Notes and Editorial Reviews
How well I remember borrowing the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center LP from the West Orange, New Jersey public library when I was nine years old, back in 1965, the year after its release. I put it on my little portable stereo record player and was immediately knocked out by the crazy, avant-garde sounds. I even fantasized about the studio where the RCA Electronic Sound Synthesizer lived, in a room packed with wires, loudspeakers, reels upon reels of tape, splicing blocks, plus all the other implements needed to create “the music of the future” (who knew that this mountain of equipment would one day be reduced to iPhone dimensions?).
Strangely, none of the compositions stuck with me but one. Eventually the disc’s
novelty wore off, and I returned it to the library. Fast-forward to my college’s small electronic music studio in the 1970s, where I learned how to create nifty and ultimately forgettable sound effects on the Buchla and Moog synthesizers, and how to laboriously edit and splice bits and pieces of tape onto a master reel. We were assigned this recording for listening, and although I was older and more experienced, my reactions hadn’t really changed: in one ear and out the other, except for that same piece.
Now it’s 2014, and that first Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center release appears for the first time on CD, along with a bonus track, Milton Babbitt’s Ensembles for Synthesizer. On the surface Bülent Arel’s opening piece seems little more than an assemblage of squeaks, blatts, bleeps, blasts of reverb, trigger effects, and other ’60s electronic music devices that quickly became clichés. But closer listening reveals careful craftsmanship and a sense of proportion at work.
While painstaking organizational rigor governs the rhythms, pitches, and textures of the two Milton Babbitt compositions, the electronically-generated sonorities themselves have little nuance, character, or fluidity. Imagine the score of a highly serialized (twelve-tone) orchestra piece played back through computer notation software using the program’s super-basic and rather cheesy instrumental sound choices, and you’ll get what I mean. On the other hand, Vladimir Ussachevsky’s Creation-Prologue mainly features pre-recorded choral singing that is alternately framed and interrupted by electronic flourishes.
Otto Luening’s Gargoyles interweaves electronic music with a pre-recorded solo violin part to more cohesive and purposeful effect, if you can get similar limitations of sonority to the Babbitt pieces. Although the brooding soundscapes of Mario Davidovsky’s Electronic Study No. 1 are skillfully organized, they do not hint at the stronger profile and individuality of his works from the early 1970s on.
As for that one piece that I liked? It’s still far and away my favorite track on the disc. The Egyptian/American composer Halim El-Dabh (happily still with us and active as ever at 93) begins and ends Leiyla and the Poet with slippery high-pitched whistles. Soon after the start, rapid plectrum-like passages and distorted vocal sounds enter. Then more spoken voices appear–some are low-pitched and automaton-like, while others leap across registers wider and faster than humanly possible. Through speed transposition and reverberation the voices grow in size and intensity, together with increasingly elaborate hand drumming. Yet for all of the busyness, the textures never sound cluttered as they achieve a mesmerizing variety of recognizable and unrecognizable wordplay. Thanks to Arkivmusic.com and Sony/BMG for making this fascinating and historically significant collection available again.
-- Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Gargoyles by Otto Luening
Period: 20th Century
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