Stars, Stripes, Batons and Circuits: American Music For Orchestra and Electronics

by Elliott Schwartz

Launching the Orchestra Tech Initiative seems an appropriate occasion to survey the history of American music for orchestra and electronics. First, however, we need to define our terms and set boundaries. Three words in particular-"American," "electronic" and "orchestra"-can be, and have been, interpreted in various ways. Regarding "American" music, I've decided to focus on music of the United States, including music by émigrés, in full realization of the fact that Canada and Mexico are equally "American" (and that Canada's contribution to this history is significant). By "orchestra," I mean not only the traditional large (post-Romantic) symphony orchestra, but other ensembles as well-the small neo-classic chamber orchestra, the string orchestra and even chamber ensembles of 12 or more players.

What do we mean by "electronic" music? As we know, that term refers not only to modification of natural sounds by electronic means, but the use of oscillators, generators and computers to create sound and performing scenarios ranging from tape playback to real-time "live" performance to computer interface. And when we combine "electronic" and "orchestral" concepts, possibilities multiply further. Some composers have employed pre-recorded tape as one element in an otherwise "orchestral" texture. Others have preferred to modify acoustic instruments by electrical means. Still others have explored electronic instruments within the orchestral fabric: music-making devices played in real time by human beings, but driven by electricity. And, perhaps stretching the definition of "orchestra" to its limits, some composers have created "orchestras" consisting entirely of such electronic instruments. Consider John Cage's ensemble of 12 radios or Joseph Schillinger's equally provocative consort of 14 theremins.

Although changing technology has always been a factor in the history of art, it has often occurred gradually and without much fanfare. By contrast, the relationship between electricity and music-making has been a rather public affair-often the cause of consternation, hand-wringing and widespread misconceptions (especially about supposedly anti-humanistic effects of science on art and the belief that this new approach was related to a single "style" and linked with a particular aesthetic).

With the benefit of hindsight, we in the 21st century may simply think of electronics as the equivalent of a new instrument (more accurately, a collection of instruments), extending our definition of what is performable, revising textural concerns, expanding vocabularies and creating new stylistic priorities. But there is no single "electronic style." In fact, the opposite is true: composition and/or performance by means of electricity has proven to be aesthetically and stylistically neutral.

The beginnings of electronic music, however, were stylistically rooted in the Post-Romantic aesthetic of their time. From the turn of the century through the 1940s, developments primarily centered around the creation of instruments for live performance. (It's not surprising that the theremin and ondes martenot-the best-known instruments of that era-were often used to perform Puccini and Rachmaninoff.) The earliest American works for orchestra and electronics use these instruments, showcasing their eerie, otherworldly qualities to create programmatic and/or dramatic music.

Miklós Rózsa's 1945 film scores for The Lost Weekend and Spellbound included the theremin, and Edgard Varèse used two ondes martenots in his Mayan-inspired Ecuatorial (1932-34) to project the "exotic" quality of distant cultures.

An extra-musical agenda of another sort, however, lies behind Schillinger's First Airphonic Suite (1929) for theremin and orchestra-a celebration of technology itself, even a hymn of praise to the new century. A similar quality also pervades contemporaneous works employing technological artifacts as sound producers within large ensembles, e.g., airplane propellers in George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique or sirens in Varèse's Ionisation. In all these instances, composers chose electronic means to further various extra-musical ends, whether eerie, exotic, psychological, futuristic, social and/or political.

But there were always those for whom electronic devices held more strictly "musical" attractions. Some became intrigued by their unique tone color. Others admired their resonance, their weight and their precise control over intonation. It may be worth noting in this context that Stokowski used the theremin in 1930 to reinforce double basses in the Philadelphia Orchestra; it was replaced in the mid-1930s by an ondes martenot.

After the musique concrète experiments of 1948, American composers began discovering that this new medium had other musical ramifications. Pre-recorded sound and tape playback lent itself to whatever aesthetic direction one might have. Composers with affinities to serialism were struck by the new medium's capacity for dealing with issues of accuracy and virtuosity. Others, interested in improvisation and experimentation delighted in transforming everyday sounds into a "mysterious" dreamlike haze. Still others explored electronics to place familiar music in collages of newly-colliding contexts, to heighten multi-layered textural fabrics, or to locate sounds in space using antiphonal placement of loudspeakers. All of these directions, appropriately, also reflect the major ideas of non-electronic concert music after 1945.

