Saturday, September 01, 2007

In and Out of YouTube II: A Brief History of Electronic Music

Following Anarchist606’s post about the plethora of rare video footage, charting the history of popular music, that can be found on YouTube, I thought it might be interesting to try to cover the history of electronic music in the same way. This is not intended to be in any way comrehesive, I know there are huge chunks missing, so please feel free to add more if you have more patients than me.

Now, the oldest electronic instrument I can find any footage of is, of course, the Theremin, invented in 1917 by Leon Theremin and still used to this day:

A rash of other early electronic instruments appeared throughout the 1920s and and ‘30s, and disappeared again just as quickly. It wasn’t until Pierre Schaeffer’s invention of the tape recorder in 1939 that the first major school of electronic music took shape.

1940s - Musique Concrète

Some of the pioneers of this technique of creating music from recordings of natural sounds through layering and tape splicing are presented here:

1940 – Vocoder invented by Homer Dudley.

Demonstration on vintage (1978) Sennheiser VSM-201 shows what it does:

Demonstration here from 2007 shows a software vocoder being used to control visuals as well as audio:

1952: RCA Synthesiser Mks I & II invented. No footage found from this period but see later section on the Radiophonic Workshop. The ring modulator also appeared around this time, see Dalek voices.

1953: Greek architect turned composer Iannis Xenakis writes Metastasis, using statistical techniques to create music. Another pioneer of music controlled or composed through computing techniques.

1956 – The Forbidden Planet, with “Electronic Tonalities”* by Louis and Bebe Barron. Pioneers of snuff audio, using circuits build to feedback and go into oscillation they recorded the sound of the electronics dying, so none of these sounds could ever be created identically twice.
(* It was intentionally not called music in an attempt to avoid playing musician union fees.)

Varèse/ Xénakis/Le Corbusier - poeme électronique (1958) [stick with it!]

1963 – The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, founded by Daphne Oram in 1958, experimented with musique concreté through it’s early years. It came to mainstream attention when Ron Grainger’s Dr Who theme is arranged and rendered out of tape loops by Delia Derbyshire, the first lady of electronica.

Stockhausen was another important pioneer of experimental music, working music Musique Concreté in the early days and then all sorts of other strange things later on. Like the Helicopter String Quartet:

The music in the video below is "Etude" by Karlheinz Stockhausen (I’m not quite sure why someone has decided to put this video to it but I’d guess they have a custard pie fetish.)

1965: First Moog Synthesiser released. Interview with Bob Moog from

Here there should be a homage to Walter/Wendy Carlos and especially A Clockwork Orange but instead I have to include this:

Someone’s Moog ad:

Alice Shields - Study For Voice And Tape (1968), with pictures of sci-fi crumpet:

1970: Emerson Lake & Palmer - Knife Edge
Keith Emerson at his keyboard battering best. (Incidentally, he took a flame thrower to a Hammond organ the time I saw them live.)

1975: Rick Wakeman – King Arthur on Ice

Out of place, but I couldn’t resist including Wizard Of Oz vs the Moog Cookbook

1978: Brian Eno on Music for Airports

1979: Jean Michel Jarre - Equinoxe - Place De La Concorde. I love Jarre. He’s like the David Copperfield of synths. Just look at that silver shirt. I expect him to start levitating at any moment.

1979: The first digital sampler, the Fairlight CMI is produced.
Herbie Hancock Demonstrates the Fairlight on Sesame Street

1981: Brian Eno & David Byrne – America is Waiting, from Life in the Bush of Ghosts, so far ahead of its time it’s scary.

1982: Peter Gabriel and Fairlight CMI, bringing in a “new-wave of electronic skiffle”

Secret of the Fairlight Sequencer

Carlos pops up again: Tron - Light cycle sequence (1982)

1982: Vangelis – Chariots of Fire OST & Bladerunner OST

Grammy awards Synthesizer Medley 1985

Curtis Roads founds the Computer Music Association in 1980 and edits the Computer Music Journal for 23 years. Fluxon (2003)

The 80s were synth-pop tastic, and I could include so much here, but most of it will already be so familiar it’s not really worth it. As a token example, here’s Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder - Together In Electric Dreams. For more Moroder see the soundtracks from Midnight Express, American Gigolo, Flashdance, The Never Ending Story, Thief of Hearts, Electric Dreams, Cat People and Scarface.

Then there’s all the New Order, Madchester stuff. You know all that. So let’s skip to 1989. Where there is disquiet in a field in Kent.

Quality gurning:

Meat Beat Manifesto – Helter Skelter (‘97 mix)


At this point there could be a whole post of the same size just about the Amen break, but I’m really not interested enough to do that. So instead, here’s my personal favourite dnb tune, Photek’s Ni Ten Ichi Ryu

A nod to the Bristol scene:

Now, as the rave scene above got a bit silly and didn’t make a lot of sense without the aid of pills, the people staring trying to bring the intelligence back into it. Here’s holy trinity of “IDM”: Tom, Rich, and Mike:


Monkey Drummer

µ-ziq – Brace Yourself Jason 2004 live mix

And here are some of the younger names to appear

vs – dm megamix

Datach'i - In Silence

Some Ghost Play Their Customised Tape Machines

Leafcutter John

Team Brick at the captains rest in Glasgow 26/06/07

monster zoku onsomb @ el perro Madrid

sonic death rabbit - live @ darkmatter soundsystem



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