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Electronic Music

  As its name implies, electronic music is generated not by human performers, but by electrical impulses. At first it was recorded on disc or tape, but modern machines such as the computer and synthesizer now produce it to order, and so allow an element of ‘live’ performance. Such machines also allow techniques to be used which are not so readily available to composers using human performers: instantly slowing the music down or speeding it up, playing it backwards, mixing, delaying or enhancing reverberation, and above all modulating the signal. The synthesizer alters the frequency of the generated sound at the operator\'s will, and the computer digitalizes instructions for sound-generation in the same way as it does any other input, creating information which can then be processed in any way the operator chooses.

The initial sounds on which electronic methods are used can be generated either as ‘white noise’ (pure signal from a tone generator), or by ‘sampling’. In sampling, a single sound from any source (instrument, natural sound, voice) is digitally recorded, fed into the computer and modulated in the normal way. Computers can thus mimic any sound the operator chooses, from symphony orchestras to skylarks and can subject them to every conceivable kind of electronic alteration. Music can be programmed to be in ‘real time’, that is with the computer imitating the nuances and inflexions a live human performer might employ; or it can be ‘step-time composition’, using strict rhythmic accuracy based on equal time-divisions of the computer clock. The composer Iannis Xenakis invented what he called ‘stochastic music’, building up huge structures from tiny individual units whose organization depended on (often computer-generated) mathematical sequences.

Electronic methods, and electronic instruments, are standard in modern rock and pop. They are vital to composers of film, radio and television music. But apart from the ondes martenot (whose sound is a pure, clear squeal like that of a musical saw) few electronic instruments have found their way into any but the most avant-garde art music, and electronic techniques of composition are still generally resisted in favour of more traditional methods. The avant-garde minority, however, is vigorous. Several composers of note have consistently produced electronic works, either ‘composing’ them on tape in the studio (as Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Herbert Eimert and other pioneers used to do) or using synthesizers and sound mixers to blend with ‘orthodox’ performers in live concerts (as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen do). Others who use electronic techniques as part of a wider repertoire include such key names as Luciano Berio, Györgi Ligeti, Henri Pousseur and Xenakis. But because the electronics industry moves ahead so far so fast, the whole field remains more suited to constant experiment than to the production of established masterworks, and raises the issue of whether machines, however sophisticated, can ever rival the emotional power generated by human performers making natural sounds. KMcL

Further reading P. Griffiths, A Guide to Electronic Music.



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