A Brief Guide To Electronic Music
Introduction: What is Progressive Electronic Music / Electronic Prog?
Electronic prog is a subgenre of progressive music that includes musical trends such as the Berlin School, cosmic analogue electronics, Ambient, electronic progrock, Space Music, melodic / rhythmic synth music and such. It's a wide field with common cultural and / or sonic roots. Electronic prog music is mostly created by musicians (sometimes self-taught) with connections to progressive or progressive rock scenes, which, in essence, means that the original electronic prog was largely music played on synthesizers by rock musicians. Lately a new string of neo-prog electronic artists has surfaced on the scene, a lot of whom have little or no connection to the progrock scene.
If we try to describe electronic prog, I'd say that this type of music usually creates special "cosmic" atmosphere, is characterized by the almost exclusive use of synthesizers and other electronic instruments, is completely or almost completely instrumental and, like most progressive genres, tends to incorporate long tracks. The focus is very often on the timbral characteristics of sound.
Electronic prog is not to be confused with academic EM, new age, industrial, techno or any other trend / genre that may or may not incorporate similar instrumentation. Electronic progressive is no easy-listening music (just like all progressive music) and may require several listens or special musical knowledge to understand. At the same time, it is usually more accessible than, say, most academic EM, and can be enjoyed by any person with an open mind.
Electronic prog is certainly one of the most interesting and widely overlooked musical phenomena of the 20th Century.
A Brief History of Electronic Prog
Chapter A: 1800's - 1960's - The Beginning
There's no denying the fact that musical events are interconnected. The influences are multiple and mutual. Just like any other genre, electronic prog has its influences, the earliest probably being Medieval and European classical music. There is the embryo of progressive electronic sound to be found in many classical composers' works, including Bach, Wagner, Mahler, Beethoven & more. However, it wasn't before the invention of electronic musical instruments that the whole universe of sound started to gradually unfold. In 1876, Elisha Gray invented the Musical Telegraph which was to become the first electronic instrument in history. It had only one basic tone, produced by steel reed oscillators, one per key. A similar instrument was developed around the same time by Alexander Graham Bell at Bell Labs. Another notable invention of the 19th Century is William Duddel's Singing Arc (circa 1899). By supplying different voltages to a noisy carbon arc lamp of the kind that was abundant in Victorian London, Duddel managed to get different musical tones. Several demonstrations of this unusual musical instrument followed, with Duddel showing his invention throughout England, but nothing came out of it eventually. Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium (aka Dynamophone) (circa 1897) was to become another milestone of electronic invention - a behemoth that weighed about 200 tons and occupied no less than an entire floor of a building. This machine transmitted musical signals over telephone wires, resulting in the first ever manifestation of what's known today as "muzak". Other notable inventions of the first half of the 20th Century include Melvin Severy's Choralcello (1909), Leon Termen's Aetherophone (aka Theremin) (1917), which is still in wide use by musicians all over the world, the Rhythmicon (1930), which can be considered the first drum machine, the Trautonium by Friedrich Trautwein (1930), the Novachord (1939), the Voder & Vocoder (1940), the Univox (1940), the Ondioline (1940), Hugh Le Caine's Electronic Sackbut (1945), Raymond Scott's Electronium (1950) that was dubbed the "instant composition machine", and the first devices that got the now famous name "synthesizer" that were installed at RCA (1952), and the Siemens studios (1959). Another early synthesizer was developed in USSR (the ANS Synthesizer - completed in the 1960's). A lot of electric and electromechanical organs were also created during this time (such as the Hammond organ popularized by rock and jazz musicians), as well as various other obscure and not-so-obscure artifacts.
Thanks to this constellation and the invention of magnetic tape recording some studios began to experiment with new electronic technology, creating works that incorporated concrete sounds and electronic timbres. Electronic studios became a widely spread phenomenon, with names such as Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhauzen, Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, Gyorgy Ligeti, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Pauline Oliveros gaining limited acclaim. The music created electronically by academic composers was very experimental and difficult to understand by most people. Early attempts to use electronics in a more popular context included the soundtrack to the movie "Forbidden Planet" by Louis & Bebe Barron (1957) and experiments with self-built electronic instruments by Raymond Scott (50's and 60's), some of which presaged the styles known today as "Ambient" and "sequencer music".
