Vladimir Ussachevsky and “Piece for Tape Recorder”

Vladimir Ussachevsky emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1930, and two decades later created some of the first electronic music with his instructor, Otto Luening, in 1951. While the origins of electronic music are deeply transnational, with movements emerging during post-World War II France, Germany, and Japan, Ussachevsky and Luening’s 1952 performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art marked a pivotal moment in the history of music when it was broadcast live.

One of the pieces Ussachevsky and Luening performed in 1952 was Ussachevsky’s Sonic Contours, which came to be collected in 1957 in Folways Records’ Sounds of New Music alongside John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Edgard Varèse, among others. Cage, one of America’s most notorious and controversial modern classical composers, created the “prepared piano” in 1938, and performs Dance on a piano modified to create both a melodic and percussive soundscape. Cowell was equally influential in early twentieth century avant-garde classical, just as Varèse was significantly influential in shaping Cage’s early musical interests.

One of Ussachevsky’s most remembered compositions, Piece for Tape Recorder (1956), draws heavily from the musique concrète [concrete music] movement in Paris, where raw sounds were recorded, sampled, and replayed to produce early forms of electronic music. Ussachevsky explained an early philosophy of electroacoustic music in 1960 in “Notes on Piece for Tape Recorder,” collected in the Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies’ Problems of Modern Music.

The essay is an interesting one, and it’s available to download (for a price) both on JStor and Oxford’s The Musical Quarterly. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a free version of the article’s full text, but I was lucky enough to encounter Problems of Modern Music at a used bookstore.

Ussachevsky identifies many of the early problems in electronic musical composition, including “the availability of new sound materials and the direct participation of a composer in shaping these materials,” because it “may tend to influence his methods of composition.” He notes that composers know the sounds they’re working with and the “capabilities of the instruments he is going to use in his score.” He continues to explore the tape recorder as medium, and offers a musical score for the composition with a novel approach to scoring music for newer instruments.

In terms of “non-electronic” sounds, Ussachevsky uses a gong, a piano, a cymbal (with a “single stroke”), a single note from a kettledrum (otherwise known as “timpani”), the noise of a jet plane, and a few chords on the organ. “Electronic” sounds include “four pure tones” that were produced on an oscillator, and a “tremolo” produced from reverberation from a click on the switch of a tape recorder.

Sine and cosine waves.
Sine and cosine waves. These waves can also represent sounds produced by an oscillating system.

A few of these sounds are worth exploring, particularly the four tones produced on the oscillator and the tremolo produced from the switch’s reverberated sound. What is meant by a “pure tone” is essentially a sinusoidal waveform, such as a sine or cosine wave. Regardless of amplitude or phase, the wave is ultimately a single frequency. These waves, being sinusoidal, are characterized by frequency (the number of cycles per second) or by wavelength (the distance the waveform travels through its medium, such as air, within a measured period) or by amplitude (the size of the highest and lowest values of the wave during each cycle). Most importantly, a pure sine wave is an artificial sound. The “oscillator” responsible for producing these pure tones is a little vague, but includes any instrument or device that varies repetitively, like a pendulum or a string instrument. A “tremolo” is the wavering effect in a musical tone, usually created by the rapid reiteration of a note.

Interestingly, the article notes justifications for the use of each particular instrument and sample, reminding us that composers do not use these sounds arbitrarily, just in the same way that Cage’s prepared pianos feature precise measurements and instructions for preparations. For example, the jet noise and the piano are used episodically, “to impart dynamic punctuation to otherwise slowly evolving sound texture.” The remaining sounds are used as background accompaniments. Ussachevsky concludes with a discussion of “the interrelation between the development of the material and the final form of the work,” both of which played roles in composing A Piece for Tape Recorder.

Although Piece for Tape Recorder is one of Ussachevsky’s most influential compositions when it came to discussions of new electronic music, at least two versions of Sonic Contours remain some of his most popular compositions. More melodically pleasing than Piece for Tape RecorderSonic Contours is undoubtedly of at least equal interest. The first, shorter version has already been linked to above, but the longer composition below features striking variations in sound and a larger soundscape of electronic and non-electronic sounds and samples.


I’ll also provide one last listening recommendation I’ve been using to discover similar artists who composed during the same period — Folkways’ New Music.


I’d encourage those interested in hearing more of Ussachevsky’s music to check out the album below, Vladimir Ussachevsky: Electronic and Acoustic Works 1957 – 1972.

This is only the beginning of my listening experience with Ussachevsky, as well as early electronic music in general, so I may continue to post occasional updates on this venture, including a longer discussion of Luening, who composed a great deal of music independently of Ussachevsky.

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