Electronics are here to stay so why do we hear so few electronic sounds in the concert hall?

Electronics are here to stay so why do we hear so few electronic sounds in the concert hall?

It seems that, in spite of decades of technological progress, many modern musicians and composers of classical or ‘art’ music are uneasy about making electronically produced sounds an integral part of their work. Granted, more and more composers are making use of them, but they are still not a staple of the modern symphony orchestra or the average music festival commission.

This was brought home to me by a teacher who observed during one lesson that, although recording technology was available in the lifetimes of Liszt, and Wagner we have no recordings from either of them. He supposed that these 19th Century celebrities simply didn’t see the new technology as part of their work. Even in the 20th Century, as Jazz and popular music were fast colonising the new world of bakelite discs and radio broadcasts, classical composers were still very slow on the uptake. One can of course point to the quality of electronically produced sounds as a pretty good reason for classical composers eyeing (or is it ‘earing) these new sounds with suspicion. Maybe the likes of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were just less concerned with sound quality when they made their groundbreaking records back in the ’20s and ’40s, and didn’t mind that records sounded scratchy. However, I find this unconvincing. Even considering contemporary musical culture with its seemingly limitless possibilities for electronics, it is clear that pop music has far more of an affinity with new technology. Nearly always created with electronic instruments, pop records are created (and sometimes conceived) in the electric environment of a recording studio and heard first by listeners on the radio or internet whereas contemporary classical works are premiered live (albeit in some cases broadcast via radio or internet).

Nonetheless, whether its recording, editing, broadcasting, streaming, typesetting, printing, studying or listening classical concert music composers are surrounded by electrical devices created specifically for creating music. If the power ran out, the composers life would be changed dramatically. Yet actual performances of ‘serious’ electronic music are very much on the fringe of the concert hall tradition where the inheritors of Beethoven prefer to keep the concert hall as he would have known it. Even a guiding light as Boulez, author of such groundbreaking electronic works as Dialogue de l’hombre double and Repons seems to spend more time on his wholly ‘acoustic’ pieces Derive 2 and Sur Incises both of which were recently revised and toured.

In as far as concert music reflects its wider culture, such apparent indifference to electronic sound is dangerous. For Liszt and Wagner an electric light would have been about the limit of their involvement with industrial innovations. We cannot say the same. We have made electronics and now digital media a staple of our musical lives in every conceivable way except the most important one. We have embraced modernity outside of the concert hall on the condition that it is only allowed in on sufferance.

This is not to say that electronic works don’t feature in the canon of great 20th and 21st Century music. They do, but what has been a fringe interest for art-music composers should, I believe, become an integral feature and our anxiety over using electronic sounds more widely overcome. That said, deep-seated anxieties surrounding electronics aren’t entirely unfounded and it hardly needs pointing out that there is are good and not-so-good ways to make electronic music. These sounds are still, to all intents and purposes new. They deserve to be treated with the care and attention that has always characterised our tradition. What we need is progress, not a revolution.

Photo shows Sarah Nichols, Martyn Brabbins and the London Sinfonietta performing  by Larry Goves cored for solo piano, electric piano, prepared piano, large ensemble, electronic sounds and live processing and recorded for NMC

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