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Sounds and visions

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From Stockhausen to Kraftwerk via 'Dr Who' — Ian Thomson applauds a history of electronic music that touches on many surprising and little-known influences

In this beguiling history of electronic music from the Victorian era to the present, British journalist David Stubbs considers how a once avant-garde art form entered the mainstream by way of elevators, airports and hotel lounges.

Electronic music's journey from the experimental to the commercial has been a long and eventful one. Futurist compositions In Fascist era Italy, for example, influenced Karlheinz Stockhausen's studio experimentations in late 1950s Germany, which in turn influenced the trance-inducing tape loops of New York minimalists Terry Riley and Steve Reich. It was not such a leap from Reich and company to the 1980s electro-pop of Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk. And whether techno or tinny pop, electronic music is still very much the sound of today.

Organised thematically ("Futurism", "Stevie Wonder", "Kraftwerk and Pop Automata"), Mars by 1980 is chock full of the quaintest detail. Inevitably, the earliest electronic experiments baffled traditionalists. In 1897, Washington-based inventor Thaddeus Cahill patented the Telharmonium electrical organ, which was intended to play music down telephone lines much like a prototype Spotify. Sadly, all the Telharmonium could do was produce spooky-sounding hiccups from a pair of horn speakers.

A century later, in February 1966, the "godfather of Italian composition" Luciano Berio gave a lecture on electronic music in London. Paul McCartney, who had previously corresponded with Stockhausen ("God, man, I'm so jealous") John Lennon told him), chatted with Berio in the interval while a mocking and uncomprehending British press intruded noisily. The next day one newspaper headline proclaimed: "This is What a Beatle Does in the Evening." Berio's electronic compositions had entered popular culture.

Stubbs, a former Melody Maker journalist, provides an absorbing account of Futurist composer-painter Luigi Russolo, whose 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises marked a signpost in 20th-century music aesthetics. Russolo urged musicians to explore a "new music" made up of car horns, clanking trams and other urban noise pollution. Frank Zappa inadvertently absorbed Russolo's aesthetic in his admiration for the wailing sirens and industrial percussion of French-born composer Edgar Varese.

In a fascinating chapter, "Reverberation and Decay", Stubbs looks at the father of wireless telegraphy, Guglielmo Marconi, who believed that sound never died once it had been generated. The Sinking of the Titanic, written for orchestra and electronic tape in 1969 by the British composer Gavin Bryars, imagines the music played by the band as the ill-fated liner went down being preserved today in the sound-efficient medium of water. "No home", writes Stubbs, should be without this extraordinary work which, for all its aural strangeness, remains emotionally affecting and beautiful.

Over the years, electronic music evolved as studio technologies became increasingly affordable. Donna Summer's "I Feel Love", written by Giorgio Moroder, crash-landed on popular music in 1977 as the first single based entirely on two synthesised backing tracks. An excited Brian Eno told David Bowie that Moroder's composition represented "the future of electronic music and had revolutionised pop.

Our longing for new sonic "future? is much older than we might think, though. Francis Bacon's 1627 novel New Atlantis, quoted by Stubbs, imagines an ambient music designed expressly to enlighten and give pleasure to its listeners: "We have sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation."

Eno's ambient experiments from the 1970s — atmospheric sound washes — might have issued from Bacon's imagination. And Eno, in turn, left his fingerprints on the meditative, pulseless drones of Low-era David Bowie and Aphex Twin.

No account of electronic music could ignore German robo-pop outfit Kraftwerk, whose industrial kling-klang, bizarrely, bore on the Detroit house music scene in the late 1970s. How the dance floor grooves of a Teutonic all-white band blended so smoothly with Afro-American turntable culture is one of the peculiar stories of modern music.

Stubbs, who wrote on so-called Kraut-rock in his previous book Future Days, resurrects the reputation of Kraftwerk as well as earlier sonic innovators from the pre-digital age such as Delia Derbyshire. A British pioneer of electronic music, Derbyshire had impressed Berio with her 1963 realisation of Ron Grainer's Dr Who theme, which she created out of tape manipulations. (It became television's first-ever electronic signature tune.) Having acted as the Italian composer's assistant at the Dartington Summer School in England in 1962, Derbyshire turned to drink, says Stubbs, and died pretty well forgotten. All the same, her influence survives in British bands such as Broadcast, whose dense electronic network of sounds, quotation and adaptation consciously recollects the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in Derbyshire's heyday during the 1960s.

In well-researched if occasionally overwritten pages (a Moog synthesiser sounds like "Atlantis rising from hitherto placid ocean?), Mars by 1980 chronicles 100 years of electronic experiment and innovation. In our busy, visually obsessed world electronic music remains continually intriguing, says Stubbs — though he reckons it has lost its avant-garde edge now that "turbo-charged, auto-tuned Europap" dominates the digital age. All the same, Stubbs finds a "worthy abundance" of electronica today in the British-born, Berlin-based musician Scuba and the Baltimore-based music duo Matmos, if not in Ed Sheeran. This instructive book may help us to listen to the world with ears newly attuned and cleansed of mere muzak.

Ian Thomson is author of 'Dante's Divine Comedy: A Journey Without End' (HeadofZeus)

Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music by David Stubbs Faber £20, 429 pages

Caption: Delia Derbyshire in the early 1960s at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where she arranged the theme to 'Dr Who'

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  • APA 6th ed.: Thomson, Ian (2018-08-25). Sounds and visions. Financial Times .
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