OK...picking up where we left off in the 1960s, let's start off looking at the beginnings of synthesizer music. Around 1964, both Bob Moog (in upstate New York) and Don Buchla (working with the San Francisco Tape Music Center) separately developed voltage-controlled synthesizers, beginning the development of what most people would recognize as 'electronic music'...despite the fact that that already existed for decades previous. The new technology, however, allowed for the instruments and the music made with them to be more readily encountered by the general public. Even synthesizers predated this, such as the RCA Mark II at the Columbia-Princeton Center for Electronic Music or Oskar Sala's Mixturtrautonium as deployed at WDR Cologne and elsewhere. These instruments, though, were anything but accessible; only a few Mixturtrautoniums were made (along with their East German counterpart, the Subharchord), and the gargantuan Mark II took up an entire room, bolted to the floor and not open to public access.
Moog and Buchla changed this. For starters, their respective systems were much smaller, even portable when compared to the Mark II or Mixturtrautonium. They actually felt more like playable instruments. Comparatively, the RCA Mark II required users to program the synth via numerous switches, mixers, cables, and unwieldy punch-roll contraptions that dictated that the instrument could never be used 'live'. It also looked user-hostile, like some sort of defense-contractor machinery cobbled into functioning as some mad sci-fi movie prop...and in fact, the defense-contractor part was rather accurate! Moog and Buchla housed their devices in organic wooden cabinets, in contrast, and what you were working with was clearly labelled and laid out.
We're only going to look at one RCA Mark II composition here for starters, since it was created around the same time as the inception of the voltage-controlled synth. And that piece is...
1) Charles Wuorinen: “Time's Encomium” (1968/69). By the time Wuorinen had completed this work on the RCA Mark II, the development of voltage-controlled synthesizers was ramping into high gear. A commission from Nonesuch Records (which also commissioned Morton Subotnick's “Silver Apples of the Moon” around the same time), this won the Pulitzer for music in 1970, becoming the first electronic work to win the prize. But even so, Wuorinen noted the Mark II's limitations in his notes on the work, pointing out that the piece had been limited to 12-tone structure and pitch-derived temporal relations by the Mark II's idiosyncracies. This would be one of the final works of note with the instrument, in fact, as Moog, Buchla, and their offshoots were creating electronic instruments at the same time that far surpassed the Mark II's capabilities.
Now, let's move on, and start into the lineage of works that involves synthesizers that we would recognize today...some of which, in fact, are still in active manufacture!
2) Morton Subotnick: “Silver Apples of the Moon” (1967). This work was actually the first electronic composition commissioned by a record label (Nonesuch) and slated for public release. Having moved to New York City, taking with him a sizable Buchla 100 system, Subotnick realized this work in a self-built studio designed by him specifically for synthesizer-based electronic composition. It's still an amazing listen, and I've even heard more adventuresome DJs spin Part II of the work into sets against a minimal track such as Maurizio's “M5”. It works. Subotnick's palette of sounds on this work and the following “The Wild Bull” did quite a bit to inform later electronic musicians of the timbral and rhythmic potential lurking in the Buchla's circuitry. But the one that grabbed everyone's attention was...
3) Walter Carlos: “Switched-on Bach” (1968). Released as part of a push by Columbia Records into newer musical territory, alongside Terry Riley's “In C” and a rather forgettable album entitled “Rock and Other Four-Letter Words”, Carlos's realization of Bach's works in fully-electronic media seized the public's attention that year, and still commands that attention decades later. It was a fixture at #1 in Billboard's classical charts from 1969 to 1972, in fact. While the album was derided by many traditional electronic composers of its day (Stockhausen referred to it as 'old wine in new bottles'), it introduced the wider public ear to the new electronic sound spectrum. It still remains influential to this day, and should be mandatory listening to anyone involving themselves in electronic music of any genre. Which is a little odd, because the Moog synthesizer which was critical to 'SOB' was featured prominently...but not obviously...on...
4) The Doors: “Strange Days” (1967). The second album by the LA quartet, this album gave them the luxury of expanding their level of studio experimentation, and during its production the West Coast reps for R.A. Moog, Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause, were often employed to open the magic of the Moog to the group. The title track, which opens the album, prominently features the Moog, but in use as a processor for Jim Morrison's vocals instead of its more typical role. There's a lot of Moog on this album, in fact, but more often than not used as a method of sonically-tampering with the band's sound. Brian Eno would later come to prominence with Roxy Music in a similar role, 'treating' the band's sound with EMS gear. But this was the first of that. The Moog finally came out of the studio woodwork on a bigger scale on...
5) The Beatles: “Abbey Road” (1969). Having acquired a Moog system and some tutelage from Bernie Krause, George Harrison added the Moog to the musical forces of the Beatles on this album, the last they were to record as a unit. And it's all over on this album, from the multitracked parts on “Here Comes the Sun” to the wind noise in the final minutes of “I Want You (She's So Heavy)”, the Moog was a critical part of the album's sound and was the first major, out-in-front pop usage of the new technology. The Beatles' use of the synthesizer cemented the instrument in the pop music industry's growing arsenal of important devices, and after this, the presence of electronics was more commonly-heard in popular music.
