Before laptop performances, computer composition, even synthesizers, became de rigueur in the music world, there was the tape. Specifically, the cumbersome, complex world of reel-to-reel magnetic tapes, with which some of the most astounding musical innovations were realized.
On 28 October 1952, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky took the stage at the Modern Museum of Art, to participate in a special concert, being broadcast live. This concert makes up the entirety of the 1968 Desto Records LP, "Tape Music An Historic Concert." The music documented is deserving of the adjective "historic," as the first tape music concert in the United States, radically changed the face of contemporary musical composition. It was because of this particular 1952 concert of Luening and Ussachevsky's music that the term "Tape Music" actually came into being.
It was in the fall of 1951, Ussachevsky recalled, that an Ampex tape recorder was delivered to the Music Department at Columbia. Of the device, Ussachevsky wrote, "Little did I know that opening the lid of the packing box produced an effect akin to that of Pandora's box. Having been asked on several occasions to describe the effects of this unsettling experience on my creative life (my wife could tell a lot, if asked, on how it felt to live in a company of three tape recorders in a living room) I find it best in this particular instance to restrict myself to a recounting in a most direct way the evolution of my approach to the opportunities to compose music directly in sound."
Legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski's comments at the MOMA event really hammer in quite how "new" a medium magnetic tape was: "I am often asked: What is tape music, and how is it made? Tape music is music that is composed directly with sound instead of first being written on paper and later made to sound. Just as the painter paints his picture directly with colors, so the musician composes his music directly with tone .... In tape music several or even many tapes are superimposed; the tapes sound together the groups of tones that are recorded on them. So, essentially, it is a new way of doing what has been done for centuries by old methods."
The Luening-Ussachevsky concert was the first concert of its kind. The program consisted of an incredibly diverse, sonically and compositionally, selection of works, with pieces composed by the teacher and student duo as well as two pieces composed by Luening alone. The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra performed, conducted by José Serebrier of the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra.
Side A includes all six pieces composed by Luening and Ussachevsky together, yielding some truly brilliant pieces that explore not only the sonic possibilities provided by the use of magnetic tape, but also the actual process and mode of artistic creation. The first piece, "Sonic Contours," is made up of original piano sounds modified through intentional and controlled electronic distortion. Various sound patterns were combined on the tape recorder and superimposed onto the same strip of tape. The piece is "pieced together" with surgical precision; the only sounds other than the multiple piano layers are of human voices.
After "Low Speed," the second track which makes use of the ways in which a tape recorder can manipulate and distort acoustic relationships, comes "Fantasy in Space," arguably the most famous piece on the album. "Fantasy" is truly a performance piece, relying on the flute as the original sound source and then used by the composer to, according to the liner notes, "Produce a piece which would communicate with an audience conditioned to impressionistic, virtuoso, and tonal music." "Incantation" combines distorted and manipulated sounds similar to those created by bells, woodwinds, and the human voice, all blended together, but created in such a way that the sounds could not be replicated by any sort of conventional instrument. That is, Luening and Ussachevsky, in "Incantation" as well as these other works, were striving to make music that not only could be made by tape, but that was separate from "standard" means of musical performance and creation. Rather than simply using the technology of magnetic tape to make their composing easier or more cost-efficient (i.e. by replicating musical sounds live and then simply layering them), the composers were creating Tape Music.
"Invention in Twelve Notes" is a sort of play on serialist compositions. Taking the flute again as the original sound source, this time playing a twelve-tone row, the sounds are "developed" through diminution, retrogradation, augmentation, and distortion to create a complex pattern that is only possible by making use of the tape recorder. The final track on Side A, "Moonflight," is a dreamy and mysterious piece created by the layering of flute sounds on top of the base "folksonglike melody." As Components I through IV are mixed and made to reverberate on a tape recorder, the folksonglike melody forms the backbone of the piece, chronicling an astronaut's adventure in space.
Side B features two Luening pieces, "Lyric Scene" and "Legend." As opposed to the first side, in which radical "new" elements were introduced to the audience, these two pieces on Side B use "old" or traditional tonal material but show how, through varied, "new" uses this same tonal material can itself be used, even in the 20th century, to create avante garde composition.
Ussachevsky and Luening would go on to found the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, the oldest center for electroacoustic music in the U.S. Along with luminaries like Babbitt, Dodge, Davidovsky, Varèse, and Wuorinen, the two continued to push the boundaries, both musically and socially, of electronics in music. "Tape Music An Historic Concert" is, first and foremost, truly historic. The pieces, though, go beyond simply serving as a sort of musical history milestone for the ideas and methods utilized, but also for the incredibly high quality of the works, created by two of the most innovative and brilliant composers of the 20th century.