Thursday July 27, 2017

The Wire: The birth of the synthesizer and new ways of thinking about sound


Listen to Full Episode 54:00

Scientists like Helmholtz and Hertz explored the electrical essence of sound waves. Inventors like Canadian physicist Hugh LeCaine and Russian spy Leon Theremin extended that exploration to a new breed of electronic instruments. But it wasn't until Bob Moog came along and invented the synthesizer that the sound of electricity started to become a household sound in the music of rock bands.

The Wire: The Impact of Electricity on Music first aired on CBC Radio in 2005. Each episode tells the story of how electricity changed music in the 20th century, focusing on a particular new technology. On Episode 4, it's the synthesizer. The series was a 2005 Peabody Award winner.

The Wire is presented by Jowi Taylor.

**Note: this series is not available for download and is available for listening in Canada only due to music copyright restrictions. 

"I remember going into a music store with my dad when I was about 14 and practically drooling over the ARP Omni polyphonic synthesizer. My dad kind of didn't get it. He said, "Well, that violin sound doesn't really sound like a violin and the cello doesn't really sound like a cello". I suppose that was the expectation of synthesizers. That they would create synthetic versions of things we knew. And there was a kind of pejorative sense of that word: synthetic. And when you think about it, lots of the early showcases for synths were kind of like that – different synth tracks took the corresponding instrumental parts of classical arrangements. But the amazing thing is that living in those sounds was a whole new universe just waiting to be explored – by musicians and listeners who wanted to hear the synthesizer be itself – to just love the electronic sound for what it was, not what it could imitate. I'll never forget the first time I heard Autobahn by Kraftwerk – at that time they were even still kind of hippie about it all but by the next album they had a whole look – a whole aesthetic – that fully embraced – and even celebrated – the synthetic. It was like living in the future. Now, I go into the record store and there are divisions within divisions within divisions of electronic music." Jowi Taylor

Guests in this episode:

  • Bob Moog (1934-2005) was an American engineer, electronic music pioneer, and was the inventor of the Moog synthesizer.
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) was a German composer and electronic music pioneer recognized for his groundbreaking work with tape splicing and synthesized sound.
  • Lydia Kavina is a Russian-British theremin virtuoso, and grand-niece of Leon Theremin, the inventor of the theremin.
  • Bruce Duncan builds synthesizers in the Toronto, where he owns and runs Modcan Synthesizers.
  • Gayle Young is a Canadian composer and author. Among her works is a biography of the Canadian composer and inventor Hugh LeCaine. 
  • Dennis Patrick is a Canadian composer. For many years, he was director of the Electroacoustic Laboratory at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto.

Also heard in this episode on archival recordings:

  • Hugh Le Caine (1914-1977), the Canadian composer, inventor and instrument builder.

The following tracks were used in this episode:

  • Beach Boys - Good Vibrations (1966)
  • Hugh Le Caine - Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin
  • Bernard Herrmann - music from the film The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
  • Miklos Rozsa - music from the film Spellbound (1945)
  • Miklos Rozsa - music from the film The Lost Weekend (1945)
  • Lennington Shewell - Dancing with Tears in my Eyes - from a 78rpm (1930)
  • Mancini/Stein/Gertz - music from the film It Came from Outer Space (1953)
  • Lydia Kavina - Fantasia by Bohuslav Martinu
  • Hugh Le Caine - The Sackbut Blues
  • Hugh Le Caine - Sugar Blues by C. McCoy
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen - Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths) (1956)
  • Louis & Bebe Barron - music from the film Forbidden Planet (1956)
  • Clara Rockmore - Vocalise by Sergei Rachmaninov
  • Wendy Carlos - 2nd movement from Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G BWV 1048 by JS Bach - Switched on Bach (1968)
  • Wendy Carlos - Prelude no. 2 in C minor BWV 847 by JS Bach - Switched on Bach (1968)
  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) - Lucky Man - Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970)
  • Pink Floyd - Welcome to the Machine - Wish You Were Here (1975)
  • Genesis - The Colony of Slippermen - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
  • Isao Tomita - Mars from The Planets by Gustav Holst - The Tomita Planets (1976)
  • Kraftwerk - Robots - The Man Machine (1978)

The Wire Episode 4 Remix was produced by Jon Delerious. The series is produced by Chris BrookesPaolo Pietropaolo and Jowi Taylor. It originally aired February 28, 2005 on CBC Radio 1.