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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Bacon's envisioned devices for creating ``quarter tones [half the interval between any two adjacent piano keys] and lesser slides of sound'' can be found in the exhibit: a sirena doppia (double siren) created by the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz in 1880; the pioneering RCA Mark II Electronic Music Synthesizer of 1957; the Buchla Synthesizer of 1963 and the Moog Synthesizer of 1964. And, of course, the ``artificial echo'' devices so popular in all forms of electronic music, particularly rock, can be found in the section ``Electronic Music Studios,'' which includes some of the world's most important: Studio Fonologia della RAI from Milan; the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center from the US; the Studio f"ur Elektronische Musik WDR in Cologne; the Groupe de Recherches Musicales of Paris; the Instituut voor Sonologie of Utrecht; and the Estudio de Fonologia Musical from the University of Buenos Aires.

``Nuova Atlantide'' does a most effective job of tracing the history of electronic music, both aurally and visually. It also provides a unique opportunity for the visitor to see and hear the many types of devices used in creating electronic music, a paradise of gadgets and gimmicks: synthesizers, sound generators, filters, modifers, control panels, and tape recorders. The exhibit does an excellent job of demonstrating the diversity of electronic music, presenting works all the way from such classically-oriented composers as Stockhausen and Nono, to rock groups such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, to such jazz artists as Miles Davis and Brian Eno.

Where the exhibit falls short is in projecting the possible and probable future of electronic music. While admitting that no respectable rock group could appear without its electric guitars, ``reverb'' effects, and an assortment of keyboard synthesizers, it must be granted that the day of making large numbers of phonograph recordings of classic electronic music - works by composers such as Subotnick, Maderna, and Babbitt - has long since passed. The era of electronic music in ``live'' concerts - either soloists performing in coordination with segments of prerecorded tape, or of live performances enhanced by electronic sound modifications - appears to be on the wane, except in the case of Pierre Boulez. So whither now? No answers are provided by Nuova Atlantide. Instead, the show ends with a complex demonstration - ``Public Computer Music'' - that suggests the unlimited physical capabilities of electronic music, without indicating the artistic purposes to which they might be put.

``Public Computer Music'' is presented in a cubically proportioned room, roughly 25 feet in width, depth, and height. Some 60 loudspeakers suspended from a scaffold have been placed stategically around the room. From a control panel (the biggest maze of wires I have ever seen), the creator of this ``sound show'' - Leo K"upper from Brussels' Studio de Recherches et de Structurations Electronique Auditives, moves among the visitors with microphone in hand, capturing pitch patterns of voices in conversation. These pitches are used as ``keys'' to initiate a computer-programmed sound (a separate one for each small interval of pitch), which is then reproduced by one or more speakers, the selection and location of such depending on Mr. K"upper's choice at the control panel.

``I call this my electronic jungle,'' K"upper told me. ``When one goes into a real jungle, one hears sounds from all directions: leaves rustling overhead, a frog croaking under foot, the call of a wild animal from far off to the right, the lapping of water from a stream in yet another direction. The directions these sounds can come from are infinite. Here I have constructed an audio environment in which sounds can be made to emit from 60 different locations. It's marvelous training for the ear. Instead of reacting to only two sources, that which we call stereo ... or quadraphonic ... we can listen to sounds from all 360 degrees of the compass!''

It was a fascinating way to conclude my visit, to be surrounded once again by musical sounds. This time not from audio discs randomly selected as in the John Cage piece, but music generated from my very own snorts, claps, stomps, and a bit of a tune that I hummed: ``The Old Grey Mare Ain't What She Used to Be.''

Through Nov. 23.

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