Book Reviews – Pioneers of Electronic Music: Four New(ish) Books from University of Illinois Press

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Any serious student of electronic music and instrumentation may want to know of a new series of books about composers and the history of electronic music.


by Warren Burt, Sept. 2016


At Soundbytes, we primarily review new music software, and do it from a variety of perspectives, from the commercially useful to the experimental, from the professional to the hobbyist.  But all of this equipment, and the industry that supports it, didn’t come from nowhere.  The history of electronics in music is a very old one – it goes back at least to the 1870s, with the “musical telegraph” experiments of Elisha Gray.  A lot of histories of the field, like Trevor Pinch’s work, Analog Days, concentrate on the history of the adoption of electronic music by commercial musicians, and largely ignore, or brush aside, the fathers and mothers of the field who worked for many years to get electronic music to just plain happen, and when it did happen, began exploring it in quite unusual ways – ways that did not become the by-now-normalized keyboard into oscillator-amplifier-filter recorded into a multi-track program paradigm.

The University of Illinois Press, about twelve years ago, began publishing a series of slim books aimed at the general public, called “American Composers.” These are written in an engaging style that draws the reader into the music and the outlooks of the composers. What is unusual about these books is that the composers covered in the series are not those that one might think the general public might be interested in, but are, for the most part, composers from the Classical or Avant-Garde traditions.  But it was some of these composers who actually did the groundwork for a lot of our electronic music to exist today, even if the world of popular music has largely ignored their existence.  So the publication of easy to read, shorter (around 100 pages each) biographies of these composers is worth noting, and a quick look at the biographies of some of the pioneering workers in musical electronics (and other fields) is probably long past due.  After all, as Harry Partch once said, “Affirmation of parentage is a primary source of rebellion!”  That is, if you don’t know your history, it’s more difficult for you to create (or imagine) a future different from the past you’re already living.

Johanna Magdalena Beyer (1888-1944) is a composer that very few people, even die-hard new-music buffs, will have heard of.  She was born in Germany, but by the 1920s, was living and working in New York, where she became a part of the “Ultra-Moderns,” the American experimental composers of the 1920s and 30s.  She was a minor figure in this group at the time, and was very influenced by the better known members of the group, such as Henry Cowell and Dane Rudhyar.  However, she had her own unique voice, and among this group of composers who were innovating in so many radical ways, she had a number of “firsts” to her credit, some of which are mainly of interest to musicologists – early experiments in polyrhythms, etc. – but some of which are of much broader interest.  For example, she was one of the first composers to write extensively for the percussion ensemble.  Her percussion work was taken up by the groups organized by younger men at the time, such as Lou Harrison and John Cage.   And in 1938, as part of her never completed opera “Status Quo,” she produced a piece called “Music of the Spheres,” for three “electrical instruments” and triangle.  There were a few other composers at this time who were also producing scores for “electrical instruments,” such as the theremin and the Ondes Martinot.  Percy Grainger (a friend of Beyer’s) was one of them with his mid-1930s “Free Music” series, and Olivier Messiaen in France was making work for an ensemble of Ondes Martinot around this time.  Beyer’s work, which wasn’t performed or recorded until 1977, 33 years after her death, however, stands as possibly the first fully notated work for an ensemble of keyboard based synthesizers.  And whether a first or not, it’s a remarkable work in its own right, and part of her exquisitely chiselled collection of small-scale breakthrough pieces from the 1920s through early 40s. Alas, by the early 1940s, Beyer was crippled by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and died too soon, in 1944, before she could realize her multi-media or music technology dreams.  Amy Beal, who teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has done a superb job of finding out information about Beyer (lots of detective work there!) and in placing her work in the context of what was happening at the time, drawing connections between Beyer and her (somewhat) better known colleagues.  If you’re interested in finding out about a new composer, who pioneered a lot of the techniques we now take for granted, Amy Beal’s book is well worth reading.  It’s a wonderful introduction to the work of a sadly forgotten composer.

