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A layman's guide to 86 years of electronic music. These are the sounds Sir Francis Bacon longed to hear

By Nick RossiSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 1986


In 1624, when he was writing ``The New Atlantis,'' Sir Francis Bacon described the music of his imaginary, ideal continent. ``We practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies ... of quarter tones, and lesser slides of sounds.... We also have divers strange and artificial echoes....'' Although it was impossible to create such music in the 17th century, Sir Francis' ``vision anticipated that which can now be realized,'' according to Alvise Vidolin and Roberto Doati, curators of ``Nuova Atlantide'' - New Atlantis - an electronic music exhibit that recently opened here at the Palazzo Sagredo.

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Subtitled ``The Continent of Electronics 1900-1986'' and sponsored by the Music Sector of the Biennale of Venice, ``Nuova Atlantide'' is an exhibit for the layman. It does not presuppose a highly technical knowledge of electronic music or the physics of sound. The show offers a panorama of developments and progress in the field of electronic music.

As soon as a visitor crosses the show's threshold, he is surrounded by sound and intrigued by 20 screens of video art. One feels the sound of this music, as its vibrations completely envelop the body. There are strange metallic sounds - as of rubbed and caressed cymbals - which are punctuated by the wails of wind, soft sirens, and waves washing against the shore. A disembodied voice chants undecipherable words; an organ-like collage of tones is interrupted by rhythmic tapping. Then this all disappears into nothingness.

The music? American composer John Cage's ``Imaginary Landscape No. 5'' of 1952, a recording on tape that uses, for its sound source, extremely brief excerpts from some 42 phonograph records picked at random, each excerpt modified and altered electronically according to the composer's explicit instructions. In this case the random selection and realization of the music has been accomplished by Francesco Villa of the University of Padua especially for this show. The video art that flashes across the multiple screens - a ``visual landscape'' of brilliant greens and blues and purples and abstract patterns - was also created at the electronic music center of the University of Padua.

Divided spatially into seven rooms of the Palazzo, the show is likewise divided into seven topics or sections (``History of Electronic Music,'' ``Physics of Sound,'' ``The Machines of Electronic Music,'' and so on.) The latest electronic gadgetry - tape recorders, video shows, and mini-computers - are used to make electronic music understandable for the novice.

Each visitor is provided with headphones so that he or she can hear music composed by the use of the electronic devices to be found in each particular room. For example, the haunting, whimsical strains of Luciano Berio's ``Thema (omaggio a Joyce),'' which was composed in 1958 at the Italian State Radio electronic music studio in Milan, is heard in the area devoted to electronic music studios.

Each room is also equipped with multiple video screens, and a separate, repeating 20-minute video program is played in each of the seven sections. One of the most important for a full understanding of the show is the video tape found in the area concerned with the ``Physics of Sound.'' Through diagrams, charts, visuals, and (quite naturally) sound, this tape explains the nature of a musical tone: its pitch, intensity, and timbre or tone quality. The headphone sound track in this room is of eighth-tone scales moving ethereally through space - first quickly then slowly, first softly then loudly.

There are also visitor-operated mini-computers in each section, to help the novitiate to investigate, almost as if it were a game, the essence of electronic music. I tried, for example, in the ``synthesizer'' room, to change the quality of tone being generated by moving my finger across the control board, first making it sound like a reedy oboe, then a rhapsodic violin, and finally like the rinky-tink sound of a player piano.

The ``sound generating'' instruments that Sir Francis anticipated are all here at ``Nuova Atlantide'' to be seen, and, more important, heard: The Ondes Martenot developed in Paris in 1917, the Theremin created in Russia in 1920, the Trautonium of 1929 from Berlin, and the Hammond organ first manufactured in the United States in 1935. Absolutely fascinating musical examples accompany this display: Edgar Var`ese's mercurical, fanciful ``Ecutorial'' of 1933, Olivier Messiaen's mystical, haunting ``F^ete des belles eaux'' of 1937, and Paul Hindemith's stark, structured ``Trio'' for Trautonium of 1930.