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Friday, September 9, 2016

Columbia–Princeton Electronic Music Center (Recorded in 1961, released in 1964) Columbia


Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening, Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions founded the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City sometime in the early 1950s.   It is the oldest center to focus on composing and making electronic music in the United States.  For me, there is something wonderful and fresh hearing early electronic music in the combined eras 1950s and 1960s.  It was a time of wonderment and exploration of new sounds, done in new ways.  This particular album is a classic, which consisted of pieces and performances by Babbit, Luening, Ussachevsky, Bülent Arel, Halim El-Dabh, and Mario Davidovsky. 

The main discovery for me is El-Dabh's "Leiyla and the Poet." My reference to this piece is David Bowie's "Lodger" album, which was one of the first works I heard that mixes ethnic melodies in an electronic-pop mode.   I don't know if Bowie was aware of El-Dabh's work, but what's marvelous is the mixture of musique concrète with what I think is Egyptian folk or ethnic music.  Based on the Arabic 11th century poem "Layla and Majnun, " the music is a combination of vocals, percussion and high-pitched electronic noise.  Tape manipulation of speed transposition filters the vocals into a unique and highly effective sound. It's a short intense piece of work, that also brings to mind the music that Paul Bowles recorded in Morocco.  To me, it's the perfect hybrid of styles, that is familiar, but in actuality, it's quite new - especially at the time of this recording in 1961.  

Ussachevsky's full chorus piece "Creation - Prologue" is a mixture of heavenly voices but then is joined by jolting electronic effects, including a short section using an early version of a synthesizer.  It's not surprising to know that Arel worked with Edgard Varèse - because the piece here, "Stereo Electronic Music No. 1" is very similar to the great French musique concrète composer's music.   Completely electronic, and controlled feedback, it's a remarkable piece of textures exploring mood and tension.   Rabbit's performance as the title says "Composition for Synthesizer" is an exploration of linear/total rhythms, volume, and pitches.  For me, the weakest piece on this album, but still interesting.  Davidovsky's "Electronic Study No. 1" is from three sources: sinusoidal and square wave generators, and white noise.   Chaos is contained in a box by the composer.  

The last piece on the album is by Luening, and it's a combination of synthesizer, then manipulated by taping techniques, with a live violin, played by Max Pollikoff.  "Gargoyles" is an intense piece of noise/music.   Besides the chorus used in Ussachevsky, and El-Dabh's mixture of vocals/electronics, this is very much more of a real stringed instrument bouncing off the electronics/tape manipulations.  The beauty of all six composers is that they have studied classical composition as well as worked with regular orchestrations, but here they take a huge step forward to a new world.  Yet, if one listens carefully, it is still has traces of the old classical world.  A remarkable anthology of sounds that one can hear later in 20th century pop music.