By the early 60's, more affordable commercial synthesizers appeared on the market, and this fact drew electronic music out of the confines of elite studios and university walls to the general public. The development of early modular and semi-modular synthesizers of brands such as Moog, Buchla, EMS and ARP played a drastic role in changing the face of popular music. By 1964, Bob Moog developed his first modular synth that was noticed by many popular and rock artists such as The Beatles, Keith Emerson, Jean-Jacques Perrey and others. In 1968, Walter Carlos released "Switched-On Bach" that featured a complete Bach score performed on the Moog synthesizer. This brought the attention of the general public to the synthesizer and showed the world that synthesizer was not merely a lifeless pile of electronic circuits, but real instrument that had life, character and endless possibilities. Many more "moog pop" albums followed with classical and popular tunes performed on the moog, and every label wanted to have its own "moog" creation in its catalog, although none of these albums reached the level of success of Carlos' "Switched-On Bach" that eventually became the best-selling classical album in history.
Foregoing the "moog fever" that raged at the end of 60's (mainly in the USA), we switch to the (thriving) rock scene of the time, because it was during these years that the rock crowd started to take some interest in the synthesizer and its possibilities. Needless to say, the progressive rock scene that was forming during the late 60's is where the synthesizer was embraced with all of its strength in creating new, unheard of timbres. During the 60's, several psychedelic rock groups appeared, that mixed electronics with rock music and pop sensibilities, the most notable example being San-Francisco-based outfit Silver Apples. In the academic EM field, some composers made some works based exclusively on synthesizer technology that were slightly more accessible than what the academic crowd was mostly known for. These composers included Morton Subotnick and Charles Wuorinen, among others. Subotnick's synth works from the 60's can be considered an influence on the electronic prog scene that was to emerge a couple of years later, especially the so-called "Berlin School" of electronic music, or "sequencer music". These years also saw the consolidation of minimalism that was to become another major influence for a lot of electronic prog artists. The repeating, mesmerizing notes of artists like Philip Glass, Terry Riley or La Monte Young found their safe niche in a lot of E-prog music, albeit transforming in continuous pulsations of synth sounds ("sequences").
Thus, we are getting close to the 70's - the golden age for progressive synthesizer music and the time when a lot of really innovative artists discovered the power of synthesizers and started using this power to create totally new music - music for "mind travels", as they say.
Chapter B: 1970's - early 1980's - the Golden Age
The Seventies were the decade when progressive music consolidated, took shape and forked into many subgenres, taking various forms, from the intricate symphonic rock suites to virtuoso jazzy fusions to monolithic space rock excursions and the synthesizer experiments of the first wave of electronic musicians. The prog genre in the broad sense brought a healthy dose of fresh air to the already tired and boring music scene populated by hippie psych bands and saccharine pop schlagers. Prog musicians were often very skillful with their instruments and classically trained, while at the same time willing to experiment and to try something new. This resulted in a fresh and interesting form of music that, strictly speaking, was based on the already well-known musical forms and traditions but treated them in unusual ways or combined them to create something totally original. These guys really had something to say. It is, therefore, no accident that the first wave of progressive rock musicians embraced the newly affordable synthesizer technology and used these tools in a vibrant and innovative manner, leaving both the somewhat crude academic experiments and the self-content tedium of the pop scene far behind. Suddenly, a new form of musical art was born. Art that was truly elite, deep and sophisticated while still being understandable and surprisingly listenable. The appearance of the compact version of the Moog synthesizer called the minimoog as well as several new brands of synthesizers such as the Japanese Roland, Korg and Yamaha caused a lot of musicians to try and to use the new technology to their advantage. Bands like King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Genesis, The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and Camel all used synthesizers in their work. Some other electronic and electromechanical instruments got heavy use as well, such as the mellotron (a tape replay device invented in the 60's) and hammond organ. It was only a matter of natural evolution (or revolution, if we consider the fact that the events in question span a period of just several years) that some of the more innovative and open-minded musicians of the prog rock scene took a complete turn towards the electronic side of things, searching for new ways of musical expression, concentrating on the creation of new timbres - complete soundworlds, actually.
