The Electronic Century Part II: Tales of the Tape

When tape recorders were introduced to the market around 1950, composers embarked on a musical revolution. Magnetic recording made it possible for them
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FIG. 1: The Rangertone was an early tape recorder developed by Colonel Richard Ranger, who played a key role in bringing German recording technology to the United States at the end of World War II.

When tape recorders were introduced to the market around 1950, composers embarked on a musical revolution. Magnetic recording made it possible for them to record sound sources anywhere in the world—whether a railroad locomotive in Paris or a department store in Tokyo—and arrange them into any order. In fact, the term "tape music" refers to music composed with sounds that have been recorded on tape, then edited into a particular continuity.

The first steps toward inventing the tape recorder took place in 1898 in Denmark, when Valdemar Poulsen developed a device to record sound on a steel wire. In the following years, many people formed businesses—not all of them successful—to exploit Poulsen's invention. By the late 1920s, patents had been filed for magnetic tape, and in 1935, Allgemeine Electrizitats Gesellschaft (AEG) demonstrated the first version of a tape recorder at the German Annual Radio Exposition in Berlin. This helped establish magnetic recording as a viable technology. By the late 1940s, Ampex, Rangertone (see Fig. 1), and other companies had been formed to manufacture tape recorders, and Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) developed an improved magnetic tape.


The use of tape recorders to create musical compositions grew out of a tradition that began in the early years of the century. That tradition used "found" sounds rather than composed sounds. As early as 1917 in Paris, France, Jean Cocteau conceived the ballet Parade, which called for the sounds of sirens, a steam engine, and other mechanical devices, as well as music by composer Erik Satie. In 1926, George Antheil used an airplane engine onstage in a Paris performance of his Ballet Mecanique (recently revived in a production by Paul Lehrman at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell).

American composer John Cage, however, was the first to consistently explore the use of nontraditional sounds in music (see Fig. 2). In the style of Ferruccio Busoni and Edgard Varese, who earlier in the century had theorized that music might include all sounds, Cage said: "I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced by the aid of electrical instruments.." In 1939, Cage included a number of variable-speed phonograph turntables in his composition Imaginary Landscape no. 1. (Many of the works mentioned in this article are available on modern recordings. See the sidebar, "Tape-Music Hit Parade," for a list of recommended recordings.) Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Cage used radios, phonograph records, tin cans, and other nontraditional sound sources in his works.


While Cage was largely interested in performance, Pierre Schaeffer (see Fig. 3), a radio announcer at Radio France in Paris, was primarily interested in recording his own work. In 1948, during the course of developing a medium he called "radiophonic sound," Schaeffer completed an important experiment. He recorded railroad locomotives, then combined those sounds into a short composition. Before he had access to tape recorders, he would cut the sounds directly onto plastic discs, play back several sounds simultaneously on different players, and select and mix the sounds as they played.

He named his composition Etude aux Chemins de Fer (Railroad Study). He then coined the term musique concrete to describe his technique of recording and combining sounds. By using the phrase musique concrete ("concrete music"), he hoped to contrast a concrete way of working with sounds with an abstract way of working with them, in which the sounds are represented by notes in a musical score.

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FIG. 2: John Cage in his studio n Bank Street, New York City, in 1977. Photo of Rhoda Nathans.

To understand Schaeffer's work, it is important to remember that there was no television in 1948 and that radio was the most universal theater of the time. Dramatic programs, serials, and adventure stories, as well as music and news, were broadcast on the radio, and the sounds in radio programs inspired a high level of creativity.

Schaeffer, in fact, developed the idea of radiophonic sound into an art form. He finished four additional musique concrete studies in 1948 and broadcast them on Radio France on October 5, 1948. The program, called Concert de Bruits (Concert of Noises), was tremendously successful. Composing music using recorded sound was an idea whose time had come.


