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V/A - Pioneers of Electronic Music

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Artist: V/A

Album: Pioneers of Electronic Music

Label: New World

Review date: Oct. 19, 2006

The tools for sonic manipulation found nowadays in even the most humble home studio were once unwieldy and expensive, and thus were available only to a few composers associated with academia. Indeed, many of those tools – and techniques – didn't even exist before the early 1950s. This reissue on the New World label of an erstwhile CRI anthology offers insights into the inventive methods and the engaging compositions realized by composers associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City between 1950 and 1970.

Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening were both well-trained in the traditions of European concert music. And both, by the middle of the 20th century, were deep into explorations of new territory involving the manipulation of recorded sound via tape-speed variations, tuned oscillators, filters, splice-edits, and level mixing. In short, they helped invent the basic techniques used in music production today.

Ussachevsky’s music tends towards dark, rumbling sound assemblages that emphasize both abrupt transitions and subtle metamorphoses, arriving at an often-portentous sense of mysterious narrative. “Sonic Contours” (1952), blending manipulated piano with treated found sounds, gives evidence of Ussachevsky’s mastery of sound in motion, along with the (perhaps paradoxical) elegance of his approach to asymmetrical contrapuntal structures.

Otto Luening’s approach was somewhat lighter, growing in part from his technical facility as a flautist: works like “Moonflight” and “Fantasy in Space” utilize tape delay and feedback applied to instrumental performance to produce skittering, ebullient pieces that reflect an old-world concert hall virtuosity along with their supple wit and futuristic imagination. Ussachevsky and Luening collaborated on the 1953 “Incantation,” and the end result combines the aesthetics of both composers with very satisfying results.

The disc also presents works from the generation that followed those two masters. Standouts are Alice Shields’s 1970 work “Ani,” created almost entirely from the manipulation of a spoken word reading from “The Egyptian Book Of the Dead.” With the intelligible incantation of the text scattered amongst them, sounds burst, explode, sing, moan and scream like wailing souls unearthed from ancient time. Pril Smiley’s “Kolyosa” – also from 1970 – is strangely prescient in its essaying of proto-ambient ideas like rhythm as texture and perceived distance as sonic space. For a few seconds, it even offers a pulsing ambient-techno bass line.

On first encounter, one might find these works dated, like a late-night scary movie or '60s sci-fi. One might even find this charming. A deeper listen will reveal the textural boldness and musical imagination behind these seminal works and ideas.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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