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Electronic Music Pioneer Performers and their History

Music categorization becomes diluted over time as each are applied as a vinculum to all variations and tangents of a genre and as such any serious discussion must start first with a clarifying definition. While the intent is not to isolate a particular style or represent it as a purity removed from its predecessors – without whom it would not have reached as an evolutionary progress; nor its followers and derivatives, which by their very existence substantiate the significance and persistence of the genre a distinction is needed to avoid the unbounded coupling with almost all music of the modern era.

While the generation of sound must reach a point of acoustic vibration either from a string, membrane or air in a chamber, an acoustic performance originates with the performer directly inducing these vibrations whereas electronic performance originates as a electrical voltage triggered through the instrument and controlled through electronic circuit to alter and modify the sound waveform before it produces the output signal or sound through recording device or speaker.

For the purposes of this treatise and in the name of reasonable length, we will focus the definition of electronic music to performers whose works derived most, if not all, of their composition and sound via electronic musical instruments and the related computer technology. This piece will also defer coverage of the precursor approaches of musique concrete and post recording based tape manipulation or signal processing on recorded acoustic samples. For our purposes we focus on music whose origin and production was primarily electronic.

It is difficult to separate electronic music from the technology behind it. Synthesizers and computer control of sound performance, processing and recording are intertwined with the electronic music. Advancement of this application of technology to music was both the cause and the result of innovation and experimentation in electronic music. The inventions and products of minds like Moog, Hammond, Kurzweil and others provided the means for these pioneering performers to realize their artistic vision.

Pioneers in any endeavor can be identified for their innovation taken in context of when they performed their work and the influence, over time and into today, of their work on others and the practice or art in which they participated. A cementing element of pioneer status is when the group or work begins to be used as an adjective instead of a noun, either as a comparative or a description of other artist’s works. These following artists not only made significant contributions artistically, but also pushed the envelope for technological innovation that has provided significant improvements in sound recording and processing for all music production.

Just like the technological influences, geographical and social influences fostered the development of electronic movement. Cross cultural exchanges and ripples saw electronic music develop and grow in the major centers of western civilization. Locally, particularly in the “German School”, the social networks created groups which interrelated and fed off each other not only in the advancement must its success and longevity.

The Germans: Tangerine Dream
Tangerine Dream is the perfect example of both evolution and a common thread in electronic music. Edgar Froese was a founder and the one constant member of this group’s perennial electronic music innovation and adaption to current trends since its inception in 1967. Along with other founder Chris Franke Tangerine Dream focused on improvisation with the experimental nature of their music and was driven to abandoning the “restrictions of conventional instruments”. Tangerine Dream was the first group to bring electronic music to the mainstream via multi-record contracts with labels like Virgin in the U.K. and tours through Europe and the U.S. which included innovative use of lasers as part of the lighting rigs. Their experimentations led to innovations in sound and timbre, technology, instruments and lighting control in performance. Their forays into the edges of electronic music generated releases in experimental music, electronic rock, movie soundtracks, new age, techno and other sub-genres which they either established or adopted as their own. Their prolific output of over 70 recordings and counting signify their range, influence and success, but also presents a difficulty in singling out particular works without context of personnel, sub-genre, technology or age. “Stratosfear”, released in 1975 was quite successful in exposing Tangerine Dream to wider audiences in Album Oriented Rock circles and venues, while still retaining the stylistic approached of sequenced patterns supplemented with improvisation on purely electronic instruments.

The French: Jean-Michel Jarre
Jean-Michel was born in 1948 in Lyon, France to a musical family, his father Maurice Jarre, a successful film music composer. At the age of five this child prodigy began to learn piano and guitar. His later musical education included studies at Conservatorie de Paris and the Group of Musical Research. Beyond these structured studies Jean-Michel had interests in more free-form and experimental music and the potential of synthesizers. He introduced the use of synthesizers into operatic performance at the Paris Opera House. Jarre’s legacy is represented by his 1977 debut release entitled “Oxygene”, which to date has sold over 12 million copies. He continued with additional works and parlayed the initial success into a near rock star type status in France, United Kingdom and United States focusing on grand and record setting outdoor musical performances. In 1981, as the first western artist to tour post-Mao China, Jarre’s performances where broadcast to 500 million radio listeners and 30 million television viewers.

The English: Brian Eno
Brian Eno, as synthesizer player for Roxy Music, left in 1973 to explore his experimental and avant-garde leanings. From early collaborations with guitarist Robert Fripp, Eno’s music focused on mood and texture and avoided structured theories of music or art. Brian’s solo work and experiments in environmental music led to his coining of the term “Ambient Music” and launched another sub-genre of electronic music. His self describing titles of “Music for Film” and “Music for Airports” released in 1977 and 1979 respectively established a reference and standard for this type of electronic music works. Eno even lent his electronic sound creation talents to the ubiquitous, if not minimalistic, Windows 95 operating system start-up sound.

The Americans: Larry Fast (Synergy), Steve Roach
Larry Fast who in 1975 under the name: Synergy’ released “Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra” and established his reputation as a creator of sonic textures and innovative production techniques. His high demand as collaborator with other artists such as Peter Gabriel and the band Nektar, the subsequent releases under the Synergy project and his varied production credits kept this self described electronic arranger and sound consultant busy. Larry’s recent electronic music credits include “sound logos” for XM satellite radio.

Drawing on his self described spiritual home of Arizona, Steve Roach is another prolific pioneer in electronic music and “soundworlds”. Influenced by the German school defined by Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze has evolved his own style and creates works in many of electronic music’s sub-genre including the blending of electronic instrumentation and sounds with native America instruments. Like Tangerine Dream, picking from his over 75 solo and collaborative works is problematic, but his second release in 1984 “Structures of Silence” represents Roach’s introspective and meditative soundscapes and defines a landmark for ambient music during the 80’s.

These performers, though a sampling of the participants and influencers, represent a pioneering tour de force on electronic music. Their influence and success is wide raging and significant. They also represent those that have been able to achieve a longevity within the genre and all have works that are still available and continue to produce new works or updates to their legacies.