Encouraged by the positive public reaction to his work, Schaeffer requested and received support from the administration of Radio France. He was then able to hire Pierre Henry as his musical assistant and Jacques Poullin as technician. He was also given support to form a studio specifically to compose musique concrete.

Over the next few years, Schaeffer and Henry collaborated on many projects, among them 1950's Symphonie pour un Homme Seul (Symphony for One Man Alone), one of the first major works in the new medium, and Orphee (1951), a musique concrete opera. In 1951, the first tape recorders arrived at Radio France. Poullin designed different types of recorders to create special musical effects and developed a spatialization system to direct sounds to different loudspeakers around a concert hall. The studio grew through the 1950s and attracted many composers, among them Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luc Ferrari, Olivier Messaien, and Iannis Xenakis.

Xenakis, in particular, produced several important works using classic musique concrete techniques such as manipulating sounds by varying tape speed or playing sounds backward. The sound sources in Diamorphoses (1957) include earthquakes, airplanes, and bells. In Concret PH (1958), Xenakis modified the sound of smoldering charcoal. For Orient-Occident (1960), he recorded bowed objects, bells, and metal rods, while Bohor (1962) is based on the sounds of Middle Eastern bracelets and other jewelry clanking together.

In 1958, Pierre Henry left Radio France to form an independent studio. Apart from his professional work, he produced many important pieces on his own using musique concrete techniques. Perhaps the most interesting, due to the simplicity of its sound sources, is 1963's Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir (Variations for a Door and a Sigh).


Many paths crossed in those early days. Karlheinz Stockhausen, who had come from Cologne, Germany, to study at the Paris Conservatory, worked in Schaeffer's studio. In 1953, Stockhausen returned to Cologne to begin working in the studio newly established by Herbert Eimert at West German Radio, and he soon became the studio's director and principal composer.

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FIG. 3: Pierre Schaeffer established the first electronic-music studio in France in the 1940s. Schaeffer is shown here in 1952 with two versions of the phonogene, a variable-speed tape recorder built by Jacques Poullin.

The initial philosophy of the Cologne studio was very different from that of musique concrete. Whereas in Paris sounds were recorded in the real world and recombined by editing as in film, in Cologne, the first idea was to generate sounds electronically by additive synthesis. Considering that the studio owned one sine-wave oscillator, it was a laborious process. Sine waves were made on a 4-track tape recorder, then mixed down onto a single-track recorder. The mix was then bounced to one track of the multitrack recorder, additional sine waves were added on the other tracks, and all the tracks were again mixed down on the single-track recorder. This approach was called elektronische Musik.

Stockhausen began by composing two studies using only electronic sounds. In 1956, he finished Gesang der Junglinge (Song of the Youths), the first major work to be composed in the Cologne studio and one of the first masterworks of tape music. In Gesang der Junglinge, Stockhausen mixed a young boy's voice with electronic sounds so that the words were variously intelligible and completely abstract and musical.

In 1960, he went on to compose Kontakte (Contacts), in which the sounds suggest percussion and piano timbres. During a trip to Japan in 1966, he composed Telemusik (Telemusic) with sounds recorded in Japan, Bali, the Sahara, and other places. He modulated all of the sounds in such a way that their sources are unrecognizable. In 1967 in Cologne, he composed Hymnen (Anthems), in which he electronically processed national anthems from around the world. By this time, Stockhausen's techniques had changed dramatically from working with purely electronic sounds to processing recorded material.


Although known primarily as a composer, Iannis Xenakis had a particular nonmusical impact on the history of electronic music. Trained initially as a civil engineer, he had worked since the late 1940s with Le Corbusier, one of the best-known European architects of the time.

In 1956, Philips Corporation, a major electronics company based in Holland, invited Le Corbusier to design its pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. Le Corbusier replied, "I will make you a poeme electronique." and asked Xenakis to design the pavilion. Xenakis came up with an idea based on hyperbolic paraboloids (see Fig. 4). During the world's fair, the building was used as a shell for multiple projections of images Le Corbusier had created and as a music playback system that included 425 loudspeakers. The music included Xenakis's Concret PH, which was less than three minutes long, played between performances of Edgard Varese's Poeme Electronique. More than 2 million people attended the event.

