Electronic and electroacoustic music is an independent genre of music with a rapidly evolving history of its own which rivals that of acoustic music in its richness and diversity. Digital music now exceeds acoustic music in terms of sheer quantity. Even a digital recording of an acoustic work may be regarded as an original piece of musical composition by the sound engineers. In short, we are now used to working with sounds rather than notes.
This has led to a somewhat polarised position between composers and musicians working with digital media, and the classical orchestra. For contemporary composers, the orchestra can seem at best archaic and at worst completely redundant. For orchestras, electronic means of sound production and manipulation can seem threatening and out of place in an acoustic world.
Nevertheless, there have been many attempts to combine orchestra and electronics, sometimes subtly through amplification of acoustic instruments and sometimes quite blatantly through the addition of tape to concert music (and of course in numerous other ways). In general, it is the orchestras that have embraced new technologies that have tended to prosper, as musical tastes have moved onwards and new audiences have arisen. As this happens, composers who work with sound have also realised that the orchestra remains one of the greatest timbral palettes available. This kind of convergence is increasingly in evidence at the time of writing.
The Philharmonia Orchestra is an interesting case in point. It was originally formed as a studio orchestra, just after world War II, to record the classics for Deutsche Grammophon. The link with technology was always present, and it bills itself as 'the most recorded orchestra in the world'. The very existence of this online orchestration manual shows its willingness to embrace digital technologies and it shows a similar accessibility in many of its concerts.
The use of electronics in orchestral concert music may be broken down into the following broad categories:
- Amplification and sound processing
- Electronic and electronically controlled instruments
- MIDI and live electronics
- Tape and digital media
For a fuller discussion of the consequences of all this for musicians, see Andrew Hugill's The Digitial Musician (Routledge, 2013).