Music: 1959-60

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The Sequencer: The Birth of the Artificial Intelligence in Electronic Music Composition

In 1959 Raymond Scott developed the "Circle Machine," a compact version of the first electro-magnetic sequencer, called the "Wall of Sound", which he unveiled in 1953. The Circle Machine was described by Dr. Thomas Rhea, a music synthesis professor at the Berklee College of Music, as "an analog waveform generator that was this crazy, whirling-dervish thing. It had a ring of incandescent lamps, each with its own rheostat, and a photo-electric cell on the spindle that twirled in a circle above the lights." Pitch could be controlled by adjusting the intensity of each bulb and the rotation of each photocell. The rate of the arm's rotation determined the rhythm. The lights could be staggered in brightness to outline a desired pattern, which would then create a unique tone sequence.

The Circle Machine enabled a range of new sounds. Scott used it in many of the commercial jingles he produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including the following advertisement for the Ford Motor Company:

Scott was a pioneer of electronic music composition. In addition to the sequencer, he developed several musical systems, including the synthesizer and the Electronium, in the pursuit of "instantaneous composition and performance". All employed his concept of "Artistic Collaboration Between Man and Machine". He wrote in patent disclosure that "The new structures being directed into the machine are unpredictable in their details, and hence the results are a kind of duet between the composer and the machine".

Released in 1959, his Cindy Electronium is just such a "duet".


Jenni Pace

Thanks for this post Jenni. I just attended a concert that was held inside the Belkin as part of the programming around their exhibition "Breathless Days 1959-1960: A Chronotropic Experiment". The UBC Contemporary Players performed works by several composers including La Monte Young and John Cage. I would love to get some of the concert up on the archive online and hopefully some research and information about this area as well.
- CB

Image: The Coasters had a hit singe "Poison Ivy" in 1959


-bebop transformed jazz from the mainstream pop music it had been during the war; but it also created a divide, splitting the jazz world in two (Ward, 360)
-Bebop evolved from the past with an attitude of determined modernism…in opposition to the cliches and styles of the past (Ward, 361)
-alternatively, aspects of the avant-garde movement can be traced back to every other kind of jazz…the avant-garde opposed clichés but not styles…therefore, it’s direct roots lie in bebop, which raised issues about harmony, melody, rhythm, and instrumentation (Ward, 361)
-avant-garde jazz reflected the turmoil of the 1960s, a minority music expressing euphoria, sadness, daring, resentment and anger, alienating the dying of traditional jazz in an age of rock (Ward, 364)
-In the late 50s John Coltrane’s compulsive study of scales, and Ornette Coleman’s singular melodic inventions represented the beginnings of this new jazz movement:
-1959: John Coltrane Giant Steps, only two chords to every measure, technical command of jazz harmony and rhythm (Ward, 362)
-1960: Ornette Coleman records Free Jazz, giving a name to the movement of free-form
improvisation, a response to the structured forms of bop (Ward, 362-63)

- Yet it was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (1959) that is considered one of the most iconic jazz LPs. Davis popularized a modal approach to improvisation; his aim was to simplify music (Ward, 363)

-The Beats embraced bebop in their own revolution; although of different backgrounds, they shared a revulsion for the status quo, a desire to challenge the artistic complacency of the era and the new ideas to do something about it (George-Warren, 27)
-Kerouac, a Beat par excellence, describes “real jazz” as “Music which has not been pre-arranged – free-for all adlib…the outburst of passionate musicians…soulful expression and super-improvisation.” (29)
-Kerouac saw a mental state of “IT” embodied in jazz musicians as they reached their highest “orgasmic” peak during musical performances (Minnen, 9)
-his spontaneous prose was inspired by the way jazz musicians make their spontaneous
-Kerouac reading his “American Haiku” to jazz rifts

