Saturday, March 24, 2018


There have been several institutions which have been important in the development of electronic music in the 20th century.  Here are brief descriptions of a few of them.

Bell Telephone Laboratories

Bell Labs, as it was usually known, was established in 1925, as several pieces of the corporate amalgamation known as the Bell System decided to consolidate their research and development efforts.  The Labs, created as a joint entity between AT&T and its captive manufacturing company, Western Electric, set up shop in a building in lower Manhattan in New York City.  As the labs grew, it began expanding into New Jersey (where land was cheap at the time), and then eventually to a handful of locations around the eastern and central United States, including notably the Chicago area.

Bell Labs was charged by its owners to perform research and development related to telephony and telephone switching systems, transmission systems, and end-user devices.  But prior to 1984, with AT&T enjoying a monopoly on telephone service through most of the USA and its profits being more or less guaranteed by the federal government, funding was available to branch off into basic research in areas only peripherally related to telephony.  Eventually this led to several fundamental scientific and engineering advances, including the invention of the transistor, pioneering work in satellite communications, the development of the C programming language and the Unix operating system, and the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation (a key discovery in proving the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe).

Musically related, research into finding more efficient ways to transmit the human voice led to the development of the vocoder and voder in the 1930s.  After WWII, the Labs engaged in some of the first experiments in digital sound processing, leading to pioneering work in computer music by Max Mathews, and later Hal Alles and Laurie Spiegel.  Mathews developed the MUSIC series of music-generating computer programs, from which spun off Csound and CMIX, as well as a host of interface devices allowing a performer to interact with the software in real time.  In the mid-1970s, Alles, with input from Spiegel, developed the Bell Labs Digital Synthesizer aka the Alles Machine, one of the first digital devices designed specifically to produce music.  The Alles Machine combined concepts in frequency modulation and additive synthesis; it directly influenced the design of the Crumar GDS and the Synergy digital sequencer of the late 1970s, and indirectly contributed concepts to the Yamaha DX7.

Funding for basic research at the Labs dried up after the court-ordered breakup of AT&T in 1984.  Owned by Lucent Technologies after the breakup, the Labs wound down activities not directly related to telecommunications, and began divesting itself of some of its research facilities.  Today, what remains of Bell Labs is owned by Nokia; it remains headquartered in its Murray Hill, NJ location where it has been since 1966.  A few other locations in New Jersey are still open and a few former Labs facilities have been sold intact to other companies.  The rest have been closed and the properties sold.  The original Manhattan location has been redeveloped into an arts community and is now a National Historic Landmark.

Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center

Composer and Columbia University professor Vladmir Ussachevsky became interested in tape studio techniques in the early 1950s, after the university's music department acquired one of the first Ampex tape recorders.  In 1957, he and Milton Babbit, a cohort at Princeton University, applied for a Rockefeller Foundation grant to establish an electronic music studio.  Babbit was aware of the RCA Mark II synthesizer, and he convinced RCA to loan it out to Columbia.  Starting in 1958, the duo began composing on the Mark II and opened the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, opening it to other composers such as Edgard Varese and  Charles Wuorinen.  The Center's focus, as driven by Ussachevsky, was always on "serious music" and modern classical composition.

By 1970, the Mark II was considered obsolete, and the Center turned to computer music.  Led by composer Charles Dodge, the Center began using the University's IBM 360 computer to realize digital compositions using various software packages.  All-night computer runs were necessary to produce a few minutes of music.  To hear the music, the data was written to digital tape and transferred to another computer which was equipped to a digital-to-analog converter, whose output was recorded on analog tape.  All of the conversion equipment was built by Columbia engineers.  Dodge released several albums of music that he produced this way, and the Center also saw work from other composers such as Alice Shields and Mario Davidosky.  

But by 1985, Ussachevsky was in poor health and Babbit's interests had turned away from electronic music.  Princeton ended its association with the Center, and the facilities fell into disuse.  Brad Garton, the current director, reorganized the Center in 1995, bringing in new equipment and new composers, and renaming it the Columbia Computer Music Center.  Today, the Center focuses mainly on teaching.  The RCA Mark II is still there, but is said to be in poor repair.

San Francisco Tape Music Center

A group of influential West Coast experimental musicians, including Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, formed the San Francisco Tape Music Center collective in 1962.  As the name suggests, the original focus was on tape manipulation; the collective had little funding and no equipment other than that individually owned by the members.  Using facilities provided by radio station KPFA, they presented live performances of mostly pieces played on conventional instruments combined with manipulated tape.  However, around 1964, Donald Buchla joined forces with the Center and began bringing in components and prototypes for his initial modular synthesizers, for the other members to try out and critique.  With their feedback, Buchla gradually assembled the pieces of what became the first Buchla 100 series modular synth.  The completed synth was premiered by the Center in 1966, with Oliveros, Subotnick, Ramon Sender, and Buchla himself performing.

