Traditional vs. Contemporary in 1920’s New York

The Varese AlbumWithin American culture in the 1920’s, the audience was not aware of the advancements in music from the past twenty or so years. The concert halls were filled with traditional music that was composed in the 1800’s, during the romantic era. Most of the newer works were the generation of composers who died between 1890 and 1920—composers like Debussy, Rimsky-Korakov, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Debussy, etc. Edgard Varese sought to change this by bringing new works to New York.

Varese became popular very quickly after arriving in New York in 1915. His early conducting gigs gained him some fame within the music community. After that, he founded and became the conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra in 1919. He programmed music that had either never been performed before or had never been performed specifically in America. However, this came to a quick conclusion after two repeat performances. With an audience and musicians that wanted to hear and play standard repertoire, the NSO could no longer exist.

In the 1920’s he shifted his focus to composing and getting new music played through a society. He helped establish the International Composers’ Guild in 1921. Subsequently, the first concert was in February of 1922. The International Composers’ Guild was the first organization dedicated to the performance of contemporary music in America.

During the six-year run of the International Composers’ Guild, Varese had three premiers of his own work. Hyperprism caused a huge uproar from the audience. Some loved it and cheered for an encore, but many hissed at the music and began fighting. While the concerts were mostly a success, attracting between 300 and 1500 people, there were still those who longed for traditional music and resisted change.

Hyperprism includes a large battery of percussion with winds. Here is a sample from Hyperprism:

[audio:|titles=Hyperprism|artists=Edgard Varese]

One of his later works in 1931 was Ionisation. While Hyperprism has a large percussion section, this piece is strictly percussion. It is scored for thirteen percussionists playing a total of 37 instruments.

Here is a sample from Ionisation:

[audio:|titles=Ionisation.|artists=Edgard Varese]



Charles Dodge- Earth’s Magnetic Field & Bell Laboratories

dodgeCharles Dodge’s Earth’s Magnetic Field: Realizations in Computed Electronic Sound, was composed in 1970 and was released by Nonesuch. Bell laboratories developed many important technologies that were employed by electronic music composers. A more detailed account of the developments can be found in the annotations of Computer Music, by Nonesuch. One of the first main contributions from Bell labs, in the late 1950’s, was a computer sound synthesis program that could—theoretically—produce any sound. Another main component was the Digital Audio Converters that made it possible to hear the sounds that were being programmed. This translated to the work that was being done at Columbia and Princeton, where composers sought to utilize these developments. Charles Dodge was one of the composers working at Columbia and Princeton that worked also at Bell Laboratories on his music.

With this piece, Charles Dodge mapped magnetic field data to musical sounds. Over the course of a year, 2920 readings were taken of the magnetic field. This was then mapped to a four octave span, or 45 notes (the average span of an instrument). Between different points within this data, interpolations were made to create the other aspects of the music—tempo, dynamics, and register. Here’s part of the readings that he used:

Magnetic field data

Sample of magnetic field data

Regardless of the mapping and per-determined form, this piece still flows musically and has some beautifully crafted moments. With lyrical lines and sweeping gestures, the piece brings the data to life. In my opinion, the musical representation of the data can be quite catchy at points.

Here’s a sample of Earth’s Magnetic Field, from roughly eleven minutes into the piece.

[audio:|titles=Earth’s Magnetic Field.|artists= Charles Dodge]


BBC Radiophonic Workshop ‎– Doctor Who – The Music

Dr Who CoverThe BBC Radiophonic Workshop in London opened in 1958 to produce music and new effects for radio. Composers for Doctor Who started working here in 1963, under the direction of Ron Grainer. The theme for doctor who was created mostly by Delia Derbyshire in the style of Elektronische Musik—or music created from only electronically produced signals. This term was coined in 1949 by Werner Meyer-Eppler, and rivaled the French style of Musique Concrete, which used sounds recorded from acoustical sources, instead. To use this style of music in television, was new and innovative. It was also groundbreaking, because “televised science fiction was a new concept for the BBC” (factmag). The soundtrack for Doctor Who was comprised almost exclusively of electronic music through 1989, and the composers working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop created most of the incidental music and sound effects.

One of the most famous tracks that was released in the 1970’s for this television show was “Sea Devils,” which was noted for being much more experimental than the usual incidental music of Doctor Who. It was composed by Malcolm Clarke, and used the EMS Synthi 100 of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

[audio:|titles=Sea Devils.|artists=Malcolm Clarke]

EMS Synthi 100 – Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Another important track on the LP is “The Leisure Hive,” composed by Peter Howell. By 1980, the workshop was creating music for every episode. By this time, the workshop had gained a lot more synthesizers, which would make the music a lot richer.

[audio:|titles=The Leisure Hive.|artists=Peter Howell]