Celebrating 100 years of electronic music instruments
So much has changed in music, technology, and society in the 100 years since the concept of the ætherphone – or Theremin – first emerged, you could almost get vertigo thinking about it.
The now iconic ætherphone seemed like a curio at first, but was really the beginning of a revolution. It quickly became better known by the name of its inventor: Léon Theremin, who discovered the process of changing an electric tone by gesture by accident in a physics lab in 1919, and produced the first working instrument the next year. This was the first entirely electronic musical instrument, and as Theremin toured the world demonstrating his invention, electronic sounds very rapidly entered the public consciousness.
The history of electronic sound since then has been a cavalcade of strange connections and renegade science. From the quirky early devices that followed the Theremin like the Trautonium and Ondes Martenot, through the intense academic experiments of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales in Paris and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in NYC in the 1950s to the creation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in London, the prehistory of electronic music making is packed with some of the greatest mavericks of the 20th century.
Then, when synthesisers became publicly available in the 1960s, the pace of change sped up. Thanks to the likes of Bob Moog (who got his start as an instrument builder making replica Theremins), Don Buchla and Raymond Scott, sound manipulation seeped more and more into pop culture. Then came revolution upon revolution: drum machines (where would modern music be without the Roland TR-808?), samplers (again, Akai's devices in particular defined entire genres), sequencers, digital effects, modelling synths, granular synths, Ableton, Traktor, VR controllers.... we're at the point where we're still coming to terms with the possibilities of technology from decades ago, let alone the latest developments.
This year, ADE is going to be trying to put this century of revolution into some perspective. We want to remind you of the wild, sometimes cracked, minds that have created or popularised the devices that in turn expanded our collective imaginations. From Léon Theremin to Sun Ra, Walter/Wendy Carlos to Phuture, Delia Derbyshire to Ray Kurzweil, Karlheinz Stockhausen to King Tubby, Herbie Hancock to Holly Herndon – not to mention every techno, electro and IDM hero you could possibly name – the story of electronic sound is of people, scenes and societies every bit as much as it is of wires and circuits. And it's not a simple historical lineage either: we're in an era when the 80s sound futuristic, where modular synths are as innovative as any digital development, where history is as important as technology.
So join ADE 2019 as we untangle the amazing historical, electrical and psychic lines of influence through that century, as we look at what progress really means, as we re-assess some of the greatest and most important noises made by humankind, and as we dream of the future just like electronic visionaries always have done.
Text: Joe Muggs
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Leon Theremin playing his own instrument: