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Durham University



Publication details for Professor Peter Manning

Manning PD (2003). 'The Influence of Recording Technologies on the Early Development of Electroacoustic Music'. Leonardo Music Journal 13: 5-10.

Author(s) from Durham


From the earliest experiments with the manipulation of 78-rpm disks during the 1920s, the technology of recording has played a major role in the evolution of electroacoustic music. This has extended not only to the recording and reproduction of materials but also to key components of the compositional process itself. Although such influences have become less prominent with the advent of digital technology, their impact during the formative years of electroacoustic music was significant and far-reaching. This article examines some key aspects of the pioneering era of creative development through the early 1950s, with particular reference to the Bauhaus sound artists, Pierre Schaeffer and musique concrète, and the Cologne studio for elektronische Musik.


1. See Herbert Russcol, The Liberation of Sound (Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972) p. 68.
2. The Hochschule für Musik in Berlin took an early
institutional lead in 1928, facilitating a research program
in the manipulation of phonograph records involving
both Hindemith and Toch.
3. During the recording process, acoustical waveforms
are converted into equivalent oscillations via
a cutting stylus, used in turn to register a corresponding
pattern of vibrations in the record groove.
These patterns are clearly visible under a microscope.
4. See Glossary.
5. The RCA system uses a Variable Area format
whereby fluctuations in the audio signal are registered
as variations in the width of sound track exposed
to light during recording and thus rendered
opaque when the film is developed. The rival system
developed by Western Electric uses a Variable Density
format whereby these fluctuations are represented
by corresponding variations in the overall
opaqueness of the entire sound track.
6. The variations in the solid profile are analogous
to the outline of a dark mountain range observed at
a distance against a bright skyline.
7. This work proved an important reference point
for several works associated with musique concrète and
the subsequent Groupe de Recherches Musicales, for
example Presque Rien No. 1 (1961), by Luc Ferrari,
which starts out as a similar collage of country and
seaside sounds before proceeding to more elaborate
8. See Glossary.
9. Credit for similar discoveries is also due to another
German artist with Bauhaus connections, Rudolf
Pfenninger. Pfenninger’s work on drawn sound led
to a pioneering demonstration film, Tönende Handschrift
(1932). See also Robert Lewis and Norman
McLaren, “Synthetic Sound on Film,” Journal of
the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 1 (1948)
pp. 233–247.
10. Fischinger and Moholy-Nagy experimented extensively
with these possibilities.
11. Kandinsky’s interests in linking visual images with
theories of musical timbre were strongly stimulated
by his association with Schoenberg. Futurists such as
Luigi Russolo and Bruno Corra were also interested
in the association of sound with color.
12. Unfortunately, none of his experimental materials
have survived. See Roger Horrocks, “Jack Ellitt:
The Early Years,” Cantrills Film Notes (1999–2000)
pp. 93–100.
13. Sadly, only Allegro (1939) was to survive and even
this film eventually disintegrated as a result of too
many performances.
14. Other artists, such as Arseny Avraamov, carried
out similar experiments in the USSR.
15. Aspects of this technology were subsequently
adapted for the ANS synthesizer, developed at the
Moscow Experimental Studio in 1958 and named
after Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin.
16. See John Whitney, “To Paint on Water: The Audiovisual
Duet of Complementarity,” Computer Music
Journal 18, No. 3, 45–52 (1994).
17. Further details of Oramics can be found in
Daphne Oram, An Individual Note: of Music, Sound,
and Electronics (London: Galliard; New York: Galaxy
Music, 1972). (Oram’s piece, Four Aspects, appears on
Not Necessarily English Music, Vol. 11 of the Leonardo
Music Journal CD Series. A note about her work, written
by Hugh Davies, is included in LMJ11’s CD Companion
18. See Glossary.
19. See, for example, John Cage’s essay “The Future
of Music: Credo” (1937), reproduced in John
Cage, Silence (London: Caldar and Boyars, 1968)
pp. 3–6, and Edgard Varèse’s 1937 address to a meeting
of the Seattle Arts Society, reproduced in
Fernand Ouellette, Edgard Varèse, Derek Coltman,
trans. (London: Caldar and Boyars, 1973)
pp. 146–147.
20. Since the film industry subsequently migrated
towards magnetic sound tracks, it is somewhat ironic
that the digital revolution has re-established the fortunes
of optical sound recording within the film industry.
21. See Pierre Schaeffer, À la recherche d’une musique
concrète (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952).
22. The associated resonant peaks are especially
prominent if the playback stylus directly drives an
acoustic horn.
23. These technical requirements provided an interesting
bonus, since they facilitated early experimentation
with spatial projection using independent
loudspeakers for each turntable. This was first explored
in Symphonie pour un homme seul, composed
jointly by Schaeffer and Pierre Henry and performed
live at the first public concert of musique concrète,
staged in the hall of the École Normale de Musique,
Paris, on 8 March 1950.
Manning, The Influence of Recording Technologies 9
LMJ13_02body_005-096 11/25/03 2:57 PM Page 9
24. Such techniques have a number of features in
common with the hip-hop art of turntabilism, pioneered
by artists such as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa
and Grandmaster Flash during the 1970s.
Although the pioneering work of Schaeffer provides
an important precedent for such activities, it is important
nonetheless to recognize that the musical
objectives of musique concrète and hip-hop are driven
by different aesthetics, and caution must be exercised
in making direct comparisons.
25. See Schaeffer [21].
26. A more compact version of such an arrangement
was subsequently marketed as a commercial product
in the early 1960s, known as the Watkins Copycat.
27. Schaeffer [21] p. 96.
28. A fuller perspective is provided in Peter Manning,
Electronic and Computer Music (New York: Oxford
Univ. Press, 2003).
29. This expansion of activities led to the birth of the
Groupe de Recherches de Musique Concrète in
1953, renamed Groupe de Recherches Musicales
(GRM) in 1958.
30. Although NWDR is now known primarily for the
work of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the responsibility for
its conception and technical design fell to others, notably
Werner Meyer-Eppler, Herbert Eimert, Robert
Beyer and NWDR technical director Fritz Enkel.
31. See Glossary.
32. The technical specification of the early Cologne
studio has been variously misrepresented, largely as
a result of faulty recollection and post hoc documentation.
In this context the description recorded
in the archives of NWDR may be taken as definitive.
See Fritz Enkel, “Die technischen Einrichtungen des
Studios für elektronische Musik,” Technische Hausmitteilungen
des Nordwestdeutschen Rundfunks 6 (1954)
pp. 8–15; translated as “The Technical Facilities of
the Electronic Music Studio of the Cologne Broadcasting
Station,” by David Sinclair, National Research
Council of Canada, Technical Translation No. 603
33. The same is also true in the case of optical sound
tracks, except that the tape is shuttled frame by frame
rather than at a steady speed.
34. Stockhausen was not the only visiting composer
to conduct such experiments in Schaeffer’s studio.
His teacher Olivier Messiaen also completed a short
rhythmic study, Timbres-durées, in 1952.
35. The project terminated in 1952 when members
of the group left to pursue their interests elsewhere.
36. Cage first encountered the ancient Chinese text
on random selection, the I Ching, in 1950 and used
chance operations in the selection and ordering of
recorded sounds for these pieces. See Michael
Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge,
U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999).
37. The SFTMC became a public access studio in
38. See Harry F. Olson and Herbert Belar, “Electronic
Music Synthesizer,” Journal of the Acoustical Society
of America 27, No. 3, 595–612 (1955).
39. The RCA synthesizer was originally supplied with
a directly coupled disk-cutting lathe to record its
sound output, a feature soon discarded in favor of
the tape recorder.
40. The key development in this context was the sequencer,
a device that allowed the functions of the
synthesizer to be programmed electronically rather
than mechanically, as was the case with the RCA synthesizer.
Cage, John. Fontana Mix, Hat Art Records SRI-ART
CD 6125 (1993).
Cage, John. Williams Mix, Elipsis Arts CD-3671
Schaeffer, Pierre. Étude aux chemins de fer, INA-GRM
CD C1006 (1990).
Schaeffer, Pierre. Symphonie pour un homme seul, INAGRM
CD C1007 (1990).
Stockhausen, Karlheinz. Étude, Studie I, and Studie II,
Stockhausen Verlag CD 3 (1991)