'Live Wires' Offers Inconsistent but Interesting Electronic Music History

This work serves as a preliminary resource, but it's certainly not the definitive history of electronic music.

Live Wires: A History of Electronic Music
Daniel Warner


Dec 2017


Discussing the beginnings of electronic music is a task fraught with potential pitfalls, as finding a single original source or moment of birth is essentially impossible. Differing definitions of what the term "electronic" even means when applied to music makes this even more difficult. Still, there's plenty of interest to be found in those origins, and Daniel Warner's approach to collecting the disparate threads in his new book Live Wires is an interesting one: rather than attempt a chronology of the events that led us to the present-day incarnation of electronic music, he organizes his book by type of hardware. There are chapters called "Tape Recorder", "Circuits", "Turntable and Record", "Microphone", and "Computers". By concentrating on one piece of equipment at a time, Warner can carefully concentrate on the origins of a smaller piece of the electronic music landscape, resulting in a series of smaller, digestable chronologies.

Still, even those chapter titles hint toward a problem with Warner's book: some are plural, others singular. This is admittedly a nitpick, but it hints toward a larger issue, that of an inconsistency of tone. Mostly, this is a straightforward and somewhat dry (almost necessarily so) reading of technological advances and the minds behind those advances. Occasionally, though, Warner inserts himself into the conversation in ways that are often too debatable to bring up and then just leave hanging.

One example: in the "Tape Recorder" chapter, Warner brings up Frank Zappa, saying that "Zappa's masterpiece, Uncle Meat, was produced between 1967 and 1969. It was recorded on a twelve-track recorder." While the historically relevant information is the equipment, throwing in the idea that Uncle Meat is Zappa's "masterpiece" is an unnecessary and highly debatable piece of editorializing -- Zappa worked in many genres and styles, melding the electronic and the organic in so many ways that to boil him down to a single album is nigh-impossible; to do so and then justify it by counting that one album as his "masterpiece" requires at least some qualifying information. Warner does this throughout Live Wires, labeling certain artists and individual songs as particularly important without always detailing the reasons for such importance, before going back into his high-level descriptions of the machines and their origins.

It is possible that such opinionated thoughts were backed up with compelling arguments in a previous draft, eventually cut in service of a clear goal of brevity; Live Wires is a brisk 170-page read, and it functions best as a jumping off point from which further research can be done. Even as such, however, inconsistencies in approach abound, some of which are almost unavoidable given the structure of the book. The chapter titled "Microphone" feels like it digs into the microphone more than other chapters dig into their respective instruments, primarily because it goes to great lengths to explain the use of the microphone as an instrument, rather than merely amplification device. If Warner chose not to do as thorough a job as he did with the microphone, of course, it would have been a very short chapter, and the discussion of whether it should have been included might have been the one I was complaining about here; that said, it's difficult to overlook the idea that there are so many more ways that, say, "Computers" could be used in the creation of electronic music than the microphone.

That said, it's in the minutiae of chapters like "Microphones" where the best bits come to light -- by having to be creative in the definition of instrumentation, "Microphones" becomes something of a discussion of what music actually is; field recordings and feedback get their time in the light in this chapter, as does John Cage's famous/infamous "4:33". By using microphones in new and interesting ways, these composers and engineers were able to create music unlike anything that had ever been heard before. If more of the chapters could have gone into the sort of details and discussions that "Microphones" finds itself in, Live Wires might have been a more interesting book. It would have been difficult to keep that version of the book concise, though.

Live Wires is subtitled A History of Electronic Music, and the determiner is important. Everything here happened, so surely, this is a version of the history of electronic music. As such, it's fine. There's much to be learned here for those new to the subject, as well as a host of ideas for further reading or listening, depending on how much digging the reader is willing to do. On its own merits, though, it's too inconsistently presented to offer an engaging read. Its brevity ensures that many of electronic music's most important innovators will be glossed over in a sentence or two, while its attempt at ensuring that each of its hardware foci get more or less equal time means that it digs deep in ways that feel forced, even if the tangents are often interesting ones.

To the point, though: It's a history, but Live Wires is a long way from being the history, and functions far better as a resource than as a narrative. It's worth a look for those interested in the genre, but temper your expectations.

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