Perfect Sound Forever


Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center

Co-founders Professors Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening

(April 2000)

The first American electronic collaborative academic effort focusing on electronic music, experimenting with electronic instruments and encouraging other artists to do the same.

"Music in the Tape Medium"
by Vladimir Ussachevsky
Julliard Review Vol. 1, no. 2, Spring 1959

I think of the composer as standing foremost at the central convergence of these avenues, and his pure inventiveness- when given the technological conditions organized to suit his requirements and the indigenous requirements of the medium itself- will be stimulated by and will feed upon all information yielded.  It is our hope that the forthcoming Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, to be located on the Columbia University campus, will provide some of the answers by giving a certain number of interested composers an opportunity to pursue exploration in a congenial technological environment according to the singularities of their tastes, imagination and esthetic point of view.

"The Columbia/Princeton Electronic Music Center-
thirty years of exploration in sound"
by Robert Moog
Contemporary Keyboard, May 1981

Ussachevsky: The Columbia music department applied for money for a tape recorder in 1950, and received the grant in 1951.  It was considered a big investment, since up to that time the total yearly budget for audio equipment for the entire department was about $1000.  When the tape recorder- it was an Ampex 400- and microphone arrived, I immediately began to do a lot of recording.  I recorded the concerts at Macmillan Theater, where many of the music department performances were stage.  Then I began experimenting with recording piano tones.  The tape recorder had a speed change switch, so I could double or halve the speed of the original tone.  Shortly after that, I learned about tape feedback from (engineer) Peter Mauzey.

The Ampex 400, Peter's own two boxes, plus a borrowed pair of earphones and a second recorder, were what I started with.  There was no formal program, no research grant.  I did experiments and then put a few simple pieces of music together, on my own time.  I played my first composition at a Composer's Forum concert at Macmillan Theater on May 9, 1952.

Luening: At the time, I was the director of Bennington Composers Conference, which is held every summer at Bennington College.  When I heard what Vladimir had done, I asked him to pack up his equipment and bring it up to the conference.  I said to Vladimir, "Let's do some experimenting.  I've got my flute, and I can improvise with my voice."  So up he came and we started to work together, experimenting with clarinet, violin, flute and piano tones.  We were interested in bending and reshaping the resonance of those instruments.  We worked with sound-on-sound and reverberation, mostly because we didn't have anything else to work with.  Finally we decided, "Let's get some shape into these sounds and make little pieces."  So we made some tiny compositions.  We played the pieces at a cocktail party at the conference.  After our performance, several composers congratulated us, telling us that we had hit a new frontier, a new horizon.


Ussachevsky: My wife and I spent some time in France in 1950, but I didn't meet any of the musique concrete people then.  In 1953 I attended the First Congress of Experimental Music, in France.  There I met Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, and some other composers.  I had a chance to visit their facilities, which were much more extensive than those which I was using.  I particularly remember their Phonogen, which is basically a tape player with provision for keyboard-controlling the tape speed.  The French radio broadcast compositions by John Cage, Christian Wolff, and myself, which I had brought with me.  I then visited Karlheinz Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert at their studio in Cologne.  They were just in the initial stages of setting up, but they had the Bode Melochord, which was a very useful tone source.  I believe that I was the first American composer to visit the Cologne studio.


Ussachevsky: By 1955, we had a small studio on the Columbia campus.  A second grant enabled us to enlarge the studio and to travel to Europe to be in touch with developments there.  In 1957, the studio was finally installed in permanent headquarters in Macmillan Hall.  We were not yet teaching then, nor was the studio set up enough for composers besides Otto and myself to use.

Luening: We wanted to provide a center where composers could work and experiment without having to contend with the forces of commercialism.  Most of the European studios were associated with radio stations, but we felt that wouldn't work here because the forces pushing out work toward commercial exploitation would be too intense.  We felt that the correct place was a university, where you have poets, literary and theater people, and acousticians on whom you could try out all this stuff with an audience and get reactions.  At the same time you could feed it to students and make the studio available for people to work in, to experiment on a high level.

Ussachevsky: The original vision was of a distributed facility.  There would be separate studios at Columbia, Princeton, University of Illinois, University of Toronto, and a fifth university.  We would all cooperate and exchange information and ideas.  But then the Rockefeller people, whom we had already approached, said to us, "Look, you two and Babbitt are good friends.  You are able to collaborate easily.  We think the studios should be set up at a central location.  Why don't you three submit a proposal on that basis?"  So we proposed a larger Center with facilities that were comprehensive enough to invite composers.


Babbitt: At first the RCA synthesizer was not part of the proposal.  However, I had been interested in that machine for quite some time.  When RCA unveiled their first synthesizer, the Mark I, Dr. Harry Olson came over to Princeton and asked if he could try some of this stuff on the music students.  Frankly, the students were put off.  That's when I began talking with Olson in more detail.  The second [Mark II] synthesizer, which is the one at the Center, is entirely different in technical detail from the first.  The Mark I was used to make one record, then turned over for voice research.  The Mark II, some say, was built for use in commercial recording.  RCA made some very slick arrangements on that machine- sort of Mantovani pop.  But the recordings were never released.  At first RCA was interesting in building a second Mark II for the Center- if we could raise the half-million dollars or so that it would cost.  It was not possible for us to raise that kind of money.  Even the five-year Rockefeller Foundation grant that was given to set up the entire Center would, in its entirety, have paid only one-third of the synthesizer's projected cost.   Then RCA said, "We'll rent the machine to you, but we want to maintain it."  So that's how the Mark II came to be part of the Center.  We rented RCA's Mark II for a nominal monthly amount for the first 20 months or so of the Center's existence.  Then RCA agreed to turn the machine over to us outright for some token amount, one dollar or so.

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