During the 1950s, theremins continued to appear in orchestral situations, such as Bernard Herrmann's score for the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but tape music had become the biggest news item within the musical community. Experimentation with sounds recorded on magnetic tape, altered and then "frozen" for playback in concert, had spread from France to Germany and then to North America. There was widespread fascination with the newfound medium and combining it with the orchestra seemed natural, almost inevitable. Composers were naturally excited by having the "fixed" medium of tape placed next to a live human performance. There seemed an unlimited potential for creating a new kind of ensemble music, with unparalleled variety of situations and scenarios. The orchestra seemed a perfect live foil for the electro-acoustic medium. The power and volume of loudspeakers could easily compete with a full orchestra. Conversely, tape music's delicate timbral nuances could dovetail nicely with solo and chamber-like passages. For variety of tone color and dynamic range, the orchestra equalled the tape studio or synthesizer (minus the power cord or wall outlet). Finally, their union had strategic and political attractions. Composers saw that the glamour, prestige, pomp and sheer sex-appeal of the symphony orchestra could lend legitimacy to their electronic experiments, and orchestra directors, managers and boards concerned about audience-building knew that orchestral-electronic works were bound to attract public attention.

Much "orch-tech" music created during the 1950s and '60s used tape parts created by assembling and splicing many fragments of sound material (natural, everyday sounds, or those of acoustic instruments, or electronically generated ones)-in short, musique concrète techniques. Beyond tape creation, however, composers faced another pressing issue: the relationship between the live and electronic forces-whether the orchestra and tape would be heard simultaneously, as elements of a single texture, or as independent components, whether "cooperative" partners or "confrontational" adversaries, whether spatially integrated or antiphonally separated.

At first, live and recorded materials were presented in alternation, with virtually no overlapping of the two-e.g., in the pioneering music of Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, who were ground-breakers in the creation of music for orchestra and tape. Three works in particular-Rhapsodic Variations (1953-54), A Poem in Cycles and Bells (1954) and Concerted Piece for Tape Recorder and Orchestra (1960)-exemplify the strength of their unique collaboration. The last of these pieces is especially interesting, in that the two composers contributed separate sections. Luening's part (the first half) uses concrete sounds exclusively and alternates orchestra with tape, while Ussachevsky's half has moments of synchronized integration, exploring electronic as well as natural sounds. Their influence can be felt in such works as Varèse's 1954 Déserts for chamber ensemble and two-track track tape. We can also find examples of music for orchestra and tape in which the recorded material is "natural" rather than "manipulated." Expressively, these run the gamut from Alan Hovhaness's reflective 1970 essay on species preservation, And God Created Great Whales, for recorded whale sounds and orchestra, to Gary Smart's 1973 Del Diario de un Papagayo using a tape of the composer's pet parrot, a versatile creature capable of speaking a number of languages and singing operatic arias!

Meanwhile, serial composers became increasingly interested in electronic instruments known as "synthesizers." The first, the legendary RCA Synthesizer of the 1950s, was highly complex in its operation and massive enough to take up an entire wall. But, during the '60s, another species became widespread, as manufacturers began producing smaller, more accessible units also bearing that name. Modular voltage-controlled Moog, Buchla and ARP instruments allowed control over the creation, modification and temporal succession of sounds (and virtually eliminated laborious tape-splicing); consequently, they became studio centerpieces at many American university campuses. "Orch-tech" works of this era with a strong focus upon tightly organized, calibrated relationships include Mario Davidovsky's Contrastes No.1 (1960) for string orchestra and electronics, Milton Babbitt's similarly-scored Correspondences (1967) and Charles Wuorinen's Orchestral and Electronic Exchanges (1965) during which orchestral and electronic forces alternate with each other in what has become a classic relationship.

Twelve-tone composers were not the only ones attracted by the idea of uniting synthesizer and orchestra. Morton Subotnick, working on a Buchla system, created two such pieces during the 1960s, both entitled Lamination, and both exploring ways in which orchestral "extended techniques"-fluttertongue, key pops, glissandi, singing into one's instrument and the like-mirror prominent tape timbres. Donald Erb, using Moog instruments to prepare his tape, explored similar juxtapositions in Autumnmusic (1973) and Music for a Festive Occasion (1975).

