In the early part of the 20th Century, an art movement known as Dadaism was founded as a statement against Imperialism and the Great War it had spawned. Characterised by absurdity and randomness (Richter, H. 1964), the word Dada itself has no unanimously agreed meaning.
Hans Richter writes in his book “Dada: Art and Anti Art”: “Some claim that the word was ‘discovered’ by opening a dictionary at random, others that it means a rocking-horse.” – Richter, H. (1964, p.32)
Richter continues with a quote from Dadaist, Tristan Tzara: “A word was born, no one knows how.” – Richter, H. (1964, p.32)
Whatever its origin though, we can define Dadaist work as a revolt against social norms that had been established by the ruling classes in previous eras.
This new philosophy of “Anti-Art” came in many ways to define the 20th Century, particularly for Generation X who felt alienated and disenfranchised. The culture, particularly the music that inspired this generation can be traced back to the 1940’s Musique Concrète that truly marked the dawn of experimental music. However, Dadaism before it could arguably be considered the dawn of “rebellious art”.
In Tim Wall’s “Studying Popular Music Culture” we are introduced to the idea of “Music Culture Discourses”.
Wall says: “…the traditions that music makers draw on, and that are seen as the roots of popular music, are not just traditions of musical form or style, they are also traditions of practices in music making, listening and evaluation.” – Wall, T. (2003, p.21)
He is referring to the four main discourses of; Tin Pan Alley, African American, European Vernacular, and European Art Tradition. As he points out, they aren’t just different musical styles, but differ in ways of culture and even the way in which they are produced. Electronic music for example doesn’t just sound different to Jazz music, it is created in an entirely different way using different technology, and indeed the socio-political background to both styles differs somewhat too.
Musique Concrète would fall under the European Art Tradition owing primarily to its avant-garde nature and diversion away from more popular styles of music such as the Tin Pan Alley or African American discourses, neither of which produced the banal or uninspiring pieces that we may associate with many types of popular music today which are more akin to corporate products than artworks. African American music, for instance, directly represented the struggles of black people within the United States during the early 20th Century. Indeed, whilst electronic music was using technical improvisation to rebel against the cold conformity of Imperialism (Ironically by evoking sounds that were cold and inhuman), Jazz music was improvising in a musical sense because it evoked a sense of freedom and an “easy-going” sound that resonated with black Americans who were fighting against institutionalised racism and oppression. New Orleans Jazz, incidentally, was seen as the fruits of vice and licentiousness but this may have roots in racist ideology and not just the “loose” culture of the city. (Gioia, 2011)
In essence though, whether it was the machines of Musique Concrète, or the human beings of Jazz Music, both art forms were rebelling against the same foe.
Musique Concrète is an experimental process using primarily tape recorders and recorded sound as a basis for music composition. It began in 1948 as a technique developed by Pierre Schaeffer who recorded sounds (both animate and inanimate) and distorted and changed them into new forms. (Britannica, 1998)
An example of his work is “Symphonie pour un homme seul” produced in 1950. (rnapy1, 2012)
In general, Musique Concrète differs from Electronic music which uses the technology itself to generate sound and tonality.
F.C Judd says: “Musique Concrète makes use of real everyday sounds which are modified by tape manipulation and electronic treatment.” – Judd, F.C. (1961, p.69)
Therefore, until the days of synthesisers and samplers had dawned, it would have been impractical to try and recreate this process on stage.
Again, Judd says: “The primary difference between electronic and traditional music composition is that the former cannot be performed in public by the musician(s).” – Judd, F.C. (1961, p.63)
This is a quote from 1961 and whilst no longer strictly holds true as modern technology allows for the instantaneous real time replay of sampled sounds, it shows a distinctive difference between the two during this period; The technology being so clunky and awkward that the idea of performing a whole concert in this way seemed unfeasible.
Structuring a piece within Musique Concrète is more a physical process than one based upon the rules of music theory. Composers would manually splice the magnetic tapes with razor blades and recombine them seamlessly with an adhesive tape. The sound would be replayed and fed through secondary devices in order to produce effects such as reverb, echo, or delay.
The non-conformist nature of this process attracted artists from earlier movements such as Dadaism, including John Cage who experimented with this type of sound throughout his career. Despite all his creative endeavours though, his most notable piece was 4’33, in which a pianist sat at a piano and played nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. (Joel Hochberg, 2010)
Of course, the sound of silence would be meaningless had the technology to record it not existed. Capturing the coughs and uncomfortable fidgeting of the audience, Cage wanted to demonstrate that the audience is as intrinsic to the performance as the artists themselves. An irony given what followed this era was mass unidirectional broadcasting through radio and television.
However, given its propensity to shock and initiate reflective thought, Musique Concrète and Electronic Music have spawned many subcultures within music and beyond.
In his book “Assimilate”, S. Alexander Reed quotes Jason Hanley as saying that Industrial Musicians: “Create particular modernist aesthetics that attempt to comprehend and comment on what came to be known as the ‘modern crisis’ of the twentieth century.” – Alexander Reed, S. (2013 p.6)
So we see that even later generations were struggling with the same societal problems that the Dadaists had questioned themselves decades earlier.
As post war modernism took hold in Western countries, society began to critique itself, questioning the bourgeois class system and embracing a strange longing for a pre-industrial era. Humanity had become enslaved by its own technology and ever-growing urban landscape whilst encapsulating the alienation that Karl Marx had long warned about. (Marxists.org, 2000) Subsequent generations would use the techniques developed in Musique Concrète to fight the war of demographic politics such as for racial equality, feminism and the gay rights movement. Genres such as Punk Rock and Industrial Music would experiment heavily with noise and abrasive soundscapes, rebelling against a heteronormative, racist and misogynistic society that the artists and fans alike felt had offered them nothing.
