1957: what is electronic music?

Before attending The pre-Stockhausen Era: Wdr and the beginnings of electronic music with Markus Aust and Arnulf Mattes (UiO) on Monday, September 9th, 2013 you should read this text:



By Herbert Eimert

In "Die Reihe" Vol.1 (1957) 

In the history of "Music of our Time", electronic music might be regarded as a final chapter or even a postlude. It seems apart from the main stream development, is the centre of violent controversy and it is ambiguous, as is anything which suddenly obtrudes itself uninvited on an already problematic situation. At the same time it is already important enough to have come to the attention of academic study and pedagogical activity. To the ordinary music lover who listens to contemporary music, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Hindemith are still the key figures; behind them stand Schoenberg, Berg and Webern surrounded by an international troop of twelve-note imitators; electronic music is seen as an enigmatic, extreme development. One thing only is clear: whether it be approved or condemned, it cannot be ignored any longer.

But let us see the situation in another way, with electronic music as the focal point of a progressive development, connected with the most recent instrumental school of pointillism. Next comes the only recently discovered music of Anton Webern, a point of departure for the present day composers, then Schoenberg ´s "twelve-note music" and finally the so-called "modern classics". In this arrangement we have at least a certain inevitability of human progress; what was seen as a postlude now seems like our prelude.

Despite the fact that electronic music is the outcome of decades of technical development, it is only in most recent times that it has reached a stage at which it may be considered as part of the legitimate musical sphere. Its birth must in many respects be distinguished from all other beginnings which we have understood to be natural developments. Here there has been no extension of traditional procedure. By the radical nature of its technical apparatus, electronic music is compelled to deal with sound phenomena unknown to musicians of earlier times. The disruption of the sound world as we have known it by the electronic means leads to new musical possibilities, the ultimate consequences of which can hardly yet be appreciated.

On the other hand there is an essential relationship between electronic music and the traditional world of sound, not only the fact that musical elements are defined by pitch, duration and intensity, but also because of the connection between it and the most contemporary development of musical thought. Electronic music is, and remains part of our music and is a great deal more than mere technology. But the fact that it cannot be expected either to take over or to imitate the functions of traditional music is clearly shown by the unequivocal difference of its material from that of traditional music. We prefer to see its possibilities as the potentialities of sound itself. No position such as this could be reached by a mere transference of the traditional into the electro-acoustical. Here we touch a most widespread misconception: namely, the idea that one can make music "traditionally" with electronic means. Of course one can; but electronic concert instruments will always remain a synthetic substitute. The fact that practically no music which can be taken seriously, artistically, has been written for electronic concert instruments is due precisely to the fact that its use as either soloist or ensemble instrument does not transcend the old means of performance. New ways of generating sound stipulate new compositional ideas, these may only be derived from sound itself which in its turn must be derived from the general material.

Electronic music is based on the composition of electrically generated sounds made audible by a generator, i.e. recorded on tape without recourse to any instrument or microphone. Electronic music exists only on tape (or on record) and can only be realised in sound by means of a loudspeaker system. That electronic music cannot be performed on instruments is due to the fact that the number of individual sound elements is so great that any attempt to find means of instrumental realisation is doomed to failure.

There has been much bewailing on the part of dilettantes of the element of spontaneous music-making which is said to be lost in electronic music, these gentlemen conveniently forget that much of what is great and greatest in literature of music from Bach to Schoenberg will always remain outside the reach of their spontaneous music-making. To say that the artist makes music on a platform is just about as true as saying that an Olympic champion wins a gold medal, without mentioning the long preparations, the gymnastic exercises that lead to fitness. In fact, "spontaneous music-making" represents something practised a thousand times, co-ordinated through repeated rehearsal, something which stipulates a well-lubricated, hyper-regular mechanism, an almost unique mechanical production in which its studied precision is nearer to a protracted electronic synchronisation than to spontaneity. It is not irrelevant to point out here that it is in no way the aim of electronic music to replace instrumental music. On the contrary, a deep kinship may be observed between instrumental music of recent date and electronic music, and the theoretical experiments in the elementary properties of sound phenomena which have been part of the beginnings of electronic music have not been without their influence in the instrumental sphere.

