Preserving electronic music

Can you name ten famous Belgians? When first moving to the UK this joke quite often  came up. Finding an answer to the question was easy enough and no, Hercule Poirot is fictional and not on the list. Although several musicians and composers have made it to the spotlight and can make a claim on international fame, others have remained in the background, despite significant achievements in their field.

One of these is Karel Goeyvaerts (1923-1993), pioneer of integral serialism and electronic music. He was a very influential figure in the 1950s during the Darmstadt summer courses and beyond. The Goeyvaerts archive at Leuven University contains not only his manuscripts but other documentary sources, such as correspondence, that illustrate his key role. Throughout his career Goeyvaerts showed a particular interest in the structure of music and he was one of the avant-garde composers that used electronic music as a means towards total control of tone production. Although Goeyvaerts subsequently followed various developments in music, structure remained a key component of his musical style throughout.

Talking about total control of music, or the opposite, the introduction of aleatoric elements, improvisation or interactive components, as a librarian responsible for managing music collections containing a reasonable amount of 20th and 21st century holdings, preserving repertoire and formats that go beyond standard notated music is an ever-growing challenge. When concepts or techniques used to create musical works are hard to capture and preserve, then the actual compositions are at risk from disappearing from our heritage.

New music centre MATRIX has devoted a project to the development of a model for storing musical works that can’t be made accessible for research or performance through the format of traditional scores or recordings. Focus of the project was to make the available documentary evidence accessible in a way that would ensure that compositions can be recreated in the future. Issues to be addressed include time, resources, selection, dealing with quickly outdated hardware and software, collecting additional information about musical works…

At Cambridge University Library we have not yet come across more challenging examples such as phosphorescent scores or interactive soundscapes, but we do need to be aware that the contemporary repertoire in our collections currently is and can only ever be a partial representation of musical developments. Of the musical repertoire that can be notated for example, only a proportion will actually be published, and within that section, an ever-growing proportion is available as hire material only. Although we can’t be exactly comprehensive, we can and do aim to make a diverse range of musical content available.

Reel-to-reel tapes after mould treatment

Reel-to-reel tapes from the Roberto Gerhard Archive stored after mould treatment.

One of our unique collections, the Roberto Gerhard Archive, provides us with an example of how both preservation and documentation can help us disclose music that can’t be captured through music notation only. Unlike some more recent electronic music as described in the MATRIX project, we are fortunate enough  to hold copies of the actual electronic component of some of Gerhard’s compositions in our collection of reel-to-reel tapes. Our primary task is therefore to preserve through digitization, preservation of the original objects and of course preservation of the digitized content. The archive also contains information about now obsolete equipment. Various manuals are listed in MRS.31 and it is partly through these manuals that future researchers will be able to understand better how sounds were produced.

Unlike Goeyvaerts, Gerhard’s aim in using electronic/eletroacoustic music was not the total control flowing out of integral serialism. Although interested in serialization of time as well as pitch, Gerhard’s musical approach included a certain amount of freedom. Gerhard consciously distanced himself from the dogmatism of Darmstadt avant-garde composers and had a very different view of the relation of form and serialism and the nature of music as an art form.  One of his structural techniques is described by Darren Sproston as the “time-aggregate”. This use of proportions derived from the series is used in two of our recent manuscript acquisitions: the Capriccio for Solo Flute (Ms.Add.10276) and the Sonata for Viola and Piano (Ms.Add.10148). Gerhard was a pioneer in electronic music in the UK, mostly working in his private studio at his home in Cambridge, an unusual and significant achievement. Gerhard was a great composer whose musical output is celebrated during his 2020-2021 anniversary years.  The pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works but we nevertheless want to pay tribute to a brilliant musician.

Anna Pensaert

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