Category: Articles

American Innovations in Electronic Musical Instruments

Joseph A. Paradiso
photo by Rich Fletcher

The desire for musical expression runs deeply across human culture; although specific styles can vary, music is generally considered a universal language. It is tempting to surmise that one of the earliest applications of human toolmaking, after hunting, shelter, defense, and general survival, was probably to create expressive sound, developing into what we know and love as music. As toolmaking evolved into technology over the last centuries, inventors and musicians have been driven to apply new concepts and ideas into improving musical instruments or creating entirely new means of controlling and generating musical sounds. The classic acoustic instruments, such as the strings, horns, woodwinds, and percussion of the modern orchestra and others of the non-western world have been with us for centuries, thus have settled into what many think of being a near-optimal design, only slowly yielding to gradual change and improvements. For hundreds of years, the detailed construction of prized acoustic instruments has remained a mysterious art, and only recently have their structural, acoustic, and material properties been understood in enough detail for new contenders to emerge.

Electronic music, in contrast, has no such legacy. The field has only existed for under a century, giving electronic instruments far less time to mature. Even more significantly, technology is developing so quickly that new sound synthesis methods and capabilities rapidly augment and displace those of only a few years before. The design of appropriate musical interfaces is therefore in a continual state of revolution, always driven by new methods of sound generation that enable (and occasionally require) expression and control over new degrees of freedom.

Although many crucial innovations (and several of the most vital innovators, studios, and composers) in electronic music have hailed from Europe and other parts of the world, North America has held a key position in pioneering the development of electronic instruments and musical interfaces. Technology enables new modes of musical expression, and as America has captured many of the major milestones in electronics and engineering throughout the last century, their musical applications found fertile ground here.

This century has witnessed the development of electronic musical instruments, from their inception as an outgrowth of telegraph and radio through the modern musical applications of computers, which are beginning to alter the conceptions of musician, audience, and performance. Although the distinctions between them are starting to evaporate, electronic sound generators can be broadly classed into two types: music synthesizers, which directly generate their timbre via an algorithm or set of hardware or software rules, and samplers or wavetable synthesizers, which play back and process waveforms stored in some kind of memory. With the notable exception of the theremin (the most famous non-contact controller), all of the earliest electronic musical instruments were primarily controlled by a keyboard, frequently the standard 12-tone (chromatic) layout we know from the acoustic piano.

Although interesting experiments with alternative controllers have been sprinkled throughout the history of electronic music, most current electronic instruments remain keyboard-dominated. As it allows essentially any interface to be used with any synthesis device, the MIDI Standard has encouraged other types of musical controllers to be recently developed, as sketched below.

Drum interfaces, which give percussionists access to the world of electronic sound, are related to keyboards, in that they essentially measure contact and impact velocity. Stringed instruments are highly expressive and complex acoustic devices that have followed a long and difficult path into the world of electronic music controllers. The popularity of the guitar in modern music has given it considerable priority for being assimilated into the world of the synthesizer, and a look at the history of the guitar controller aptly reflects the evolution of signal-processing technology. Of course, electric guitars were primarily responsible for ushering in the multiplicity of effects devices and audio processors that delightfully twisted and warped the sound of many an electrified instrument over the last decades, opening new worlds of expression long before digital synthesizers and MIDI appeared. Orchestral stringed instruments, such as the violin and cello, have not been spared from electronic assimilation either, although capturing prompt and precise musical gesture on these instruments is still technically challenging. Wind interfaces, being monophonic by nature, have been around since the days of the analog synthesizer, but now find fresh applications in driving expressive, multi-parameter digital synthesis schemes based on physical models.

Different kinds of abstract gesture interfaces have likewise been developed for both high-level conducting and intimate performance. These include Batons and hand-held trackers, non-contact interfaces that trace the body through the air, sensors that measure other activity in “smart rooms” or other responsive environments, and interfaces that are worn in active clothing. Such gesture interfaces are generally completely abstracted from any kind of direct sound generation, hence all musical response must come through a mapping algorithm programmed into a computer that assigns sonic events to perceived motion or detected physical events.

