One of the earliest interactions between music and the new realm of electronics in the first half of the 20th century was the French school of Musique Concrète. Constructing works using the then-new medium of magnetic tape, these composers could use the recorded sounds of the world rather than traditional instruments to create their music.
Herbert Eimert – Klangstudie II | download
This new ability to capture sounds and use them as one might use the individual sections of a traditional orchestra opened up a world’s worth of noises to experiment with. Some of the earliest pieces of musique concrète eschewed musical instruments entirely, like Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux chemins de fer.
Pierre Schaeffer – Étude aux chemins de fer | download
In today’s age of digital recorders and 120Gb iPods three minutes of manipulated train noises may seem simplistic, but in 1949 it would have blown a few of the punters clean off their seats. Keep in mind that thanks to World War 2, magnetic tape recorders were unheard of outside Germany until after the end of hostilities and recorded sound had been limited almost entirely to dialogue in talking pictures.
The techniques being played with at the time ranged from the ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ simplicity of playing records backwards or at different speeds, to cutting edge (for the time) tricks like tape splicing/looping, microphone placement and EQ manipulation. Dalia Derbyshire’s theme song for Doctor Who is perhaps the most famous example of musique concrète techniques in action – the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was mad for the tape looping.
Excerpt from the BBC documentary The Alchemists of Sound
featuring more of Delia Derbyshire and her works
But for all of its innovativeness, musique concrète of the all-noise variety is understandibly hard to take in large doses.
Perhaps the greatest champion (and survivor) of musique concrète is Jean-Jacques Perrey. At 79, he’s still making records. His collaborations with Gershon Kingsley as part of electronic group Perrey and Kingsley mark the first real effort to make electronic music ‘popular’ – music for sitting down and listening to, rather than an extension of experimentation with sound technology. He’s even recorded an album with IDM legend and library music crate-digging wizard Luke Vibert.
Perrey’s work is so prolific that I would hazard a guess there’s not a single one of you reading this blog who hasn’t heard something of his in one form or another. From television to Disneyland to samples, there’s a touch of his work everywhere. Have a listen to Perrey’s E.V.A. and then Gang Starr’s Just to Get a Rep and see if you can spot the sample.
Okay, cadets, feel free to take five. I’m on a roll, though – I want your asses back in those seats because we’re going to push on into the next step in music technology: synthesizers.
[Special intarweb reacharound to my homeboy Chad for hooking me up with the real early electronic goods.]