Synthesizer – The Concept

I’ve become disaffected by the way the word ‘synthesizer’ is used in connection with electronic music.

The First Synthesizer

It was the RCA Mark I.

Please read the article linked above, before continuing.  Why did they call it a synthesizer?  Because it was to be used for the purpose of making ‘synthetic‘ music.  What is synthetic music and why make it?  The concept of synthetic in this context means to be in opposition to music that is made directly by humans.  And why do it?  The idea was to replace many highly paid orchestra musicians with one engineer running a machine.  It was an attempt at automating human musicians.  This explains why there has been so much emphasis on imitating the sounds of traditional instruments.  It was not only to engage an audience with somewhat familiar sounds.  It was hoped that musicians would be replaced by machines.

Of course we know that did not happen.  The synthesizers weren’t good enough.  Eventually, synthesizers became small and inexpensive enough for human musicians to use.  And so the synthesizer, rather than replacing humans, became just another musical instrument.

Two Schools

A simplified way of dividing the attitudes toward synthesizers is the following.  The first view is that synthesizers are just tools, just new instruments for spicing up the sound of existing music production.  A glorified electric organ, limited by the 12 note diatonic scale and well suited to orchestral, as well as pop music.  From this school came Moog and Switched On Bach.

The other school, as I am broadly defining it, thinks of the synthesizer as an entirely new instrument, capable of making music with much more tenuous relationships to traditional ideas of what constitutes music.  Situated as it was, in an historical era where traditions were being questioned, the mid twentieth century was ripe for music departing from traditions.  From this school came Buchla, Morton Subotnik, and works such as Until Spring.

Impressed as I was by Switched on Bach, Until Spring simply captivated me.  Here were compositions in sound unfettered by tradition and let free to be limited only by principles of composition structure.

This is not to deny the many schools of thought that combine elements of both ideas for music creation.

Electronic Sounds

The new title of this blog is Richard Brewster’s Electronic Sounds.  It used to be Richard Brewster’s Synthesizer.

I changed it because I am not synthesizing.  The electronic sounds that I make are not synthetic imitations of any other instrument or sound.  They are their own sounds.

But it seems that I am indeed trying to replace a musician.  Myself.  The more serious of my efforts goes towards the notion of automatic music.  I’ve blogged about this (use the tag ‘automatic music’).  It is not synthetic.  The musician I’m trying to eliminate is the one who has created a modular music structure that is inadequate to completing the music on its own and thus calls on its own maker to ‘perform’ it.  I’m searching for those structures that, once discovered, are fully capable of carrying on without further human intervention.  Is it artificial intelligence?  Absolutely not.  It is simply a machine structure whose complexity might be somewhat understood by the one who made it.  But which produces resulting sound of a complexity that the maker could not imagine.  That is why I think I am discovering, rather than making.




One Response to Synthesizer – The Concept

  1. Andre says:

    Fascinating…. a unique look at the terms …one that makes total sense

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