The Center did not last long after this.  Subotnick tried to fix the Center's perpetually short funding situation by obtaining a grant from Mills College (where he was a professor) in 1967.  But a condition of the grant was that the center come under Mills' management.  This proved stultifying, so much that over the next two years, all of the original members (including Subotnick himself) departed, taking their equipment with them.  By 1969, neither any of the original members nor any equipment remained.  But the Center's place in the history of electronic music is secured by its role as the crucible of the Buchla modular synths, as well as advancing the careers particularly of Subotnick, Oliveros, and Terry Riley.  Subotnick employed the Buchla modular synth to record the canonical electronic music album Silver Apples of the Moon in 1967.  

BBC Radiophonic Workshop

The British Broadcasting Corporation created the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958, as a studio to create electronic theme and background music, and sound effects, for BBC radio and television programming.  BBC studio musicians Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe had begun using tape studio techniques to produce some music for BBC dramas, and they convinced the network to consolidate all of its electronic audio production into one facility, the Workshop.  Over the next four decades, the Workshop would produce music and effects for countless BBC shows, as well as some non-commercial album releases, and serve as an incubator for musicians and engineers ranging from Delia Derbyshire to Mark Ayers.

Of all of the multitudes of music productions that the Workshop engaged in, it is probably still known best for one of its earliest efforts -- the original theme to the Doctor Who sci-fi show, produced in 1963.  Composer Ron Granier wrote out a score and brought it to Derbyshire to execute.  Using the typical tools of a tape studio -- a few tape machines, some audio test equipment, and a collection of found objects that were hit, bowed, shaken, twanged, dropped, or coerced to make noise by any means handy -- Derbyshire assembled the theme, using three separate reels of tape, each containing hundreds of splices, and hand-synced together to produce the master tape.  Granier, on first hearing the results of his score, famously said, "Did I write that?"  The theme, and other music and effects produced for the show, helped make Doctor Who a hit that is now running (with some breaks) into its fifth decade of production.  Although the theme has been re-made numerous times for subsequent seasons, some long-time fans still swear that Derbyshire's original is the best, and to this day the show still uses some of the original sound effects, including the Tardis "engine" sound created by Brian Hodgson.  Here you can hear the original theme, all two minutes and twenty seconds of it, along with an early version of the opening video sequence:

Near the end of the 1960s, the studio began to introduce synthesizers.  EMS founder Peter Zinovieff was an acquaintance of several of the Workshop musicians, and the Workshop became an unofficial beta test site for EMS gear, in the same manner that the San Francisco Tape Music Center had been for Buchla.  This caused a split between the older and younger musicians, the former of which had been trained on the tape studio techniques (which were closer to what we would think of as sampling today), and the late-1960s analog synths did not suit them.  A number of them, including Derbyshire, left the Workshop between 1968 and 1973.  However, the younger members carried on and finally managed to pry some money out of the BBC for equipment investments.  Zinovieff twisted the Workshop's arm to buy one of the massive Synthi-100 synth-in-a-desk units, and later on Hodgson (who had returned to become the Workshop director after several years away) persuaded the powers that be to buy one of the first Fairlight CMI units -- which, in a way, brought back some of the old tape studio techniques.

The Workshop continued its good work up into the 1990s, when the BBC went onto a "full cost accounting" basis, and began comparing the costs of the Workshop to the costs of using outside studios and contractors, a comparison on which the Workshop usually came up short.  Subsequently, the BBC began layoffs and moving work out of the Workshop.  As synthesizers had become less expensive, an institutional studio no longer had an equipment advantage over smaller outside studios and individual musicians.  One of the last jobs given to the Workshop, for which it had unique expertise, was cleaning up the audio on old programming -- removing pops, crackles, noise, and bad-splice burbles.

On April 1, 1998, forty years to the day after its founding, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop closed.  Mark Ayers set about archiving all of the Workshop's tapes and produced material, a task at which he continues today.  


This Paris institute for electronic arts stems from an initiative created by French President Georges Pompidou in 1970.  Pompidou asked modern classical composer Pierre Boulez to began assembling a place where French composers would have studio space and equipment to work in composition and recording of electronic music.  A main focus of the center would be to pair composers (who would not necessarily be knowledgeable of electronics or computer programming) with engineers and technicians who could help realize the composers' ideas.  The center would be named IRCAM, which is an acronym for the French Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musiquewhich conveniently translates roughly to the English "Institute for Research Coordination into Acoustics and Music".

It took Boulez several years to raise sufficient funding to acquire space and equipment.  The center finally opened in 1977, and straight away focused on computers and digital synthesis, as well as modern classical composition in general.  In the 1980s, Miller Puckette created the first versions of what became Max/MSP at IRCAM, and the center maintains an extensive library of music software which is available for download to registered users.  The center has also expanded out into aspects of signal processing for industrial and scientific uses.

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