The Science Museum in London has an exhibition Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music and Brian Eno kicks it off with a talk on technology's role in music. Here's his thoughts about that:
People often ask me what role technology plays in music, and whether I think there is too much technology in music. Recently, I have started answering by saying that technology in music is a little bit like numbers to mathematics. You can’t really imagine music without technology. Now, as my friend Danny Hillis the inventor said, technology is the name we give to things that don’t work yet. When it works we don’t call it technology anymore. But you have to remember that once upon a time a violin was technology, once upon a time an organ was technology. Those things were all built and created by people who were working at the cutting edge of the technologies of their time.
I was thinking today about a piece of technology that makes Daphne Oram’s graphic synthesizer from 1957, a centrepiece of the Science Museum’s new show, look quite conservative. It’s called the Telharmonium. It was built by a man called Thaddeus Cahill in 1906. He built three versions and the biggest weighed 200 tons. However, it was probably the first truly portable electronic music instrument. It was carried in 30 railway carriages and it was a series of tone-wheel generators, a little bit like a Hammond organ, though in a Hammond the generators were about 1.6in in diameter whereas in the Telharmonium they were 8ft tall. They were big-toothed cogs that spun in front of a solenoid, thus creating an oscillating frequency.
Of course in 1906 there weren’t any amplifiers: they hadn’t been invented. The only form of amplification that existed was the telephone receiver. So what would happen is that Thaddeus would announce his arrival in a town, turn up and plug the output of the whole apparatus into the telephone exchange.
People would listen to the performance by taking their phones off the hook – it was loud enough for you to hear at a distance from the receiver. So Thaddeus, or his assistants, would sit and play on this extraordinary machine and through the telephones in the various houses in the city. That was technology and it stayed technology – it never really settled down into being a proper instrument.
I was also thinking about a more ancient piece of technology, the double bass. No one thinks of that as technology now, but the evolution of the double bass took about 250 years. It went through a lot of different iterations. It was a one-string instrument for a while, then there were some six-string versions built. The Duke of Leinster had one that was 9ft tall and was played by two people – one up a ladder doing the top bit, the other on the ground sawing away. There was one built for the 1883 industrial exposition in Cincinnati which was 15ft 9in tall.
The important thing about the relationship between music and technology is that it’s entirely circular. Composers or instrument-makers notice a new way of making a noise – an electronic valve for example.
They then build a rudimentary instrument using that. Composers and musicians start working with it and immediately demand improvements, so the designers go back to work and an improved version appears. The improved version immediately offers musical possibilities that never existed before, so people start making new music with this new instrument, music they had never thought about making before. Then of course the instrument-makers respond with further modifications as the nature of the new instrument begins to become clearer, so the cycle is self-feeding.
The grand piano is a good example. The concert grand piano as we know it today really depended on the state of iron-casting technology. Prior to the pianos of the mid-19th century, frames were wooden, so the pianos could only be put under a certain amount of tension and therefore could never really be that loud. The first iron-framed pianos were called pianofortes: the important part of that word is “forte”.
The piano forte could be used against a full orchestra and still be heard. That led directly to new forms of music which would not have been conceivable before. So it’s that kind of process that is going on all the time in music. Music always co-opts whatever is the state-of-the-art technology at any given time, so it’s quite consistent that in the Forties and Fifties, people started looking at electronics. Electronics had started becoming available and people could start making things. In fact, the particular form that Oram worked in, which is basically drawn sound, was pioneered by some Russians in the Twenties, who realised that optical soundtracks on films could be a way of making music, so that became their experiment.
What they did, and what Oram did, was to reverse the process – to paint an optical soundtrack by hand and then have it “played” – turned into sound – by a projector. But Oram was really the first person who made something that resembled a usable instrument out of this idea, although when you look at it, it doesn’t resemble one very much actually. Also in the Science Museum show is the very first synthesizer that I ever owned, another beast in its own right, and that’s the VCS3. The VCS3 was quite a difficult instrument to use, though at the time it was a fantastic thing to have for someone like me, who couldn’t actually play any conventional instruments. There were no rules for playing synthesizers, so nobody could tell me I couldn’t play one. Nobody else could play one either. It was an instrument you made up yourself… its role was waiting to be invented.
The VCS3 was a particularly good instrument for that, because unlike nearly all the synthesizers that followed, it didn’t dictate a particular path for the signal. Nearly all the synthesizers that followed went: oscillator into filter into envelope-shaper into effects. Everything was in that straight line. With the VCS3 you could feed things back into themselves, so you could take the output of a filter and feed it back into itself and this gave me some very unusual and quite unpalatable noises, which of course I liked. They sounded a lot better than me trying to play music anyway. The VCS3 preceded, or maybe was even simultaneous with, the Moog. But what was interesting about it was that it wasn’t really a keyboard instrument. There was a keyboard with it, but it was impossible to get it in tune, so most of the people who used it abandoned the keyboard. That was a big step, because prior to that synthesizers had been thought of as electronic organs with a few stranger sounds.
Abandoning the keyboard took you into a new musical territory. I’m sure Peter Zinovieff, who invented the VCS3, would have been very pleased if he could have made a good keyboard. But the fact that he failed to was what made that instrument special, and what started the different forms of electronic music you hear everywhere now. It came out of an inadequacy of that particular instrument.
© Brian Eno, 2011
Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music is at the Science Museum, London SW7 (0870 870 4868) until Dec 1. Admission free