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Electroacoustic music: the meeting of electricity and sound

Electroacoustic music means to create new sounds, transform them, reproduce them, amplify them and project them into a space.

Throughout most of the world, the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th are marked by the proliferation of technical inventions and technologies that bring together the universe of sound with the possibilities provided by electricity.

Prototypes of new instruments were created like Elisha Gray’s musical telegraph and electronic instruments like the Telharmonium, the Theremin and the Ondes Martenot.

Traditional instruments increased their possibilities and added new palettes of sound thanks to transformations made possible by the techniques of amplification. One example is the electric guitar in the 1920s.

In 1877, the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison and the Paléophone by Charles Cros, finally allowed recording, conservation and play back of sounds by means of a medium. It was thus possible to conserve the memory of unique sounds and music phenomena that would otherwise never be heard again.

Even though some tries were made from the 1860s, one of the first recordings of this type was the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Providing composers with the possibility of reproducing the sound of their work opened up new perspectives. Some used these new means by discretely mixing them with the orchestra. In 1923, Ottorini Respighi used a recording of a nightingale played on a gramophone and mixed it with sounds of the orchestra in the 3rd movement of the Pines of Rome (Pini del Gianicolo).

Others, like John Cage, gave record players and turntables a role as important as that of piano and percussion. His work Imaginary Landscapes is generally considered the first mixed music piece – that is to say music built around instrumental and electroacoustic interaction. Cage follows up on this approach with Imaginary Landscape No. 4, a work in which 12 radio receivers are used by two performers to produce the content of the piece. Then in Imaginary Landscape No. 5 he used 42 jazz records simultaneously.

Accident or revelation: listening to a locked (repeating) groove on a vinyl disc

In 1948, Piere Schaeffer, when he was a sound engineer at RTF (Radiodiffusion-télévision française) in Paris, inadvertently left a 78 record playing an excerpt that repeated itself indefinitely. But instead of ending what was only a technical glitch, he listened attentively to this phenomenon and noticed the musical potential. What seduced him principally was the fact that this audio extract, by being repeated, lost its contextual meaning and took a new musical direction. Pierre Schaeffer reproduced this phenomenon with other audio fragments. For him, it was a revelation!

From then on, many composers (especially those in the acousmatic movement or those using fixed sounds) considered not only the importance of sounds in the context in which they were produced, but also the quality of the sound itself. For these composers, the sound object became the musical material that enabled composition.

This new way of looking at sound and music had also been initiated by other pioneers. Even beyond the musical milieu, many artists in the futurist movements or the Dadaists had considered noise, or at least complex sounds, as having great musical potential. Among them were the Bruitistes around Luigi Rossolo, who organized “Concerts of Sounds”. Following them, John Cage, for whom “everything is music”, developed an approach that took into account sounds from the world of electricity and then placed them at the heart of the work. Varèse, for his part, regularly mixed traditional instruments with electrical sound-producing devices like, for example, the sirens of New York fire trucks in his work Amériques.

Thanks to this meeting of electricity and sound, musical creation became open to new ways of listening, a new perception of sound, new sonorities and innovative perspectives in musical composition. Since then, a multitude of musical trends, with unexpected instruments and all kinds of devices, have been developed to enrich the world of sound and musical language.

Three musical directions can be observed in electroacoustic music:

  • acousmatic music
  • mixed music
  • live electronics music

In the approach of some composers they sometimes cross over or compliment each other.

  • Conception, recherche et rédaction: Emmanuelle Lizère et Réseaux des arts médiatiques
  • Développement web: DIM
  • Conception graphique: Écorce
  • © 2014, Le Vivier