This collection of three previously separately released albums is essentially your year zero of sound. If you consider the post-WWII scorched Europe as being the ashen cadaver of traditional classical music, these are the exploratory drones of the space age. Composers long-stifled by tradition now had the figurative space to experiment, and like the night-time cobblers of The Elves and the Shoemaker, they now busied themselves away from the gaze of those who might otherwise interfere.
In fact, one of the common threads running through all the works on these discs isn’t the electronic experiments we’re allowed to peer in on but the space between them. The often surprisingly long swathes of silence demand the listener lean ever-nearer their sound source, ensuring that when some enormous, creaking synthesised yawn spurts forth, its effect is even more jarring. You get the impression that the sounds are being vainly reeled in like gigantic kites, the early attempts at taming these unwieldy and erratic noises being captured as there really wasn’t any surety they could ever be repeated. One of the great surprises of the set is that there isn’t the sound of one of these brave souls being slung across the room as their equipment blows up.
If the only composer using abstract sound around this time you’ve heard is Edgard Varèse, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, something like Ionisation seems quite poppy compared to some of the work here. Pierre Schaeffer, working on disc one with Pierre Boulez, is the most restrained sound technician to investigate, gently teasing sound out of thin air using everything from piano experiment to toys to pots and pans. These Cinq études de bruits (Five Studies of Noises) are just that, the first recordings of musique concrète, the very essence of noise being dissected. This isn’t peering ghoulishly under the skin – it’s tampering with the marrow.
By any stretch of the imagination, it’s the first works by Karlheinz Stockhausen on this set that are really the seeds for the nightmares these discs plant. 1956’s Gesang der Jünglinge, with its merging of increasingly frantic bubblings and stings, the voice of a child soprano fading in and out, is layered over itself so that the beast it creates is like the effect at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – it’s a good effort but hideously misshapen (and all the better for it). If the human voice is the animal in Adventures in Stereo, the electronic sounds are the lice: alternately digesting and spitting out the essence.
Iannis Xenakis’ Diamorphoses and Concret PH further develop the clash of nature and industry, with piercing sounds recorded on two-inch tape to befuddle and transfix. Although designed to be listened to across four speakers, it would be wrong to assume these experiments work best through headphones or purely on high-end equipment that costs more than a house. In fact, the more you have to lean in to fathom out what you’re listening to, the more exciting the works become. Concret PH features only the sounds of burning charcoal, manipulated to sound like fragmenting glass. By all means, attempt to recreate its original public debut, where it was projected over 425 loud speakers at Philips Pavilion, Brussels in 1958.
Varèse’s Poème electronique feels light-hearted in comparison, like inquisitive toys coming to life at night, interrupted only by the occasionally tempered gong. The listener is punished for this early respite, as the piece moves on to nests of synthesised vipers and calamitous attempts to escape an ever-spiralling maze, climaxing, fittingly, when a fat lady sings. No-one likes a show-off but it’s difficult not to find Varese infinitely intruiging. Pierre Henry’s Voile D’Orphée concludes the disc, a piece, which over the course of 15 minutes becomes almost intolerably terrifying – a genuinely harrowing experience.
Disc Two, New Directions in Music, is less alarming but no less inventive, with works by Boulez and Stockhausen. The latter seeks now to deconstruct musical instruments themselves, the clarinet in particular sounding as if it has been kept awake for forty days and forty nights and is now a bleeting husk of what it was, frazzled and jumpy. The human voice also features, somehow even more unweildy despite being largely left to its own devices. His percussive piece, Zyklus, demonstrates that his determination to reject both modern and contemporary composition has not diminished, the 16-page piece designed to be played for an indefinite amount of time in any order seen fit. The whole of Boulez’ Le Marteau Sans Maitre is included, a piece which over the course of nine movements does little to endear itself to the listener, nor one assumes the musicians, particularly the alto flautist who presumably needed a long lie down in a darkened room after playing.
Disc Three – Electronic Music for the Mind and Body (not to be confused with the similarly-titled album by Country Joe and the Fish…not that you would) – includes one more piece by Stockhausen (Kontakte), another by Xenakis (Orient-Occident), one by György Ligeti (Artikulation), and two by John Cage (Cartridge Music and Aria with Fontana Mix). These are all significant works, Stockhausen capturing the imagination of a free spirited Paul McCartney and echoes of all concerned ringing out in later krautrock circles and music for film. Ligeti is somewhat under-represented and in some ways sounds the most futurist of all the featured composers, his robotic yelps sounding much like you’d imagine the first contact with aliens would. In comparison, Cage sounds rather more like he’s just pissing about – it’s less startchy and feels like he’s toying with his audience rather than offering something profound. As a collection it’s timeless, having never represented anything but the fevered brains of musical contrarians, at war with convetion and sometimes themselves.