By this time, manufacturers began producing more portable units for use in live performing situations-designed for the growing rock market, no doubt, but equally stimulating to others. A portable Moog or ARP sharing a stage with an orchestra heightens and spotlights the unpredictability of live performance. It's not surprising that some composers would want to explore the "concerto" genre for live electronic soloist and symphony. One particularly interesting example was John Eaton's 1966 Concert Piece for Synket and Orchestra. Eaton's interest in microtones led him to separate the orchestra into two groups, each tuned a quarter-tone part, with the synket functioning as "mediator." Theatrical aspects of orchestral "live electronics" were bound to go beyond the concerto-like presence of a synthesizer soloist. By the 1970s we might be more likely to find an on-stage multi-layered texture (both sonic and visual!) involving a combination of synthesizers, traditional acoustic instruments and amplified instruments. Erb's 1970 Klangfarbenfunk makes use of a rock band with electric guitar and bass, amplified orchestra instruments and electronic sounds.

It's just one step beyond this to the creation of an entire "orchestra" of electronic instruments: a consort of portable voltage-control synthesizers and/or modified (amplified, reverberated, etc.) acoustic instruments. This tendency had been growing within rock and jazz since the late 1960s, with entire bands-from the Grateful Dead to Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention-hooked up to filters, ring modulators and feedback devices. The Don Ellis Orchestra of that era was particularly "electrified," not only with amplification and sound modification units, but tape loops and an electric keyboard. Subotnick created a comparable electronic orchestra of sorts in his mid-'70s trilogy of Butterfly works.

In a number of situations, the heightened sense of theater was apt to spill over, creating a circus of sensory overload-what some critics term "multi-media"-combing the antiphonal use of space, visual effects, the juxtaposition of disparate forces and (of course) electronics as a part of the mix. A particular stand out is Eric Salzman's 1968-69 The Nude Paper Sermon, with its overlay of narrator, chorus, a consort of 12 Renaissance instruments and a tape of electronic sounds.

[A brief personal note: my own orchestral compositions involving electronics parallel many of the above tendencies. In my first venture, Music for Orchestra (1965), the tape part was there primarily to exploit the existence of loudspeakers and their shock value. By Island (1970), however, orchestra and tape parts were tightly integrated; electronics were critical to the programmatic nature of the work and to its theatrical component. Finally, The Harmony of Maine (1975) is a "concerto" scored for solo ARP 2600, played live on-stage and orchestra.]

The last major development to take place was computer-generated sound. This was still the pre-PC era of large mainframe computers, and as a result access was limited to a few institutions such as Princeton and MIT. Not surprisingly, many composers exploring sound programs for the first time used the earlier synthesizer medium as a model; they quickly discovered that digital technology went beyond the old Moog or Buchla in many ways. There were no fixed numbers of oscillators or filters limiting one's imagination and computer programs had greater control. Alternatively, they could randomize musical textures. Two early orchestra plus computer works are Tod Machover's 1979 Light for chamber orchestra and computer electronics and Charles Dodge's Palinode (1976), commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for their inaugural concert, which uses a tape of computer generated sounds.

Before moving on to the 1980s, I should note, with some surprise, that the two antipodal figures of the 1950s-70s, the apostles of "order" and "chaos," Milton Babbitt and John Cage, produced relatively few works using electronics and orchestra. Of course, each composer has created a number of important pieces that are landmarks in the history of electronic music. It may seem paradoxical that their innovations have rarely extended into the orchestral domain. But, for widely divergent reasons-as one might expect-neither of them has shown any attachment to the orchestra per se. Babbitt's Concerti for violin, small orchestra and tape (1974-6) and Cage's 1973 Etcetera for a chamber ensemble of 20 musicians (but three conductors) and a tape of forest sounds, are the exceptional works by these exceptional figures.

If the 1960s and '70s were a Golden Age of American "orch-tech" activity, the 1980s and '90s seem a bit understated by comparison. Perhaps the apparent slackening off is illusory, but it certainly feels as though fewer composers and fewer works have generated the widespread interested that characterized earlier decades. The change can be related, in retrospect, to economic factors. As music publishing firms, recording companies and orchestras have been forced to tighten budgets and re-think priorities; they've become wary of relatively high-maintenance projects. A cynic might remark that these institutions are merely reacting to past disasters (economic rather than artistic ones, I should add!) That is, orchestra managers and conductors have become gun-shy about the extra rehearsal time that a work with electronics may entail; similarly, music publishers may feel uncomfortable about supplying electronic "materials" within the traditional rental format. Perhaps they've also discovered how perishable those materials can be. (Recording tape disintegrates after a number of years.) As these works have very limited market value, apparently, they're not at the forefront of any institutional "consciousness."

