When world renowned architect Le Corbusier was commissioned to design a building for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, he instead delivered the first multimedia electronic music show. Le Corbusier conceived of a starkly modern space with a provocative function: to join light, color, image, rhythm and sound together in an “organic synthesis.” Edgard Varèse, the man regarded as the father of electronic music, was charged with providing the sonic soundscape. What he delivered was “Poèm Électronique,” an electronic composition played over hundreds of speakers in the cavernous pavilion. A sound collage of natural sounds and electronically generated noises, “Poem Electronique” played to an audience of 20,000 visitors a day for five months.This landmark installation was the musical prophecy that heralded the coming electronic music explosion.
Listen to “Poem Electronique” here:
Surprisingly, one of the very first electronic instruments was invented in 1876. Elisha Gray, an American electrical engineer, created a “musical telegraph” that was capable of producing a single pitch. Using the telegraphy technology of the day, Gray accidentally discovered that he could remotely control sound from an electromagnetic circuit. This self-vibrating electromagnetic circuit was an oscillator, a device that created consistent repetitive vibrations and generated a pitched tone when amplified. These rudimentary beginnings are essential to understanding the origins of electronic music, as the melodic synth lines and twisting Dubstep sounds of today are constructed from layers upon layers of electronic oscillations.
Astrophysicist Carl Sagan recounted the first time he observed this electronic oscillation.
“In 1939, my parents took me to the New York World’s Fair. ‘See sound,’ one exhibit bewilderingly commanded. And sure enough, when the tuning fork was struck by the little hammer, a beautiful sine wave marched across the oscilloscope screen. How could a tone become a picture?” (Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World, 1995.)
The oscilloscope is a type of electronic test instrument that permits the observation of varying signal voltages, and the sine wave the young Carl Sagan saw would have resembled the title picture.
Oscilloscopes were primarily used to troubleshoot malfunctioning electronic equipment, but their ability to measure waveforms was an interesting byproduct that lead to a new realm of sound manipulation. Heavily manufactured during World War II, oscilloscopes and other electronic equipment pushed enemy detection technology to new heights. Once the war ended, however, a surplus of scrap electronics remained. This surplus provided the raw materials necessary to engineer electronic instruments, and pioneers like Robert Moog capitalized on the ready availability of cheap electronics to design a new type of musical instrument.
Electronic music is indelibly tied to technology, which makes some aspects of it inaccessible to the casual listener. However, with a little practice, the fundamental building blocks of electronic music become more obvious. This series seeks to clarify some of the mysteries that surround modern music production, and hopes to provide a vocabulary to attach to the mysterious beeps, blips, and wubs. By deconstructing waveforms and other synthesizer parameters, fans of EDM can better understand and discuss the shadowy world of electronic music production.