Documenting the recent history of electronic music performance practice

1972 02 03 El Studio A WDR 028 web jpg

WDR Studio for Electronic Music, 3 February 1972. (Copyright: Werner Scholz.)

Osaka St am Mischpult web jpg

Stockhausen at the Siemens mixing desk in the spherical auditorium of the West German pavilion at the 1970 World’s Fair, Osaka. (Copyright: Stockhausen Foundation for Music, Kürten, Germany.)

Sean UBM 1 web jpg

Practical research in recreating historical techniques using a combination of analogue and digital instruments. (Copyright: Sean Williams.)

The 1950s heralded a major transformation in the possibilities for music-making with the use of electronics and the founding of electronic music studios all over the world. For the first time, it was suggested that composers could realise their compositions, translating musical ideas into a fixed media format, without having an interpreter or performer intervening in the process. Whilst this idea may be more aligned with the contemporary use of computers in music making, it is evident that in the 1950s and 1960s there was, contrary to these early claims, a very active and significant role played by interpreters and performers in realising these electronic music pieces, although not in a conventional way.

By considering the repurposed electronic test equipment typically used in the early studios as musical instruments, it follows that the key to identifying the practices and tacit knowledge supporting this activity is to be found with the engineers and technicians who operated them. In many cases, designing, modifying or redesigning these tools can also be seen as extensions of musical performance practice, but this is an area which is significantly under-represented in the standard literature. In order to identify these areas of practice, in addition to interviewing composers and performers, I am interviewing retired engineers and technicians from the West Deutsche Rundfunk Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, and relating their accounts to the realisation and performance of works by Stockhausen, Ligeti, Kagel, Koenig, Gehlhaar, Fritsch and others, and by association to the British groups Gentle Fire, and Intermodulation.

In order to investigate and assess these techniques, I am using period electronic equipment where possible, and building my own electronic instruments when necessary. On the face of it, this seems to be a purely historical research project, however, my thesis is that there are many highly effective techniques and tools that have been abandoned or forgotten due to the fast pace of technological change, and which can provide significant advantages over certain contemporary tools and techniques.

I am recreating early tape works such as Stockhausen’s Studie II and parts of Gesang der Jünglinge using a combination of historic and contemporary techniques, from manual tape splicing and acoustic reverberation through to the use of the latest physical modelling techniques developed by the EU-funded NESS project at the University of Edinburgh. This enables me to make aesthetic comparisons and gain an understanding of their relative merits and deficiencies. With the ensemble Grey Area, I am using these instruments to perform historical and new works and using this as a practical forum for testing and evaluating techniques learned from my research.

Rather than being a nostalgic enterprise, my research is about finding practical, cultural and aesthetic value in older technologies, which are often more effective than the latest computer based alternatives, and to tap into the wider creative practices of the past to inform contemporary practice before this experience is lost forever.

Dr Sean Williams
University of Edinburgh