Electronic Music

If you haven’t experienced any of the wonderful music courses taught by Dr. Robert Greenberg, available through The Great Courses, you’re missing a lot.  In episode 1, “The Language of Music”, of Understanding the Fundamentals of Music (Course No. 7261), Greenberg describes music not only as a language, but as what I would call a superlanguage.

Music is the ultimate language, a mega-language.  A language in which our hard-wired proclivities to use successions of pitches and sounds to communicate are exaggerated, intensified, and codified into a sonic experience capable of infinitely more expressive depth and nuance than mere words alone.

Greenberg goes on to present a definition of music that is far better than any you will find in the dictionary.

Music is sound in time, or, if you prefer, time ordered by sound.  That definition isolates the two essential aspects of music, sound and time, without any qualifications.

After defining timbre, Greenberg presents the five families of instruments in the Western musical tradition.  Aside from the human voice, they are

  1. Stringed instruments
  2. Wind instruments
  3. Brass instruments
  4. Percussion instruments
  5. Keyboard instruments

And, Greenberg states,

If this course had been written back in the 1970s or ’80s, it would have included a sixth instrumental category: electronics.  There was a genuine belief back then that digitally synthesized sound was the wave of the future.  And that an entirely new vocabulary of sound, one relevant to the technocracy of the modern world, was just around the corner.  You know what?  It never happened.  As it turned out, composers prefer to write for real people playing real instruments.  And audiences would rather listen to real people playing real instruments.  Ironically, more than anything else, digital electronics are used today to imitate those “antiquated” instruments that they were purportedly going to replace.

Though I certainly agree that electronic music will never replace natural instruments played by real people, and I hope that orchestral and chamber music will be with us centuries hence, I have no doubt that new instruments will occasionally be invented and join their venerated ranks, and that electronic music will one day garner enough respect that it will take a permanent seat as a sixth instrumental category.

The world has yet to see a composer of electronic music that can be considered on equal footing with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, or Mahler.  But it will happen.  Perhaps, even today, there lives a young girl or boy somewhere in the world who is already on the path towards becoming the world’s first great composer of electronic music.

Isao Tomita (1932-2016), of Japan, has arguably come the closest.  Yes, his music is idiosyncratic, and his best work a reinterpretation of existing orchestral pieces, but when you listen to Tomita at his best, you get at least a sense of what is possible within the electronic idiom.  Who wouldn’t be tempted by the ability to create any tone color or instrumental timbre imaginable?  It’s not for everyone, I know.

Here is a sampling of Tomita’s best work:

Snowflakes are Dancing (1974)

Pictures at an Exhibition (1975)

Firebird (1976)

Tomita was a pioneer.  The best is yet to come.

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