The late sixties and seventies produced an explosion of electronic music that arrived on the scene as an almost entirely new art form. So much so that when composer Wendy Carlos released an album of Bach compositions played on the Moog synthesizer, it was as though she had invented another genre of music, rather than played baroque pieces on a new instrument. We had foremothers like Delia Derbyshire, experimental bands like Silver Apples and Suicide, innovators like Brian Eno and David Bowie and Kraftwerk, disco pioneers like Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer… the list of electronic musicians at work creating the genre before the 1980s could go on and on.
You won’t learn any of that from the 1983 documentary above, Discovering Electronic Music, which is not at all to damn the short film; on the contrary, what this presentation offers us is something entirely different from the usual survey course in great men and women of commercial music. With an understated, pedagogical tone, Discovering Electronic Music gently leads its viewers through a thoughtful introduction to electronic music itself—what it consists of, how it differs from acoustic music, what kind of equipment produces it, and how that equipment works.
There are many musicians featured here, but none of them stars. They demonstrate, with competency and professionalism, the ways various electronic instruments and (now seemingly prehistoric) computer systems work. We do hear lots of classical music played on synthesizers, though not by the enigmatic and reclusive Wendy Carlos. And we hear modern compositions as well, though few you’re likely to recognize, from “Jean-Claude Risset, Douglas Leedy, F.R. Moore, Stephan Soomil, Rory Kaplan, Geral Strang and more forgotten geniuses of early electronic music,” writes Electronic Beats.
Early in the film, its presenter talks about the specifically modern appeal of electronic music: composers can work directly with sound like a sculptor or painter, rather than composing on paper and waiting to hear that written music performed by musicians. Much of Discovering Electronic Music shows us composers and musicians doing just that, with the thoroughly matter-of-fact manner of the most compellingly dry public television documentaries and with the strangely soothing quality common to both Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Bob Ross’s painting lessons. Like the sound of the analog synthesizers and antique computer sequencers it features, the documentary has an eerie beauty all its own.
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