Review of Live Wires: A History of Electronic Music
Reaktion Books, London, UK, 2017
205 pp., illus. 6 b/w. Trade, £16.00
Daniel Warner, a composer and electronic sound artist, co-authored the groundbreaking Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music in 2004. His new book, Live Wires: A History of Electronic Music, is an excellent examination of how five key electronic technologies—the tape recorder, circuit, computer, microphone, and turntable—revolutionized musical thought, production, and performance.
Music has long been part of our sonic soundscape. But, beginning in the 1950s, and continuing through to current day, seemingly endless combinations of new technologies and creative endeavors created experimental electronic music. Live Wires captures that synergy with engaging history and personal insights.
The first chapter is devoted to the tape recorder, which, as it developed, established the conditions for the creation of new sounds and new music, including what came to be called electronic music. Warner provides an engaging history of the tape recorder's development, as well as its contributions, like musique concrète, tape music composition, tape delay, tape loop, and multi-track recording. Warner concludes this first chapter saying, "For composers and performers, the tape record[er] took off like a musical time machine, propelling musical culture into multiple sonic dimensions" (p. 53).
The second chapter focuses on circuits, which, according to Warner, "created a new culture of sonic literacy by opening a rich and still-evolving connection between music and electronics." Circuits have provided an alternative to traditional musical instruments. Warner provides engaging historical backgrounds for the development of different synthesizers, as well as amplification and feedback. In conclusion he notes, "Circuits have made sound ours to shape and, most importantly, they have allowed us to create our music, forging new musical genres and new musical collectivities" (p. 87 emphasis in original).
The turntable and record have, says Warner, provided new tools and techniques as artists and composers repurposed them into instruments for creating electronic music. Warner's explanations of historical background regarding turntable mixing, blending, and backspinning provide engaging context for his discussions of sampling and appropriation, both results from the record changing from material object to raw material for the production of electronic music. "If tape recording and its associated manipulations removed sounds from their sources and offered new organizational strategies, turntable techniques interrupted the homogeneity of mass-produced commodities even more forceful and allowed for the noise of social relations hidden by standardized music production, which effectively removed traces of difference," Warner concludes (pp. 94-95).
The chapter on the microphone acknowledges that amplification of sound (voice, music, or noise) is most commonly accomplished with microphones. But, "more significantly, [the microphone] freed the vocal utterance from its physical and psychoacoustic bounds. . . . In this sense, the microphone acts as an extension not only of the human voice, but of the ear, reconfiguring the listener" (p. 112). "As such, electronic music composers have necessarily approached the natural worlds as a series of partial and changing soundscapes that are discovered and/or generated by the microphone" (p. 129).
The association of music and computers is long and storied. Certainly this is the subject of a prolonged, separate inquiry. But Warner provides the right amount of engaging backstory to provide a context for his discussions of sound synthesis, drum machines, sampling, and MIDI. Toward the end of this final chapter, Warner makes an important observation, implicit in his narrative but explicit to his point. "There is rarely a complete or immediate shift to new technologies. Rather, composers are always finding different configurations of hardware and software—old and new—to make their work" (p. 165).
Warner, quoting Emmanuelle Loube, French broadcasting and new media producer writing about laptop music in Japan, provides a context in which to consider electronic music. "It is a culture of emergence: a non-directional, non-intentional culture that leaves much room for error and blur. It is a culture that encourages 'averageness' over creativity, but it has the advantage of provoking unexpected results" (p. 170).
Increasingly we are listening to more and different forms of electronic music, experimenting and rehearing them as makers and listeners, finding their new meanings. In this remix we hear, recycled, reimagined, the work of major figures like Pierre Schaeffer, Pauline Oliveros, Brian Eno, Keith Emerson, Grandmaster Flash, Juan Atkins, and Holly Herndon.
Somewhere, someone working with recordings, circuits, turntables, records, microphones, and computers could emerge from their home studios or other creative spaces as the next electronic music artist or composer. Live Wires is open and sympathetic to this idea. Those readers with some awareness of the background Warner provides will find the story engaging. Those with no history with electronic music will find it a sonic adventure well worth reading.