(My original post is at shelftalk.spl.org)
Back in 1919, when the world was in black and white (I’ve always wondered how they knew the sky was blue and the grass was green but every time I ask a Librarian about it they get a funny look, mumble something, and wander away. But I digress…) Leon Theremin was working for the Russian government on proximity sensors. Now Russia was quite a large country with an awful lot of proximity to sense and Leon, both a physicist and a cellist, found that he could turn some of that sensed proximity into sound. Enter the Theremin, the only known instrument that you do not touch to play. (How one knows that they are playing it rather than someone in the first row is beyond me, but again, I digress…)
Early on Leon’s odd little box was primarily used in movie soundtracks (Forbidden Planet, notably) and began integrating into popular music in the 50’s. For a fascinating look at the main-streaming of electronics into music and the bleeding-edge composers that led it take a listen and look at OHM+. While very interesting intellectually, the vast majority of the OHM+ collection has about as much musicality as Sputnik.
Throughout the 60’s, for those of us that are unsure if we remember it, integration of electronics into the current instruments and the creation of sound processors and synthesizers exploded. (And that exact sound effect was finally possible without lots of mess, fuss, and the probability of personal harm.)
While many would say that The Beach Boys Good Vibrations was the first usage of the Theremin in popular music, it was actually used earlier in 1966 on their song “I just wasn’t made for these times”. I think it needs have an asterisk next to it, however, as they used an ‘electro-Theremin’ in both cases; basically a keyboarded version. I consider Led Zeppelin’s “Whole lotta love” the first use as they used a ‘real’ one. Neener neener.
Many old-schoolers like me, though, got our daily dose of electronic tunage from the likes of Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream. As electronic music developed and psychedelia gave way to progressive rock and dance, artists like Jean Michel Jarre (yeah, Maurice Jarre’s kid) began to refine ‘dream electronica’ and Alan Parsons took what he learned as engineer for Pink Floyd and The Beatles to create several well-crafted pop albums.
By the mid-70’s European electronica was starting to impact American music driven largely by the German band Kraftwerk. Dubbed ‘Krautrock’, the highly electricized dance beats found plenty of play in the clubs (okokok, Discos. There, I said it. Discos played it, a lot. Don’t ask me how I know, I just know. ) and fueled much of the growth of the burgeoning underground dance scene.
With the advances in computer hardware and software, electronica, as its own genre, really took flight in the 80’s and 90’s, and with more people able to create it, more sub-genres were created. Trance, industrial, goa, house, acid, progressive, drum and bass, as well as successful mixtures of electronica with jazz, swing, soul, classical, and metal. Electronic remixing and sampling of music became easily possible and artists such as Paul Oakenfold and Mocean Worker have taken that in some interesting directions.