The History of Electronic Music, 1800–2015: Free Web Project Catalogues the Theremin, Fairlight & Other Instruments That Revolutionized Music


Hang around this site long enough and you’ll learn a thing or two about elec­tron­ic music, whether it’s a very brief his­to­ry of the Moog syn­the­siz­er, or the Theremin, or an enor­mous, obscure ancient ances­tor, the Tel­har­mo­ni­um. These mini-lessons are dwarfed, how­ev­er, by the amount of infor­ma­tion you’ll find on the site 120 Years of Elec­tron­ic Music, where­in you can read about such strange crea­tures as the Choral­celo, the Stac­ca­tone, the Pianorad, Cellu­phone, Elec­tronde, and Vibroex­pona­tor. Such odd­i­ties abound in the very long his­to­ry of elec­tron­ic musi­cal instru­ments, which the site defines as “instru­ments that gen­er­ate sounds from a pure­ly elec­tron­ic source rather than elec­tro-mechan­i­cal­ly or elec­tro-acousti­cal­ly.”


Despite these rather strict tech­ni­cal para­me­ters, the site’s author Simon Crab admits that the bound­aries “do become blurred with, say, Tone Wheel Gen­er­a­tors and tape manip­u­la­tion of the Musique Con­crete era.” Then there are pre­cur­sor instru­ments that pre­date the dis­cov­ery and har­ness­ing of elec­tric­i­ty, such as the Clavecin Mag­ne­tique, above, invent­ed by Abbé Bertholon de Saint-Lazare in 1789, a “sim­ple instru­ment which pro­duced sounds by attract­ing met­al clap­pers to strike tuned bells by rais­ing and low­er­ing mag­nets oper­at­ed by a key­board.”


Yet the pri­ma­ry focus of 120 Years of Elec­tron­ic Music is a peri­od of growth and devel­op­ment from the late 1800s to the 1970s, when ear­ly dig­i­tal syn­the­siz­ers like the Fairlight (top) appeared. Thus, we should not expect here “an exhaus­tive list of recent com­mer­cial syn­the­siz­ers or soft­ware packages”—the stuff of mod­ern dance, pop, hip-hop, etc. Crab’s intent is aca­d­e­m­ic, “ency­clo­pe­dic, ped­a­gog­i­cal,” and pitched to musi­col­o­gists as well as “Syn­the­siz­er Geeks” like­ly to appre­ci­ate the niceties of the 1961 DIMI & Helsin­ki Elec­tron­ic Music Stu­dio.

But even non-aca­d­e­mics and non-geeks can learn much from the his­to­ry of such unusu­al instru­ments as the Klaviatur­sphäraphon (above), one of sev­er­al cre­ations of Ger­man com­pos­er Jörg Mager in his pur­suit of “a new type of utopi­an ‘free’ music by means of new elec­tron­ic cath­ode-ray musi­cal instru­ments.”

Amidst the weird obscu­ri­ties and high-con­cept musi­cal the­o­ry, you’ll also find old favorites that rev­o­lu­tion­ized pop music, like the Ham­mond Organ (see a mak­ing-of pro­mo­tion­al video above), the var­i­ous iter­a­tions of Moog syn­the­siz­ers, and of course the Fairlight CMI (short for Com­put­er Musi­cal Instru­ment). Invent­ed by Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel in Aus­tralia in 1979, the Fairlight is affec­tion­ate­ly known as the “moth­er of all sam­plers,” and its tech­nol­o­gy jump­start­ed the rev­o­lu­tion in com­put­er music from the 80s to today. You can see Vogel demon­strate the first ver­sion of his Fairlight in this video, or—for a slight­ly less geeky intro—see Peter Gabriel demon­strate it below (or watch Her­bie Han­cock and Quin­cy Jones show you how it’s done in a clip from Sesame Street.)

The Ham­mond, Moogs, and Fairlight aside, very few of the instru­ments fea­tured on 120 Years of Elec­tron­ic Music had any kind of direct impact on pop­u­lar music. But many of them, like Hugh Le Caine’s 1945 Elec­tron­ic Sack­but, influ­enced the influ­encers, and they all rep­re­sent some evo­lu­tion­ary step for­ward, or side­ways, in the devel­op­ment of the sounds we hear all around us now in every pos­si­ble genre.

Addi­tion­al­ly, Crab’s his­tor­i­cal project explores what he calls “the dichoto­my between rad­i­cal cul­ture and rad­i­cal social change,” with dis­cus­sions on the links between Bol­she­vism and the avant-garde and mod­ernism and fascism—discussions of keen inter­est to cul­tur­al his­to­ri­ans and crit­i­cal the­o­rists. Oh, and the name? “The project,” Crab explains, “was begun in 1996; con­sid­er­ing elec­tron­ic music start­ed around 1880 this was quite an accu­rate title for the time.” It’s now “a bit out of date but… some­thing of a brand-name.” We’ll for­give him this minor chrono­log­i­cal inac­cu­ra­cy for the tremen­dous ser­vice his open access ency­clo­pe­dia offers to schol­ars and enthu­si­asts alike. Explore it here.

via Elec­tron­ic Beats

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Meet the “Tel­har­mo­ni­um,” the First Syn­the­siz­er (and Pre­de­ces­sor to Muzak), Invent­ed in 1897

Dis­cov­er­ing Elec­tron­ic Music: 1983 Doc­u­men­tary Offers a Fun & Edu­ca­tion­al Intro­duc­tion to Elec­tron­ic Music

Hear the Great­est Hits of Isao Tomi­ta (RIP), the Father of Japan­ese Elec­tron­ic Music

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music in 476 Tracks (1937–2001)

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938- 2014)

Pio­neer­ing Elec­tron­ic Com­pos­er Karl­heinz Stock­hausen Presents “Four Cri­te­ria of Elec­tron­ic Music” & Oth­er Lec­tures in Eng­lish (1972)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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