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Ussachevsky: Sonic Contours (1952)

Listening exercise for Ussachevsky's Sonic Contours (1952)

Listening exercise

And now the Americans! There’s so much more to be said for the American work within the field of electronic music than what we’ve covered here. In particular, the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music, and the music of Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma, and later the San Francisco Tape Music Collective, and the music of Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick, are essential touchstones to check out. But for now, we’ll focus on the early stuff and this piece by Vladimir Ussachevsky. It comes in at around seven and-a-half minutes.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

This is a tape work constructed from manipulations of piano recordings. Due to the technical limitations in the early days of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre the only tape music techniques available to Ussachevsky are tape speed changes (ie: speeding up and slowing down the recordings), reverberation (that home-made reverb circuit we mentioned earlier, which is probably responsible for the delay-effect clearly evident towards the end of the piece), and tape splicing. We’ll cover those techniques in detail next week, but you can hear in this piece a richness in the sound spectrum that comes from using recordings of acoustic materials.

Despite its relative brevity there’s a lot to listen to in this piece. Pay careful attention to how the piano material is treated. There are times when it is clearly intended to be heard as a piano, times when it’s intended to be heard as a not-piano, and then times again where these two ideas of material are blended with one another to create a sort of augmented piano instrument. This kind of interaction between electronics and acoustic instruments becomes a really interesting thread in electronic music going forward, and it’s worth spending some time thinking critically here of how these different kinds of treatments work with the acoustic element.

Over to you

This is the first piece we’ve looked at that uses recordings and electronic treatments of acoustic instruments as its primary material. How do you think it differs sonically from the other examples we’ve listened to? What kinds of expressive potential does this approach to electronic music open up for the composer?

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English Electronic Music: Delve into the Digital Archives

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