6) Popol Vuh: “Affenstunde” (1970). On the other hand, the growing presence of the new electronic instruments was to allow other musicians to explore much farther afield in their own efforts. On “Affenstunde”, Florian Fricke utilized the first Moog IIIp system purchased by a German musician to create two sides of music that, while it was released on a pop label, went so much farther beyond any boundary in 'pop' and forged the initial steps toward many future genres that rely on electronic instrumentation. While Fricke was to step back from the heavy use of electronic instrumentation on later Popol Vuh efforts, this initial release was an apt start-point for much of the trippier synth work that emerged from Europe.
7) The White Noise: “An Electric Storm” (1969). And this was very much the starting-point for a lot of the more extreme synth work. Teaming up with BBC Radiophonic Workshop veterans Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, American ex-pat David Vorhaus created this very strange album that alternates between novelty tracks, jarring sound-collages, eerie atmospherics, and outright noise that predicted much of what would later be termed 'industrial', especially on the album's title track. Vorhaus and company made extensive use of a very different synthesizer for their work, the then-new EMS VCS3, which can be heard everywhere in many forms on this release. If the Beatles paved the way for pop music groups such as ELP and Yes and Popol Vuh for much of the 'kosmische' scene in Germany, The White Noise set the stage for later innovators such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and SPK.
Now, let's jump out of the pop realm for a bit. By the early 1970s, new music composers had finally accustomed themselves to the massive change in technology that synthesizers brought, and to entire new realms of composition that the equipment allowed. This actually opened the door for major aesthetic changes to enter into new music in the post-sixties period.
8) Eliane Radigue: “Adnos I – III” (1973-80). Radigue, a French composer previously associated with Pierre Henry and the Club d'Essai, worked in New York City for a period in the early 1970s, and first encountered a Buchla 100 system installed at NYU. Recognizing the potential for the new technology to create a music that was akin to a slow 'unfolding' of sound, she purchased an ARP 2500 system and returned to Paris to build a new personal studio around the new instrument. The resulting 'Adnos' works emerged from that, with an interval in between the first and second works where she intensively studied Tibetan Buddhism. These three works, all quite lengthy and concentrating on minimal, evolving drone textures, represent a major sea change in how electronic media would be approached in new music. The synthesizer, in these works, is of critical importance, since it allowed for the long-sustained tones and sound structures that are critical to them.
9) Brian Eno: “Discrete Music” (1975). Similarly, electronics allowed Eno, who was then well into his post-Roxy Music solo career, to create simplistic sonic textures that lent themselves to the development of what he termed 'ambient music'. But even moreso, “Discrete Music” was the beginning of his work with 'generative' processes, as the combination of a VCS3 with a sequencer plus a long-duration tape delay system allowed for the complex interaction of very simple musical structures to form very intricate formations, while at the same time never vectoring off into the more chaotic areas of other chance-based compositional techniques.
10) Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company: s/t (1970/73). Back in the USA, composer David Borden, who worked with Robert Moog on the development of the Minimoog as well as improvements to their modular systems, formed this ensemble in upstate New York, with the intention of creating a live performing ensemble based solely on electronic instrumentation. This album featured works by both Borden and fellow member Steve Drews, but in live performance the ensemble also performed music by minimalists Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. MMPMC's efforts were critical to the future of electronic instrumentation, as they represented one of the very first efforts to utilize synthesizer technology in a live concert setting, thereby creating a 'proof of concept' that convinced Moog that synthesizers were not simply meant for studio settings, opening the door to Moog pursuing instrument development that would create the first performance-oriented synths such as the Minimoog, etc.
...and thus, the stage was set. Emerging from a purely experimental origin, the synthesizer was now a normally-encountered and often-used instrument. In the years following, further development of both electronic music and instruments blossomed. But in these notable efforts above, the idea that electronic instruments could be worth investing time and money into was first brought up and demonstrated aptly. It also marked the shift in the development of the synthesizer apart from the avant-garde musical realm, retargeting the R&D money and efforts toward the more typical music creators and performers, changing the course of electronic instruments from being an 'elite' spectrum of devices and toward a more democratized direction. Quite a few companies that emerged in the wake of these developments still exist to this day, having taken up the creation and development of electronic instruments after having seen that their purpose went far beyond that of major universities and studios. Also, many musicians were encouraged by these developments to also plunge into this new sonic dimension, with quite a few of these remaining influential to the present day.
The development of the synthesizer was a massive change in music, therefore, with repercussions that will likely continue for centuries in the future. Just as the development of the piano was directly related to the emergence of mechanized industry in the mid-1700s and altered music's direction to the present day, the emergence of electronic technology in the 20th century was a revolution that enabled a similar course of development, with the synthesizer emerging as the result. Really, we are very early-on into what these instruments are likely to do to music, and it's just as possible that someone reading these words here on Modulargrid in the present day may go on to be a part of that continuing change.
Ours is an interesting and storied heritage. Embrace it, enjoy it, and create what comes next!