The electronic music field is extremely broad, and designers of all sorts, from basement hackers through university researchers and engineers at large electronics and music companies, have built all kinds of innovative and fascinating devices for generating and interacting with electronic music. Thus, at the outset, I admit that it’s not possible to give justice to all of the worthwhile accomplishments in this area within the confines of a single article, and apologize for those that are missing.


What role, if any, do you think technology will play in the composition and performance of your music in the next 25 years? Morton Subotnick

Photo courtesy Morton Subotnick

The speed of information access and the amount and low cost of memory will make MIDI output devices unnecessary in the performance of my music. More and more I am ONLY using a computer. I think we will see a major evolution in the recorded media. It will change to DVD with surround sound and interactive information access. My dream has always been that the recording media will become a new chamber art and have dedicated a great deal of my creative time to this end. Now I believe it is not only possible but, even, probable.

What role, if any, do you think technology will play in the composition and performance of your music in the next 25 years? Pamela Z

Pamela Z
Photo by Lori Eanes

Technology (whether “high” or “low”) has always had an effect on my work, and I have no reason to believe that will change in the next 25 years. I think that all artists are to some extent influenced by the tools they use to make their art. In my case, those tools have included digital processors, Macintosh computers, software, samplers, a wearable MIDI controller, and (perhaps the most technically sophisticated of all) the human voice. Each time I have introduced a new tool into my arsenal, it has resulted in new ideas and added new colors to my palate. Recent forays into composing for ensembles using conventional acoustic instruments have sent me off in new directions, and my current attempts to create performance works that use MAX MSP software have initiated new ideas as well. For the past sixteen or so years, I have been creating a body of electroacoustic work. Not only do these works require the combination of electronics and voice (and/or other acoustic instruments) but the works would have never developed in the same way had I been using a different set of tools.

What role, if any, do you think technology will play in the composition and performance of your music in the next 25 years? Paul Lansky

Paul Lansky
Photo courtesy New Albion

I’d like to reply by first rephrasing the question: how do you think your music will change as a result of technology?

I haven’t the faintest idea.

All I know is that technology has already had, and will continue to have a radical effect on the music I write and the processes I use to write it. Very little I’ve done would have been possible without the radically different perspectives and working methods offered by computing technology.

But just as we no longer notice that the bends, bobs and weaves of some electric guitar playing are the result of a technology that allows the use of a lighter gauge string, for example, or that the construction of the modern flute was facilitated by the industrial revolution, I would hope that the music I write will ultimately hide the technology used to create it and that its technological underpinnings will consequently be uninteresting. I hope that new technologies will continue to influence the music I write, but I will do my best to write music which succeeds in hiding them, or at least making them worthy of a footnote at best. My feeling is that music succeeds only when it transcends its machinery.

Describe your best and worst memories of premiere performances

John Corigliano John Corigliano
“The best premiere I can remember is that of my Clarinet Concerto with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and Stanley Drucker as the soloist…”
Tim Page Tim Page
“…I’d choose the first performance of the orchestral version of Reich’s Tehillim in 1981 as the “worst” premiere.”
Laurel Ann Maurer Laurel Ann Maurer
“I premiered [Meyer Kupferman’s] work “Chaconne Sonata” in April 1994 at Weill Recital Hall and we received rave reviews.”
David Del Tredici David Del Tredici
“…I felt as though I had just farted in church and then had to bow in recognition.”

The Orchestra in Contemporary American Musical Life

Frank J. Oteri, Editor and Publisher
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

Is the orchestra a viable contemporary American institution? That’s a question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds both within and outside the orchestral music community as well as within the new music community which all too frequently has been treated like an opposition political party.

There are two schools of thought about the function that the orchestra should serve in a community. One camp contends that the orchestra is a sonic museum that preserves the timeless classics of our musical heritage, presenting them again and again in a live setting so new audiences can discover them and that audiences already familiar with them can gain new insights with each rehearing. The other camp contends that the orchestra must take a pro-active role in our society, performing and commissioning new works, doing extensive community outreach and being at the cutting edge of new technologies. Opponents of the museum approach say the orchestra is outmoded and irrelevant to contemporary society, a throwback to the old boy system, a torchbearer of “Dead White European Male” culture to the exclusion of the achievements of all other people. Opponents of the pro-active model contend that orchestras should do what they do best, which is to play great music, and might rightly point to such horrific models as the expunging of “degenerate art” in Nazi regime’s rewriting of the canon or the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China as proof that dictating artistic choices based on so-called “politically correct” grounds yields a tepidly satisfying aesthetic experience at best.

