Awkward Movements Sessions #38 – Charity Queen presents A Chronology of Electroacoustic and Electronic Music

Something really special for Charity Queen’s debut sessions with Awkward Movements. The long time Kamikaze associate has outdone himself compiling a chronological mix of the history of electronic music. Not only has he delivered the mix starting in 1954 and ending in 2003, but a reading guide of about 1500 words breaking it down track by track as a nice accompaniment for what might be considered a hard-listen. Download link at the bottom.

This mix is a sequence of electronic and electroacoustic works which I feel did something new, whether technically or aesthetically, in whatever era they were made. Most importantly, they’re all the electronic works that I like most, rather than just being a list of came firsts (e.g., Paul Lansky’s early FM synthesis experiment is in despite John Chowning having been on it for a few years by that point).I’ve tried to keep it ‘musique concrete’ by only using works that were recorded when they were composed, hence the absence of John Cage’s scored ‘mix’ works and Olivier Messiaen’s early works for Ondes Martenot.

I’m slightly mortified reading my tracklist back to find there are no women here. To that end, check out Laurie Spiegel, Maryanne Amacher, Daphne Oram, Johanna Beyer’s Music of the Spheres from 1938 (why oh why didn’t I kick this mix off with that?), Pauline Oliveros, and Eliane Radigue for more early electronic goodness.


Pierre Schaeffer – Etude aux Chemins de Fer – (1948) / 00:00 – 02:00

The granddaddy of the movement. Schaeffer manipulates recordings of trains to create the first piece of musique concrete, recorded and manipulated on shellac in a pre-tape world. This piece is the first of Schaeffer’s Cinq Etudes de Bruits, 5 compositions which shook the world when they were broadcast on radio in 1948.

Stockhausen – Studie II (1954) / 02:00 – 04:50

The second of Stockhausen’s study pieces, and one of his first compositions. Stockhausen rejected the school of electronic music dominating France at the time (the transformation of recorded acoustic sound) and dedicated himself to exploring a purely electronic music in the early stages of his career. This is the second of those purely electronic pieces.

Henri Pousseur – Scambi (CHQ Edit) (1957) / 04:50 – 08:20

An unusual tape work in that it is an early example of electroacoustic music which explicitly rejects Schaeffer’s musique concrete aesthetic (i.e. the composition is not ‘fixed’ and unchangeable once realised). Multiple versions of Scambi were produced at the same time meaning that there is no definitive version. New versions of Scambi continue to be produced today.

Edgard Varese – Poeme Electronique (CHQ Edit) (1958) / 08:20 – 10:05

Written for the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair, this piece brought electroacoustic music to a wider audience. Originally designed to be diffused across hundreds of speakers in a cavernous, purpose-built space, this stereo mix is the closest we’ll come today to experiencing the moment that electronic music became public spectacle.

Karlheinz Stockhausen – Gesang der Junglinge (1959) / 10:05 – 13:00

This piece represents one of the few times that Stockhausen utilised musique concrete elements in his work. Gesang der Junglinge unites Stockhausen’s world of purely electronic sound with the the acoustic transformations which dominated electronic music at that time, creating one of the most influential pieces of electronic music ever realised along the way.

Iannis Xenakis – Concrete PH (1958) / 13:00 – 15:25

Arguably the first example of granular synthesis in action, Xenakis takes recordings of a fire crackling and cuts them into minuscule fragments, splicing teeny-tiny pieces of tape on a microscopic scale never seen before. The amount of manual labour that was involved in creating this two and a half minute piece is nothing short of staggering. I originally thought this was from 1959, so the mix is out of chronological order here. Xenakis did go on to develop this granular technique in 1959 though with Analogigue B, an even more advanced implementation of the techniques he developed in Concrete PH.

Tod Dockstader – Apocalypse Part 2 (1961) / 15:10 – 17:00

An engineer by trade, Dockstader’s music was largely ignored by the avant-garde establishment until a new generation of listeners rediscovered his work in the 90s. Reinvigorated by having his work recognised at last, Dockstader returned to composition in 2003 after a break of nearly 40 years.

Max Mathews – Bicycle Built for Two (1961) / 17:00 – 18:45

A computer sings for, to my knowledge, the first time. Stanley Kubrick referenced this work in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The malevolent computer HAL sings this song as its brain is dismantled.

Francois Bayle – Oiseau Chanteur (1964) / 18:45 – 21:55

One of the earliest composers to be interested in both traditional and electronic musics, this piece pits recordings of birdsong and other vocal utterances against more classical modes of 20th century composition.

Erkki Kurenniemi – Antropoidien Tanssi (1968) / 21:55 – 26:15

Almost unknown outside his native Finland (and mostly unknown within it), this incredible work by Kurenniemi uses rhythm in a distinctly 21st century manner, echoing contemporary dance music more clearly than anything else of its time. Another work to check by Kurenniemi is Sahkosoittimen Aania 1 from 1971, a piece which I believe is a strong contender for the title of earliest techno record. There is no contemporary minimal dancefloor it wouldn’t wreck, for real.

Jean Claude Risset – Mutations (CHQ edit) (1969) / 26:15 – 30:00

Jean Claude Risset invents the risset tone, a tone which appears to be constantly rising/falling in pitch yet never gets to where it is going. Marcus Schmickler used this psychoacoustic illusion extensively in his fantastic Palace of Marvels album, recently released on Editions Mego.

