The experimental legacy

an introduction

dr.Godfried-Willem Raes

postdoctoral researcher
Orpheus Institute & Logos Foundation


 Landed in the second decennium of the 21st century we can start to look back on the 20th century as part of history. As usual long known problems are encountered. A fundamental question will always be what to preserve. Selections have to be made and criteria justified. Even if we don't do anything, leaving things as they are, entropy will guarantee a form of selection. Think about electronic music made on analog tape. We know that preserving those tapes poses a manifold of problems. Not only the carriers deteriorate, but also the machines to play them and to make copies to other media are more and more difficult to find and to maintain in full operating condition. The technology of the pre-digital era is no longer commonly available to electronic engineers. Repairman are by now all retired or no longer capable to properly do maintenance and repair. The components once used are since long no longer made nor findable on the market. Moreover, even -as we started doing at Logos Foundation- if important tapes from the archives were transferred to CD's, we now observe that these CD's are rapidly becoming unplayable. Entropy cannot be circumvented it seems, at the most we can slow it down.

Looking at the music of the 20th century, the problems we encounter can be of very different nature:

1. Music that was composed and conceived for technological tools that at the time of the conception of their use just couldn't fill the promises.

Some examples:

From the first half of the 20th century:

 From the second half of the 20th century

In these cases musicologists are often tempted to consider the work eventually revised later by the composer, as the definitive work. Here we can raise the question whether it wouldn't do more justice to the composer to get back to his original concepts and try to realize them with what technology permits us to do today. In this line of thinking, at  Logos we did a version of Noces using only automated instruments, we realized Ballet Mecanique with real airplane propellers, modern player pianos, automated sirens and industrial bells and in 2016 we finished and presented a version of Weills Beggars Opera using our complete robot orchestra, thus realising the original concept of Bertolt Brecht.
Other people have realized 'Solo mit Rueckkopplung' using digital technology, thus not plagued by the inherent instability of long analog tape loops on stage. As to Dick Raaijmakers strijkkwartet, we made a working version whilst the composer was still alive. A report can be found here (as yet only in dutch). Some biographical data with regard to Raaijmakers can be found here.

2. Music making use of technology that is no longer available or in need of maintenance and repair.

The crucial question here is in how far the technology used is an essential part of the rhetoric of the performance. This is not always the case. For instance the thousands of compositions written for tape and musicians, do not require the reel to reel taperecorder as an essential component of performance and for such pieces, playing the on-tape sound track from just about any modern medium (CD or simply from the computers memory) does not change anything to the performance. However, there are many examples of pieces where the tape recorder becomes an instrument in itself, more than merely a reproducing device.

Alvin Lucier's pieces using slow sweep sine wave oscillators

Brian Ferneyhough and Karlheinz Stockhausen's pieces involving ring modulators

Pieces involving live manipulation of audio tape: Dick Raaymakers, Michel Waisvisz, Brian Ferneyhough, Steven Montague, Gordon Mumma...

Pieces involving manual handling of electronic circuitry and components: John Cage, David Behrman, Dick Raaijmakers, Michel Waisvisz, Takehisa Kosugi, Nam Yun Paik

In these cases it appears to us to be pointless to replace the technology used with modern alternatives. A laptop just cannot replace a vacuum tube oscillator for it would ruin the act of performing the piece on stage. It undermines the rhetoric and thus the intrinsic value of such compositions.

Obviously there are quite many cases were the technology is not as such at the focus of the work. The many pieces composed in live electronics using samplers for instance, can easily be performed using nowadays technology. However one has to be careful, as many composers have used equipment at or just over the border of their capabilities in which case the use of the original equipment is indicated.

3. Compositions that involve the construction of technological devices.

The devices can range from simple contact microphones and their pre-amps (David Behrman, Hugh Davies, Richard Lerman, Mauricio Kagel...) , up to the most diverse sensing devices such as radar sensors (in the work of Jerry Hunt), light sensors (John Cage), sonar devices. Also electronic sound modifying devices, real circuits, often need to be build (Pauline Oliveros, Hans Otte). Ringmodulators and effects are examples. The performance of my own composition 'Logos 3:5' (1969) for instance, requires the performers to build an automated conducting device.

In all such cases, the realisation of the required technology should be considered to be part of the performance practice. More often than not, one has to go through the complete desciption by the author, try to fully understand (and reverse engineer) it and after that finding a working realisation with the same artistic result. I still remember some Cage performances, where Takehisa Kosugi was seated behind his performance table, handling a hot soldering iron.

In a following series of chapters, we will try to cover at least the most common practical issues with regard to the use and restauration of legacy electronics and technology.

1.- A review of the basics of electronic circuitry [dutch]

2.- Power Supplies

3.- Tape recorders

4.- Sine wave oscillators [dutch]

5.- Voltage controlled equipment

6.- Filters

7.- Ring modulators [translation work on the way, still in part in dutch]

8.- Rare and esoteric instruments

9.- Alarms: Bells, horns, buzzers and sirens [odt file]

10.-Electronic constructions as part of performance

11.- Low tech: contact microphones and pickup devices

12.- Body sensors and wearable electronics

13.- Electromechanics

Expression control in musical automata

14.- Interactivity: Gesture sensing [pdf file]

dr.Godfried-Willem Raes

This article is part of a research project on Experimental Legacy financed by the Orpheus Institute in Ghent.

Last update: November 13th 2017

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