Brian Eno – Foreword to “Ohm, The Early Gurus Of Electronic Music”

18/10/2011

Foreword by Brian Eno to the booklet of the compilation “Ohm, The Early Gurus Of Electronic Music, 1948-1980” (Ellipsis Arts… 2000):

If you’re under ninety, chances are that you’ve spent most of your life listening to electronic music.

The experience that used to be called music up until about the 1920s—listening to someone sing or play a musical instrument live and unamplified—actually forms an increasingly minor percentage of our listening experiences now. Instead, we listen to records, or we listen to the radio, or we go to see musicians who transmit electronic signals through electronic PA systems.

It might seem extreme to include all the products of the recording age under the umbrella term electronic music, but I think it’s warranted. The process of recording music separated it from time and place and as such eventually led to all the amazing experiments presented on these records.

Whenever a new musical technology appears, new forms of music follow it. Debussy was apparently so thrilled by the three-pedal Steinway (the middle pedal allows you to sustain one chord while playing unsustained notes over it) that he wrote many new pieces specifically for it. In the same way, the many new possibilities of electronics have given rise to whole new forms of music.

John Cage said that any sound could be described by four characteristics: pitch, duration, timbre, and loudness. One way of thinking about electronic music is as a continuous expansion of all these characteristics. We can make sounds of almost infinite loudness, using pitches as low or as high as we want, that last for as long as there’s electricity, and of infinite shades of timbre. If you were to compare it with painting, it would be as though, about seventy years ago, painters started to discover how to make completely new colors, colors that no one had ever seen before.

But the electronic revolution changed more than just our ability to control the physical parameters of sounds. By turning sound into a plastic material manipulable in space and time—it drew the process of composition closer to the processes of the plastic and visual arts. The impressionists in their painting, had aspired to “the condition of music,” envying its ability to be both abstract and emotionally engaging. Meanwhile, much of the musical composition of our century has drawn closer to the condition of painting or sculpture, as composer have started to think about music as a tactile experience in time and space.

So many new areas of consideration now fall under the heading “composition.” For classical composers, there were certain describable islands of sound:
a clarinet, for example, is a number of sonic and playing possibilities, whereas a harp is another. If you write “violin” in a score, everybody knows what you mean. That isn’t possible, however, it you write “electric guitar” or “synthesizer.” A synthesizer isn’t really, in that sense one instrument, it is a bag of possibilities from which you assemble your instrument. So the first thing an electronic composer does is build a set of instruments, a soundworld.

But that’s only one issue. There are also quite new questions about where the music should take place. The concert hall is of course still a possibility, but only one among many. The home hi-fi, the gallery installation, the Walkman, the supermarket aisle, and the unexpected public space are all equally interesting. Are you making a private or public experience? And since the music can theoretically last as long as you want it to, are you making a ore-night performance or creating a sound-object to persist for decades? Are you making something that you expect people to hear once or hundreds of time? Are you making something that will stay the same or change endlessly? What will govern the way it changes? Does it react to anything outside itself, or is it driven by internal rules? What are those rules?

The composers represented on this compilation have addressed questions like these and many others. They’ve helped develop a vocabulary of perspectives for music that is quite new to this century and that has, perhaps surprisingly, become part of a very fruitful interchange with popular music. Indeed, one way of looking at contemporary pop is to see it as the offspring of an ongoing affair between African music and Western electronics (with European harmonization as the influential godmother).

Many of the Ideas in this collection have now been so completely assimilated into popular listening that it may sometimes be hard to remember how surprising it all was on first outing. Some of it still sounds pretty exotic. As music, some of it stands the test of time. As ideas, most of it does. […]
November 1999

Selection of articles on the same subject

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