrument made no work with the nature itself of sound.
From 1973 to 1979 she works for Bell Labs, learning how to program computers in order to realize images and sounds. By the end of the Seventies Jack Raking offers her an Apple 48k's prototype. With it, Laurie becomes a technological counterculture activist; she is one of the first composers to use the computer as a creative mean. In those years no one would repute computers good for musical production: they were seen as dehumanizing instruments, anti-intuitive and emotionless. They were use by bank, the government and few businessmen. In Laurie's mind new technology can be part of folk music and have in itself a huge pop potential. Very soon Spiegel would find way to make music for computers at everybody's range. She collaborate to the creation of the Alpha Sythauri, the first computer with a musical tool that could be sold at an affordable price and used for the special effects of the second Star Trek movie. Tired of the musical scene that herself contributed to create, she moves to Toronto where she direct the software development department at McLevyer. In 1985 she creates the "Music Mouse" that transfers a Mac into a easy-to-play intuitive instrument: this is one of the first softwares that allows musicians that never studied musical composition to create tonal or atonal music by simply using the keyboard or moving the mouse.

“Women composers were still few and far between. Technology is largely responsible for how much more common women composers are now, because it allowed women to get their music to the point where it could be heard (versus silent dots on paper), so the public and powers-that-be could learn that we also could do this. Women are still to some degree underdogs in composing. Throughout the 70s I earned much of my living by composing soundtracks for film and video. But jobs, or maybe people who would a woman as their composer, were few and far between. Even today, several decades later, the percentage of major motion pictures scored by women is still appallingly low.” Laurie Spiegel