36 Years Ago

36 Years Ago, Vienna 1971—A Student Journal

011: Electronic Music Project


Vienna 1971—A Student Journal
A year of music, study, travel, sightseeing & friends.

After Vienna
Two Years Later

011 — Electronic Music Project
Fall–Spring 1973–74

Written April 28–29, 1974

The big event this year was that I received a $1,000 grant from the State of New Jersey to start a program of Electronic Music in jr. high school.

I was really glad to get this because I am much more interested in teaching electronic music than band.
The whole thing, (I must brag), was done by myself with no credit given at all to my supervisor. In fact, I did not tell him of it at all because he probably would have tried to discourage me.

At any rate, the program is designed to allow young students to explore and create their own music—in the electronic medium. All in all, they do fairly well and seem to be learning about music from it.

I hope we can put on some programs for various people to show that it works.

I have written quite a bit of practical information on the subject, designed to be a text, for someone wishing to learn the subject.

I hope that when it is finished, it could be used as a text and be published.


NJ State Grant. Towards the end of year one teaching, I remember seeing a notice from the school district’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Caulfield. (I’ll use his last name.) The notice encouraged teachers with innovative ideas to apply for education grants given by the State of New Jersey. I applied, by myself, strictly through the Superintendent’s office. I didn’t think I would actually get the grant.

I got it.

I remember my music supervisor coming in to my band room one day, saying, “Don’t you ever do that again.” I’m saying “What, what?” not knowing what I did wrong. Mr. R. told me that I was granted a $1,000 educational grant to start my program. I was surprised, he was surprised. To be fair to Mr. R., he was only upset that I did not let him know what I was doing. He did support my doing the program as long as it didn’t interfere with my normal music teaching duties.

On the flip side, throughout my life, I remember being discouraged often enough by work superiors, to
not proceed with new and creative ideas or projects. If I had gone to Mr. R., perhaps the electronic music project would have never happened—no, you can’t do that John, you don’t have the time, we don’t have the budget. Thus, making your own creative projects is a good goal for all of us.

The school district in future years gave me a $500 grant to augment the program with a film-making course for jr. high students (I purchased the film camera), and also purchased a second music synthesizer for the other jr. high school in town. My program did bring a nice alternative educational venue to the district that allowed young students to be creative both in music making and filmmaking.

The electronic music program. Since I was not allowed to cancel any of my normal classes, I ran the program as an after-school club which was open to any and all. If I remember correctly, we had 10-15 students on average per semester. The program really caught student’s interest with the addition of filmmaking. I created “mimeo” handouts (remember them?) where the techniques, concepts, and written information was collated. Eventually, the materials took up two full notebooks. They’re unfortunately lost.

Of course, I demoed electronic music to every small music class on occasion and let all of the students get some exposure to the medium and concept of creating.

My Vienna influences. I have to give credit to my professor in Vienna, Dieter Kaufmann, for starting me on the path of creating music through sounds and its manipulations through musique concrète. Musique concrète techniques were one of the major foundations of the electronic music program for middle school students.

Our concrète studio. Our studio “in the classroom” was housed in one of our band-cabinets. When used, we would take out the equipment and place it on carts for students to use. Using my own money, I purchased two 1/4” Sony reel-to-reel tape recorders, along with a small mixer, and two Electro-comp battery-powered, electret condenser microphones and stands, tapes, splicing blocks, and other equipment. Students learned to use this equipment easily.

Our synthesizer. The $1,000 grant was used to purchase an Electrocomp-101 synthesizer, pictured below (pictures are from a later program). At the time, this was the premiere synthesizer for educational use. There were no keyboard synthesizers yet on the market. Electronic sounds and manipulation occurred through “patching” the sounds from the source through the various manipulations and treatments—what I call the life of a sound. Creating “weird” electronic music with the synthesizer was a thrill to students and they loved using the synthesizer.

Sound and science and music. Students learned about science and math as they explored electronic music and musique concrète techniques. They learned to experiment with live sounds and improvisation and then manipulate the sound through tape techniques. They learned about oscillators and the generation of sound. They learned about filters, reverberation, ring modulation, and sequencers. They learned to connect the synthesizer modules with patch cords and determine how each module affected the sound. They were experiencing the science of sound.

Here’s one the students loved: I used to take the end of one “patch” cord plugged into an oscillator and the end of another patch cord connected to a sequencer and then hold them up to my boney head. What happened? Once I touched both wires to my head, they heard music. Why? Sound is a waveform. Sound has energy. Sound travels through the air, through water, and through bone. Call me a bonehead.

Musical learning. What about the music? They learned “musical concepts” as they experimented with sound. One of my favorites—play a crash cymbal sound backwards on the tape recorder. What do you get? A crescendo. What does a crescendo do? Create a sense of tension. A direction of moving forward. Students learned to create short fragments of sound and electronic notes, motives, rhythm patterns, and then combine them into textures, layer by layer until their “music” started to come together. It was a great learning experience, both for the students and myself.

Program = success. In the years ahead, the program generated interest. Our own program was expanded. The students gave an hour-long “multimedia happening” to the student body with slides, dance, original music, student films, and historical Bicentennial narratives. I presented student works and films at both college electronic music festivals and at the MENC division conference. Other teachers began similar electronic and multimedia programs.

What’s the benefit? Remembering that these programs were over 30 years ago, there was very little opportunity for young students to be “musically creative.” There were no keyboard synths, no personal computers, no computer software, no video cameras and players, and no Garageband or Fruity Loops software to compose with loops. Electronic music allowed them to be musically creative without having to learn music theory, harmony, and music composition, none of which were available to students. The program effectively demonstrated that “young students can be very creative—both in sound and music composition concepts, and in filmmaking concepts, using the modern sounds and techniques of electronic and musique concrète techniques.

Young students can be (musically) creative when given the chance.

In this electronic music and film program, students achieved a sense of creative accomplishment rarely found in traditional education and learning environments.


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