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E lectronic and Computer Music by Peter Manning (Oxford: $29.95; 250 pp.)

January 12, 1986|Richard Swift | Swift is a composer and professor of music at UC Davis.

Peter Manning, in "Electronic and Computer Music," has written an informative history of the post-Edison urge to generate musical sounds by electronic means. Manning has been director of electronic and computer music at the University of Durham, England, since 1973, and is a persuasive exponent of electronic music.

The history of this movement can be divided into a pre-history (what Manning terms "forerunners") from the late 19th Century to the end of World War II and the history proper from 1945 to the present, as the advent of a series of new technologies has made electronic sounds a familiar reality to musicians and audiences.

The pre-history begins with Thaddeus Cahill's 1897 invention of an "electrically based sound-generation system." Essentially a dynamo--as its name, Dynamophone, reflects--its size (60 feet long, weighing 200 tons), its cost, and the disruption of economic conditions at the outbreak of World War I effectively destroyed its artistic and commercial promise. However, the shadow of this dinosaur of sound synthesizers persisted to give impetus to the invention of many other quite different sound generators. Present-day remnants of those inventions include the Theremin, the Ondes Martenot, and the Hammond organ.

Manning skillfully disentangles the web of research and exploration that proliferated in the early post-war years. These ranged from inscribing data on film to produce sounds (Norman McLaren, Milton Babbitt, and Yevgeny Sholpo) to the manipulation of acoustic sounds on the newly available magnetic tape by Pierre Schaeffer in Paris, by the group around John Cage, and by the work of Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky at Columbia University.

The emergence of the means of producing wholly electronic sounds by oscillators, filters and modulators in Cologne Radio's studio in 1950 encouraged research and composition. Manning focuses upon the technology of the Cologne studio and traces the development of similar studios around the world. Perhaps the most important of these was the RCA Synthesizer in the Columbia-Princeton studios, itself a linear descendant of Cahill's invention.

The invention of the transistor a few years later led to the development of the transistor voltage-controlled synthesizer by, among others, Robert Moog and Donald Buchla. The portability of the new synthesizers and the relative simplicity of their controls led quickly to their use in live electronic performance in both classical and pop music.

The computer generation of analog sounds is the latest in the history of synthesis technologies. Pioneered by Max Matthews at Bell Laboratories, this new technology has proliferated with noteworthy research centers and studios in London, Stockholm, MIT, Toronto and Stanford (whose programs are used by IRCAM in Paris).

Manning writes with clarity about the technological aspects of each stage of this history. He holds himself aloof from the politics of electronic music coteries with the result that his history is essentially fair and non-partisan.

His history is at its weakest when he discusses specific compositions (with the exception of a few by Stockhausen). Short on analysis, the book bogs down with lists of composers and their compositions. The cut-off date for the narrative seems to be about 1978; more recent events have outstripped its final chapters.

Despite these small drawbacks, some of which may be faults of production, Manning's history of the electronic movement is by far the most readable and coherent account of the history of electronic sounds to have been written for the general reader.

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