Shock Value: Damon Krukowski on Electronic Music. (Music)

Artforum International, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Shock Value: Damon Krukowski on Electronic Music. (Music)


An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music 1921-2001. Sub Rosa (SR 190). $18.

Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music, 1948-1980. Ellipsis Arts (CD 3670). $40.

THE TRADITIONAL SCENARIO might be described like this: People onstage make music, and, in response, people in the audience make noise.

And if the people onstage make noise?

Sonic Youth's contribution to the two-CD Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music 1921-2001, the first of eight planned releases on the theme, takes this situation to its logical conclusion: "Audience" is six minutes of applause taped at the end of a 1983 Sonic Youth performance in Berlin, subjected in the studio to the same sorts of manipulations that the band applies to sounds generated by their instruments. The result is punk-rock utopia: The performance provokes the audience to make music of its own. It's the do-it-yourself ideal, elegantly achieved through the equation noise music.

But, of course, "Audience" isn't the same as the sound of an audience. Indeed, the only unifying element in this disparate collection--which includes musique concrete by Pierre Schaeffer, Nam June Paik, and John Cage; electronic music by Henri Pousseur, Edgard Varese, lannis Xenakis, and Pauline Oliveros; and experiments by rock bands like Einsturzende Neubauten--may be the alteration of sounds after their initial generation. All these musics are creations of the era of magnetic recording. It is the plasticity of that medium which enabled Sonic Youth to transform their audience's noise into a piece of music, just as it enabled Schaeffer, the pioneer of musique concrete, to splice together the sounds of his "Cinq etudes de bruits" (Five studies of noises; 1948) and spurred the creation of the first electronic-music studio, in 1951, at West German Radio (WDR) in Cologne.

Otherwise, noise and electronic music seem to have little to do with each other, and more often than not practitioners of one might take umbrage at the suggestion that they produce the other. Noise belongs to the world of performing musicians. (You can't score noise, yet musicians can't help but make it.) Electronic music, by contrast, was invented by composers, at institutions like the WDR, IRCAM in France, and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the United States, and the fruits of its research were immediately absorbed into the then dominant compositional language of serialism. Although live electronic performance has attracted many brilliant musicians, from David Tudor to Musica Elettronica Viva to today's PowerBook players, electronic music's origin as a compositional tool seems always to cling to it, whether through the very activity of programming or simply the training and predilections of its practitioners. Even the slander reflects this history: Witness the urban legend of the PowerBoo k musician who creates the music beforehand, pushes the play button onstage, and pretends to manipulate the keyboard.

What Sub Rosa hoped to achieve, according to the anthology's liner notes, is an overview and celebration of the "experimental," even "revolutionary," in twentieth-century music, to spark discussion about what innovative qualities these works share. …

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