Live electronic music

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Live electronic music (also known as live electronics and electroacoustic improvisation) is a form of experimental improvised music. Instruments can include traditional electronic sound-generating devices, modified electric musical instruments, hacked sound generating technologies, and computers. Initially the practice developed in reaction to sound-based composition for fixed media such as musique concrète, electronic music and early computer music. Musical improvisation often plays a large role in the performance of this music. The timbres of various sounds may be transformed extensively using devices such as amplifiers, filters, ring modulators and other forms of circuitry (Sutherland 1994, 157). Real-time generation and manipulation of audio using live coding is now commonplace.



Early electronic instruments[edit]

This Telharmonium console (likely pictured in the late 1890s) is an early electronic organ by Thaddeus Cahill, and one of the first electronic instruments used for live performance.

Early electronic instruments intended for live performance, such as Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium (1897) and instruments developed between the two world wars, such as the Theremin (1919), Spharophon (1924), ondes Martenot (1928), and the Trautonium (1929), may be cited as antecedents (Manning 2013, 157), but were intended simply as new means of sound production, and did nothing to change the nature of musical composition or performance (Collins 2007, 39).

Many early compositions included these electronic instruments, though the instruments were typically used as fill-ins for standard classical instruments. An example includes composer Joseph Schillinger, who in 1929 composed First Airphonic Suite for Theremin and Orchestra, which premièred with the Cleveland Orchestra with Leon Theremin as soloist.[citation needed] Percy Grainger, used ensembles of four or six theremins (in preference to a string quartet) for his two earliest experimental Free Music compositions (1935–37) because of the instrument's complete 'gliding' freedom of pitch (Gillies and Pear n.d.; Lewis 1991, chapter 4: "Program Notes". The ondes Martenot was also used as a featured instrument in the 1930s, and composer Olivier Messiaen used it in the Fête des Belles Eaux for six ondes, written for the 1937 International World's Fair in Paris (Hill and Simeone 2005, 74–75).

Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) was among the earliest compositions to include an innovative use of live electronic material; it featured two variable-speed phonograph turntables and sine-tone recordings (Collins 2007, 38–39). Cage's interest in live electronics continued through the 1940s and 1950s, providing inspiration for the formation of a number of live-electronic groups in America who came to regard themselves as the pioneers of a new art form (Manning 2013, 157).


Stockhausen (2 September 1972 at the Shiraz Arts Festival, at the sound controls for the live-electronic work Mantra), who wrote a number of notable electronic compositions in the 1960s and 1970s in which amplification, filtering, tape delay, and spatialization was added to live instrumental performance

In Europe, Pierre Schaeffer had attempted live generation of the final stages of his works at the first public concert of musique concrète in 1951 with limited success. However, it was in Europe at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s that the most coherent transition from studio electronic techniques to live synthesis occurred. Mauricio Kagel's Transición II (1959) combined two tape recorders for live manipulation of the sounds of piano and percussion, and beginning in 1964 Karlheinz Stockhausen entered on a period of intensive work with live electronics with three works, Mikrophonie I and Mixtur (both 1964), and Mikrophonie II (Manning 2013, 157–58). While earlier live-electronic compositions, such as Cage's Cartridge Music (1960), had mainly employed amplification, Stockhausen's innovation was to add electronic transformation through filtering, which erased the distinction between instrumental and electronic music (Toop 2002, 495).

During the 1960s, a number of composers believed studio-based composition, such as musique concrète, lacked elements that were central to the creation of live music, such as: spontaneity, dialogue, discovery and group interaction. Many composers viewed the development of live electronics as a reaction against "the largely technocratic and rationalistic ethos of studio processed tape music" which was devoid of the visual and theatrical component of live performance (Sutherland 1994, 157). By the 1970s, live electronics had become the primary area of innovation in electronic music (Simms 1986, 395).


The 1970s and 1980s were notable for contributions by electronic musician Jean Michel Jarre. The success of Oxygene and his large scale concerts which he performed attracted millions of people, breaking his own record for largest audience four times.[1][2][3][4] In fact Jarre continued to break his own records up to the end of the century, with 3.5 million people attending 1998's Oxygene in Moscow.[5]



Farmers Manual 2002, performing laptronica

Laptronica is a form of live electronic music or computer music in which laptops are used as musical instruments. The term is a portmanteau of "laptop computer" and "electronica". The term gained a certain degree of currency in the 1990s and is of significance due to the use of highly powerful computation being made available to musicians in highly portable form, and therefore in live performance. Many sophisticated forms of sound production, manipulation and organization (which had hitherto only been available in studios or academic institutions) became available to use in live performance, largely by younger musicians influenced by and interested in developing experimental popular music forms (Emmerson 2007,[page needed]). A combination of many laptops can be used to form a laptop orchestra.

