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Popular entertainers, radio hobbyist and film composers. Alternative (pre)histories of electronic music

Weium, Frode (2016) Popular entertainers, radio hobbyist and film composers. Alternative (pre)histories of electronic music. University of Leeds. [Dataset]

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

Dataset description

The origin of electronic music is usually presented as a tale of forward-looking inventors, musicians and composers wanting to explore new musical possibilities. As expressed by Nick Collins and Julio d’Escriván in their Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music: ‘A rich history underlies electronic music, full of radical inventors, pioneering composers and daring innovators’ (2007:2). Among the leading figures of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘prehistory’ of electronic music, are musicians and composers such as Ferrucio Busoni and Edgard Varése. In this paper, however, I will focus on other groups of actors that are not so often described as radical, pioneering or daring. To what extent and in what ways did groups such as popular entertainers, radio hobbyist and film composers contribute to the early development and understanding of electronic music? I will concentrate on the period between approximately 1930 and 1950. Popular entertainers were among the first to make use of the new electronic musical instruments developed during the first half of the twentieth century. Artists such as Joseph Whitely (Musaire) in Britain, Darius Cittanova in France and Samuel Hoffman (Hal Hope) in the US demonstrated the theremin and the ondes martenot at cinemas, theatres and restaurants (we may also include Leon Theremin here). In addition to playing popular tunes, they showed how the instruments could imitate different sounds – from the sound of seagulls to the voice of Mickey Mouse. Even though these entertainers were hardly concerned with the exploration of timbre or microtonal music, they played an important role in making people (more or less) accustomed to electronic sounds. From the early 1930s there were also numerous radio amateurs and electronics hobbyists building their own electronic musical instruments. Radio magazines in Europe and the US printed construction guides explaining how to make a theremin or a trautonium. This practice may be seen as the beginnings of an experimental DIY culture in electronic music. It can be compared to the building of musical synthesizers and circuit bending. The story of how Robert Moog – inventor of the Moog synthesizer – started his career building and selling Theremins is illustrating. The introduction of sound film opened up new possibilities for experimenting with electronic musical instruments. During the 1930s and 1940s, film composers such as Dimitri Shostakovich in Russia, Oskar Sala in Germany and Miklos Rozsa and Franz Waxman in the US used instruments such as the theremin, the trautonium and the novachord to create new sound effects. In particular, the electronic howl of the theremin seemed suitable as an illustration of fear, darkness, anxiety and psychological disturbance. This in turn influenced how the early electronic musical instruments and theirs sounds were perceived in general. As Mark Brend has pointed out in The Sound of Tomorrow ‘there is a version of history that says that electronic music filtered down from the arid, imposing mountains of serious academic culture into the gentle foothills of pop music’ (2012:viii). By examining how popular entertainers, radio hobbyist and film composers contributed to the early development and understanding of electronic music, I wish to bring in an alternative perspective. One of the aims of this paper is also to direct attention to the mutual relationship between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ electronic music.

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 19:19



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