Much can be gained by looking at both sides of this argument and seeing how to preserve the great legacy of orchestral music of the past while at the same time building a new and vibrant orchestral experience which may indeed be tomorrow’s great legacy. We invited you to take a stand in this great debate in our interactive forum

This month, we have chosen to enter the NewMusicBoxing ring with four members of the staff of the Philadelphia Orchestra: artistic administrator Simon Woods, president Joseph H. Kluger, marketing director Ed Cambron and assistant communications director Brian Atwood. The Philadelphia Orchestra, considered by most music aficionados to be one of our greatest orchestras but rarely perceived of as a maverick in the orchestral music community, has taken an unusual step for their 1999-2000 season. Every work played in a subscription concert this season was composed in the 20th century. And while contemporary music fans may balk at a “20th century” season filled with Ravel and Rachmaninoff but missing Carter and Messiaen, it’s a more-than-welcome change of pace from the bottomless sea of Basically Beethoven, Totally Tchaikovsky or Masochistically Mozart. Andrew Druckenbrod’s hyper-history surveys the commissioning and premiering legacies of 18 additional American orchestras in an attempt to determine how American and contemporary contemporary American orchestras actually are. We have supplemented both the Philadelphia Orchestra interview and the orchestral hyper-history with a variety of documents ranging from press releases to lists of commissions and premieres spanning the entire century to try to paint as complete a picture as we possibly can. In fact, we have also supplemented our leading news story this month — an announcement of two premieres by the New York Philharmonic financed by the Walt Disney Company — with the complete transcript of the press conference led by Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

We decided to contrast this serious probing by having a little fun with people’s memories of premieres. We’ve asked composers John Corigliano and David Del Tredici, flutist Laurel Ann Maurer, and former music critic Tim Page to tell us their best and worst memories of premieres from the varying viewpoints of composer, performer and audience member. Unfortunately, orchestral music was not the focus of a large percent of either our listings of concerts featuring American repertoire or our online exploration center for new recordings of American music. But there are many fascinating items to be found there nonetheless.

We hope that through presenting all this material we can inspire further dialog and help energize the playing field of American orchestras, a community which, in size and geographic distribution, is on par with America’s other great team sports and which, if the conditions are right, can create an evening as memorable as a shut-out game in a World Series!

How American Are American Orchestras?

Andrew J. Druckenbrod
photo by Allison Schlesinger

The twentieth century will be viewed as a time in which composers expanded the range and possibilities of musical language and sound. But also as a period that saw a rift develop between new and old music, especially in the U.S. Here, orchestras delved into the pantheon of dead composers to satisfy their audiences’ affinity for past music. All during a time when more U.S. composers than ever before make at least a partial living from writing music.

So as we head out of this wild ride of a century, it’s as good a time as ever to take a closer look at to what level orchestras are supporting new, especially American music. Specifically gauging how many works they commission, since the ultimate support for a composer is money in the pocket to allow for the space and means to write.

We scanned 20 orchestras to check out their record for commissioning works over the last 30 years. The sampling isn’t scientific, but it is diverse. The so called “big five” are all here, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony. As are several other large-budget organizations from around the country: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

We also included four smaller-budget orchestras who have a special commitment to new music — the Women’s Philharmonic, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Louisville Orchestra, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic — as well as two smaller-sized groups: the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony. Finally, there’s an examination of two youth/student organizations, the Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra and the Etowah Youth Orchestra. The American Composers Orchestra, the only American orchestra whose mandate is exclusively the performance of music by American composers, has already been profiled in the first issue of NewMusicBox as the ultimate composer-led new music ensemble. Some of the orchestras were chosen for their exemplary record in supporting new music, while others were chosen for their general status in the musical community or their geographical location.

One observation from the survey is that bigger is not always better. That is, the bigger budgets of some orchestras do not guarantee a better track record for supporting new music. Ensembles such as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony rival the New York Philharmonic and its $35 million annual budget in commissioning and both outpace the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Louisville Orchestra has a commissioning record that doubles or triples that of orchestras with double and triple its annual operating expenses. And the Cleveland Chamber Symphony runs circles around that other ensemble by the lake, the Cleveland Orchestra.

