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Early Experiments and Developments

The first electronic musical instrument was the Telharmonium, invented by Thaddeus Cahill, circa 1900. It was a synthesizer controlled by a keyboard. This instrument used mechanical oscillators to induce an electrical current, rather than electronic oscillators, as almost all future electronic instruments have. Much has been written online and in hard copy about the instrument and how it worked.

Over the next forty years, new electronic instruments were developed, using electronic oscillators, and many featuring unusual interfaces, or methods of playing. Perhaps the best known instruments of this time are the Theremin, invented by Lev Termen in 1920, and the Ondes Martenot, invented by Maurice Martenot, in 1928. Although the Theremin used an interesting gestural control, it was at first only used to play music that had already been written for traditional acoustic instruments. It was with the advent of the Ondes Martenot that serious composers, such as Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varèse began writing for electronic instruments. This, in conjunction with the pioneering music of the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, set the stage for the upcoming electronic music revolution.

Modernism to Experimentalism to Minimalism

After World War II, many of the technological advances made in war-time communication and espionage were used for musical purposes, particularly in the realm of modulatable oscillators and portable tape recording. Musical experiments began popping out of radio studios. Musique concrète, or the composition of music using recorded sounds, was developed by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, in France in the 40s and 50s. At the same time, music composed of tones from electronic oscillators was being developed by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany. For an excellent WU on this subject, see Groupe de Recherches Musicales.

In the United States, John Cage began exploring tape music as well as experimental pieces which utilized the tuning of multiple radios. In 1952, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening presented the first concert of tape music in the United States. In 1959, the San Francisco Tape Music Center was founded by a small group of west coast composers, including Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros. In New York in 1964, working with Don Buchla's modular synthesizer, Morton Subotnick made his classic piece Silver Apples of the Moon. Meanwhile, researchers at Bell Labs were working on computer music as an offshoot of psychoacoustics. Max Mathews, James Tenney, and many other notable electronic musicians conducted research and made music at that time.

In the late 60s, the beginings of minimalism were taking root, with Steve Reich's tape loop pieces such as It's Gonna Rain and Come Out. Terry Riley made his groundbreaking A Rainbow in Curved Air with a simple analog synthesizer and a multitrack tape recorder. In 1978, Brian Eno made his classic Music for Airports, using some basic synthesizers and tape loops to bridge the gap from minimalism to the mainstream with ambient music.

In the meantime, popular culture was beginning to catch on. The theremin and Ondes Martenot made their way into movie soundtracks and pop music. See Forbidden Planet, and Good Vibrations. Tape recorders became affordable for regular people, allowing for the formation of an individual relationship with recorded sound. Later, in the 70s, prog-rock outfit Emerson, Lake and Palmer had been turned on by Wendy Carlos to the usage of synthesizers to make complex music, and brought their enthusiasm to mainstream culture. Of course, bands such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd were also working with electronics and studio equipment in new and innovative ways.

From 1980 to the 21st century

In 1982, the MIDI standard was introduced, enabling electronic musicians to easily use their instruments in conjunction with one another and to facilitate easy communication between computers and synthesizers. 1983 brought the world the Yamaha DX7, the first consumer level FM synthesis synthesizer, truly bringing electronic music to the masses. The generation that grew up with these commercial synthesizers would be the generation to bring the electronica boom to the world in the late 90s.

Computers also began to become more and more cheaply available to consumers, and software which enabled people to make music with their computers proliferated. Sequencers such as Cakewalk, Studio Vision, and Digital Performer enable people to work with MIDI synthesizers and samplers compositionally as well as performatively. Software packages such as M and MAX bring generative music to home computers.

In the 90s, as a true display of postmodernity, sample based music made a strong showing in electronic music and hip-hop. With the aid of a computer or a sampler, musicians can create new works of music entirely out of bits of prerecorded music made by other musicians. People have approached this academically, such as John Oswald and DJ Spooky, and commercially, most notably Puff Daddy. This has brought up many issues of originality, copyright, and ownership, which are still being hacked out.

There are too many recent and current electronic musicians to list, but for a good start, see the Electronic Music Artists Metanode.

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