Friday, June 10, 2011

Today's Electronic Music: Not Your Grandfather’s Avante Guarde

Some of us old timers who studied music composition a few decades ago, well remember the exalted artistic purpose behind the invention and engineering of electronic instruments and computer enabled synthesizers.  In a time before Sam Ash had almost entirely dedicated their showroom to electric guitars and digital keyboards, the raison d’etre behind the creation and development of electronic music was two-fold: Firstly, to create a world of new and exotic sounds or “instruments” that would inspire the serious, modern-day composer beyond the constraints and all too familiar sonorities of conventional, orchestral instruments; and 2), provide a technology that would propel the next avante gurard movment on a path unencumbered by the limitations of human performers.  Yes, those poor bastards.
In the 1950s, Milton Babbitt, a composer originally schooled in composing for acoustic instruments - and having heard one too many disappointing performances of his works -  welcomed the advent of computer music as a way of finally reaching the level of inhuman accuracy required to successfully reproduce some of his most extraordinarily difficult and - some might argue - absurdly, complex poly-rhythms.
During the 1970s, as part of my post-graduate work in composing, I took a course in “Electronic Music” with Professor Hubert Howe, at what is now the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, CUNY. The course covered tape manipulation (Musique Concrete), the resident Moog Synthesizer (looking every bit like the album cover of "Switched-On Bach"), and ultimately, computer music -  generated through an IBM370 Mainframe, circa 1977, via punch cards - I kid you not. 

This out of the main stream music might best be described as academic, esoteric, very, very interesting, pass-the-joint-strange, certainly atonal, or stuff that most folks might not particularly care to dance to.

In "Forbidden Planet", Robby the Robot was not the only electronic instrument.
At that time, the pursuit of computer-generated music was not driven by a desire to supplant or emulate conventional instruments.  Morton Subotnick, Mario Davidosky, Otto Leuning, Morton Feldman and Karl Stockhausen, saw electronics (as well as the manipulation of magnetic tape), as representing an inspirational portal to a highly creative, futuristic world – as did Hollywood, for that matter, in the synthesized, science fiction-driven score for “Forbidden Planet” (1956) - one of the earlier uses of electronic music targeted at a mass audience.
By the 1960s, commercialism, fueled by a  confluence of different tracts, began to supercede electronic music's initial mission.  Firstly, there was Rock n” Roll, and then Hard Rock - and Acid Rock – a decidedly, plugged-in, oscillator generating phenomena. 
And then, well - how 'bout those old string players and the Rolling Stones?

Somewhere around 1965, the idea of mixing in a string section with rock ‘n roll bands took a fateful turn.  It may have been the incongruent imagery of Mick Jagger singing a rock-ballad like “As Tears Go By” while accompanied by a string section of old geezers wearing tuxedos and bowing violins with handkerchiefs draped over their shoulders.  Or it might have been a producer who looked at the cost of hiring a 12 piece string ensemble and realizing they were a nice-to-have, but non-essential entity, under utilized, and merely playing simple and slow moving chordal backgrounds.  Something that could be done – perhaps single handedly - by an electronic keyboardist.  We know the rest: The raw, unfiltered soundwaves that could be extracted from the early synthezisers were customized, repackaged and offered "out-of-the-box", as patches emulating strings, winds, brass, percussion - you name it.
Fast forward to the present and a new dawn in Broadway orchestra pits, where local 802 officals are struggling to avoid professional immolation by defending their musician members  - through contractual constraints - against electronic emulation.  Two to three synths have become the norm in today’s Broadway pit.  Re-scoring revivals of Broadway classics is becoming more and more a point of contention and arbitration between local 802 and producers – with the producers typically winning the day (At this time, the "independent" arbitration panel is comprised of three orchestrators, typcially hired and paid by broadway producers).

As the Broadway pit suffers from budgetary attrition, background strings, background brass, accordion, harp, bells, organ, harpsichord, organ, piano and marimba are oft times the province of only two keyboard players.

It’s probably not going to change. Firstly – and foremost- producers have become addicted to the cost savings.  More to the point, however, orchestrators and arrangers have developed a strong preference for synths and have come to find creative sustenance in their ubiquity.  If synths are pragmatically becoming the new convention, they’ve also inspired a highly creative movement resulting in some very fine theater scores, seamlessly integrating electronic keyboards and acoustic instruments. A good case in point would be arranger Lynne Shankel’s arrangements for small theater instrumental ensembles, such as Off-Broadway’s “Summer of ‘42”.  Her highly inventive, and convincingly quasi orchestral scoring, disguised the fact that only a sextet of players, consisting of two keyboards, a reed double, cello, bass, and a multi faceted percussionist, were utilized.
Probably not what Milton Babitt had in mind, but that's progress for you.
Charles Greenberg -A.K.A - Korg Composer

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