-The Beats were destabilizing social and subjective power, and much the same was happening in modern jazz, which was challenging musical, linguistic, and institutional structures (Whaley, 2)
-jazz sought new connections and produced new combinations of sonic and performative meaning and audiences…building bridges to vernacular publics of rock and roll…a free-floating and improvisationally exciting signifier. Its impact was aesthetic and social. The improvisational and pluralistic bent compelled the Beats to open their art to immediate expression and diverse voices. (Whaley, 6)

Folk : 1959 as The Pivotal Year
-In the early 1950s, the folk music scene had been a part of the counterculture …a rebellious, anti-establishment form and style , somewhat overlapping but not necessarily connecting with the Beat milieu…contrasted with the Beat social and cultural environment. (Minnen, 9). It was for the most part a a niche genre of music with virtually no impact on popular culture (Weissman, Cantwell, Cohen).
-In the earlier years of the '50s, folk-styled music had enjoyed a brief but limited mainstream popularity through the heavily orchestrated and non-traditional recordings of single records on the Decca label by The Weavers, an urban group that had grown out of the 1940s politically countercultural Almanac Singers, becoming the first professional "pop-folk" group. (Weissman, 11)
-Folk-styled music had another brief resurgence in the mid-1950s in the folk and calypso recordings of Harry Belafonte, again heavily orchestrated re-interpretations of North American and Carribean musical traditions, including both traditional songs and contemporary compositions designed to sound traditional (Cohen, 98).
-The "folk revival" as understood in the music business and in mainstream popular consciousness begins with the 1958 hit recording on Capitol of "Tom Dooley," a traditional North Caroline murder ballad performed in a commercial arrangement by The Kingston Trio, featuring pop music styled harmonies but traditional acoustic-only instrumentation. (Cantwell, Chapter 1; Weissman, 11; Cohen, 131 ff.) The record was a #1 hit and sold over three million copies, the first purely acoustic recording to sell so many recordings. (Cohen, 131 ff.)
-By 1959, the folk community had split into three distinct and often oppositional camps: traditional singers who had learned folk songs from the environments of their births; urban revivalists, who imitated traditional singers but also preserved the countercultural/political bents of their predecessors; commercial folk performers who freely adapted traditional songs to their own styles and ends. (Weissman, Introduction)
-Reflecting the new-found commercial and artistic possibilities of folk music, urban traditionalist folk musicians Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel joined with Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein to create the Newport Folk Festival, staged first in July 1959. Wein's intent was to bring together performers from across the aforementioned folk spectrum, which he did by presenting traditional singers like Jean Ritchie and John Jacob Niles, urban revivalists like Seeger and Odetta, and popular commercial performers like the Kingston Trio and Bob Gibson. (Cohen, 145)
-The Newport festival had impact on both folk and pop music. It was covered extensively in the New York press and became a template for dozens of festivals that sprang up in its wake. (Cohen, 145ff) Performers like bluegrass banjo master Earl Scruggs and college student Joan Baez received their first national exposure at the initial Newport Folk Festival.

Urban Traditionalist Joan Baez Joins Pop Folk Artist Bob Gibson At The Premier Newport Folk Festival

-Through Scruggs' performance at Newport (with Hylo Brown's Bluegrass Band), bluegrass music [described as “a sort of mountain Dixieland combo in which the five-string banjo, America’s only indigenous folk instrument, carries the lead like a hot clarinet..The result is folk music in overdrive with a silvery, rippling, pinging sound" (Cohen)] receives significant national exposure.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
Bluegrass Band, 1958

-The appeal of commercial groups mushroomed in 1959, climaxing with the Kingston Trio having four albums in Billboard Magazine's Top Ten for a month at the end of the year, unique feat in music chart history. However, some "publicity centered on their image and domestic lifestyle as much as their folksy upbeat musical appeal.” (Cohen)
Kingston Trio “Tijuana Jail”
Video from television performance in 1959 of the original Trio's hit record "MTA."

