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From Avantgarde to sounds for the masses

From Avantgarde to sounds for the masses
Jazz musician and composer Bruno Spoerri began pioneering the use of electronic sound generators in 1965, as can be seen in this picture of a 1975 concert with the Groupe Instrumental Romand at the Geneva Radio Studio.
Photographer unknown, Bruno Spoerri Collection
Text by guest author Markus Ganz
Electronic musical instruments have been used in Switzerland almost as long as SUISA has been in existence. Music creators have always known how to creatively use new possibilities offered by the latest and more advanced instruments, equipment and software.

As early as 1932, the French-Swiss composer Arthur Honegger used the Ondes Martenot, first introduced in 1928, as a dreamlike voice in the animated short film “L’Idée” and especially dramatically in the film “Rapt” (1934). Jazz musician Bruno Spoerri also used the monophonic electronic instrument from 1966, for example in advertising film music for Riri zippers. With his constant search for new ways of expression, the saxophonist and composer became a long-time pioneer of electronic music in Switzerland.

The instrument played without contact

The precursor of the Ondes Martenot is the theremin, invented as early as 1920. It is better known today and has been used by quite a few Swiss musicians since the 1990s, such as Anna Trauffer and Reto Suhner; Wieslaw Pipczynski even presented it on the TV show “Die grössten Schweizer Talente” in 2012. The importance of the theremin for the breakthrough of the synthesizer is also shown by the fact that synthesizer developer Robert A. Moog produced and further developed the theremin from 1954, before launching his own synthesizers with groundbreaking innovations from 1964 onwards. These include in particular the Mini-Moog, presented in 1971, which was much easier to use and is still used today in modernized versions in Switzerland as well. The punch line is that Bob Moog started producing theremins again in the 1990s, and the Moog Music company is now the world’s largest theremin manufacturer.

For a very long time, the synthesizers triggered glorification but also incomprehension and resistance for a very long time. Bruno Spoerri wrote in 1974 in the magazine Music Scene that the most astonishing fairy tales were circulating about this new device, which “belongs in no man’s land between electron organs and laboratory equipment”. Imagination was going into overdrive about “dangerous frequencies that penetrate the head” and mystical trips. Musicians supposedly felt “like priests performing the sacrament,” but there was also talk of the “end of musical instruments.” Accordingly, it is not surprising that concerts by Bruno Spoerri, despite explanations by the musician, led to newspaper reviews such as “ghastly blighting of music” and “repulsive sound butchering feast”. But there were also comments like “The future of music.” And as early as 1974, Spoerri predicted that progress was rapidly moving toward the computer.

For a long time, sophisticated productions of electronic or electroacoustic music were only possible within an institutional framework, as the necessary infrastructure was very expensive. In Switzerland, it was particularly Radio Geneva acting as pioneering place. Moreover, there was conductor Hermann Scherchen’s studio in Gravesano and then conservatories such as the Music Academy in Basel, which set up its own electronic studio in 1975. Founded by David Johnson, it was later led by composer Thomas Kessler, a pioneer of live electronics. With the Berlin Electronic Beat Studio, he had also influenced the experimental work of Ash Ra Tempel, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream from 1968 on, who in turn created a precursor to house and techno.

Devices shape sound aesthetics

From 1982 on, Kessler offered courses in Basel on the Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument). It was launched in 1979 and an extremely innovative and versatile, but also very expensive instrument that caused a sensation, especially with its sampling. The Fairlight played a central role for the music production of Yello’s Boris Blank, but also for Stella and PJ Wassermann, who managed the hit “Muh!” [“Moo!”] under the name Matterhorn Project. Yamaha’s ‘DX-7’, introduced in 1982, was the first digital synthesizer to hit the market, was affordable, and shaped the sound aesthetics of many pop productions for over a decade. In the mid-1980s, the first relatively inexpensive samplers already followed, which were also soon used in Switzerland, for example in the hit “Muhammar” (1987) by the Basel band Touch El Arab. Band member Christoph H. Müller would later achieve worldwide success with the Gotan Project’s Electro-Tango.

In 1977, small and relatively inexpensive computers such as the Apple II and the Commodore PET had been launched on the market. As a result, interest in the digital possibilities of sound generation and processing grew in jazz, pop and rock as well. Bruno Spoerri recognised this, as did Gerald Bennett, who had previously worked at the leading research institute for acoustics/music (IRCAM) in Paris. Together with other interested people they founded the Swiss Society for Computer Music in 1982. It organised meetings for mutual exchange and also invited prominent speakers such as Max Mathews and Jean-Claude Risset. At the centre of the meetings always stood demonstrations of innovative projects, be it self-developed instruments like the Synthophone (Martin Hurni), control devices like the “Hands” (Michel Waisvisz) or software like “Presto” (Guerino Mazzola).

A centre for computer music

Since the acquisition of its own freely programmable music computer system was not realistic for the Society, the more broadly based Swiss Centre for Computer Music was founded in 1984 with headquarters in Oetwil am See; Rainer Boesch’s Geneva studio ESPACES joined as a branch. The centre was intended to create access to computer music “for anyone interested, including people outside the classical-conventional music world.” After a difficult build-up period, a generation of young composers was then able to learn and practically apply the fundamental procedures of computer music in Switzerland for the first time.

The centre in Oetwil am See near Zurich, however, suffered increasingly from financial worries, as computer music had a low status at the time. Towards 1990, the limitations of the existing system also became apparent. At the same time, home computers had “reached a musically usable stage,” so that “more and more functions of the large-scale system became obsolete.” The centre managed to find a new and promising partnership in 1992 in its collaboration with the Zurich University of Music, and in 2005 it was replaced by the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology.

From disco, dance and synth-pop to electronic rock

In pop music, the possibility of connecting electronic instruments to the computer via the MIDI standard introduced in 1982 had caused a revolution. Initially, however, only a small one, as the use of the complicated synthesizers, the confusing MIDI system, and the long trouble-prone computers gave many musicians a headache. Nevertheless, the “Music Scene” noted in 1983: “Computers have caught on.” One year later, the Zurich Live Computer Music Project demonstrated that techno-funk with a disco touch could also be presented live with an Apple II as the fourth “musician”. Stephan Eicher also used a live computer early on. “During the concert, I can put everything together as I please. It may be that I associate the piece ‘Nice’ with ‘Les Filles du Limmatquai’, although it’s located in a totally different place on the computer. I can also change the tempo, drop the snare or make it louder.”

The French-Swiss trio Young Gods effectively combined pounding live drums and evocative vocals with samples of screeching electric guitars and classical interjections on their self-titled debut album from 1987. (Photo: The Young Gods)

The Zurich quartet UnknownmiX, founded in 1983, met with much recognition in the German-speaking world – even in the jazz and avant-garde scene. This was no coincidence, as the group created a highly idiosyncratic expression with their abstract and austere sounding synch-pop. The Young Gods then introduced sampling to rock music in a uniquely new way in 1986 with the thunderclap of their debut maxi “Envoyé.” A little-noticed precursor to the nascent breakthrough of electronic dance music came from the disco scene, particularly through Kurt “Gutze” Gautschi’s Fresh Color project. The latter’s track “Disco Future” was in the Swiss charts in the spring of 1985, as were Yello’s “Vicious Games” and Matterhorn Project’s “Muh!”. In the early 1990s, Gutze Gautschi was to play an important role in DJ BoBo’s breakthrough.

The soundtrack of the Street Parade

Trance DJane and producer DJ Tatana became internationally successful with the Zurich Street Parade, creating many tracks for the mega-event and associated parties. Of course she also played records like here in 2004 in the Zurich club OXA. (Photo: Gaëtan Bally / Keystone)

For a very long time, the Swiss electronic dance music scene was strongly influenced by the Zurich Street Parade, which was first held in 1992, and the dominant styles of house, trance and minimal. Many DJs like Tatana and Energy owe their careers in large part to the pull effect of this dance parade that attracts up to a million people. As such it not only included countless parties, but also provided clubs that are serving the target audience with DJs throughout the year. Thanks to the Street Parade, specifically mixed CD compilations also became very popular. This is especially true for DJ Antoine, who often releases several albums a year and combines his palatable dance house sound with lifestyle.

Said scene was also able to grow so quickly because it became technically easier and cheaper to produce such tracks yourself: DJ consoles were increasingly replaced by PCs and laptops with specialised software. Around 2011, DJ and producer Remady scored hits all across Europe with pop-infused electro-house like “No Superstar”, most of which he created at home. According to his own statement, “with a special offer for PCs from an electronics retail chain for about 1,000 Swiss francs and an all-in-one software for about 400 francs that combines all music production functions into a complete virtual studio.”

Panda Eyes produces his electronic music at home, but it is heard worldwide, streamed millions of times on major social media platforms. Here, the DJ, composer and producer is seen on his 2018 North American tour. (Photo: Archive Panda Eyes)

A decade later, DJs, composers and producers of a new generation like Panda Eyes also often create their electronic music at home. However, specialised music software has not only become more comprehensive and sophisticated, but also offers completely new functions thanks to artificial intelligence, which must first be properly explored.

Book tip
Bruno Spoerri (ed.): “Musik aus dem Nichts. Die Geschichte der elektroakustischen Musik in der Schweiz. Music out of nowhere. The History of Electroacoustic Music in Switzerland” (published by Chronos).

Book for the anniversary: “Highlights on 100 years of Swiss music”
SUISA celebrates its centenary in 2023. Much has changed since 1923, both in the music business and in society. On the occasion of the centenary, a coffee-table book is created. It provides a retrospective of the last 100 years of the Swiss music scene and SUISA’s development. On SUISAblog, selected topics from the book will be examined in more detail.

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