Electronic Caricatures June 20, 1974

There is a strong similarity between animated films and electronic music. In both cases artists proceed without live performers and without a genuine human element, and in both cases this has its limitations. An animator would have a tough time trying to create a King Lear that we could take seriously, and no electronic version of a Beethoven symphony will ever get us the way a good orchestra can. Weeping scenes are not likely to touch us when the character is simply a sequence of drawings, and it’s pretty hard to produce a truly soulful melody with an electronic music synthesizer.

Of course, a good animator can turn out a caricature of a policeman, or the Beatles, or Little Red Ridinghood, with amusement, and often with insight, just as a skilful composer can turn out a provocative electronic caricature of Bach or ragtime or a music box. But in both mediums the artist is basically dealing with caricatures rather than authentic human elements.

The other side of the coin has a lot to do with speed. The animator can race his characters down a road at 200 miles an hour with no problem. Composers can produce lightning-fast electronic cadenzas with similar ease. And countless special effects are possible in both mediums. But there are technical limitations too. For example, the subtle coloration of sunsets, trees, or faces always has to be greatly simplified in film animation, just as sound colors must be simplified in electronic music.

There is a fundamental artificiality in both mediums, because both were originally conceived as substitutes for live performers. It is possible to reduce this artificiality by creating animated films which avoid making reference to the possibilities of live action films, or by creating electronic music which makes no reference to traditional musical instruments, musical forms, or melodic ideas. That’s more or less what happens in the electronic music of David Behrman, Gordon Mumma, or Max Neuhaus, for example. But when composers do deal with traditional musical elements, as they generally do, they have to play the game quite a bit differently on their synthesizers than they would if they were writing for instruments.


The examples that continued this article do not seem very interesting today, but these opening paragraphs say something about the nature of electronic music at the time, and about why the SoHo composers were only interested when they built their own gadgets. This is in sharp contrast with European composers, who have generally avoided cheap homemade electronics.