The invention of the valve in 1906 marks the beginning of the development of the phenomenon of electronic music, though naturally the invention had nothing to do with music. It is a coincidence, yet in a higher sense perhaps no coincidence, that at this very time Busoni and Schoenberg were first interesting themselves in the idea of an uninterrupted continuity of musical material, thus touching the limits of instrumental technique. Busoni discussed the fissure of sound material, as it was known in this time, and Schoenberg invented the Klangfarbenmelodie. Busoni at that time referred to Cahillís electric organ which, for the first time, enabled a composer to attempt to fly. Schoenberg did not pursue the idea of Klangfarbenmelodie in his later work but Webern was able to link it to his idea of a series of proportions which subjected harmony and melody to a common denominator of intervallic proportion. Webern was not able to extend the serial principle to all musical dimensions but did, at least, achieve sound structures generated according to the permutational principles of the series - in this he comes near to electronic music, which takes up his great idea and without imitating it, transfers it to the total organisation of the electronic sphere.

Developments in the building of electronic concert instruments began after 1920. The builders always attempted to imitate the traditional sound, with the exception of Jorg Mager, who stated, referring to Busoni´s idea, that it ought to be possible to "make available to artists of the future all frequencies, melodically as well as harmonically, as well as the partial tones which determine the timbre". But the decisive means of maintaining and operating sound only became available some twenty years later with the discovery of the means of recording sound on tape.

Electrically generated sound could only be utilised as a genuine compositional element when this technique had been invented. In the ordinary way the tape recorder provides the means of playing back tapes. But the new tape technique which is no longer satisfied with a mere playback is of the greatest significance here. The normal studio technique of broadcasting is transformed into a compositional means. Tape recorder and loud-speaker are no longer passive transmitters; they become active factors in the preparation of the tape. This is the essential secret of electro-acoustical technique. One might say that today we have perfected a keyboard of this elaborate and differentiated sphere of radio transmission; now we lack only the virtuosi to master it.

The composer´s equipment consists of a sound generator, a loudspeaker, tape recorder and filter; all this apparatus is to be found in any well equipped radio station. No especially expensive equipment is required, as has been generally suggested, and in fact there is no reason why electronic music should not be produced in any normally equipped radio station. The composer determines each note by its pitch, duration and intensity. Only he no longer has only 70-80 pitch levels at his disposal (this the average number utilized in instrumental music; Bachís Wohltemperiertes Klavier utilises 50- 55 different pitches), only 6 or 7 intensities from pp to ff and only minims, crochets, quavers, dotted and syncopated values. He know has at his disposal the entire range of frequencies from 50-15,000 c.p.s., 40 or more precisely calculated dynamic levels and an infinite number of duration values, measured in centimetres on tape. None of this material can be adequately annotated by traditional means. The following example is given to illustrate this new world of microstructures which we have entered. Every musician is familiar with the note a´at 440 c.p.s. The next whole tone above is b´ (492 c.p.s.). Within this major 2nd from a´ to b´, we are able to generate 52 different pitch levels of which, when ordered in a scale, at least each fourth level is heard as a different pitch interval.

The multiplicity of forms of electronic elements far exceeds the possibilities of graphic notation. It is thus necessary to notate differentiations, which are unknown to traditional music, in a way which corresponds to acoustical phenomena. This cannot be effected by an extension of traditional notation; it is better to present the sound procedures of electronic music graphically in the form of an acoustical diagram. Thus scores of electronic compositions resemble precise acoustical diagrams with their coordinates, frequency (cycles per second), intensity level (measured in decibels) and time (cm.p.s.). The composer is required to have a certain amount of acoustical knowledge. In this respect it is to be observed that acoustical conceptions do not always correspond to those of musical theory. Electronic sound is classified as: the tone, the note, the note mixture, noise, sound complexes and impulses.

1. The tone: is unknown to traditional music; is without overtones, is pure or sinusoidal; all sound phenomena may be reduced to it. No tonal system in the traditional sense may be constructed of sinus tones; they have no traditional place of a system, no tonal ëcharacterí. Thus the sinusoidal tone system can only be a theoretical system of reference;

the composer may build structures out of this system by means of serial organisation.

  1. The note: is what every musician knows as a tone. It is built up from a series of harmonic overtones (partial, sinus frequencies). Thus, the ëtoneí of an instrument is not the tone but the note which is immutable in its components, which determine its timbre. These partial components may only be varied by electronic means.

  2. In the note mixture, the frequencies of the partials are not ordered harmonically; i.e. they cannot be expressed in terms of simple numerical proportions. Note mixtures are always sinus tone mixtures and are not the same as chords; they have a higher degree of internal fusion of components and can be regarded as units more similar in category to the single note than to the instrumental chord. Note mixtures only exist in instrumental music where an attack is followed by a long reverberation (bells, pipes, plates, rods, drums). In electronic music, note mixtures may be realised without difficulty in a dynamic form (crescendo, diminuendo and unvaried).

