Expanding in Reverse:  Rediscovering Predecessors in an Electronic Music History Course

Brian Heller
Minneapolis College


The body of knowledge available to a society that is of use in...practicing arts and skills.

The technology is just a tool.


Audio Engineer:

  • 2 Year Associate's of Science degree (60 credits)
  • Teaches fundamental principles, with significant work in all 3 domains
  • Focus on using sound for creative work
  • Scope not limited to music

Transforming the Course

  • Very broad overview
  • Separate from the production courses
  • 'Ear stretching' to develop sound imagination and aesthetic listening skills

History and Literature of Sound Arts

Anthropology defines technology as:

The body of knowledge available to a society that is of use in fashioning implements, practicing manual arts and skills, and extracting or collecting materials.

A History of What?

Electronic >> Technology

Music >> Sound

Neither the phonograph nor the Futurists were electronic!

Ancient Solutions

Aeolian Harp

after Aeolus, god of the wind


Greeks, 2nd century B.C.

Ktesibios, inventor


The branch of physics or technology concerned with the mechanical properties of gases.

Hydraulis vs. Telharmonium

  • Overcame human limitations to produce & distribute sound
  • Complex enough to require 2 people
  • Limited tonal complexity and range
  • Physical performance skills shifted to operation of the apparatus

New paradigms of power and limitations:

Heron of Alexandria

10 AD – 70 AD

  • Work for both entertainment and serious mathematics
  • Inventions range from party tricks, to a vending machine, to a proto-steam engine
  • Many include algorithmic programming
  • Introduces function and power of algorithms
  • Sophisticated work with relatively simple technology
  • Concrete, observable example of control systems
  • Sets the stage for later analog (synth cv) and digital (generative) music systems

As a Point of Entry for Students...

Heron's maze of conditionals and sub-routines are not entirely different from a Max patch...

Including ancient works allows students see that...

fundamental concepts behind the use of technology need not be tied to a particular tool, power source, or point on a timeline.  

there can be conceptual continuity between eras.

American Experimentalists

  • Mainly American composers between roughly 1900–1940
  • More on the fringe and with fewer resources than their European counterparts
  • Almost no electronic music or access to new instruments, but the sound imagination of early electronic composers


California/Upstate New York


Henry Cowell

New Musical Resources

  • Written in 1919, not officially published until 1930

  • Rhythmicon (later built by Leon Theremin)

  • Musical system using the harmonic series for both harmony & rhythm

  • Use of player piano (later done by Conlon Nancarrow)

  • The seminal American experimental composer

  • String piano, tone-clusters, use of folk music in America and other cultures


Arkansas/Mexico City

Conlon Nancarrow

In the player piano, Nancarrow had an early MIDI system:

  • Note messages
  • Pedal control (MIDI CC #7 and #64)
  • Complete non-realtime control of tempo and sequence
  • Independence of pitch and tempo
  • Editing and memory

Strong musical relationship to the RCA MKII and Milton Babbitt's work


California/New York

First Construction in Metal (1939)

John Cage

Percussion music is a transition to the 'all-sound' music of the future.  Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music.

Prepared Piano (1938)

  • Placing object between the strings to dramatically change the tone

  • Practical solution to wanting percussion music when only a piano was available

  • Used as a solo instrument, in ensembles, and to accompany modern dance


  • John Cage (prepared piano)
  • Charles Ives (1/4-tone pianos)
  • Edgard Varese (percussion works)
  • Harry Partch (instrument building)

Early Field Recording

After Edison's 1877 acoustic phonograph, electronic music histories of sound recording tend to move to the musique concréte of 1940s.

Béla Bartók

with Zoltán Kodály

  • Began acoustically (1906)
  • Captured non-Western musical language in Western notation
  • Analyzed and integrated folk song into their own language (not verbatim)
  • A case where sound recording was crucial behind-the-scenes to music
  • Intertwining of technical and creative histories of sound recording

Ludwig Koch

Ludwig Koch

First-ever wildlife recording in 1889, age 8!


Wanted by Nazi regime, immigrated to England


Developed the 'sound-book'


Lifelong travels, recording, archiving, and broadcasting with BBC


  • Electronics are but one way of building and using tools for musical expression.
  • Highlight 'big ideas' by showing historical continuity.
  • Encourage students to find that continuity in their own view of the world.

Expanding in Reverse (AES)

By Brian

Expanding in Reverse (AES)

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