(c) Jerry Fielden 2000 

Pioneers of Electronic Music – Early Works 

Schaeffer/Henry, Ussachevsky/Luening and Le Caine 

In 1950, the first major work of Musique concrète came out: the eleven movements of Symphonie pour un homme seul were the dénouement of several years of works and studies that had started with engineer Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux chemins de fer. This new music was a synthesis of several recorded sources, assembled in the studio using several novel techniques and materials. Schaeffer and Pierre Henry used sounds from the everyday world such as human voice, breathing, and shouting and also sounds from musical instruments, such as prepared piano and percussion. The composers used mechanical means to achieve the various effects with which they altered the sounds, such as groove lockings (and eventually tape loops) for building a foundation of rhythm for the piece.[1] One can look back for basic technical background at Schaeffer’s Études, including Étude aux chemins de fer, in which sounds recorded from a train depot are employed to create a contrast between the soothing rhythm particularly associated with moving trains and the sudden breaking off into the punctuation of a whistle or steam valve. This beginning of the new genre presaged more complex pieces, and with the advent of the tape recorder, easier manipulation of sounds to permit more flexibility in the music. Schaeffer’s theory was that the ear should strive for a sort of “reduced listening”, a search for a “universal symphony”, in other words the art of listening to everything all at once instead of trying to pinpoint and listen to a specific source.[2] In 1951, Schaeffer and Henry were duly recognized as innovators by the R.T.F and given equipment, including tape recorders, and helped by Jacques Poullin, the studio quickly became a hotbed of productions and collaborations featuring luminaries such as Maurice Béjart for ballet, and other composers such as Boulez, Stockhausen, Messiaen, etc.[3] The composer Ussachevsky remembers that this studio was particularly big and well-equipped, and featured a “Phonogen”, which was a tape recorder whose speed could be controlled by a keyboard.[4] This presaged Hugh Le Caine’s “Multi-track” tape recorder as well as synthesizer-controlled tape decks such as McGill’s EMS’s Moog-controlled Ampexes. Henry went on the write the majority of the works produced in this studio whereas Pierre Schaeffer seemingly faded in the background, content with his position as major influence to the participants. This influence reached far, as he persuaded Edgard Varèse to produce part of his work Déserts at the studio. Varèse eventually took the genre to the cutting edge with the Brussel’s World Fair production of Poème électronique, a magistral work in which the media are exploited to the full, from the sound of the opening bell to the modified tones of the filtered and reverberated sources, and the placement of the 350+ loudspeakers and various light effects and sources as well.[5] In 1958, Pierre Henry eventually left the studio to open his own private studio, and the sonorous content of Schaeffer’s pieces had by then evolved, as he added richer sounds as bases and used these for “building up” instead of “dissolving” a composition’s structure.[6] One can hear this evolution in that year’s Étude aux Allures, in which the tonalities ring out with strong harmonics in the brassy bell-like sounds that dominate the composition. 

This revolution of music was paralleled in the United States by the Columbia-Princeton group, which sprang out of the efforts of composers such as Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky from Columbia University. In the early 1950s, Columbia University received a tape recorder and the two composers used it to create innovative pieces. Their collaboration began with small improvisations on tape that were showcased at a party where the other attending composers were duly impressed.[7] Most of the duo’s compositions were based on the modified sounds of real instruments.[8] Indeed this led to considerable alteration of tonal sources: in the 1965 piece Of Wood and Brass, Ussachevsky used trombone, trumpet, xylophone and a gong, of which he filtered and transposed the essence of the tones to alter the timbres of the original instruments to obtain some familiar-sounding yet surrealistic sounds.[9] Ussachevsky and Luening’s earlier pieces had been based on piano and flute, or piano alone. They obtained reverberation and echo using several tape heads across a tape loop, predating commercial tape echo units by several years.[10] Ussachevsky also used altered voice, a technique used by many composers of the era, such as Luciano Berio, John Cage and Stockhausen. For instance, he used several languages (two ancient tongues, actually), in Creation: Prologue.[11] This multilingual or often supralingual technique was also used by later composers such as Toru Takemisu in Vocalism Ai and alcides lanza[12] in vôo and ontem. Ussachevsky and Luening were also live performance pioneers and gave the first ever public tape recorder music performance in the United States on October 28, 1952 at the Museum of Modern Arts in New York, featuring Ussachevsky operating the tapes during the concert. The critics were quite impressed and the program was broadcast on radio and followed up on television with a live demonstration of the new musical medium.[13] In 1955, the two composers toured Europe on a fact-finding tour and spoke with Pierre Schaeffer, Bruno Maderna and others. Upon their return, the composers joined forces with Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions of Princeton, with emphasis put on using the RCA synthesizer for composing music. Eventually this led to the genesis of the Princeton-Columbia group and the associated music studio, in which the RCA Mark II synthesizer was featured prominently in the works of many attending composers.[14] The greatest apparent difference between the works of Ussachevsky and Luening and those of the Europeans seems to be a greater insistence on rhythm and traditional melody, and it is possible that this made the results a bit more accessible to the public.[15] 

At the same time, Hugh Le Caine was building original instruments and composing in Ottawa, Montreal, England and elsewhere. Le Caine seemed to be acutely aware of the problems facing musicians in live performance with the new music. He accordingly built an instrument called the “electronic Sackbut” between 1945 and 1948, which featured control over pitch, timbre and volume by using a touch-sensitive keyboard with keys that could be moved in three dimensions to achieve this goal.[16] He also built a touch-sensitive organ that could be tuned in different temperaments and retuned as the musician played, a multi-track and multi-reel variable-speed tape recorder, a sequencer, etc.[17] Some of those instruments predated their successors by ten years or more, for instance the Moog synthesizers, whether monophonic or polyphonic. The organ maker, Baldwin, even took out a patent on the touch-sensitive keyboard for several years, but did not use the technology that Le Caine had created.[18] 

