Le Caine’s Electronic Sackbut | CSTM Collection 1975-0336

Le Caine’s Electronic Sackbut

The first topic of my ongoing Canada’s Spirit of Innovation blog looked at some of their agriculture and transportation innovations that Canada’s Aboriginal shared with the French and English settlers.

This month’s topic will talk about several of the technological and artistic innovations linked to Canada that made the world hear, work with, and appreciate music and sound in new ways.

A fundamental quality of live music, and of all live sound for that matter, is that it is momentary. Sound is ‘in the air’ for an instant and then it disappears forever. Before the advent of sound recordings, a listener only could hear his or her own music, or the music of others, as it was being played.

For centuries there existed only a couple ways to preserve music in order to pass it from person to person, as well as down through time: music notation, and repeated playing until it was memorized.

It was the harnessing of electricity in the 1800s that led to the invention of electronic recording technologies that capture the actual sound of music and, just as importantly, that play it back with high fidelity to the original.

Most sound recording inventions and technological advances took place in the late 1800s and early 1900s in France, and, thanks to Thomas Edison, in the United States. Although Edison greatly improved sound recording technology with his inventions such as the cylinder phonograph, there were, nonetheless, several significant Canadian contributions to sound recording and production technologies. As an aside, Edison had strong ties to Canada: his father was born in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia; his parents were married in Vienna, Ontario; and he purchased from Canadian inventors Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans their patent for the device for which he is most famous for perfecting, the electric lightbulb.

None of Edison’s recording and playback devices was durable, however, nor did they reproduce well the recorded sounds. It took the ingenuity of Emile Berliner, an American living in Montreal, to figure out how to improve the fidelity and reliability of early sound recordings. He invented the recording and playback format that we are familiar with today: a grooved disk that spins on a turntable.

For several reasons related to corporate maneuvering in the United States and to patent laws north and south of the border, Berliner established his company in Montreal where in 1900 he started manufacturing and selling phonograph records. Six years later, his company moved to a better manufacturing facility in the St. Henri district of the city and the plant was enlarged several times over the years. Berliner’s former industrial complex still exists and, since 1996, houses the Musée des ondes Emile Berliner, which honours his achievements through its collection and programming.

Increasingly sophisticated technologies in the recording studio enabled artists to engineer and control more and more every aspect of the final musical recorded product. One of the first to seize this opportunity was renowned Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who manipulated his studio recordings to bring his own new perspectives to his recordings of centuries-old music. As a result of these improved technologies, Gould eventually produced only studio recordings and stopped performing publicly altogether.

At the same time as sound recording and playback technologies were being developed, the harnessing of electricity also brought about the invention of machines to synthesize and produce sounds. Many such machines were invented in Europe and the United States in the late 1800s and first three decades of the 20th century: the Teleharmonium, the Audion piano, the Theremin, the Ondes Martenot, and the Trautonium, to name several.

But these early electricity powered sound synthesizers were limited in the variety of sounds they could produce. In the late 1940s, Canadian inventor and composer Hugh Le Caine designed and built the first true electronic sound synthesizer that corresponded to today’s touch-sensitive keyboards. Unlike other sound synthesizing machines, Le Caine’s machine that he named the Electronic Sackbut was able to control simultaneously the three important qualities of sound: volume, pitch, and timbre. Le Caine’s Electronic Sackbut is in the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum and he is a member of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame travelling exhibition.

In addition to being a pioneer of technology that electronically synthesizes sounds and music, Le Caine is remembered also as one of the great composers of musique concrète, music made using recorded sounds from largely non-musical sources. His best known piece is Dripsody (1955), which is a multitude of sounds made from the permuted and contorted sound of a water drop hitting water in a metal wastebasket.

Hugh Le Caine: Dripsody (1955)

This view that non-musical sounds from man-made or natural sources could, due to technology, be recorded and manipulated to create pleasing sounds, or even music, has expanded to encompass, thanks to Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, the entire acoustic environment of our world. Schafer is the pioneering founder of the World Soundscape Project, which founded the modern field of soundscape studies, known as acoustic ecology. It documents environmental sounds and their changing character, establishes the concept and practice of soundscape design as an alternative to noise pollution, and raises public awareness of sound in the environment. The project’s ultimate aim is to find solutions to create an ecologically balanced soundscape where the relationship between the human community and its sonic environment is in harmony. A simple example of one such solution is installing sound baffling walls along highways to shield nearby residents from traffic noise.

If recorded aspects of our entire acoustic environment can become the raw material for creative sound manipulation, then it’s a short step to creating compositions, much like Le Caine did, that use sounds drawn from the soundscapes of urban or rural areas, including voices, noises, silence, music, media, and so on. A noted electroacousitic composer is the Canadian-German Hildegard Westerkamp, who also is a member of Schafer’s World Soundscape Project.

Hildegard Westerkamp – Fantasie For Horns II

Since the early 1900s, innovative Canadian inventors, composers, and artists have used technologies to advance the recording, production, dissemination, and appreciation of music and sound. I’ll leave you with this: Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet soundscape, which is currently on display in the Rideau Chapel at the National Gallery of Canada, features 40 speakers positioned around the Chapel, with each speaker playing a different voice from the 40 singing Spem in alium by 16th century English Composer Thomas Tallis. This is an example of modern music recording and playback technologies that allow visitors walking around inside the chapel to hear the fleeting music of each of the 40 voices, just as audiences originally would have heard them live more than four hundred years ago.

Janet Cardiff – Forty-Part Motet