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Technically Classical

Traditionally classical music would appear to be grounded in rigid and long-established methods of writing. More and more new composers are breaking the mould and using technology to introduce new sounds and styles. They are not fundamentally changing classical music but embracing the invention inherent in creativity. This series of podcasts takes an informal, jocund look at the evolution and influence of music technology and electronic instruments on the genre, from the 1920s to the present day.

Few composers of the 20th century can lay claim to the fame of Karlheinz Stockhausen. A fame which precedes the man and his music. Stockhausen is remembered as a seminal composer of contemporary classical music, an avant-garde madman, or just simply as one of the faces on Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band LP – a famous figure though we are not sure why. When Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet was first broadcast on the radio, the audience were warned not to adjust their sets. Many people switched off regardless, disturbed by the sheer noise and racket.

This episode takes a brief departure from classical music to look at the composer and inventor, Raymond Scott. Although his background lay in jazz and swing, Raymond Scott was a brilliant sound engineer and invented countless devices and electronic instruments that are used by all genres today. He was a pioneer of contemporary electronic music with influence on key figures such as Robert Moog. In fact, many of his scores, jingles and sound effects have subliminally found their way into popular culture; although few will know his name.

Edgard Varèse was a classical composer of few pieces but high ambition. Born in France in 1883, he had a turbulent relationship with the musical establishment. In truth, Varèse did not fashion himself a composer but a worker in frequencies, rhythms, and intensities; and as such, he drew inspiration from many sources. His few completed works utilized electronic instruments such as the theremin and ondes Martenot to introduce new sounds and a novel approach to composition. In addition, Varèse established the International Composers’ Guild alongside Carlos Salzedo.

This show explores the widely-renowned first electronic musical instrument: the theremin. Cited as “where it all began”, the theremin burst onto the scene after its near-accidental invention in 1920, and has since had an undeniable impact on musical technology. Despite this, the theremin received scathing reviews in its early years amongst the established community; regarded more as a “magical toy” than musical instrument.