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The Experimental Electronic Wave of Progressive Rock

Written by Philippe Blache
(special thanks to Peter Rideout)

Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co - Summer 1975 Judy Borsher - Steve Drews - David Borden Live at the Outdoor Sculpture Terrace of the Johnson Museum, Ithaca, New York

Experimental electronic bands and artists focus their work around two main points:

  • The use of technologies and programming codes previously discovered by electro-acoustic researchers and musicians.
  • unique technology-driven creativity, which becomes more and more specific thanks to the launch of popular synthesisers (e.g. AKS, ARP equipment, modular synthesizers, poly and mini Moogs).

Advances in the domain of information, and the development of new technologies and electronic instruments were instrumental to the emergence of a wealth of new ideas and musical tendencies. The electronic progressive era took shape with the coming of modular "analog" synthesisers, opening up a whole new realm of musical possibilities. By 1967, the Moog synth was commercially available, and it soon found innovative devotees. The first contribution to progressive electronic music was made by Wendy (Walter) Carlos and her 1968 release "Switched on Bach" (classical music played on Moog). The first complete electronic band, Mother Mallard, is also an important part of progressive electronic history. Also notable was the strong contribution of Holger Czukay (CAN) through his sound collages made via tapes, on "Canaxis" (1968). The Moog synthesiser was also enthusiastically embraced by members of the "space age pop" movement, including Zodiac on their pioneering 1967 release Cosmic Sounds (often credited as being the first recording to feature the Moog), and jazz pianist/keyboardist Dick Hyman.

Outside of popular music, we perceive direct influences from "musique concrete," through early electronic avant-garde musicians such as John Cage and Morton Subotnick, and US minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Tony Conrad (largely known for his collaboration with Faust on "Outside the Dream Syndicate").

Fascinated by spectral transformations, micro tonality and extended time, the Berlin underground electronic scene led by Cluster, Conrad Schnitzler, Manuel Gottsching, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream ushered in an entire new world of sounds. At the beginning, the main technical ingredients were taken from oscillators, magnetic tapes, microphones, echo machines and electric organs. The resulting music, which would come to be collectively known as "krautrock," was a trance-like, repetitive experimental rock based on collective improvisations. Today, this music is referred to as "cosmic," because of the abundant, dreamlike ethereal soundscapes and hypnotic electronic loops. Bands like Kraftwerk and Asmus Tietchens started out working in primitive electronic "paintings," before finally achieving widespread popularity in the medium of synth pop music. Partly inspired by the 70s "Berlin school" electronica, multi-instrumentalist Klaus Hoffmann-Hoock (Cosmic Hoffmann) also contributed sonic intergalactic textures for Mellotron and Moog synthesisers. At the beginning of the 80s, the rocking and "unconventional" electronic project "Nekropolis" (Peter Frohmader) explored minimalist sonic "patterns," heavy guitars and new technologies.

In France, the realm of 70s underground electronics provided dark compositions based upon propulsive electronic cycles and patterns. Spacecraft, Lard Free and Heldon's psycho-electronic and bizarre releases represent the first "industrial" side of electronic art. Also from France, Bernard Xolotl delivers much more accessible releases in "interstellar space" electronics. Canadian electro acoustic luminary Philip Werren explores combinations between magnetic tapes and the Buchla modular synthesiser, for an intelligent cocktail somewhere between Tod Dockstader and Klaus Schulze's first efforts.

Italy also has an important history of polyphonic, modular synth experimentalists. Franco Fabbri, Franco Falsini (founder of the Italian "space-kraut" collective "Sensation's Fix") and Maurizio Bianchi figure as true innovators, while Francesco Cabiato focuses on shimmering synth chords with "cosmic" overtones, and early 70s collective Musica Elletronica Viva provided first rate electronic improvisations. A connexion with three sub-collectives under the same name also emerged: the first one, in Rome, was led by Alvin Curran (at the same time known for his wide catalogue of sonic montages based on acoustic instruments and voices), a second one in New York was led by Richard Teitelbaum and Frederic Rzewski, and a third one in Paris was organised by the Coaquettes.

Japan also experienced somewhat of a revolution with the impressive Kosuji Takeshi and his trippy sonic experimentations, the obscure SAB, Nord, and, more recently, Space Machine.

In England, David Vorhaus (White Noise) and Tim Blake (Gong) are considered to be the originators of popular electronic music. They were among the first to use the Synthesisers (VCS3, synth A) created and designed by the EMS society.

The 70s pre-ambient projects from musical innovators such as Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Roedelius & Moebius also produced a massive impact on public consciousness. Their imaginative "environmental" sounds, deep synth textures, acoustic minimal piano and rolling drones would greatly influence new age artists.

Today, the 70s wave of groundbreaking electronic musical experimentation provides a unique legacy for musicians and bands who enjoy uncompromising adherence to the avant-garde, cerebral "dronescapings" and vintage synth equipment. Among the leading names in current progressive electronic are: Alvars Orkester, Omit, Beequeen, Biosphere, Coil (for minimal, abstract, semi-ambient works), Takushi "Maso" Ynazakian, Makigami Koichi (a glorious revival of the cosmic trance years), SETI, Jim O'Rourke and many more, for a new direction in noisy, droning and semi-industrial soundscapes.

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