- Electronic Inspirations: Technologies of the Cold War Musical Avant-Garde by Jennifer Iverson
Much ink has been spilt over many pages in attempts to tell the story of the post-Second World War musical avant-garde. Throughout discussions of the various facets of this socio-cultural bloc, two principal narrative lines have emerged. The first can be roughly characterized by its opposition between two 'schools' of composition: on the one hand, the 'serial' Europeans who—having almost universally attended the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik [International Summer Courses for New Music]—operated in the 'Darmstadt' mode of serial composition; and, on the other hand, the 'aleatoric' Americans (essentially John Cage and friends), whose distance from the 'Darmstadt School' is emphasized, and their attendance at the courses regarded as rebellious, a disruptive influence. In contrast to this binary approach (which often, in a not entirely disinterested fashion, stacks the deck for one 'side' over the other), it has also been possible to tell the story of a 'pluralist' musical avant-garde. This second narrative position, which has become increasingly prominent over the last two decades, stresses the differences between composers, emphasizing their status as autonomous agents above all else—if the narrative does not dissolve into a soap-opera-like account of the petty rivalries and disagreements at Darmstadt. Though this approach is a helpful corrective to the slightly simplistic generalizations of more 'unified' accounts, often the baby is thrown out with the bathwater: musicologists buy into the image of the composer as a heroic creator and focus on variations in pre-compositional approaches, with extensive considerations of sketches to decode serial 'secrets', at the expense not only of the aural 'result', but also the broader social positioning and functionality of the composers and music being discussed.
These poles are mediated by Jennifer Iverson in her well-researched monograph, Electronic Inspirations: Technologies of the Musical Avant-Garde. Evaluating the post-war musical avant-garde's production of electronic music in the 1950s and early 1960s, Iverson tells the broader story of the avant-garde's relationship to electronic technology and techno-scientific discourse. This relationship was sidelined by the post-war musical avant-garde's self-narration (detailed extensively by Iverson), which obscured the extent to which their compositional endeavours were conditioned by technical circumstances (see especially pp. 26–9 and 105–8).
To shine a light on these matters, Iverson focuses on the work that took place at, or which was mediated through, the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR [West German Radio]) studio in Cologne, the 'premier' electronic studio of the 1950s. Iverson recounts how composers would gather at the WDR studio and work together for months at a time, and thus shows the studio to have been a central 'hub' for the activities of the musical avant-garde (pp. 2, 7). From this vantage she probes various cultural, social, and political elements that characterized the musical avant-garde's engagement with technology, all the while identifying how the heterogeneous activities of individual creators were marked by an 'aesthetic consistency' and 'coherent discourse' which arose out of 'shared sets of concerns' and 'preoccupations'. She thus moves from an account of the avant-garde as a 'collection of creative, strong-minded individuals' to one where the avant-garde, through their activities at the WDR and elsewhere, were engaged in a 'dynamic, iterative grouping process' in which 'compositional practices grew from a repertoire of shared resources' (pp. 92, 26, 16–17). The result is in many respects one of the richest accounts of the early activities of the post-war musical avant-garde available, which, coupled with the thorough bibliography and 'glossary of actors', makes this text a key starting point in the study of these [End Page 749] socio-cultural trends, perhaps the most effective since M. J. Grant's Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics (Cambridge, 2001).
The novelty of Iverson's contribution can be expanded upon by considering her second principal...