In 1957, Philips had invited Varese to create Poeme Electronique in its Eindhoven laboratory. Varese used recordings of traditional musical instruments, percussion, electronic sounds, a singing voice, and various machines. All of the sounds were processed electronically. Poeme Electronique is a definitive statement of musique concrete.


While the Paris studio was getting started in the late 1940s, Louis and Bebe Barron established a small commercial studio in New York. They composed several electronic film scores, among them one for the well-known 1956 film Forbidden Planet. They also worked with John Cage in 1951.

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FIG. 4: The Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, site of the performance of Varese's Poeme Electronique.

As soon as tape recorders became available, Cage became interested in exploring ways they could be used in composing music. He decided to start what he called the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape. An architect and friend, Paul Williams, was willing to fund the project. In 1951, Cage began working with the Barrons to assemble a large and varied library of taped sounds. He worked first with David Tudor, then with Earle Brown, to cut and splice those sounds into a tape composition, Williams Mix.

The work took place in Cage's loft on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Cage cut the tapes into short pieces, then flipped coins to decide how to order them. Using this method, Cage and Brown finished Williams Mix together. They then worked together on Brown's Octet. In 1954, the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape wound down, partly because the money ran out and partly because Cage moved on to other projects.

While John Cage and Earle Brown spliced together snippets of tape in lower Manhattan, other events were unfolding uptown. In 1952 at Columbia University, Vladimir Ussachevsky presented a concert that included his first electronic compositions. Shortly afterward, he began working with composer Otto Luening in Bennington, Vermont, and in various living rooms and studios in New York City.

On October 28, 1952, Ussachevsky and Luening presented a concert of their music at the Museum of Modern Art in New York-significant because it was the first public concert of tape music in the United States. The program included Ussachevsky's Sonic Contours and Luening's Fantasy in Space. After that, the two men became busy with radio appearances, other concerts, commissions, and fellowships. This flurry of activity led to the establishment of a tape studio at Columbia University in 1955 (see Fig. 5).

The studio flourished. In 1959, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, Ussachevsky, Luening, and Princeton professor Milton Babbit established the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and acquired the Mark II Electronic Music Synthesizer. The center also housed three tape studios, and in the next ten years, more than 60 composers from 11 countries came to New York to work there.

Among them was Mario Davidovsky, who arrived from Argentina in 1960 and became one of the major composers of tape music. Davidovsky's Synchronisms no. 5 (1969), based on an interplay between electronic sounds on tape and live percussionists, is a good example of his style. His Synchronisms no. 6, for piano and tape, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1971.


Ussachevsky and Luening's concert at the Museum of Modern Art had another important consequence. Luciano Berio, visiting New York from Milan, Italy, was in the audience and became excited by the possibilities of this new medium. When he returned to Italy a few months later, he met composer and conductor Bruno Maderna, and they decided to work together to explore the potential of tape music. In 1955, they established Studio di Fonologia at the Radio Televisione Italiana (RAI) studios in Milan.

Berio's best-known work to come out of this studio was Omaggio a Joyce (Homage to Joyce), finished in 1958. Berio asked his wife, Cathy Berberian, to recite from chapter 11 of James Joyce's Ulysses. He then processed the words electronically and with tape-recorder manipulations. Of particular interest is how he mixed different versions of the same sound to produce sounds that suggest the meanings of other words.

Many other composers worked at the Milan studio. Henri Pousseur composed Scambi (Exchanges) in 1957 by filtering white noise. In 1958, John Cage visited Milan and composed a tape version of his earlier composition Fontana Mix by using random numbers to determine the length of the tape segments. (While there, Cage distinguished himself by appearing on an Italian television quiz show, correctly answering questions about mushrooms.)