Mentioned earlier, in connection with performing Beyer’s percussion music, was John Cage, who moved to New York in 1941, and quickly became quite good friends with Beyer. Cage’s name is known by at least a section of the general public.  I have a hot-drink mug from, which has quotes from John Cage and Henry Thoreau on it.  And I also have a collection of comic strips in which the characters are quoting Cage’s 1961 collection of writings, “Silence.”  If he’s made it onto Amazon drink mugs and syndicated comic strips, this means that at least some members of the general public know of his existence.  Cage (1912-1992) was indeed one of the most active percussion musicians in the US in the 1930s.  His career after that though, developed in the direction of timbral exploration and eventually, electronics.  From the early 1950s until the late 1980s, he was one of the composers who was at the forefront of developments in musical electronics, with major electronic work after major electronic work to his credit.  From the first multi-channel tape collage work (Williams Mix 1952) to the first interactive work where dancers’ movements triggered off sound (Variations V 1965), through to the first multi-channel, poly-microtonal work for computer sounds (HPSCHD 1968-69, in collaboration with Lejaren Hiller), the 12-channel tape and voice collage Birdcage (1972), the amazing 64 layer environmental sound collage that accompanies Roaratorio (1979), the ground breaking computer processed voice of Voiceless Essay (1986), and concluding with his PC-based composing programs of the late 1980s and early 1990s (with which he wrote the Europeras, and the “Number Pieces”) Cage was always at the forefront of new developments of music technology, using it in often quite unorthodox ways, even before the “orthodox” means of using it had been decided upon.  The British writer David Nicholls is one of the world’s experts on Cage and his music, and he writes about Cage’s life and work In a very engaging and engrossing manner.  I’ve read most of the books about Cage that exist, and I was pleasantly delighted with the reading of this book – it kept telling me little details about Cage’s life I hadn’t known, or implications of his work that I hadn’t suspected before.  If you want a quick and easy, but not In any sense superficial, introduction to Cage and his works, I can heartily recommend you start here.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the late 1950s, two young musicians set up their own electronic music studio with whatever gear they could cobble together.  These were Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley, and they are both the subjects now of University of Illinois publications.  “Robert Ashley,” by the respected composer and musicologist Kyle Gann, is part of the American Composers series.  Gordon Mumma’s Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in American New Music is a larger book, which is a compilation of his writings over the entire course of his career, from the 1950s up to the present.  Of all these composers, Robert Ashley’s music is probably the most closely related to the working methods of the mythological “average Soundbytes reader,” in that his work has always used the commercial electronics that were available at the time.  From his early oscillator and razor blade pieces of the 50s, through to 1972’s In Sarah Mencken Christ and Beethoven, which features a masterful use of the Moog modular synthesizer, through his “talking operas” of the 1980s and 1990s, which used digital hardware synthesizers and computer DAW technology, through to his last completed work Concrete, in which he played the accompaniment to the singers using Ableton Live, he was an avid follower of what possibilities the electronics industry made available to him.  Gann’s wonderfully written and informative book covers the motivations of Ashley, and concentrates on his innovative use of language in his series of works for voices and electronics (the “talking operas” – Perfect Lives, Now Eleanor’s Idea, Atalanta, Dust, Concrete, among others) from the late 70s, until his death in 2014, but it doesn’t cover Ashley’s use of electronics in much depth.  Some aspects of Ashley’s electronic work are covered (the use of the Moog in “In Sarah, etc” the use of Ableton Live in Concrete), but a full exploration of Ashley’s use of electronics is yet to be written.  Meanwhile, we have Gann’s book, which covers just about every other element of Ashley’s music beautifully, so it’s well worth a read as an introduction to the work of the composer who some of us consider the most important new voice in opera in the last third of the 20th century.

Which brings us to Gordon Mumma, the subject of the last of the quartet of books under discussion here.  Mumma was, in the 1950s through the 1980s, one of the leaders of the DIY electronic music scene.  He became one of the musicians in the Merce Conningham Dance Company (along with John Cage and David Tudor) and for the many years he toured with the company, he made a number of electronic musical instruments which were also compositions in their own right.  His book is called Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in American New Music, and the title might need a bit of explanation.  “Cybersonic” is a word that Mumma coined in the 1960s to describe his homemade electronic music boxes – it means that the sound of an acoustic instrument is processed by a machine and parts of the resulting processed sound are fed back into the circuit, so that the sound is modified by aspects of the processed signal itself.  The book consists of essays written by Mumma over the course of his 50+ year career in music.  Musicologist Michelle Fillion has done an excellent job assembling the material, and even getting Mumma to make contemporary updates to a number of the articles. Mumma has a very clear and easy to read writing style, so the essays are a delight. There are articles from the 1950s, when he was one of the musicians for Harold Cohen’s Space Theater, one of the first multi-media sound and light environments (a good eight years before the rock and roll light show developed), and from the 60s, covering the ONCE Festivals, a very early series of electronic and instrumental sound and theater performances.  Also from the 60s and 70s are detailed technical articles about Mumma’s home-made electronic circuits/compositions, and these will probably be of the most interest to Soundbytes readers.  When I saw Mumma perform with his boxes in the late 60s and early 70s (such as his work Hornpipe for French Horn and live electronics, where the electronics were mounted on his belt), I was always wondering what kind of circuits, what kinds of modules were connected in the patches he was using.  Now I can see what he was doing, and the results are quite surprising, for in addition to standard things like filters and amplifiers with envelope followers controlling them, there are also sophisticated time controlling circuits, interesting memory functions and unusual ways of using ring-modulation and distortion circuits.  In his use of electronics, Mumma was very much ahead of the game in this period. 

There are also a number of articles about the historical figures Mumma worked with, such as the choreographer Merce Cunningham, the first person to incorporate electronics in interaction with his dancers; David Tudor, whose work has been taken up by the contemporary “no input mixer” performance scene; Conlon Nancarrow, the Mexican composer of works for player piano whose work presages much of what happened in computer music in the late 80s and 90s, and others. There are also some very interesting essays about electronic music in South America, where Mumma performed and taught in the 80s and 90s, information that I don’t think exists elsewhere.  In short, it’s a very wonderful collection of essays, with its first-person witnessing of a scene that was critical for the development of the music technology we have today, and I highly recommend it.

There are many other composers written about in this book series, that aren’t, or weren’t, involved in electronics, but their music is well worth knowing and their lives are fascinating.  Among the others written about in this series are Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Christian Wolff, Carla Bley, and William Grant Still.  I’ve recently read all of these, and I can give a thumbs up to all of them, excellently written as they all are. 

Kudos to the University of Illinois Press for all that they’ve been doing in publishing valuable books on the history of new and electronic music over the past couple of decades.  Without publishers like them, willing to publish things that are not currently of interest to the general public, but which, through their efforts, might very well one day become of interest, they’ve all done us a very valuable service.  And as I said earlier, if you want to find out information about a number of interesting composers in a very easy to read format, I can’t recommend their American Composers series highly enough.


Johanna Beyer, by Amy Beal ($25); John Cage, by David Nicholls ($37); Robert Ashley, by Kyle Gann ($25), Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in American New Music, by Gordon Mumma, edited with commentary by Michelle Fillion ($35).  University of Illinois Press,


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