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Bargain Bin Babylon: Various Artists: Electronic Music

Bargain Bin Babylon: Various Artists: Electronic Music

Electronic Music is ultimately a fantastic curio haunting dollar bins around the country.

The history and development of electronic music is hugely indebted to the work done at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the ’50s and ’60s. Home to the first synthesizer (the room-sized RCA Mark II) and a significant chunk of renowned 20th century composers, the New York-based studio founded by Vladimir Ussachevsky was a hotbed for experimentation and exploration. In 1965, he brought together four of his peers and students for a brief LP meant to showcase the then-nascent field with Electronic Music. Andrés Lewin-Richter, İlhan Mimaroğlu, Tzvi Avni and Wendy Carlos (née Walter, as is listed on the LP jacket) each provide compositions and their own liner notes.

Reading through these notes, it’s clear that these musicians were all dealing with a similar problem. A central theme throughout all these pieces, as outlined by Ussachevsky in his opening notes, is how to embed an element of humanity into electronic sounds. The inclusion of vocals on two pieces is the most direct plea to this end, and each set of notes finds the composer justifying their choices as a means of crossing this divide. Only 20 years after Halim El-Dabh’s “Wire Recorder Piece,” widely regarded as the first electronic music composition, these composers were frantically trying to erase the unique identity of electronics and replace it a more traditional compositional lens.

Despite originating from the same studio and the same philosophical goal, the music here shows divergent approaches. Listening just to the contributions from Lewin-Richter and Mimaroğlu on the record’s first side, the idea of a human-sounding electronic music is mostly absent. The sounds here are classic early noises, full of beeps, blips and seemingly random crunches of static. Mimaroğlu’s “Le Tombeau D’Edgar Poe” is the most interesting of this initial set, as it is sourced entirely from a reading of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem of the same. The vocal manipulations are wide-ranging, often sounding more like synthesized noises than a voice. Driven by the poem’s narrative structure, the play between non-altered spoken word and mangled speech gives the track a welcome sense of drama. Mimaroğlu’s other two compositions, as well as Lewin-Richter’s single contribution, read as more purely abstract pieces in the vein of Ussachevsky’s work.

If side one, though enjoyable, fell off a bit in its pursuit of an electronic humanism, side two takes greater strides to connect these newfound sounds to tangible emotions. Avni’s “Vocalise” embarks on a similar vocal manipulation mission as “Le Tombeau,” though to a greater effect. Soprano vocals by Pnina Avni give the track a ghostly hum, an ethereality compounded by the reverb-laden electronics. A noteworthy effect used throughout occurs when Tzvi Avni pitch-shifts the human vocals into a jittery chorus, something of a precursor to MIDI. Carlos’ pieces are the most strictly classical, especially “Variations for Flute and Electronic Sound.” Each of the six variations have a distinct character, and the electronics employed are the closest the album comes to resembling a conventional orchestra. While this approach could give her pieces an antiquated edge, their appeal to listenability helps them shine the most. Along with “Vocalise,” Carlos’ work finds more success in the search for a human touch.

Later composers have focused more intently on the inherent lack of humanity within electronics, especially those working with computers. Laurie Spiegel, George Lewis, Frank Zappa, Autechre and many others have harnessed the specific capabilities of electronic sounds, allowing randomness, previously unfathomable extremity and technical breakdowns to guide their work. The massive irony that marks Electronic Music is that, after decades of continued exploration, most of the music sounds extremely nonhuman. The efforts of all these composers to combine an academic compositional practice with rudimentary technology results in stiff, clunky music. There’s more feeling in a single Frankie Knuckles or Derrick May track than this whole album, saying nothing of the recent developments of artists like Arca, Lotic or the Club Chai collective, just a few of the musicians making immensely human music out of electronic sounds. Carlos herself, even, embraced a more emotive approach on her later new age albums and her famed soundtracks for Stanley Kubrick.

While some of this discrepancy can be attributed to gear—Ableton is a much more fluid instrument than a chunky, finnicky box that can deliver one sine wave at a time—the reigning discipline of academic classical music is the greater culprit. This type of highly technical, highly controlled composition has more or less fallen out of favor in experimental circles, largely replaced by minimalism, free improvisation or, in many cases, studying electronics by way of pop and club music. Electronic Music is ultimately a fantastic curio haunting dollar bins around the country. It’s a mismatched collection full of roads-not-taken, more a presentation of interesting musical dead-ends than a sign of what was to come.

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