Le Caine eventually found an interest in Musique concrète when he heard Henry and Schaeffer’s work with turntables and tape recorders. He made a library of sound objects and started experimenting with the modification of sounds using these techniques. This is when he modified his tape recorder to change speeds when required, which was quite a challenge at the time, but Le Caine quickly found a solution in a device that used a “spinning disc with a movable ball at the centre”.[19] The “multi-track” was born and Le Caine used it to make his first piece: Dripsody used the modified sound of a single drop of water. In this composition, Le Caine used four tape loops combined at three speed variations, arranged in a pentatonic scale. The resulting arrangement, only 1 minute and 26 seconds long, consisted of thousand of notes from the modified single original sound. His further pieces, for instance This Thing called Key or Arcane Presents Lulu, used the Multi-track for splices and speed changes, and indeed some humorous variations of recognizable melodies, such as Happy Birthday, can be recognized in these.[20] This humor would also show in later pieces, such as the 1970 work for computer, Mobile or in titles of pieces such as A Noisome Pestilence. He then helped to open two electronic music studios, first at the University of Toronto in 1959, then at McGill University in 1964. He also taught at both universities and managed to keep on building instruments at the same time.[21] During the 1970s, he would also redesign the Sackbut, and work on the “Polyphone” or “Pauly” polyphonic synthesizer at McGill University, where he received an honorary doctorate in the spring of 1971.[22] This was followed by another honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto in the summer of 1973, where he gave the convocation address. Le Caine now became more interested in researching timbre and overtones, but by 1974, the Sackbut project had fallen flat and he was thinking of retirement. Later that year, Queen’s University named a building for him and conferred an honorary degree on him as well. He retired that December, but continued his work at some projects, writing a paper about tone generators of the twentieth century and also giving interviews. Eventually, he suffered grave injuries during a motorcycle accident in July 1976, which led to his death one year later.[23] 

Le Caine had described himself more of a creator of musical instruments, a physicist than a composer, and he indeed endeavored to design instruments that could be flexible and complex, and well in advance of their time. However, if only for Dripsody, he will be remembered as one of the great pioneers of the electronic music genre. 


Darter, Tom, The Art of Electronic Music, (New York, 1984) 

Ernst, David, The Evolution of Electronic Music, (New York, 1977) 

Griffiths, Paul, A Guide to Electronic Music, (Bath, 1979) 

Holmes, Thomas B., Electronic and Experimental Music, (New York, 1985) 

Luening, Otto, “An Unfinished History of Electronic Music”, Music Educator’s Journal, November 1968, (Washington, 1968), 9 ff. 

Schaeffer, Pierre, Traité des objets musicaux, (Paris, 1966) 

Young, Gayle, The Sackbut Blues, (Ottawa, 1989) 

Various Authors, Electronic Music Festival Program, December 1990, McGill University EMS (Montreal, 1990) 

http://csunix1.lvc.edu/~snyder/em/schaef.html – Pierre Schaeffer page at Jeff Snyder, Assistant Director of the Music Technology Program at Lebanon Valley College of Pennsylvania’s page 

http://musicworks-mag.com/le_caine/english/biogra~2.htm – Le Caine biography page at Musicworks magazine 


[1] Thomas B. Holmes, Electronic and Experimental Music, (New York, 1985), 121; http://csunix1.lvc.edu/~snyder/em/schaef.html – Pierre Schaeffer page at Jeff Snyder, Assistant Director of the Music Technology Program at Lebanon Valley College of Pennsylvania’s page 

[2] Pierre Schaeffer, Traité des objets musicaux, (Paris, 1966), 332 

[3] Holmes, 121 

[4] Tom Darter, The Art of Electronic Music, (New York, 1984), 151 

[5] David Ernst, The Evolution of Electronic Music, (New York, 1977), 43 

[6] Ibid., 36 

[7] Otto Luening, “An Unfinished History of Electronic Music”, Music Educator’s Journal, November 1968, (Washington, 1968), 14 

[8] Paul Griffiths, A Guide to Electronic Music, (Bath, 1979) 15; Holmes, 131 

[9] Ernst, 18 

[10] Ibid., 14 

[11] Ibid., 108 

[12] lanza studied with Ussachevsky and then taught and composed at Columbia-Princeton: Electronic Music Festival Program, December 1990, McGill University EMS (Montreal, 1990), 8 

[13] Otto Luening, “An Unfinished History of Electronic Music”, Music Educator’s Journal, November 1968, (Washington, 1968), 14 

[14] Darter, 50 

[15] Ernst, 48 

[16] Gayle Young, The Sackbut Blues, (Ottawa, 1989), 37 ff. 

[17] Some of these machines would be part of the newly-founded EMS at McGill (1964): Electronic Music Festival Program, December 1990, McGill University EMS (Montreal, 1990), 5 

[18] Young, 74 ff., 93 

[19] Young, 89 

[20] Ibid., 95 

[21] http://musicworks-mag.com/le_caine/english/biogra~2.htm – Le Caine biography page at Musicworks magazine 

[22]Young, 149 ff. 

[23] Young., 160 ff.


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