Article Archive

Towards 2000

Author: Andrez
Friday, 4 February 2000
From Dada To Disco - Often lately I've read the simplifications, the blanket statements, the kind'a inaccurate assumptions - that techno was started in Detroit, and that Kraftwerk are the godfathers of electronica. Sure, both that American city and the German band made vital inroads and helped to steer electronic-based music along a certain course, but the fact is that the foundations had already been laid decades before.

How we squeeze 83 years into one page is another matter entirely. Y'see we could start here in 1916. It was then that a break from traditional instrumentation was engineered by the Dadaists, and over the years since there's been an undercurrent determined to push the perimeters of sound iconoclasm and to invent new means through which to generate these sounds themselves. So there's always been an inexplicable link between electronic and experimental music, but the problem remains: how far back can we trace the ancestry of the machine-based sounds we take for granted towards the end of the twentieth century- And can a short article here in the pages of Zebra truly do justice to the cause at hand . . .-

Let's flash-back here to the First World War, to Zurich in 1916, where a fledgling artistic group who got together at the Cabaret Voltaire formulated an ideal called 'dada' to identify their activities; the movement's spirit was best captured by Andre Breton who declared that "dada is a state of mind . . . dada is artistic free-thinking." As such, the dadaists set about turning 'normal' artistic conventions on their head and severed links with traditional concepts of art, including music, in order to create new and often anachronistic forms.

On the other side of the iron curtain, during the early 1920s in the USSR, physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen - better known in the West as Leon Theremin - developed the synthetic music instrument that became known by his name, and in 1922 performed the world's first 'official' concert of electronic music at the Kremlin before an enthusiastic Lenin. The instrument Theremin developed has been called the first synthesizer - it operated by using electrical fields which were tuned by the changes in distance between an antenna and the performer's hand - but his own life was just as remarkable, reading like a trippy episode of Melrose Place intercut with The Maltese Falcon. Over the next 15 years he taught Lenin how to use his instrument, he worked in the same studio with Einstein, and he reportedly spied on the Americans while living in New York City; after being abducted by the KGB and returned to his homeland, he spent time exiled in Siberia before returning for 'special duties' and developing the first wireless bug that was installed in the US embassy in Moscow during the Cold War. The Theremin instrument he originally developed so long ago has continued to be used here in the West, ingratiating itself with its eerie sound effects in B-grade horror and sci-fi films, in Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), in television themes like Dr Who and Dark Shadows, and in songs like Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love.

Rewind three decades. It's 1939, and the eve of the Second World War. Whilst working with broadcast radio John Cage uses test records of pure frequency tones, which he plays on variable-speed turntables, in his early piece Imaginary Landscape No.1. In his subsequent effort, titled Imaginary Landscape No.2, Cage pioneers live electronic music by using among his sound sources an amplified coil of wire.

But it was the arrival of the tape recorder, invented in 1935 yet not widely available until 1950, that transformed the practice of working with sounds in the studio. Tape presented the composer with a flexible, versatile means of recording and storing sounds; of changing them in pitch and rhythm by altering the play-back speed, of superimposing them, and of rearranging them in any order. Tape was,
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