Book Review: Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music


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    Joel Chadabe’s place in the history of electronic music is quite secure: from his work with Bob Moog on the creation of CEMS to the innovations developed by Intelligent Music through to the launch of the Electronic Music Foundation, Joel’s work in the field is undeniable. But he has also shared a piece of his history with us: Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music. This book contains his view on the world of computer-based music as it developed from Max Mathews through the late 1990’s. He had unique insight into the genre - and the people involved - that are the bedrock of much of today’s music.
    Electric Sound takes on a pretty big task: as with many histories of media arts, it begins with the Telharmonium, but goes through Tape Music, into Computer and Electronic music, and even tries to peer into the near future as of the date of its publication (1997). While the early electronic and tape music eras have been adequately covered in other books, this book is exhaustive in its coverage of the growth of computer-driven music - from academic research through early efforts at creating computer tools for personal computers. While many have heard of the exploits of Max Matthews and John Chowning, Chadabe offers us views into the activities of Berry Vercoe, Trevor Wishart and Paul Lansky, and gives us a glimpse at the interaction between them and the many other participants in the computer music revolution.
    We also get to see more about the way that different organizations - universities, research institutes and companies - work together to bring computers, synthesizers and composers to bear on the improbable concept of music made in the absence of acoustic instrumentation. Since Chadabe was in the middle of software developments with early personal computer systems, he is able to show how each small company - informed by schools like UC Berkeley and institutions like IRCAM - were constantly pushing the envelope through the MIDI protocol, sampling technology and even a visual definition of electronic music concept (MAX!).
    There is also the exploration of sound - literally, the drive to make sounds that had never been heard before. Seeing the work of Perry Cook, David Wessel and Barry Truax crash into each other - and push each other - to create ever-new sound, you can imagine the air crackling around each of these and all the other players in this book on a day-to-day basis.
    But my favorite part of the book was the detailed view into the development and expansion of the MIDI protocol, and its use in modern computer systems to open the door for all of us to enjoy the fruits of these efforts. From Dave Smith and Ikutaro Kakehashi’s creation of the specification, through the efforts of Linn, Oberheim and Rossum, and the software wizardry of Chadabe himself, Dave Oppenheim (Opcode), Emile Tobenfeld (Dr. T) and others, we get a glimpse of a rapidly-changing and exciting time. And again, the interaction between the people, their work and the many people that assisted them all prove the social nature of this potentially monastic pursuit.
    I consider this an essential book for anyone’s electronic music bookshelf - when you can find it. Until recently, the only copies available were horrendously overpriced (> US$150), and often in poor condition. For some reason, the market has seen many copies of this book come up on the used market, and you can now find copies for a more affordable price. I found this a great addition to the histories provided by books like Pinch and Trocco’s Analog Days and Manning’s Electronic and Computer Music, especially given the Chadabe’s unique position within that history.
    Greatly recommended!