What is Electronic Music?

I am very honored to be invited to perform during the 2009 Shanghai Electroacoustic Music Festival. Last week, Chen Qiangbin, director of the festival, sent me a questionnaire about electronic music. He will include answers by many composers and researchers in a publication. Read my responses below, and don't hesitate to leave a comment with your own vision...

Synthi A
One of the numerous electronic music instruments used by Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon
EMS Synthi A ad picture CC license by Zebra Pares

1. your definition to electronic music?

Pure electronic music could be defined as music being produced solely by electronic means, like, for instance, Olivier Messiaen's Fête des Belles Eaux for six ondes Martenot (1937) or Karlheinz Stockhausen's Studie II, electronic music on tape (1954).
But I prefer a wider definition, encompassing music produced through the use of both electronic and acoustic means. In that respect, works such as Pierre Schaeffer's Étude aux Chemins de Fer ("Study of Railroads", 1948) and Les Paul and Mary Ford's version of Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton's How High the Moon, (1951) are milestones in the history of electronic music. In these compositions, the electronic medium contributed in a unique way to the creative process.

2. your opinion on "electronic music and noise; sound equipment, multimedia, new media"?

Entertainment, live performers, improvisation, meditation.

3. please briefly describe the future of electronic music


4. please recommend a electronic music work, and your comment on it?

I encourage all of my students to listen actively to two masterpieces of 20th century music: Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge (1956) and Pink Floyd's Money (from the album The Dark Side of the Moon - 1973).

Gesang der Jünglinge is a poetic and dramatic piece of music. Stockhausen explores a wide range of relations between electronic sounds and the voice of a young boy. A continuum from pure sinusoids to white noise contrasts, interpolates, and merges with the richness of a human voice singing sacred texts or single phonemes.

In Money, the Pink Floyd artists and sound engineer Alan Parsons create a unique multi-layered sonic landscape. Listen to the contrasting spaces allocated to the different parts of the arrangement: the tight and fully panned introductory musique concrète, the delay and reverb on the voice, the wide enhancement of the solo tenor sax. Electronics are used in an effective way on the three choruses of David Gilmour's guitar solo: to the manual double tracking of the first chorus succeeds a striking tight space matched by a new distortion sound. In the third chorus, the space is opened up again (using notably analog automatic double tracking), and prepares the collage of voices that constitutes the coda.

5. what's the foundation to learn electronic music? is it necessary to learn classic music first?

Open your ears, that's the foundation. Then, do what Bach used to do: be aware of the most advanced developments in music technology, try the new gear, listen to the new sounds, and study the masters.

6. please talk about electronic, compute, hearing, technology and perception

Music is at its best when you forget about electronic, compute, hearing, technology and perception, but when you cry because it's so moving.

7. please let us know your personal understanding of electronic music.

My personal understanding changes from piece to piece, whether it is music I am listening to or producing. My understanding may even change when I listen to the same piece of music several times. The more that happens, the better the music. That happens all the time with Mozart.


  1. Love the synthesizer ad with the nun!

  2. oh.hahaha``this is a really nice "interview".
    from my point of the view.
    what is electonice music is not important but ur attitude.like you said "Entertainment".

    ps:do you have chen qiangbin's e mail??? send to me please
    ,i want to join next festival.

  3. Roth and xenakis, thanks for the comments!


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