This week, we’re bringing you a show that is very “current.” I don’t think you’ll be able to “resist” it, and I’m certain it will get you “charged” up. Yes, we’re looking at electricity in music tonight, a show that will put a jolt in your system that we’re calling “Power Surge”!
Here’s our electrifying playlist….
- Clara Rockmore, theremin virtuoso – One of the first successful electronic instruments was called the Telharmonium from 1897, basically an electrified organ that weighed two hundred tons and had to be transported by railroad. Two decades later, the more compact and easily transportable Theremin hit the concert hall. Invented by Russian physicist Leon Theremin, it began as part of his government-sponsored work on proximity sensors. However, when he noticed the musical potential of his research, he moved to the United States where he started production with RCA. The theremin remains one of the only musical instruments that requires no physical contact to play because it changes pitch and volume by moving your hands closer and farther away from two metal rods. This also makes it a very difficult instrument to master. This recording is by Clara Rockmore, a violin prodigy who worked with Leon Theremin to develop the instrument for classical music. The Ether Game Brain Trust is quite fond of the original name given to the instrument: the etherphone!
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), Sleeping Beauty, “Violente” Variation – This piece actually comes at the suggestion of one of our listeners, Sophie Fatouros. Sleeping Beauty by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1890. This scene comes from the prologue for the ballet, when Princess Aurora is being christened. Several fairies arrive at the christening to bestow gifts to Princess Aurora, including the gifts of honesty, musicality, joy, and generosity, and each fairy has a dance. The fairy variation for the fairy known as Violente or “force,” with her gift of a strong temperament, has a “shocking” origin. When choreographer Marius Petipa was looking for inspiration for Violente’s powerful movements, he looked to electricity. The 1880s were a big decade for electrical developments. Transformers were invented and electric light had made its way into buildings, including the theater stage. Petipa’s choreography for Violente’s variation is full of forceful finger pointing, representing the powerful zap of this new electrifying phenomenon.
- Edgard Varèse (1883–1965), Poème Électronique – Edgard Varèse’s Poème Électronique is a pioneering example of electronic music. All the sounds were either electronically synthesized, or recorded and manipulated—a technique known as “musique concrète.” In the work, you’ll hear recorded bells, electronic whistles, hums, cracks, and whirrs. Today, it can sound like a bad 1980s video game, but in 1958, it sounded positively out of this world. The work premiered at the Philips Pavilion, a piece of architecture designed by Le Corbusier for the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. The Philips Corporation commissioned the modern design from Le Corbusier, and inside the Pavilion, images were projected with Varèse’s Poème Électronique blasting from 400 strategically-spaced speakers. Believe it or not, composer Iannis Xenakis was Le Corbusier’s assistant in the design! (He was an architect before he was a composer.) Unfortunately, this massive structure was demolished after the World Fair.
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and Wendy Carlos (b. 1939), Switched On Bach – Wendy Carlos wowed both the classical and pop music world with her 1968 album Switched on Bach, which featured a number of Bach’s best-known works realized on the newly invented Moog synthesizer. American engineer Robert Moog developed and lent his name to this early synthesizer. It had its start in the mid sixties in the world of the electronic avant-garde, but with the huge success of Carlos’s Switched on Bach albums, the instrument quickly made its jump into both the classical and pop arenas (you can hear it in the work of Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles). Initially the Moog synthesizer could only play single-line melodies, so Carlos had to record each of Bach’s melodies independently with a click-track and combine them in post-production. She would go on to release several more albums in the same vein and also did soundtrack work for the Disney film Tron and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, among others.
- Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), Hungarian Dance No. 1 (as performed by Brahms himself) – Brahms was a meticulous composer who took forever to work out the smallest detail in his music. He was notoriously self-critical and was rarely able to return to a manuscript without changing something. With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine Brahms’s reaction to the wild popularity of his Hungarian Dances. Even more difficult to imagine is that he would allow himself to be recorded playing his own music in 1889. In fact, Brahms was mesmerized by the newly invented phonograph, and after Thomas Edison had the machine exhibited in Europe, Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann that “it were as though one were living in a fairy tale.” A recording session was arranged and Brahms performed his Hungarian Dance No. 1, as well as Strauss’s Die Libelle for the Edison phonograph. Over time, many composers would be recorded performing their own music, but the Brahms Edison cylinder remains the oldest known recording of its kind.
- Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864), Le Prohète (the first opera to use an electric light) –Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1849 opera Le Prophète is a fine example of 19th-century grand opera. These kind of opera are usually based on historical events—in this case, the real-life 16th century prophet John of Leiden, the leader of the Münster Rebellion in 1534, and the self-proclaimed “King Of Münster.” Grand operas were also grand spectacles, with huge orchestras, elaborate costumes, and the latest technology used in their set design. Le Prohète is notable because it was the first opera to use an electric light on stage. 1849 was well before the days of the incandescent light bulb, however. The electric light technology at the time was the arc light. Arc lights work by putting an electric charge into two pieces of metal, lighting up the electrons in the air between them. It’s basically controlled lightning, and is very, very bright. They fell out of favor when light bulbs were invented, but arc lights were still used in searchlights and in movie theater projectors well into the 20th century.
- W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900), Patience (the first opera to be in a house completely lit by electric light) –Arc lights were used as spotlights in the 19th century, but they were way too bright, way too hot, and required way too much energy to be used for lighting a room. For that, we had the incandescent bulb. They work by heating up a filament of tungsten, which glows bright inside a vacuum tube. In October 1881, London’s Savoy Theatre became the first public building to be lit entirely by electric light, using these incandescent bulbs. The Savoy was also the home to Richard D’Oyly Carte’s opera company, the company that performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas. Patience was the first opera performed at the Savoy on that October night in 1881. Light bulbs were much better than the hot, smelly gas lamps that had been previously used in most theatres. On opening night of Patience, D’Oyly Carte stepped onto the stage with a light bulb in hand to prove how safe these new electric lights were.
- Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952), Six Japanese Gardens for Percussion and Electronics – Like many late 20th-century composers, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is known for combining electronics with acoustic sound in her music. This process began at IRCAM, an electronic music institute founded by Pierre Boulez. After writing several pieces for instrumental ensembles and tape, Saariaho began composing with the aid of a computer alongside traditional instruments. Despite these electronic processes, she finds much of the inspiration for her music in literature, art, and natural phenomena. That’s apparent in the title of this selection: Six Japanese Gardens, for percussion and electronics. Saariaho composed the work as a musical impression of the elaborate gardens she saw while visiting the Japanese city of Kyoto in the early 1990s. The piece is also a study in musical rhythm, with each of the six movements becoming more rhythmically complex. The work was dedicated to the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.
- Kraftwerk, “The Robots” – Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider of the German electronic group Kraftwerk first met as classical music students at the Düsseldorf conservatory. They were early adopters of synthesizers, drum machines, vocoders, and other electronic instruments, and soon transformed their sound into something entirely electronically-produced. Today, they are considered pioneers in electronic music, a genre that permeates the modern pop music landscape. Kraftwerk scored their first international hit in 1974 with their song “Autobahn.” And most of their songs are inspired by some kind of electronic machine, including “Computer Love,” “Radio-Activity,” “The Robots,” “Neon Lights,” and “Pocket Calculator.” Their electric roots are even present in their name. “Kraftwerk” is the German word for “power plant.”