Clara Rockmore

american woman electronic music pioneer wendy carlos

Electronic music pioneers of the USA I.

(Part 1)

I started working on this blog post years ago. It was meant to be an interview with a Chicago-born DJ and producer, but unfortunately, it never got finalized due to personal circumstances.

During this interview, I realized that while I was very much familiar with some of the most important European electronic music pioneers like Daphne Oram (UK) – the inventor of a drawn sound technique, the Oramics, Eliane Radigue (FR)Delia Derbyshire (UK)Dick Raaijmakers (NL) (aka Kid Baltan) and Tom Dissevelt (NL) from the Philips Laboratories (Natlab), or Mika Vainio, I knew way too little about the American pioneers of electronic music who should be widely admired for their groundbreaking inventions and work.

The interview took place just a few months before I started experimenting with electronic music production. As a fresh producer, I found it very important to learn the roots. I wanted to know more than just some names and some tracks. I wanted to know the entire story. I wanted to know how it all happened…

There are many artists around the globe and many sources that wrote about them extensively, but I wanted to do a blog post that summarizes the most known ones in one place. Of course, it is not possible to mention every one of them in this column, so there was a selection that had to be made, but the list is long enough.

I started my research with some of the inspirations mentioned by my interviewee (Juana). By following that path, each name I researched led to many others.

The primary sources used for this article were the biographies of the artists from Discogs, Wikipedia, some other journals and blog articles, and sometimes the artists’ websites. These sources are always mentioned or linked throughout the blog. I am not inventing anything new here – simply attempting to summarise what has already been written.

This blog piece is for everyone who is yet unfamiliar with how the electronic music scene started and developed overseas.


The early pioneers

Louis en Bebe Barron

Let’s start this journey with a couple – husband and wife, Louis en Bebe Barron – who are credited with writing the first electronic music for magnetic tapeand the first entirely electronic film score for the movie Forbidden Planet (1956). 

Magnetic tape is a medium for magnetic storage, made of a thin, magnetizable coating on a long, narrow strip of plastic film. It was developed in Germany in 1928, based on magnetic wire recording.

Devices that record and playback audio and video using magnetic tape are tape recorders and video tape recorders respectively. Magnetic tape revolutionized sound recording and reproduction and broadcasting. It allowed radio, which had always been broadcast live, to be recorded for later or repeated airing. Magnetic tape begins to degrade after 10 – 20 years, and therefore is not an ideal medium for long-term archival storage. Source: Wikipedia

Clara Rockmore

Clara Rockmore (together with Robert Moog) were the pioneers of a very unusual electronic musical instrument, that was controlled without physical contact, the ‘etherphone’ or as later named, the Theremin. Clara Rockmore was one of the most famous ‘thereminists’ touring around the USA.

Lev Sergeyevich Termen

The instrument (which was originally known as the etherphone) was invented in 1920 and it was named after its inventor, the Russian Lev Sergeyevich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin). After a lengthy tour in Europe, Termen moved from the Soviet Union to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928.

However, after the Second World War, the theremin fell into disuse as newer electronic instruments were introduced that were easier to play. Nonetheless, a niche interest in the theremin persisted. 

Robert Moog

Robert Moog, who began building theremins in the 1950s, while he was a high-school student, stayed enthusiastic about the instrument and he credited the theremin experience as leading directly to his groundbreaking synthesizer, the Moog.

Wendy Carlos

Wendy Carlos, best known for her electronic music and film scores in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, was one of those overseeing the development of the Moog synthesizer.

Annette Peacock

Once the Moog was on the market, the experimenting had begun. The very first person who tried to combine her own voice with one of the first Moog synthesizers in the late 1960s was artist Annette Peacock.

Laurie Spiegel

The Chicago-born Laurie Spiegel, who worked for the Bell Laboratories in computer graphics, is known primarily for her electronic-music compositions and her algorithmic composition software called Music Mouse.

Pauline Oliveros

Another internationally acclaimed American composer, performer who has explored sound for four entire decades was Pauline Oliveros – forging new ground for herself and others through improvisation and combining electronic music with rituals and meditation.”

By clicking the following link, you can navigate to read Part 2, which summarises the American House and Acid pioneers of Chicago and New York.