The Future is Now

Back in 1937, two years after the first tape recorder was built in Germany by Allegemeine Elektrizitats Gesellschaft, composer John Cage predicted the hip-hop present, writing: “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all kinds of sounds that can be. The present methods of writing music, principally those which employ harmony and its reference to particular steps in the field of sound, will be inadequate for the composer, who will be faced with the entire field of sound.”

The average b-boy may not know his name, but Cage’s ideas have nonetheless spread around the world, from academia’s ivory tower to the funky basements of club culture. Though the late-90s electronica craze led to some mainstream recognition of pioneers–from futurist Luigi Russolo to synthesizer inventor Leon Theremin to composer Karlheinz Stockhausen–Cage is the granddaddy of them all. But for those not interested in trying to divine his legacy from current hits like Missy Elliott’s “Hot Boyz” or Beck’s “Sexx Laws,” there are several new CDs that explore its more cerebral permutations.

On Early Modulations: Vintage Volts (Caipirinha) the makers of the concise 1998 electronica documentary Modulations have compiled a wonderful, if disjointed, overview of early electronic music. Max Mathews’s 1961 voice-synthesis experiment “Bicycle Built for Two” anticipates Kraftwerk’s man-machine vocals, while “Etude aux chemins de fer” (“Railway Study”), a 1948 piece by Pierre Schaeffer, anticipates Pro Tools: he painstakingly spliced tapes of huffing, puffing locomotives into a cogent, imaginative, musical composition that decontextualizes the source material, a little trick he decided to call “musique concrete.” In his 1958 “Piece for Tape Recorder,” Vladimir Ussachevsky manipulates more conventional musical sources, including piano, into spooky sound clouds–no wonder electronic music found its first commercial usage in sci-fi sound tracks. Cage’s own “Imaginary Landscape no. 1,” from 1939, combines varied-speed turntable manipulations–35 years before Kool DJ Herc–with ominous piano plinks and hydroplaning cymbals. The CD also includes key works by Iannis Xenakis and Luc Ferrari, plus Morton Subotnick’s 1967 “Silver Apples of the Moon”–an obvious source of inspiration for the seminal space-rock band Silver Apples, among others.

A variety of works by Cage and some of his artistic progeny are also featured on the double CD Goodbye 20th Century (SYR), a remarkably listenable tribute to late-20th-century composition by Sonic Youth and some prominent guests, including composer-pianist Christian Wolff, composer-violinist Takehisa Kosugi, percussionist William Winant, turntable deconstructionist Christian Marclay, and Chicago star Jim O’Rourke. The primary instrument being electric guitar, this isn’t what most people think of as electronic music, but conceptually the record is a page right out of Cage’s book. Coco Hayley Gordon Moore, the five-year-old daughter of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, screams her way through Yoko Ono’s very brief “Voice Piece for Soprano,” while James Tenney’s “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion,” written for tam-tam in 1971, gets retrofitted for guitar–its gradual rise-and-fall structure seems custom made for Sonic Youth’s feedback mastery. Other pieces emphasize the music-making process: for Steve Reich’s “Pendulum Music” Gordon, Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley swing microphones over loudspeakers to create whirring swooshes of out-of-phase feedback, while in the execution of page 183 from Cornelius Cardew’s 193-page graphic score Treatise, seven musicians translate geometric shapes and designs into sound.

Last but not least, under the direction of poet and music critic Art Lange a cast of Chicago improvisers–O’Rourke, pianist Jim Baker, vibist Carrie Biolo, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and reedist Guillermo Gregorio–has made the first complete recording of all 193 pages of Cardew’s Treatise, written between 1963 and 1967. The 141-minute, two-CD set was recently released by the Swiss Hat Now imprint. Cage’s advocacy of nontraditional music notation and his insistence on allowing for a certain amount of choice by the performer were taken to heart by Cardew, a leading light of the British avant-garde in the 60s who for a time performed with the great improv group AMM. His late-60s Scratch Orchestra was (theoretically, at least) open to participation by musicians of any age or level of training. The experienced Chicago crew reads the score as a brooding flow of contemplative, Morton Feldman-esque sound waves. At times the music glides in elegant legato lines; sometimes it’s more jarring as sounds loop, dissipate, or stop abruptly.

While this recording is impressive, Treatise by nature resists a “definitive version”–live performance is its ideal experience. Another cast of musicians would come up with dramatically different results, and to Cardew–and of course Cage–that would be exactly the point.


Even those of us who get paid to stay on top of such things can’t see and hear every concert–but now instead of reading about a missed gig later, you can watch it later on your computer. The Chicago-based Web site has been shooting shows at local clubs since summer, and its archives include sets by the Ex, Five Style, Kool Keith, the Vandermark 5, the Promise Ring, and U.S. Maple; when you call up a show, you’ll also find bios, discography, and Web links for the band. Although the videos don’t look or sound great on most systems yet, the shuffling images and raw sound do capture the general idea–and the service is free to both bands and viewers. “It’s really expensive to shoot these shows, but we do it because we like [the bands] and we hope they get something back from the experience,” says Marci Rogal, who coordinates the concert shoots. also features film and record reviews, a viewable archive of experimental film, information about and a selection of articles reprinted from zines, and a “23.999-hour” Internet radio station. Most of the content is put together by Ed Marszewski, a cofounder of Lumpen magazine, but the site so far has been financed by Lou Manousos, owner of the local Internet consulting company Outlook Technologies, who came up with the idea along with two former employees, Mike Evans and Jon Evans (no relation). Currently the only ad on is for UHF Records, a new on-line record store run by former Reckless Records manager Bryan Smith, but Jon Evans says next month they’ll undergo a redesign and begin to focus on marketing the site and attracting advertisers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Susan Schwartzenberg.