III. A Brief History of 20th Century Classical Music
By Michael Casano
It is interesting how the world of academic classical music provided a basis for experimentation within the world of progressive rock. Previously jazz, led by the highly experimental and brilliant mind of Ornette Coleman, offered infinite possibilities for improvisation with the advent of free jazz. However it was the classical composers that provided a blueprint for progressive rock, the precursor to industrial music. In this article, a brief history of 20th century classical avant-garde music will be examined. My intention is to illustrate a pattern of innovation, experimentation, and individuality within the realm of western musical thought. Some composers exemplifying this innovation and experimentation will be introduced. Very few of these composers had any direct influence on progressive rock. However, these composers were essential in the musical evolution that took place within the past 100 years. Industrial music did not just appear from nowhere, as it had many sources of input. It did evolve indirectly from the composers who broke with tradition, took chances, risked credibility and career, offered the world innovative ideas and processes, and challenged modes of acceptability.
The 20th century ushered in a new world of sound, as early experiments with technology began to change the way composers approached composition and sound. The age of musical romanticism was dead and a new age of theories and practices were held under critical scrutiny and cynicism. Atonality, musique concrete, electronic composition, and aleatory techniques are just some of the ideas that the 20th century composers developed.
Arnold Schoenberg ‘s (1874-1951) insistence on originality and logic in composition led him to develop an atonal approach to composition around 1908. This approach initially suggested a radical negation of a tonal center. Schoenberg then developed a twelve tone technique to construct a unified theory of composition that replaced traditional aspects of melody, harmony, and tonality.
The Rite Of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) from 1911-1913, challenged harmonic and rhythmic consistency. These novel harmonic and rhythmic approaches offered no sense of purposeful resolution within the composition, thus making the music seem unpredictable in nature.
Dissatisfied with the music of the past, Edgard Varese (1883-1965) set out to explore elements of percussion, rhythmic complexity, dissonance, and electronic music. His Ionisation, composed between 1929-1931, was written for an orchestra of thirteen percussion instruments. In 1932-1934, he wrote Ecuatorial which used two ondes martenots. In the 1950’s he began using a tape recorder in his compositions and during 1957-1958 he wrote Poeme Electronique.
Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) created the first musique concrete pieces in 1948. Musique concrete was a compositional technique in which music was created on tape and manipulated by editing, reversal, and speed-changing. The original conception of musique concrete dealt specifically with instrumental and vocal sounds. It was not until Varese’s Poeme Electronique did the use of tape with synthetic electronic sounds come to fruition.
John Cage (1912-1992) introduced concepts such as chance and indeterminacy into composition and performance. Cage used unorthodox percussion instruments. He also used frequency recordings on variable-speed turntables, oscillators, and an amplified coil of wire. Another idea was the prepared piano which Cage developed by inserting objects between the strings of the piano. He also used coin tosses as a compositional tool to determine pitch and duration. His Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) incorporated the unpredictable sounds of radio receivers. He also examined the role of silence in music (4‘33“, 1952). Cage was an enormously influential philosopher in the worlds of art and music.
Richard Maxfield (1927-1969) developed a compositional technique of pre-recording and manipulating electronically sounds of various duration, then cutting these tapes into pieces and randomly selecting these pieces of tape and splicing them with blank tape of various durations.
Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928) became the acknowledged leader of the avant-garde as far back as 1955. As a composer, inventor, theorist, and teacher, Stockhausen delved into the world of pure electronic sound and became one of the major proponents of electronic music. Some of his works Gesang der Junglinge (1955-1956), Kontakte (1959-1960), Mikrophonie I (1964), Mikrophonie II (1965), Hymnen (1966-1967), and Telemusik (1966) are some of the most influential pieces of the 20th century.
Retiring from performance in 1964, pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) concentrated on the recording studio and devoted himself to recording the works of J.S. Bach and Arnold Schoenberg. Gould was also a prolific writer of music history, criticism, and philosophy. He wrote about the future of technology and its impact on the way music would be recorded and listened to, anticipating many of the trends experienced in today’s music. Gould was also fascinated by the way human communication could be perceived as music. He composed a series of audio documentaries (contrapuntal radio) for the CBC dealing with themes such as isolation in the Canadian north. The Idea Of North (1967) and The Latecomers (1967) were two of these documentaries.
Other influential composers were Tod Dockstader (Apocalypse, 1961), Terry Riley (In C, 1964), LaMonte Young (Map Of 49‘s Dream The Two Systems Of Eleven Sets Of Galactic Sound, 1969), and Steven Reich (Pendulum Music, 1968). These composers influenced bands such as Can, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, The Mothers Of Invention, and The Velvet Underground.
Irmin Schmidt and Holgar Czukay of Can both studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen. Can released five influential albums spanning from 1969 to 1973 (Monster Movie, 1969; Soundtracks, 1970; Tago Mago, 1971; Ege Bamyasi, 1972; Future Days, 1973). The next article will introduce bands from the Krautrock scene, the works of Brian Eno, The Velvet Underground, Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, and The Residents, along with other progressive bands. Literary influences will also be introduced, including writers such as William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard.
http://www.emf.org Electronic Music Foundation
Griffiths, Paul, A Concise History Of Avant-Garde Music, Oxford University Press, 1978
Griffiths, Paul, Encyclopedia Of Twentieth Century Music, Thames and Hudson, 1992
Besides the works listed in the article, a great introduction to the world of electronic music is:
OHM - The Early Gurus Of Electronic Music 1948-1980 (Ellipsis Arts, 2000). This three CD collection contains a broad overview of electronic music. Also included is an informative booklet.
Copyright Michael Casano, April 2002