  3. Noise: defined by specific sound character and approximate pitch level. Only ëblank noiseí which fills an acoustic region may be determined in position. Filtered parts of blank noise are called coloured noise or noise colour.

  4. The chord (note complex) is identical acoustically and traditionally. It must be observed that the note and the chord are clearly differentiated in instrumental music; in electronic music, the note mixture intervenes between the two with its particular levels of fusion of its constituent parts. Note and tone mixtures are electronically composed not according to a harmonic or natural system but according to a composer´s predetermined ordering.

  5. Impulse or pulsation: also known as Beats or Clicks (regular or statistic); at high dynamic levels corresponds to detonation. Uncontrollable sounds belong to the acoustical but not to the musical domain. They can fairly easily be produced by electronic experimentation or trick recording, and vague and atmospheric effects can be obtained by cutting and assembling tapes. To demonstrate this, it takes two or three hours to construct a minute of good atmosphere music, often three or four weeks for a minute of real music. In connection with incidental music for film or radio, it is worth mentioning that no composer who intends himself to be taken seriously would have ever let himself in for electronic music if its entire resources consisted of vague experiments with noise and if all that could be produced were tapes of atmospheric sound. Whoever is attracted by the idea of the machine which makes things easier and simplifies composition (in fact it makes composition considerably more difficult) is only comparable to the mediocre pianist who pedals his way through the difficult passages of his concerto and hopes to get by faking.

The stereophonic distribution of sound transmitters is a further element of the form of electronic music. The various loudspeaker systems around the hall are the concerting instruments -  a conception similar to the distribution of orchestral and choral forces in church or concert hall. This special dimension is incorporated into the very plan of the composition. Multi-channel transmission can only be effected with multiple track tape recorders. At present radio transmission is only single channel. (Single as well as multi-channel versions of electronic pieces exist depending on the purpose for which they are intended.) This spatial projection into the concert hall is seen as an entirely new dimension of the composition.


The basis for production of electronic music was worked out in the Studio for Electronic Music of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne, under the direction of the author of this article. The first studies were broadcast in an evening programme of Cologne Radio in 1951 and were performed at the International ëFerienkurse f ̧r Neue Musikí in Darmstadt. In 1953 there was a public demonstration in connection with the music festival in the Concert Hall of the Cologne Radio on the 19th October, 1954; there were seven pieces, in all twenty-eight minutes of music, the second half of the concert being devoted to them. The composers were H. Eimert, K. Goeyvaerts, P. Gredinger, H. Pousseur and Kh. Stockhausen. Of importance for the further development of the medium was a concert in the Cologne Radio at the end of May, 1956, in which the Fünf Stück by H. Eimert, Klangfiguren II by G.M. Koenig, the Oratorio for Pentecost by E. Krenek and the Gesang der Jünglinge by Kh. Stockhausen were given their first performances. The last mentioned works have in the meantime been issued as three long-playing records by the Deutsche Gramophon Gesellschaft. Since this time several small pieces have been composed by F. Evangelisti, G. Ligeti, G.M. Koenig and B. Nilsson.

Thus was the birth of electronic music. It seems to lack completely that surfeit of abundant vitality which so often characterises new movements. None would have taken the slightest notice if, after the First World War, the younger generation had begun by producing only a few isolated studies. But there are other beginnings. They come noiselessly and stay unheeded, like a biological transformation which ends in life or death; or like those in which the creative spirit is distilled into the essence of a new material object. The beginnings of electronic music may be seen as falling in this latter category. The composer concerns himself with a material to which the traditional, well-proven ways of his art do not apply. To begin to compose electronically means to select one single element from the limitless range of possibilities of the electronically emancipated material and to realise it in a compositional manner. It compares with the beginnings of polyphony in the music of the Middle Ages; what is practised is theory. So it is that, despite the apparent modesty of the preliminaries in electronic music, the full brunt of an experiment is borne in that a single creative selection and successful realisation can bring us face to face with the absolute nature of music. For this reason there can be no rules for electronic music in the sense of a traditional theoretical investigation of music; that which normally belongs within the scope of theory here remains bound up with the material object. Theory presents musical possibility -  this is valid here also, but with quite a different connotation, in that it is no longer permissible to fill out lifeless formal schemes. [...]


From: Eimert, Herbert, Die Reihe vol.1, Theodore Presser Co, pp. 1-10, 1957.