In the late 1940’s, memories of the war lingered, but a surprising find in Germany by the Allies would directly spur the Musique Concrète movement.
In his book “Silence”, John Cage says: “When the Allies entered Germany towards the end of World War II, it was discovered that improvements had been made in recording sounds magnetically such that tape had become suitable for the high-fidelity recording of music”. – Cage, J. (1961, p.8)
One would assume Hitler would have hated Musique Concrète as he had hated Dada before it. His Political and Social views were of mass conformity and regimented obedience to social norms dictated by the state.
Given society’s new longing to break with the Imperial past it is of little surprise that the new technologies of tape and sound manipulation would be embraced by many and used to experiment sonically in a similar way that they wished to experiment on society itself; by breaking norms and structured rules.
The post war economy of the Western world was recovering well and technology was becoming more ubiquitous and affordable. Recording studios, whilst still out of reach for what we would today term “bedroom musicians”, were certainly more accessible to people than in the past. However, this post war “boom” within Capitalism was incubating societal problems for future generations who would spectacularly rebel against it with Psychedelic Rock, Punk Rock and even Rave culture. The Baby Boomers would enjoy the fruits of this early era but the benefits were never truly available for their children and grandchildren. In the post war UK, the welfare state was born and the National Health Service allowed free healthcare to all citizens regardless of financial circumstances. These things relieved a lot of stresses on the working class who were now free to strive higher without the fears of destitution or the misery caused to a family by a sudden illness or death of a breadwinner. Whilst these welfare systems are still in place today, although somewhat watered down, wages are significantly lower in comparison and housing has become unaffordable for today’s youth. Many Millennials blame the Baby Boomers for selfishly “hoarding the wealth”, commoditising housing thus increasing prices, and creating a culture of blame towards them for a situation they effectively inherited rather than caused.
However, the underlying anger of these later generations created some of the most energetic and political music of the 20th Century. Punk music became very politically charged.
Dance music in particular is solely reliant on the kind of technology developed within Musique Concrète, but as a genre is very much tied up with drug use and the hedonism inspired by it, which was another symptom of the disenfranchisement these young people experienced.
The 20th Century saw many innovations within the technological sphere. Within Electronic Music and Musique Concrète we can broadly categorise them within three main categories.
- Electronic Musical Instruments.
- Electronic Music.
- Electronic Reproduction of Music.
(Judd, 1972, p.10)
Instruments included the first mass produced electric guitars pioneered by Les Paul and Leo Fender in the 1940’s and we can also include the tape machine itself as an instrument in the context of Musique Concrète. Electronic music can be summarised by the sounds produced with synthesisers and the magnetic coils of guitars, and the reproductive technologies of radio, records and television were how music was distributed to the masses during this time.
Since tape can be manipulated, reversed, and played at varying speeds (thus changing the pitch), musicians were no longer constrained by the twelve note structure of traditional song writing on a piano. Indeed, a lot of the sounds being created weren’t even melodic. I suspect for many composers, this was part of the appeal. The technology certainly allowed for traditional composition, but freed by these devices many artists saw little point in this
So given that Musique Concrète and electronic experimentation weren’t a traditional “scene” in the way we could define for example “The Swinging Sixties” or “Disco”, how then can we actually define them since they spanned multiple styles and different periods within time?
One way would be to define them by the technology used rather than the culture around it or the sounds themselves that were produced. This differs to when somebody for example would say they were a fan of R&B and would be referring to a particular style of rhythm and sound. We may not automatically think of Musique Concrète as “popular music” but it does play an important role in the way music was physically recorded and disseminated to the masses which would become the basic blueprint in which popular music was consumed thereafter, even up to the present times, directly contrasting with the sheet music era of Tin Pan Alley.
However we think of it though, a basic appreciation of how technology has influenced society through music and culture is important, and as we move deeper into the internet era we will see further innovations in the way music is distributed and consumed. One may conclude that the future doesn’t lie with the innovation of sound, but with innovation of the human being and the culture itself. How we use music to define the inevitable post-human age will surely spark revolutionary scenes in the coming decades and beyond. It is up to society whether these enable positive or negative change.
- Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music – S. Alexander Reed
- Dada: Art and Anti Art – Hans Richter
- Electronics in Music – F.C. Judd
- Electronic Music and Musique Concrète – F.C. Judd
- Silence – John Cage
- Studying Popular Music Culture – Tim Wall
- The History of Jazz – Ted Gioia
Britannica (1998) Musique Concrète. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/art/musique-concrete (Accessed: 11 January 2019).
Cage, J. (1961) Silence. Wesleyan University Press.
Joel Hochberg (2010) 20101215 John Cage’s 4’33”. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4 (Accessed: 11 January 2019)
Judd, F.C. (1961) Elecronic Music and Musique Concrète. Foruli Classics 2013.
Judd, F.C. (1972) Electronics in Music. Foruli LTD 2012.
Marxists.org (2000) Encyclopedia of Marxism: Alienation. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/a/l.htm (Accessed: 11 January 2019).
Richter, H. (1964) Dada: Art and Anti Art. Thames and Hudson LTD 1965.
rnapy1 (2012) 20120709 Symphonie pour un homme seul (Béjart). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8dCdQ3iTrc (Accessed: 11 January 2019)
Wall, T. (2003) Studying Popular Music Culture. Arnold-London 2003.
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