On the proverbial other hand-despite my dour comments above-we needn't become too pessimistic about the current (and very recent) state of composition for orchestra and electronics. There's still an active scene in this country, with composers following the same wide variety of stylistic directions that have characterized earlier repertoire. For example, many of today's composers retain a passion for disciplined pitch control and refined subtleties of articulation. In an earlier era, such priorities might have led them to the voltage-controlled synthesizers; now they'd work with sophisticated computer sound-generation programs. John Melby's 1987 Concerto for Computer-Synthesized Tape and Orchestra is a fine example. We should also note the tendency of even the most rigorous composers to find ways of introducing elements of unpredictability (either composition, performance, or both). For Wuorinen's 1984 Bamboula Squared, the electronic part (computer-generated at UCSD in La Jolla) is an instance of fractally-based composition. Similarly, figures long known for their work with the computer have expanded their approaches. For example, Dodge's recent The Staff of Aesculapius (1997) triggers computer-generated sounds from a sampler performed "live" on stage.

At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, free, often indeterminate approaches can be seen in music by such composers as Alvin Lucier in his 40 Rooms (1997) for orchestra and reverberance systems. Electronically amplified/modified instruments continue to enhance the modern orchestra make-up. Prominent examples include Tuck and Roll by Steve Mackey (electric guitar and orchestra), David Lang's 1998 The Passing Measures (a concerto for bass clarinet and chamber orchestra, all amplified) and Machover's Hyperstring Trilogy (1991-3, rev. 1997), composed for an electronic trio of "hyper" violin, viola, cello and chamber orchestra. It's gratifying to note that the desire to create an entire consort of electronic (or electronically altered) instruments, such as the ensemble used for Wendy Carlos's Digital Moonscapes (1982), is still with us. The idea of an "electronic orchestra" goes back to Schillinger's 14 theremins or to Cage's 12 radios.

Returning to the relatively "mainstream" combination of orchestra and electronic forces, the human voice has increasingly become part of the fabric. A number of works may employ vocal material because text is critical; others may have affinity for vocal timbre; but all seem motivated by the personal, even intimate quality of the human presence. Three examples worth exploring are Diane Thome's 1990 The Ruins of the Heart (soprano, orchestra, tape), Dinu Ghezzo's Legends of a Fir Tree (narrator, indigenous wind player, semi-improvisatory chamber orchestra and tape of electronically generated modal scale materials) and John Corigliano's 1999 Vocalise for soprano, electronics and orchestra. Corigliano's piece, an important step for him widely regarded as one of most significant New York Philharmonic commissions of the past few years, incorporates both the pre-"historic" worldless singing voice and the more "futuristic" presence of electronic sound, creating a fabric within which one dimension crosses over into the other.

Several composers who have contributed greatly to this repertoire over the years have continued their explorations. Donald Erb and Roger Reynolds continue to contribute greatly to the "orch-tech" literature. Reynolds particularly with a series of concertos for solo performer(s), orchestra and computer-generated sound including The Dream of the Infinite Rooms (1986, cello solo), Watershed II (1985, percussion solo) and, most recently, The Angel of Death (2000, piano solo). Appropriately enough, a former student of both Reynolds and Erb, David Felder has created a large and impressive body of music in this medium; his best known pieces may be Inner Sky (1994, chamber orchestra and electronics) and A Pressure Triggering Dreams (ACO commission, 1996) for large orchestra, Kurzweil keyboard, pre-recorded electronic sounds, electric bass and amplification for solo instruments. The 1980s found Subotnick exploring different technology, in his saxophone concerto In 2 Worlds (including Yamaha WX7 wind controller) and A Desert Flowers for orchestra and computer. Finally, Machover, the artistic advisor of the ACO's OrchestraTech Conference, has a battery of works in progress including a Toy Symphony allowing children to interact creatively with symphony orchestras around the world.

© 2001 NewMusicBox

Elliott Schwartz is the author of Electronic Music: A Listener's Guide (New York, 1973; rev. 1976) and Music: Ways Of Listening (New York, 1982).

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