Paul Lansky – Mild und Liese (1973) / 30:00 – 32:00

Lansky’s first computer piece, and one of the earliest pieces to use FM (frequency modulation) synthesis. Yamaha later made FM synthesis available to the masses with its DX7 synthesiser, and so the pop sound of the 80s was born. Mild und Liese was sampled by Radiohead in their song Idioteque. The sampled portion can be heard at: 30:40.

Bernard Parmegiani – Dynamique de la Resonance (1975) / 32:00 – 34:00

I was so tempted to make this mix Parmegani from start to finish. Parmegiani is my favourite of the electroacoustic composers, and arguably the most accessible. When anyone asks me about getting into electroacoustic music, Parmegiani’s De Natura Sonorum suite (from which this track is taken) is always where I tell them to start. His ear for finding drama in the most ordinary of sounds sets him apart. There’s an amazing 12 CD Parmegiani set on INA-GRM if you want to delve further. A lifetime of listening right there.

Jonathan Harvey – Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (CHQ Edit) (1980) / 34:00 – 37:50

Jonathan Harvey was a traditional composer seduced by electronic music early on. Unusually, he writes both ‘traditional’ and electronic music, but he is mostly recognised for his pieces which perfectly balance the two. Pierre Boulez took note of Harvey’s increasing interest in electronic music and invited him to create works at the legendary IRCAM studio in France. This is the first piece that Harvey realised at IRCAM, transforming the sounds of Winchester Cathedral’s bell and his son’s voice into one of the most critically acclaimed pieces of electronic music of all time.

Trevor Wishart – Vox 5 (1986) / 37:00 – 42:40

Trevor Wishart originally conceived this piece in the early 80s, but the technology to realise it didn’t become practical until 1986. The man himself says…

“… when major computer music facilities became available in Europe (at IRCAM in Paris) I submitted a proposal for a work based on vocal transformation and was invited on the induction course in 1981. There I discovered a potential transformation tool (Linear Predictive Coding), and was invited to compose a work. Unfortunately the mainframe system at IRCAM, and much of the indigenous software, was changed immediately following this visit, and the project could not proceed until 1986, when the research and composition for Vox 5 was finally commissioned. It was suggested to me that the CARL Phase Vocoder might be a better tool to use, but no-one at IRCAM at that time had inside knowledge of the workings of this program, so I took apart the data files it produced to work out for myself what was going on.

“I eventually developed a number of software instruments for the spectral transformation of sounds which were then used to compose Vox 5. These instruments massaged the data in the analysis files produced by the Phase Vocoder. The most significant of these were stretching the spectrum and spectral morphing – creating a seamless transition between two different sounds which are themselves in spectral motion”

Vox 5 is undoubtedly the most advanced computer aided composition of its time. Seamlessly blending ‘vocal’ sounds from humans and other animals, countless previously unheard sonic transformations pour from the speakers quicker than the mind can take them in. The morph from human “ssssss” to a cloud of buzzing flies is just one of many inspired moments. Outstanding.

Barry Truax – Riverrun (1986) / 42:20 – 44:25

I included this as I believed it to be the first piece in which granular synthesis was applied to a sampled (i.e. recorded) sound, but it seems this accolade actually goes to Wings of Nike, another Truax composition realised a year later. The implementation of granular synthesis heard in Riverrun generates synthetic waveforms, creating an ebbing and flowing stream of sound over its 20 minute duration.

Denis Smalley – Wind Chimes (1987) / 44:25 – 47:20

Denis Smalley is an electroacoustic composer who studied under Olivier Messiaen and Francois Bayle. His writings on “spectromorphology” come highly recommended. This piece transforms the sounds of windchimes into various figures, expertly zig-zagging back and forth across the line of what sounds real and what sounds ‘fake’. I also recommend checking out his 1974 work Pentes. 10 minutes of the most disgustingly abrasive noise you’ve ever heard before it breaks into calming drones and fucking BAGPIPES. Sick, sick man.

Trevor Wishart – Tongues of Fire (1993) / 47:20 – 48:55

Another piece by THE master of computer sound transformation, Tongues of Fire is constructed entirely from the 2 second utterance heard twice at the start of the piece (this is included in the mix). The number of sounds Wishart teases out of this 2 second sound beggars belief, continuously transforming and animating the material into entirely new shapes. Realised (including arrangement and mixing) entirely in the CDP (Composer’s Desktop Project) software, most of which was written by himself, if there’s one track in this mix that I urge you to track down and experience in its (25 minute) entirety, this is it.

Jonathan Harvey – Advaya (1994) / 48:55 – 54:00

Another work by Harvey, this one is for solo violin and electronics. The portion used in the mix is from the middle of the work, covering the incredible part where everything starts whirling round your head then erupts into high frequency static. Harvey reserves the top few decibels of dynamic range for the eruption, using the extra volume only once in the 22 minute work. One to think about next time you reach for the limit compressor.

Curtis Roads – Now (2003) / 53:40 – END

Finally, Curtis Roads demonstrates how, in the 21st century, sound has become a completely plastic medium. Roads was the first to implement digital granular synthesis back in 1974, and his experience really shows here in this virtuoso demonstration of granular technique. This piece moves on so many timescales: long, static passages are interrupted by 20-edits-per-second flurries of activity. One of his books, Microsound, proposes a totally new way of thinking about timescales in music, from the infinitely long, to the infinitesimally short, with particular emphasis on the micro-editing of material on timescales the brain can just barely keep up with. Microsound changed the way I looked at music forever. Highly recommended.
Ltd. Download Link: