More than techno: A history of electronic music – DW (English)

Electronic or “electro” music is often labeled robotic and one-dimensional, a sound that might only be consumed under the influence in a dark nightclub. This cliché extends to the idea that the genre originated in the 1980s when synthesizers and drum machines became integral to pop music.

But electronic music has had a long and diverse influence on the modern musical canon, a topic explored by the exhibition “Electro. From Kraftwerk to Techno.”

Now on show at the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf — a city that incubated electronic music pioneers such as Krautrock band Kraftwerk — the exhibition maps the more than 100-year history of electronic music from its beginnings to compositions by artificial intelligence.

From the Theremin to the Hammond

The first experiments with electronic sound generators took place as early as the mid-late 19th century, and culminated in the development of electromechanical pianos that predate the electronic keyboard. 

One of the most famous early electronic instruments was the “etherophone,” later christened the “Theremin” after its inventor Leon Theremin.

Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin, considered the world’s first electronic musical instrument

Developed in the 1920s in Leningrad, the sound seem to emerge as if by magic: Invisible electrical oscillations created between two antennas can be played with a hand as it bends the pitch.

Soon after, Friedrich Trautwein created the “trautonium,” a precursor to the electronic synthesizer — played here with a wire instead of keys — that has also been essential to electronic music.

So too the electromechanical Hammond organ developed in 1935 as an alternative to a church organ became an essential part of blues, jazz and funk music.

From Krautrock to dub

In the postwar period, US composers such as John Cage and Steve Reich were pushing the boundaries of electroacoustic music.

Meanwhile in Europe, Karlheinz Stockhausen was pioneering electronic sound experiments using ring modulators and Hammond organs, among much else, in the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne.

A pioneer of electronic and ‘intuitive music’: Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1971

In the 1970s, the electronic musical torch was passed on to Düsseldorf, where the band Kraftwerk, in their Kling-Klang studio, developed the sound that has decisively shaped electronic music to this day.

While avant-garde rock and Krautrock bands such as Can or Neu! infused keyboards into their monotonous “motorik” sound, it was Kraftwerk that gave the genre worldwide popularity — and credibility.

Artists as diverse as David Bowie, Afrika Bambaata, Joy Division, New Order, Depeche Mode and Blur were inspired by the German electro band, whom the New York Times once described as “the Beatles of electronic dance music.”

“Think of the band as a lab technician synthesizing the DNA that provided the code for rap, disco, electro-funk, new wave, industrial and techno,” wrote the newspaper.

French artists were also central to the electronic music renaissance. Jean-Michel Jarre brought the synthesizer to the mainstream with groundbreaking albums like “Oxygène” before Parisian artists like Laurent Garnier, Air and Daft Punk popularized the French House genre.

Meanwhile in Jamaica, groundbreaking producers and musicians like Lee “Scratch” Perry experimented with electronic effects on instrumental versions of reggae songs, inventing dub music in the process.

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