Partly because of artistic and cultural inertia and partly because the larger orchestras spend money to secure costly guest performers and conductors and build facilities (such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new ECHO public music learning center), they tend to program a bit more conservatively. The smaller-budgeted ensembles often have the opportunity to experiment more, and several do. Commissioning fees are high, but they are high to all orchestras. Some just make it more of a priority.

The survey ultimately indicated, however, that commissioning has been on the upswing in the last three decades. Most of the orchestras examined have a higher percentage of commissions since 1970 than before (many a substantial increase). Also, over 80 percent of these new commissions have been for U.S. composers, a healthy mark by any standard. It would appear, then, that the ship is pointed in the right direction as we move into the next century. A balance is beginning to form between the present and programming, between living composers and living audiences.

The Orchestras:

  1. Albany Symphony Orchestra
  2. American Composers Orchestra
  3. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
  4. Boston Symphony Orchestra
  5. Brooklyn Philharmonic
  6. Chicago Symphony
  7. Cleveland Chamber Symphony
  8. Cleveland Orchestra
  9. Dallas Symphony
  10. Etowah Youth Orchestra
  11. Los Angeles Philharmonic
  12. Louisville Orchestra
  13. Minnesota Orchestra
  14. Manhattan School Of Music Symphony Orchestra
  15. New York Philharmonic
  16. Philadelphia Orchestra
  17. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
  18. San Francisco Symphony
  19. St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
  20. Women’s Philharmonic

Describe your best and worst memories of premiere performances John Corigliano, Composer

John Corigliano
Photo by Julian Kreeger courtesy G. Schirmer

The best premiere I can remember is that of my CLARINET CONCERTO with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and Stanley Drucker as the soloist. My father, who died in 1975 — two years before the premiere — was the concertmaster of the Philharmonic, and they had never played a piece of mine, so the concert had a very special meaning to me. It was a blazing performance — one a composer usually only dreams about.

My worst premiere was in the 1960’s when a mezzo-soprano, who had won the prestigious JOY OF SINGING award, gave the first performance of THE CLOISTERS, a cycle of four songs with text by William M. Hoffman.

The problem was that the singer didn’t want to use the music (which was admirable), but also didn’t know the songs (which wasn’t). The result was a Gertrude Stein text set to a John Cage score. The New York Times loved it. I’ve always wondered what they would have thought of the piece we actually wrote.”

Describe your best and worst memories of premiere performances Tim Page, Former Classical Music Critic of the Washington Post

Tim Page
Photo courtesy St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

I’ll have to choose the world premiere of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians — April 3, 1976 at Town Hall in New York — as the most influential concert I ever attended. It opened new sonic worlds to me and literally pushed me into criticism: I HAD to react to this music somehow and I wrote about it all night, never expecting anything would be published. And I’d choose the first performance of the orchestral version of Reich’s Tehillim in 1981 as the “worst” premiere. The score was terrific — I already knew it in the original chamber version — but Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic were not at all used to this sort of music and everything fell apart. (P.S. It was much better the second night.)

Describe your best and worst memories of premiere performances Laurel Ann Maurer, Flutist

Laurel Ann Maurer
Photo courtesy Laurel Ann Maurer

I have to admit that the quality of “open-mindedness” that I believe that I possess serves me well in terms of finding the value in a new piece, but does not serve me as well when thinking of a least favorite experience. I truly work to find the message in each piece. If I believe it is not there, is weak or I am not suited to play it-then I don’t play it. Hence, I have really been fortunate in that each premiere has been special in it’s own right. There are, however, a couple that stand out as exceptional. Two were major works by composer Meyer Kupferman. I have worked with him on many of his works. I commissioned him in 1993 to compose a Sonata for flute and piano. I premiered this work “Chaconne Sonata” in April 1994 at Weill Recital Hall and we received rave reviews. That was a successful premiere because I have a rapor with Kupferman’s style and he coached us extensively. The other was the premiere of his “Concerto Brevis” for flute and orchestra, premiered at the National Flute Convention in 1998. Part of the joy of the premiere (at least for me) is the entire creative process. The “hands on” work with the composer is exciting and meaningful for a successful outcome.