A spacemusic primer (plus bonus ambience)

by Dave Maier

PhaedraIn my previous posts on the subject, I have assumed, or anyway not worried about, a basic knowledge of what spacemusic is, and simply presented sets of classic or recent vintage. But that was negligent of me, as for most people this material remains an entirely closed book. Maybe they've seen a movie (Risky Business, or Sorcerer) with music by Tangerine Dream – which band does turn up in the Rolling Stone Record Guide (described there in a five-line review of two mid-70s LPs as “kings of the synthesizer, German-style”, with all that that implies to rock 'n' rollers) – but they'll draw a blank on “Berlin-school spacemusic” in general. Today we rectify that omission, so if you skipped the other installments you may want to check this one out. We begin at the beginning, long before our story actually begins….

From the perspective of the new millenium, the origins of electronic music are obscured by the mists of a bygone era. Indeed, the term seems no longer to refer to anything worth picking out as a distinct type of thing, as many rather different types of music-making nowadays are dependent in some sense on electricity. We still use the word, but usually to mark an emphasis on electronic means in some one music relative to another: we can refer to techno as “electronic” relative to other types of dance music, without denying the use of electricity in making, say, funk. If we want to make an absolute distinction, we often speak of “acoustic” music rather than its opposite (although here too a relative use is available).

Early electronic musiciansEven in the dawn of time, however (= the 1950s or so), there was an important disctinction to be made. “Electronic music” was made with electronically generated sound, e.g. with voltage-controlled oscillators and amplifiers. But another important use of electricity, one which had been around for many years without (significantly, in our context anyway) affecting musical composition or performance, was the electronic capturing of sound, or recording. This was the basis for the other main approach for making music electronically in the early days: rather than generating sounds electronically, musique concrète pioneers like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry composed by manipulating recordings of previously existing, often non-musical, sound.

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