How Electronic Music First Took the Stage

Peter Zinovieff and Victoria Heber-Percy work on a synthesizer, 1963. Photo by Kaye / Stringer / Getty Images

By the end of the 1950s, electronic music was being heard by millions the world over on television, on the radio, and in cinemas—but hardly ever live from a stage. It was not possible in the conventional sense to perform most fully electronic music. You couldn’t say it was played at all. Rather, it was assembled in studios, meticulously, using tape recorders, oscillators, and filters. And this did not translate to performance. You couldn’t splice a tape live.

Certainly there were (a very few) electronic instruments available, including the Theremin, the Clavioline, and the Ondes Martenot, and these were sometimes played live, but usually alongside conventional instruments.

For many years, until synthesizers became affordable and portable, the electronic music “concert” was a rare thing. Often it was more like a demonstration (with accompanying lecture) or performance art (with a light show or some other visual element).

So now, let’s travel through the ‘60s to revisit some of those peculiar hybrid events. Along the way we’ll meet the electronic explorers who dared to take to the stage in the United States and the UK.

There’s a credible case that live electronic music started in New York City. There, early in the 20th century, you could hear Thaddeus Cahill’s electromechanical monster, the Telharmonium. Then, in the mid ‘30s, there was Hal Hope’s Electronic Trio, featuring the Thereminist Samuel Hoffman. But these were fascinating evolutionary dead ends. It wasn’t until 1965, 230 miles up the road in Trumansburg, NY, that an event took place with more enduring consequences. We’ll get to that shortly.

Meanwhile, in December 1961, the first of a series of Sonics concerts took place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Organized by Ramón Sender and Pauline Oliveros, these events prefaced the formation in 1962 of The San Francisco Tape Music Center. The first concert featured works by Sender, Oliveros, Terry Riley, and Philip Winsor, and live improvisation. By the time the series ended in 1962, it had evolved into an immersive avant-garde experience involving light projections, dancers, and a washing machine filled with rocks.

Watch composer Daphne Oram demonstrate The Oramics Machine on BBC.

In the UK, things were more reserved. A handful of names appear in any account of formative British electronic music: Tristram Cary, Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, F.C. Judd, Brian Hodgson, Peter Zinovieff. Hardly a surprise, then, that these pioneers were behind most early efforts there to present electronic music on stage.

Oram and Judd, together and separately, gave electronic music demonstrations from the late ‘50s. Most likely these involved a talk with pre-prepared audio examples played from a tape recorder. So, more classroom than concert hall. Which makes an ad in the magazine Amateur Tape Recording (Incorporating Popular Hi-Fi), of which Judd was technical editor, tantalizing.

On January 29, 1961, we’re told, “Miss Daphne Oram will present a concert of electronic music entitled The Performer Banished at the Mermaid Theatre [in] London.” In what sense was this a concert? Did it differ from the demonstrations Oram and Judd gave at the time? There are no known accounts, but maybe there’s a clue in Oram’s title—and the “performer” did nothing more than press Play on a tape recorder.

By 1965, Bob Moog’s R.A. Moog Co. had been selling Theremin kits for ten years. But the market was failing, and the company sold budget amplifiers as a means to scrape by. The future was elsewhere. A year earlier, Moog had designed a synthesizer for Herb Deutsch. Word got out, and the company started building a few to order.

In August 1965, Moog and Deutsch hosted a three-week seminar at the Moog factory in Trumansburg. Twelve participants learned about electronic music and composed on a Moog synthesizer, and then on August 28 they held a private concert in the factory, showcasing the works they’d created. The audience comprised the participants, some employees, and a handful of friends. It was an inauspicious event, but it sowed a seed that bore fruit. Nearly a month later, on September 25, Deutsch’s New York Improvisation Quartet gave a Town Hall concert in New York. It was the Moog’s first live public performance.

Jump to around 2:40 to see a clip of Zinovieff's DEC PDP-8 computer performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Back in the UK, on September 10, 1966, Unit Delta Plus hosted a concert of electronic music at the Watermill Theatre in Berkshire. Unit Delta Plus was Derbyshire, Zinovieff, and Hodgson, and detailed accounts of this event survive. The programme lists seven items, ranging from Zinovieff’s 20-minute “Agnus Dei” to Derbyshire’s “Moogies Bloogies”—a pop song sung by Anthony Newley. But not live. All music, it seems, was on tape. The performance element came from a light show by Hornsey College of Art. Derbyshire reported that the acclaimed British poet John Betjeman was in the audience and fell asleep.

