Michelle Ziegler: Lost, Uncharted, Neglected: the Sources of Early Electronic Music (Brown, Varèse, Derbyshire and Xenakis)

Analyses of the compositional processes of early electronic music are still rare and often problematic in their methodology. They usually only encompass written sources and disregard an important part of early electronic music creation, which is the work directly on and with tape: the cutting and splicing, the use of loops and other tape manipulations. The reasons for this shortfall are twofold: Firstly, the analysis of compositional processes was historically established with studies of written paper sources and the methodological framework still largely disregards other media. Secondly, the archival sources for tape music are often scant and the archival preservation of the tapes is challenging due to its rapid material degradation. The existing sources in private and public archives vary considerably due to work habits and aesthetic orientations of individual composers. Additionally, the studios played a pivotal role, as the equipment was still rare and tofo costly for private purchase. Inquiries into the creative processes for early electronic music have to consider the technical setting, stylistic background and collective work practices of specific studios.

Four examples show different challenges for studies of tape music compositions:

1. The work process in the Project for Magnetic Tape (1952/53), one of the earliest American initiative for tape music launched by John Cage, was based on division of labor: Whilst the composers supplied the scores, the sounds on tape were created by Louis and Bebe Barron and the realisation of the pieces (the cutting and splicing of tapes) was done collectively. The archival documentation of Earle Browns Octet I (1953) provides material for the investigation of the writing process of the score; however, the creation of the sounds by the Barrons till this day lays in the dark.

2. The case of Déserts (1954), an orchestral piece with electronic “interpolations” by Edgard Varèse (1883–1965), brings to light the imbalanced consideration of paper and tape sources even more evidently. The research to date has focused on the compositional methods for the instrumental parts. Although the existing tapes give an insight into Varèse’s working methods, they are scarcely investigated due to sketchy labeling and the time-consuming work of identification.

3. In the case of the work of Delia Derbyshire (1937–2001) a vast amount of audio sources is preserved: The almost 300 tapes that were found after her death reveal her working practices. However, the framework of “incidental music” – Derbyshire created theme tunes and sounds in the Radiophonic Workshop of the BBC and freelance work for commercials and theatre productions – challenges the notion of discrete objects or ‘works’. Her compositions are interconnected and reveal the constant use, reuse and transformation of sounds.

4. Two pieces by Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001) serve to look into another important aspect of early electronic music composition: the use and transformation of space and its traces in the sources. The sketches for Bohor (1962) reveal experimentation with different orientations of the speakers. The site-specific composition of Persepolis (1971) requires considerations of the interplay of different sonic and visual components in a multimedia spectacle and their evaluation in the creative process.

In the analysis of the four examples, this paper presents specific material and aesthetic conditions of the compositional process. It investigates the sources and the challenges for an analysis, and proposes ways to deal with them.


Michelle Ziegler is currently preparing a research project on recording media in the 20th century. She studied musicology, history of art and communication science at the university of Fribourg (CH) and received her PhD 2018 at the university of Bern with a dissertation on the graphic sketches of the Swiss composer Hermann Meier (1906–2002). From 2018 to 2022, she has been working as a postdoc in the DACH project Writing Music – Iconic, performative, operative, and material aspects in music notation(s) at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel. Since 2009, she has published numerous articles in newspapers and journals (like Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Dissonance) and organised concert rows, festivals and an exhibition as a curator and project manager.