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The Pre-History of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center

Sinsheimer Vandagriff, Rachel (2016) The Pre-History of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. University of Leeds. [Dataset]

This item is part of the Alternative Histories of Electronic Music collection.

Dataset description

The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, established in 1958 with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, was the first formal institution for such a purpose in the United States. As it happens, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded Vladimir Ussachefsky and Otto Luening a grant in 1952 “to purchase basic equipment to be used exclusively for creative research in the field of electronic music.” Though well-known and prestigious, the history of the Center’s funding and institutionalization are as of yet untold in any depth. This paper will seek to redress that, using tools from art-world ethnography, anthropology, sociology, and musicology to examine the often overlooked or invisible driving forces behind the Center so as to reveal why certain musics and technologies were promoted over others. Based on archival material from the Rockefeller Archive Center and Columbia University archives, this paper will investigate the social and economic prehistory of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, focusing in particular on the marriage of university and private missions and monies that enabled the Center’s existence. The paper will also look at the collaboration among Ussachefsky, Luening, and Babbitt, and their respective musico-technological interests. Thus, this paper will necessarily discuss the growing notion of music composition as research, and how the packaging of music composition as such has lived on in university music departments, particularly in the field of electronic music. Luening and Ussachefsky saw what they were doing with tape as distinct from musique concrète and elektronische Musik, describing their work as decidedly more aesthetic-minded than either European camp, and also more worthy of interest and pursuit than experiments in the popular music industry. As they explained it to the Rockefeller Foundation officers, musique concrète was an effort “to make tape recordings of different kinds of sounds in the natural world … without regard to their musical significance.” Luening and Ussachefsky charged that composers of this music had “strayed into a narrow path of intellectual sensationalism.” Moreover, they had “imitators who applied ill-digested precepts of mysticism and fatalism to substitute for the poverty of musical invention.” By contrast, their work emphasized “the musical and humanistic elements” of the compositional use of tape recorders. Ussachefsky and Luening saw the tape recorder as a sort of “prism” through which sound could be run and transformed. Therefore, the tape recorder was a creative tool that had had great “effect on [their] imagination,” allowing them “[t]o achieve freedom from the restrictions [within musical development] which have multiplied in the past thirty years[.]” Tape music, then, was a “means of removing certain barriers that block the course of western music, and of bringing to a synthesis the new materials of the twentieth century and the musical values of the past.” This paper will seek to expose what, exactly, they meant by this, and how it influenced the future Center’s mission.

Subjects: W000 - Creative arts & design > W300 - Music
W000 - Creative arts & design > W300 - Music > W310 - Musicianship/performance studies > W316 - Electronic/electro-acoustic music performance
Divisions: Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures > School of Music
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Date deposited: 27 Jul 2017 19:13



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