History of Electroacoustic Music

The Cologne Studio:
elektronische Musik

In 1948 Homer Dudley from Bell Telephone laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, visited Werner Meyer-Eppler (1913-1955), who was director of the Institute of Phonetics at the University of Bonn. Dudley showed Meyer-Eppler his new invention, the vocoder.

Meyer-Eppler gave a series of lectures and demonstrations of the vocoder. He was soon joined by Robert Beyer, an engineer from the Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk (NWDR) in Cologne, in his efforts to advance electronic music. They gave a lecture in 1950 at Darmstadt called "The Sound World of Electronic Music." Among those in the audience was Herbert Eimert (1897-1972), a music critic, composer, and broadcast editor at NWDR. Eimert was a leading theoretician and composer in dodecaphonic music, having written one of the first books on twelve-tone music in the 1920s, The Fundamentals of Modern Series Technique.

Later that same year, Harald Bode (1909-1987), a designer of electronic keyboards, brought an invention he called Melochord to Meyer-Eppler. This instrument spanned five octaves, and was touch-sensitive, meaning that it responded to pressure applied to its keys. The Melochord was also the first instrument to feature a split keyboard, whereby the bottom two octaves could be sent to one tone generator, and the top three sent to another. The instrument also featured envelope generators that could set the amplitude shape of a note. Filters also could be set to establish formant regions at different pitch areas, just as had the Trautonium. Meyer-Eppler and Bode used it to create further examples of electronic music. In July 1951 Meyer-Eppler gave a lecture at Darmstadt titled "The Possibilities of Electronic Sound Production." Beyer gave a paper titled "Music and Technology," and Eimert moderated a panel discussion themed "Music on the Borderline," at which a heated confrontation erupted with Pierre Schaeffer, when lines were drawn defining the philosophical differences between the two camps.

In October 1951, WDR agreed to create a music studio in which compositions were realized on magnetic tape using electronics, and appointed Eimert as its artistic director. There was a distinct and stated contrast with the philosophy of Schaeffer's studio in Paris, which focused on the use of microphone-recorded sounds. Eimert's goal was to employ the newly-christened elektronische Musik to realize serial music. Electronic components allowed the ultimate degree of control over musical features. Recorded sounds, or any sounds that imitated acoustic instruments, were contrary to the tenets of this studio. With electronic sound generation, elements such as the number of harmonics of a tone or its attack time could be precisely controlled as elements of a serial matrix. Therefore, serial music, considered by the much of the musical community to be the only meaningful compositional technique, could be explored from first principles, wherein precise control of frequency, rhythm, duration, and timbre were possible. The music would also be free of any associative qualities that would remind listeners of acoustic instruments or recordings of concrète sounds.

The studio was equipped with a sine wave generator, a white noise generator, a Melochord, and a special version of the Trautonium called the Monochord that allowed one key region to be used not to generate sounds, but rather to control the formant frequencies, allowing one hand to play notes and another hand to change timbre dynamically. The two keyboard-based instruments were not favored by Eimert, and were used by composers without Eimert's research inclination to create background music for radio plays. Tones created with the sine generator and its polar opposite, the noise generator, were seen as addressing the pure goals of elektronische Musik, despite the arduous and time-consuming nature of their creation.

Reverberation effects were realized with an echo chamber, a reverberant room containing a loudspeaker and a microphone. Sounds could be played over the loudspeaker in the room, where they were subsequently recorded with the microphone. Perhaps the most state-of-the-art item in the studio was a four track tape recorder. The four track recorder operated by the same principle as a stereo tape recorder, except that the heads (and, by extension, the tape) were subdivided into four horizontal sections instead of into two. Compositions were created with generic radio test equipment -- oscillators, filters, gates (devices that allowed a signal to pass or not, thus allowing specific notes to be generated from an oscillator). It was tedious work. To generate a series of tones, the oscillator would have to be set to the desired frequency, the tone recorded to tape, the tape stopped, the oscillator re-tuned so that another tone could be recorded, and so on. Once the tones were recorded, segments of tape could be spliced together, using specified lengths of tape to create desired rhythms. Complex textures could be made with the four-track deck by bouncing tracks. This involved recording four tracks of material, then sending those four tracks to a single track of another tape deck. This track could then be transferred back to a single track of the multi-track deck, where it could be combined further with other tracks of material.

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), a former student of Messiaen, had spent time in 1952 at the Radiodiffusion Francaise studio in Paris, learning techniques of musique concrète. He became part of the Darmstadt group, espousing serial music, and began to work at the WDR studio in 1953. His first piece, Studie I (1953) was created by additive synthesis, confining his audio source to sine wave oscillators. He devised specific relationships between frequencies, duration, amplitude, amplitude envelope shapes. Different frequencies with different volume envelopes would be recorded onto different tracks of a four-track tape deck. Many of the frequencies were not harmonically related, creating bell-like qualities. Through splicing and bouncing tracks, Stockhausen explored new levels of timbral control, being able to control the presence of different partials.

His second piece, Studie II (1954), employed tones created with five inharmonically related sine tones, arranged in a serial fashion. Amplitude gradations were controlled in 30 units of one decibel increments. Additional coloration was obtained by use of the echo chamber.

Stockhausen considered his work to be new research, and was thus meticulous in his record keeping so that others could build on his efforts. Studie II had a fully-written score that mapped the frequency groups, their placement in time, and their changes in volume.

Click here to see examples of the score for Studie II

Such explorations of new technologies as a means of creating music added a level of meaning to the modernist school of composition. The Cologne studio became the second large electronic music facility in Europe, along with Schaeffer's studio in Paris. For years, a distinct schism was in place between the two techniques. Perhaps it had something to do with hard feelings between the two countries left over from World War II. The dogmatic philosophies of the two directors, Eimert and Schaeffer, also played a part. But composers were either practicing musique concrète or electronische Musik at any given time.