John Cage continued his groundbreaking work into the 1970s. In 1972, he composed Bird Cage, which juxtaposed the sounds of birds recorded in aviaries, the sounds of Cage himself singing Mureau (an earlier composition of his based on Thoreau's writings), and sounds recorded randomly from the environment.

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FIG. 5: Otto Luenig and Vladimir Ussachevsky in the Columbia Tape Studio, about 1960.

In 1979, Cage composed Roaratorio, the largest in scope of all tape music compositions in the number of sounds used and a fitting piece with which to designate the end of an era. In it, Cage recorded, collected, and randomly combined all of the sounds that James Joyce mentions in Finnegans Wake. In performance, the tapes were played while Cage read his own recomposed version of Finnegans Wake. At the same time, Irish musicians played traditional Irish folk music. Roaratorio gathered an enormous variety of sounds—doors closing in Dublin, a river flowing, a glass placed on a bar, a car passing in the street—and assembled them as music.

The idea of using tape to juxtapose sounds in any combination from any source was so powerful that tape studios quickly formed throughout the world. The first round of work was done not only in New York, Paris, Cologne, and Milan, but also in studios formed in London, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Stockholm—in short, everywhere.

It was an exciting time in the history of music, and it seemed to many composers that anything was possible. Around the world they shared the common goal of creating a new kind of music based on the availability of all sounds.

Joel Chadabe, composer, is author of Electric Sound and president of the Electronic Music Foundation. He can be reached at


The following recommended materials are available from CDeMUSIC at

John Cage 25-Year Retrospective Concert (Wergo) includes Imaginary Landscape no. 1 and Williams Mix from the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape.

Forbidden Planet (GNP Crescendo) by Louis and Bebe Barron is the original 1956 soundtrack to the famous science fiction film.

Pierre Schaeffer: L'Oeuvre Musicale (EMF Media) brings together all of Schaeffer's musical works, including his collaborations with Pierre Henry.

Xenakis: Electronic Music (EMF Media) includes all of Xenakis's early works.

Pierre Henry (Harmonia Mundi, France) includes Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir, one of the most elegant works of early musique concrete.

Elektronische Musik 1952-1960 (Stockhausen Verlag) includes Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge and Kontakte.

Hymnen (Stockhausen Verlag), by Karlheinz Stockhausen, uses the national anthems of the world as source material.

Mikrophonie I and II; Telemusik (Stockhausen Verlag), by Karlheinz Stockhausen, includes sounds from Asia and elsewhere.

Electro Acoustic Music Classics (Neuma) includes Edgard Varese's Poeme Electronique, first performed at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair.

Electronic Music Pioneers (CRI) includes works by Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening that were played at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on October 28, 1952.

Henri Pousseur (BV Haast) includes Scambi, composed in 1957 in Milan.

Berio/Maderna (BV Haast) includes Berio's Omaggio a Joyce, based on text from James Joyce's Ulysses.

John Cage Bird Cage (EMF Media) is a major collage work by John Cage, based largely on the sounds of birds recorded in aviaries.

Roaratorio (Wergo), by John Cage, includes Cage reading, Irish musicians playing and singing, and all the sounds mentioned in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

Pauline Oliveros: Electronic Works (Paradigm) includes I of IV and other early compositions that use tape.

I Am Sitting in a Room (Lovely Music), by Alvin Lucier, uses tape recorders and room resonance to transform words into abstract sounds.

A Sound Map of the Hudson River (Lovely Music), by Annea Lockwood, records the Hudson River from its source in the Adirondack Mountains to the Lower Bay of New York City and the Atlantic Ocean.

You can read more about tape music and the history of electronic music in the book Electric Sound by Joel Chadabe (Prentice Hall, 1996).

The Electronic Century, Parts I–IV

Part I: Beginnings

Part III: Computers and Analog Synthesizers

Part IV: The Seeds of the Future