A quote from a 1959 issue of Redbook Magazine sums it up: “It is hard to recall an instance when as wholesome a group of entertainers as the Kingston Trio has won as swift and widespread a popularity…” And in a spread in Life magazine, the group is described as “The brightest new sounds heard through all the racket of rock n roll…” (Cohen)
-how did the folk music establishment respond to this? “groups who are supposedly building upon the folk tradition and enriching American music [and] are actually commercial pop singers using guitars and banjos…the Kingston Trio brings good folk music to the level of the worst Tin Pan Alley music, and is even worse because it is advertising itself as folk music” (Cohen quoting folk music critic Ron Radosh in the Spring 1959 issue of SingOut! Magazine))
-other prominent members of the folk music establishment were more supportive of commercial singers like the Kingston Trio because the popularity of such groups brought attention to both traditional singers from rural backgrounds like Doc Watson (who said
"I’ll tell you who pointed all our noses in the right direction, even the traditional performers. They got us interested in trying to put the good stuff out there – the Kingston Trio. They got me interested in it!" [Cohen, 133]) and urban traditionalists like Joan Baez ("Traveling across the country with my mother and sisters, we heard the commercial songs of the budding folk boom for the first time, the Kingston Trio's 'Tom Dooley' and 'Scotch and Soda.' Before I turned into a snob and learned to look down upon all commercial folk music as bastardized and unholy, I loved the Kingston Trio. When I became one of the leading practitioners of 'pure folk,' I still loved them..." (Baez, And A Voice To Sing With, p. 49).

Rock & Roll
-By November 1959, rock n roll was outselling every other kind of music in America (Cohen)
-however, to step back to early that year, perhaps the most noteworthy event in rock n roll in 1959 was The Day the Music Died, February 3, 1959: Buddy Holly, Freddie Valens, and JP Richardson die in a plane crash. (Friedlander)
-Buddy Holly had a major impact on subsequent rock generations; he was a “synthesist and an innovator, melding country and black music roots with rockabilly and early classic rock. His lyrics painted a picture of a world populated by young lovers…The brushstrokes were broad, bursting with musical bravado, and delicate, capturing the whispered beat of a vulnerable teenage heart (Friedlander)
Buddy Holly “Peggy Sue” Gold (1959)
-the classic rock era, which began with a group of primarily black artists (Chuck Berry) creating reconstituted blues and R&B, ended with white artists (Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis) playing a mixture of rockabilly, early classic rock, and R&B (Friedlander)
Chuck Berry’s album Is On Top (released in 1959) features the hit “Johnny B. Goode”

This performance is from the mid-60s:

-By 1960 the classic rock era was over (Friedlander)
-bringing us back to where we started, with spontaneous and improvisational jazz, is the classical musician John Cage, whose compositions were written according to chance and with an absolute faith in the rightness of the moment. (Gann, 136)
-in the late fifties he moved towards an even more radical concept he called indeterminacy. “In a chance work some randomness goes into the composition of the work; in an indeterminate work, the notation itself is ambiguous, so that different performances could arrive at different sonic manifestations.” (Gann, 136)
-many people are frustrated by the attempt to listen to a late Cage work, by the absence of linearity or any meaningful continuity, the inability to predict anything, and its negation of musical structures. He left many aspects of his performance undetermined. (Gann, 136)

John Cage “Water Walk” (1960)

Baez, Joan. And A Voice To Sing With. New York: Summit Books, 1989.
Cantwell, Robert. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Cohen, Ronald D. Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.
Friedlander, Paul. Rock & Roll: A Social History. Boulder: Westview Press, 2006.
Gann, Kyle. American Music in the Twentieth Century. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997.
George-Warren, Holly. The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1999.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley. Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction (Second Edition). New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974.
Horowitz, Joseph. Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.
van Minnen, Cornelias A., Jaap van der Bent, and Mel van Elteren. Beat Culture: The 1950s and Beyond. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1999.
Ward, Geoffrey C. Jazz: A History of America’s Music. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Weissman, Richard. Which Side Are You On? New York: Continuum Books, 2005.
Whaley Jr., Preston. Blows Like a Horn: Beat Writing, Jazz, Style and Markets in the Transformation of US Culture. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004