The Weirdos Are the Heroes in This Brief History of Electronic Music

Live Wires rips open the definition of 'electronic' to tell the story of the how those tapes and wires and transistors came to transform music into what we take for granted today.

Live Wires
Daniel Warner
15 Dec 2017

Electronic music gets flattened out and generalized on a regular basis. It’s not just bleeps and bloops and squeaks. Of course, the history of electronic music coincides with the progression of 20th century music. The technology toiled over in the past century gave birth to devices, both musical and non-musical, that were manipulated to the tune of the progression of all music, all the way up to the heavy vocal processing so popular in pop today. Here’s an example: hip-hop is known for borrowing others’ music and manipulating it to make something new. We all know and appreciate that fact, but the noted experimental composer John Cage was playing tapes on top of tapes as early as the ’50s. When broken down into pieces, the larger picture of what ‘electronic’ means becomes clear. Daniel Warner’s book, Live Wires, rips open the term to tell the wider story of the how those tapes and wires and transistors came to transform music into what we take for granted today.

The full history of such a large topic would easily take thousands of pages but Warner does well in catching all that can be captured in such a slim, less-than 200 page volume. The term ‘Electronic’ is by its nature vague, and Warner categorizes to give context outside of time and place. He uses five simple categories as chapter titles: Tape Recorder, Circuits, Turntable and Record, Microphone, and Computers. Upon initial viewing of the few titles, skepticism creeped in. It seems like such few categories would be insufficient. Again, the subject itself is too large for wrangling, but these five categories do quite well in giving the reader some semblance of context for understanding.

Each section is focused on one particular device and what it spawned in the culture. For example, the ‘Tape Recorder’ section focuses heavily on experimental music, as the device never became big with consumers, but it opened up a whole new world for the aural artist: sound manipulation. Everyday sounds could be recorded and then cut up, slowed down or spliced to make something new. Later, the ‘Turntable and Record’ section recounts the history of manipulating records and will quickly educate the novice about the dexterity of the turntable artist. For many though, the core of the book will come from the ‘Circuits’ section, wherein Warner lays out the progression of the electronic keyboard from being the size of a room to being virtually whatever size you wish. Here is where the reader digests the stories about the Moog, the Theremin, Wendy Carlos, the Buchla, the Mellotron, and all the other gadgets and artists we love. Here’s where we hear the other worldly story of Clara Rockmore, the unexpected transformation of Robert Moog. If you’re new to the topic, you can get your foundation here, and if you’re already fairly knowledgeable you’ll learn more, as Warner is a sucker for details.

If there’s a major theme to be gleamed from the book, it would be this: the weirdos are the true heroes. It becomes obvious fairly early on that this book focuses on the avant-garde artists over the pop artists. Warner makes it clear why though: these artist blaze the path for what’s to come with all their unheralded time and effort, while the pop artists just pick up the finished product and jam out some chords. Before the Beatles could play those few notes on the Moog on Abbey Road, Moog and Carlos and a slew of others had to create and trial run the wearisome beast for years. It’s a lesson to remember.

The book can be quite clinical, being a little too heavy on shop talk at times. It’s hard to imagine a perceived audience for this particular book, as it is quite specific when it comes to history, but it’s even harder to believe that many readers are in possession of the knowledge to process a line like this: “Another timbral development was J.K. Randall’s subprogram that would, among other things, map ‘basic sets of partials onto enlarged and compressed spaces.'” That line was wrapped up in a page that also included the terms inharmonic, accelerandi, ritardandi, and glissandi. It’s true, the terms are easily accessible with a quick online search, but the question remains: What kind of reader was the book made for? If the above excerpt sounds interesting to you, you’re just the type.

Regardless of if the proper audience was in focus or not, the book gets its job done for most readers: it gives a wider look on how music has been progressed and transformed by electronic devices. Warner starts with the earliest sound manipulators cutting up and slowing down tapes and zig zags his way to the present day where a laptop is that main stay of many a performance artist. A good nerd will have a computer close by with some search tabs open and they will hear a bunch of cool sounds made by the lesser known pioneers of the electronic, the true legends of our current musical landscape.

RATING 8 / 10
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