Several local centers of EM activity appeared, Berlin being one of them and arguably the most thriving and influential one. This hotbed for Electronic Music produced such giants as Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Ashra, Michael Hoenig & more. The Berlin electronic artists were influenced by the German "krautrock" scene (German progressive), the minimalism and some German "serious" composers, as well as classical music. Whatever the influences, the music of German electronic masters was as far removed from any previously known musical trend as it could be. Besides, some of these people were self-taught. This so-called "Berlin School" of electronic music turned out to be very influential and had a distinct sound, with long, cosmic, unfurling tracks, full of atmospheric synthesizers, rhythmic sequences and synth solos. Electronic Music artists distinguished themselves from the rest of the prog crowd by throwing away conventional instruments and concentrating on synthesizers and other electronic instrumentation. Apart from the Berlin School that had many followers with the second wave of musicians coming in late 70's - early 80's, there was another center of electronic experiments in Germany. It was located in Dusseldorf where the legendary band Kraftwerk developed their own mechanical electronic sound, utilizing metronomic rhythms, sequences and a lot of electronic voices. The accessible nature of their music is what made them to be considered the first electropop band and the precursors of techno. Another German band that shared Kraftwerk's fascination with mechanical "motorik" rhythms was Cluster who added their own type of experimentation and concentrated on quirky, completely instrumental tracks. The electronic revolution gradually spread its influence, as more and more Electronic Music artists appeared during the 70's and early 80's. Literally every country had its own electronic prog scene. There was the French School (Jean-Michel Jarre, Richard Pinhas, Heldon ...), the British School (Mark Shreeve, Ian Boddy, Andy Pickford ...), the US School (Synergy, Walter Carlos ...), the Japanese School (Tomita, Kitaro ...) and so on. The Greek maestro Vangelis started his experiments in the field of Electronic Music after his previous band Aphrodite's Child split. The word "school" should not be meant literally here, as there were no real "schools" (in the academic sense) in progressive music. Some of the electronic artists could have been influenced by the German pioneers, others developed their own unique styles independently.
By the mid-80's the stylistic diversity of electronic prog reached its peak. The early 70's experiments of Brian Eno (UK) together with Robert Fripp (guitarist of King Crimson) led to a birth of genre known today as Ambient (quiet flowing minimalist Electronic Music) that gained many followers. Michael Stearns (USA) started combining Ambient influences with his own spacey synth sound. Thus, the Space Music genre was born. In the early 80's, Brian Williams aka Lustmord (UK) developed a darker Ambient sound, rooted in both the Classic Ambient tradition and his industrial influences. This way, Dark Ambient was coined, which, in essence, was semi-progressive, because of the industrial component. Some electronic artists incorporated ethnic influences, giving birth to the World Music genre, others took a more experimental path. In short, the stylistic diversity of electronic prog by the mid-80's was great, involving various cosmic, rhythmic, ambient, experimental, melodic and ethnic-influenced styles.
Chapter C: late 1980's - 1990's - the MIDI Age and Birth of Neo-Prog
By the early 80's the first commercially available digital synthesizers hit the market. This, together with newly available digital sequencers that left the analogue 8-step and 16-step sequencers far behind in terms of possibilities, caused more and more people to try the new technology. With the coming of new wave, synthesizers and other electronic instruments became fairly common in music making. Hundreds of synth-pop, disco, industrial, etc bands were using these tools and suddenly, synthesizer was no more a novelty or something that only a handful of chosen ones were able to use.
In 1982 - 1983, several synthesizer manufacturers developed a new standard of instrument communication called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). MIDI allowed several synthesizers to be connected to each other or to a computer or any other device that could read MIDI data. This left the problem of differing control voltages that served an obstacle for full compatibility of various brands of synths in the past. Making music with electronic instruments became an even easier task. As a result, the electronic scene grew immensely and the appearance of a new type of synthesizer workstations on the market that were dubbed "ROMplers" (these instruments stored a lot of factory preset timbres in their internal memory with the possibility of adding sounds via expansion boards and sound banks) allowed many people to make music at home with just a computer and a couple of synths. The "preset fever" (or, should we say, "preset plague"?) that dominated the electronic scene in the late 80's - early 90's made a lot of music from that period sound somewhat bland and samey.
However, things changed in mid-90's, when several artists appeared, whose sound harkened back to the Electronic Music of the 70's, mainly the Berlin School. Bands like Redshift, Node, Radio Massacre International and AirSculpture literally started the Berlin School revival of the 90's that pretty much continues to this day. Playing music based on the sound of analogue or virtual analogue synthesizers, with long, unfurling tracks, hypnotic sequences, cosmic, darkish and mysterious atmospheres, these people basically did for electronic prog what bands like Marillion, Änglagård, the Par Lindh Project or Anekdoten did for progressive rock. The appearance of Neo-Berlin artists on the scene (ironically, most of them came from the UK) could be considered the birth of electronic neo-prog, the difference between EM and progrock being that with rock music neo-prog took shape already in the early 80's, while with Electronic Music it was in the mid-90's, although there is, of course, no distinct line that separates classic electronic prog and electronic neo-prog. Still, you can consider what came after 1994 - 1995 and stylistically copied the 70's electronic sound of the Berlin School to be neo-prog.
Another tendency of the recent years is several electronic artists trying to add more contemporary elements to their music (such as the techno rhythms etc), and combining these elements with the classic EM sound ("New Berlin School").
In the New Millennium, the electronic prog (aka "EM") scene is still alive and has its (albeit somewhat limited) faithful following. Let's see what the future brings...
7.09.2005 Artemi Pugachov
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© 2012. Artemi Pugachov