‘This is really the music of the age of the hydrogen bomb’ – so wrote Nicole Hirsch in France-Soir on 4 December 1954, following the premiere of Edgard Varèse’s Déserts. Varèse’s work, one of the first large-scale works for ensemble with tape interpolations, was seen as the apotheosis of the composer’s experiments with organized sound. Howard Taubman wrote that the listeners heard ‘rumbles and buzzing, beeps and blurps, metallic growls and a kind of mechanical keening. There were combinations of noise like dentists’ drills, riveting, trains going over a rusty bridge, a monstrous bowling alley or rush-hour traffic gone wild.’ In the dawning era of the technological sublime, Varèse and other composers working with electronics became emblematic of the musician in the atomic age. It was against this backdrop that Roberto Gerhard made his own first steps into what he came to term sound composition. Although figures such as Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna are, along with Varèse, the most often cited figures of post-war electronic music, the resurgence of interest in this period has seen other important figures such as Daphne Oram, Else Marie Pade and Roberto Gerhard being more widely recognized for their pioneering work.
Hugh Davies writes that:
It is, however, Varèse, with only two major and one minor electronic works, who most comes to mind in comparison with Gerhard. Although their musical personalities were very different (Gerhard refined, urbane, and sophisticated, Varèse rough-hewn, uncompromising, and primordial), they had a strong common feature: their music during the 1950’s and 1960’s, doubtless enriched in part by their experiences in the new tape medium, grew more powerful and filled with energy as they grew older in years.
Unlike Varèse and other early leading figures, Gerhard’s exposure to the new technology was not via a state-sponsored studio and composing concert works, but rather through the creation of incidental music in his own private studio for theatre. In 1946–7 Gerhard wrote the incidental music for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet. The instrumental cues were recorded on to disk and played back during the performance on a Panatrope – a piece of equipment commonly used in theatres at the time, often comprising two turntables side by side. It was this experience and the potential it offered for a more imaginative use of sound, coupled with Gerhard’s burgeoning interest in electronic music, that led him to create a series of sound scores for theatre and later radio and film productions.
Gerhard’s pioneering achievements in the mid-1950s can be understood when put in the context of nascent European electronic music. The first musique concrète work, the Étude aux chemins de fer, was produced by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948 at the Club d’Essai, RTF (later INA-GRM). In 1950 Schaeffer and his then assistant Pierre Henry produced their first substantial work in the genre, the collaborative Symphonie pour un homme seul. The WDR studio opened in 1953, where Stockhausen produced his first experiments with Elektronische Musik, the Studie I & II (1953 and 1954). The first acknowledged work that combined instruments and electronic sounds was Maderna’s Musica su due dimensioni produced in Bonn, in 1952 for flute, cymbal and electronic tape. One of the most famous larger early works incorporating electronics was Varèse’s Déserts (1954) for ensemble and tape. Varèse’s work alternates rather than integrates the instruments and electronics, having three tape ‘interpolations’. It was in the same year, 1954, that Gerhard completed his first ensemble and tape work, the incidental music for Bridget Boland’s play, The Prisoner.
By the time Gerhard came to compose music for George Devine’s 1955 production of King Lear, with designs by Isamu Noguchi and John Gielgud in the title role, the instrumental cues for previous productions had been predominantly replaced by electronic ones. Like Déserts, Gerhard’s music provoked strong responses. The sound score for the storm scene (King Lear, Act III, Scene 2) was likened to ‘London Airport in full flight’, while another reviewer claimed that ‘storms in this Never-Never Land sound exactly like jet-engines’. Such was the critical furore surrounding the production that when it reached London all the performances sold out. Despite the similarity of the critical response to their work, and those noted by Hugh Davies, Gerhard and Varèse differed in their aesthetic approach to magnetic tape sound composition. Whereas Varèse’s vision of electronic sound was utopian, offering a ‘liberation from the arbitrary, paralyzing tempered system’ and ‘new harmonic splendours obtainable from the use of sub-harmonic combinations now impossible’, Gerhard viewed the new medium as offering an extension to, rather than usurping, the sound palette of the orchestra. In addition, unlike his European counterparts who were continuing to produce works primarily within the concert music tradition, Gerhard was concerned with the potential of the medium for commercial music for radio, theatre, and film. This was a characteristic shared by other pioneers in Britain at the time including Tristram Cary, who produced experimental works for radio and Ernest Berk who created an extensive oeuvre of over 200 electronic works for dance. Gerhard’s work with sound on magnetic tape as well as his other compositional innovations led him to consider himself an explorer of sound rather than someone who merely experimented with it. In his writings from 1930, Gerhard is as prophetic regarding the future of music as Cage and Varèse’s were to be later in the decade.
Gerhard wrote that:
Adding ‘noises’ to music, on the other hand opens doors to a distinctive cinephonic genre […] we should accept that there is all the immense repertoire of acoustic impressions of an ‘extra-musical’ order that attack our ears all the time, and constitutes an almost unexplored territory, untested as to its aesthetic value to the musician.
Although Gerhard writes in Concrete Music and Electronic Sound Composition that he approached ‘the electronic medium strictly as a sideline’, the importance of this work and its impact on his instrumental composition has thus far received scant academic interest with much of the focus continuing to be on Gerhard’s personal application of serial technique in the works from the last decade of his life. Gerhard himself maintained that working in the electronic medium had resulted in a,
[…] number of far-reaching morphological changes in the manner of organizing sound and it seems to me that these changes are bound to affect methods of composition in the traditional field of instrumental composition as well.
It is evident in examining Gerhard’s notebooks that his thinking developed from pitch organisation to include textural morphology, spatial thinking, as well as the development and perceptual relationships between ‘families’ of sound-types. These ideas were applicable to both his electronic and later instrumental works.