Live coding[edit]

Main article: Live coding
See also: Algorave
Live coding example using Impromptu

Live coding (Collins, McLean, Rohrhuber, and Ward 2003) (sometimes referred to as 'on-the-fly programming' (Wang and Cook 2004,[page needed]), 'just in time programming') is a programming practice centred upon the use of improvised interactive programming. Live coding is often used to create sound and image based digital media, and is particularly prevalent in computer music, combining algorithmic composition with improvisation (Collins 2003,[page needed]). Typically, the process of writing is made visible by projecting the computer screen in the audience space, with ways of visualising the code an area of active research (McLean, Griffiths, Collins, and Wiggins 2010,[page needed]). There are also approaches to human live coding in improvised dance (Anon. 2009). Live coding techniques are also employed outside of performance, such as in producing sound for film (Rohrhuber 2008, 60–70) or audio/visual work for interactive art installations (Anon. n.d.(b)).

Live coding is also an increasingly popular technique in programming-related lectures and conference presentations, and has been described as a "best practice" for computer science lectures by Mark Guzdial (2011).

Electroacoustic improvisation[edit]

Keith Rowe (pictured in 2008) improvising with prepared guitar at a music festival in Tokyo.

Electroacoustic improvisation (EAI) is a form of free improvisation that was originally referred to as live electronics. It has been part of the sound art world since the 1930s with the early works of John Cage (Schrader 1991,[page needed]; Cage 1960). Source magazine published articles by a number of leading electronic and avant-garde composers in the 1960s (Anon. n.d.(a)).

It was further influenced by electronic and electroacoustic music, the music of American experimental composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman and David Tudor. British free improvisation group AMM, particularly their guitarist Keith Rowe, have also played a contributing role in bringing attention to the practice.

Notable works 1930s–1960s[edit]

The following is an incomplete list, in chronological order, of early notable electronic compositions:

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Andraschke, Peter (2001). "Dichtung in Musik: Stockhausen, Trakl, Holliger." In Stimme und Wort in der Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts, edited by Hartmut Krones, 341–55. Vienna: Böhlau. ISBN 978-3-205-99387-2.
  • Bernal, Alberto, and João Miguel Pais (2008). "Endphase: Origin and Analysis of an Ongoing Project." eContact! 10.4—Temps réel, improvisation et interactivité en électroacoustique / Live-electronics — Improvisation — Interactivity in Electroacoustics (October). Montréal: CEC.
  • Burns, Christopher (2002). "Realizing Lucier and Stockhausen: Case Studies in the Performance Practice of Electronic Music." Journal of New Music Research 31, no. 1 (March): 59–68.
  • Cox, Christoph (2002). "The Jerrybuilt Future: The Sonic Arts Union, Once Group and MEV’s Live Electronics." In Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music, edited by Rob Young, pp. 35–44. London: Continuum. ISBN 978-0-8264-6450-7.
  • Davies, Hugh (2001). "Gentle Fire: An Early Approach to Live Electronic Music." Leonardo Music Journal 11 ("Not Necessarily ‘English Music’: Britain’s Second Golden Age"): 53–60.
  • Giomi, Francesco, Damiano Meacci, and Kilian Schwoon (2003). "Live Electronics in Luciano Berio’s Music." Computer Music Journal 27, no. 2 (Summer): 30–46.
  • Lindborg, PerMagnus (2008). "Reflections on Aspects of Music Interactivity in Performance Situations." eContact! 10.4 —Temps réel, improvisation et interactivité en électroacoustique / Live-electronics — Improvisation — Interactivity in Electroacoustics (October). Montréal:CEC.
  • Mailman, Joshua B. (2013). "Improvising Synesthesia: Comprovisation of Generative Graphics and Music". Leonardo Electronic Almanac 19, no.3 ("Live Visuals"): 352–84.
  • Marley, Brian, and Mark Wastell (eds.) (2006). Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum [Book + DVD]. London: Sound 323. ISBN 978-0-9551541-0-2.
  • Neal, Adam Scott (2009). "A Continuum of Indeterminacy in Laptop Music." eContact! 11.4 — Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium 2009 (TES) / Symposium Électroacoustique 2009 de Toronto (December). Montréal: CEC.
  • Nowitz, Alex (2008). "Voice and Live-Electronics using Remotes as Gestural Controllers." eContact! 10.4 — Temps réel, improvisation et interactivité en électroacoustique / Live-electronics — Improvisation — Interactivity in Electroacoustics (October). Montréal: CEC.
  • Stroppa, Marco (1999). "Live Electronics or … Live Music? Towards a Critique of Interaction." Contemporary Music Review 18, no. 3 ("Aesthetics of Live Electronic Music"): 41–77.


  1. ^ "Jarre breathes again with Oxygene". BBC. 2008-03-28. Retrieved 2015-10-06. 
  2. ^ "Concerts with Record Attendance". Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  3. ^ "Jean-Michel Jarre". IMDb. Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  4. ^ "Jean Michel Jarre - Composer Biography, Facts and Music Compositions". Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  5. ^ "Jean Michel Jarre, The First Time With... - BBC Radio 6 Music". BBC. Retrieved 2015-10-07.