When you go to the symphony in most major urban centers, and look at the program, you see familiar names: Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden, and maybe some “moderns” like Dvorak and Stravinsky. No truly modern electronic music is to be heard. They may throw in a new composer in who uses traditional styles or it may be atonal, but that’s it, no nod to one of the great inventions of the twentieth century.
We hear it all the time as background noise on TV and in movies. You think it would be recognized as an art form in itself by this time. People are slow to accept the new. They don’t even understand Picasso a hundred years later! Why should it be any different with music? We do love it in rock and pop arrangements. Even good ol’ boy George Strait used it in a country classic. But that is the extent of it.
The word electronic is, of course, here to stay. Electronics run our lives: things like Acs, home standby backup power generators, electric pumps, and the like in the past. The digital world is the updated variant. There is new music electronic in orientation that fills the bill in representing our time. But our conservative ears will have nothing to do with it other than as filler or frills. Plug in an acoustic guitar and you have the idea. That’s what most understand as electronic. They see innovation as a form of technology, a method of producing a different kind of sound that barely morphs a traditional style. They think of synthesizers and all the gadgetry that turns a mediocre singer into a good one.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, electronic instruments were being introduced in performance environments. Composers started to write for them. In the 1940’s, music could be taped and altered, a forerunner of our DJs today. Electronic music as an art form was a rebellious child akin to the painters and sculptors of the day. Classical music, just like photographic realism, was rejected in favor of a futuristic embrace of a new kind of sound. It was as radical as Cubism and Futurism were in the arts. It was as avant-garde and groundbreaking. It heralded a new era that never quite gained acceptance.
So much has happened since, but it remains esoteric, like a generator for an electric harmonica. The popular incarnation is the electric bass or guitar we all know and love. We don’t remember John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen. They are historical oddities like Marcel Duchamps or Jean Arp. We do have computer music and experimentation is part of digital synthesis. But alas, electronic music has gone far afield from the intention of its groundbreaking originators. It wasn’t the wave of the future as the early 20th century practitioners thought, it was the wave of pop and funk, drum and bass. Just techno. That’s it. But it is here, and let us be grateful for modernization. Perhaps the future will bring it back and give music the impetus it needs to evolve and grow in a new direction.