A few months later, on January 28 and February 4, 1967, Unit Delta Plus took part in A Million Volt Light-Sound Rave at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London. It was organized by the design partnership Binder Edwards Vaughan. Like the Watermill Theatre concert, it combined light projections with playback of electronic and tape music—including the solitary airing of Paul McCartney’s 14-minute sound collage “Carnival Of Light.”

On January 15, 1968, Redcliffe Concerts gave what it billed the “First London Concert of Electronic Music by British composers” at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, central London. Cary, Oram, Derbyshire, and Zinovieff contributed. While the event included the usual playing back of tapes, it attracted much attention for the appearance of Zinovieff’s DEC PDP-8 computer. This was wheeled on stage to play “Partita For Unattended Computer,” of which The Guardian newspaper said that “the effect on the listener is often baffling.”

On August 28, 1969, four years to the day since Moog and Deutsch held their private concert in Moog’s factory, the pair initiated a much bigger event. Along with Moog staffer Chris Swansen, they put together a concert to close the Museum Of Modern Art’s Jazz In The Garden concert series in New York City. Alongside more traditional acts such as Chicago Transit Authority and Muddy Waters were two Moog quartets, one led by Deutsch, one by Swansen. Bob Moog himself was a sort of roadie, sound engineer, and guru, all rolled into one.

This was the real thing. Live electronic music. No tapes, no other instruments, just four Moogs. These had been built specially for the concert, completed with hours to spare. Photos show the 4,000-strong audience crowded alarmingly close to the precipitous modular rigs festooned with patch cords. During the Swansen performance, somebody tripped on a power cord, pulling it out and silencing the Moogs for a few minutes. That hitch and some head-scratching reviews aside, the event was deemed a success.

Chris Swansen performs at Jazz in the Garden
Chris Swansen performs at Moog's 1969 Jazz in the Garden concert. Photo courtesy of the Bob Moog Foundation, used with permission.

When it came to live electronic sound, rock music was late to the party. Most of the events we’ve mentioned so far were not rock concerts but “serious” music events, even if sometimes aimed at counter-culture audiences. From 1967, the US acts Silver Apples, The United States Of America, and Fifty Foot Hose were touring, playing rock music dominated by electronic sound that was generated by home-made devices. But it wasn’t until the decade inched to a close that electronics started to surface at mainstream rock events.

It’s often said that the ‘60s ended at Altamont on December 6, 1969. The dark mood of that day is captured in the documentary Gimme Shelter, directed by the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin. Just over 50 minutes in, you can catch a glimpse of a modular Moog’s pots and patch cords.

The man at the controls was Doug McKechnie, a Moog early-adopter and sound engineer who had contributed to the Grateful Dead album Aoxomoxoa. He had played a Moog live supporting the Dead at Bay Area gigs through 1969, and when the band asked him to help with sound at Altamont, he agreed on the condition that he could do a Moog set. On December 6, he soundchecked at dawn for 20 minutes to a handful of people.

Speaking to Aquarium Drunkard in 2019, he explained what happened next. “The day went on as it did. Owsley Stanley was on the board on a scaffold out in the middle of the masses,” McKechnie said, referring to the Dead’s soundman, known as Bear. “When they said, ‘It’s your turn,’ I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to thrill the crowd. I’ll start off at 55 cycles and I’ll ramp it up to 20,000 cycles and drive everybody crazy.’”

According to McKechnie, Bear saw the board’s VU meters jump into the red but heard nothing because the frequency was so low. Panicking, Bear cut off the output, and Altamont proceeded Moog-less to its tragic climax.

Into the new decade, the pace of change accelerated. On January 30, 1970, Gershon Kingsley’s First Moog Quartet played Carnegie Hall in New York City. On February 7, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, Keith Emerson of The Nice performed with a Moog on stage for the first time in the UK.

Also in 1970, the Minimoog went into production. The most famous of several portable, affordable synthesizers that appeared at the time, it marked a turning point. From then on, playing synths became viable for working musicians.

Not only did Emerson—and a few others—continue to use big Moogs live, but also—along with many more—he took a Minimoog on stage. Soon, it was normal to see synths played live in all kinds of music. And an entirely electronic concert no longer meant overcoming a set of complex logistical challenges. The future had arrived. “Music non-stop, techno-pop; synthetic electronic sounds,” as Kraftwerk once put it.

About the author: Mark Brend is an author and a musician. His books The Sound Of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2012) and Strange Sounds (Backbeat 2005) explore early electronic music and musical instruments. He lives in Devon, England. More info here.

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