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Ernst Krenek and electronic music

About “atoms of the audible” and synthesizers


When Ernst Krenek discovered the medium of electronic music in the mid 1950s at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, this was – in spite of many developments tracing back to the nineteenth century – a very young and still wide-open field. Krenek explored this field with his characteristic curiosity, open-mindedness, and analytic rigor. In his first article about electronic sounds, he described sinus tones as “atoms of the audible” and recognized in electronic sound production by means of synthesizer the possibilities available to let these atoms “enter into new relationships that are not present in the previous sound worlds dependent on the material constitution of vibrating bodies” (“Was ist und wie entsteht elektronische Musik,” in Zur Sprache gebracht: Essays über Musik, 1956).

The preserved sketches of his first composition for electronic music (the Whitsun oratorio Spiritus Intelligentiae Sanctus, op. 152) clearly show how comprehensively Krenek wanted to establish and appropriate the new medium: some 200 pages with mathematical formulas, sketches of curves, and schematic depictions of synthesizer settings that he made for his work stand alongside a handful of pages with conventionally notated music. The desire for manual control over the medium that is documented in these sketches may seem a bit surprising from today's perspective, but Krenek’s self-perception as a composer was perhaps too greatly determined by a dialectic of control and freedom (which he himself described repeatedly) for him to want to place himself at the mercy of the idiosyncrasies of the technical equipment. In a critical consideration from 1976 of the then most recent trends of the musical avant-garde, he expressed concerns that the composers of electronic music had forgotten how to compose: “Their works hardly go beyond material science and resemble the palette of an artist who full of pride points to the fabulous colors that he has discovered. One is tempted to say: ‘That’s all well and good – but now paint a picture for me’.”

The extent of Krenek’s interest in the possibilities of electronic sound production and its application in his compositions is shown by the purchase of one of the first synthesizers available for home use. The modular synthesizer by Donald Buchla preserved in the estate holdings of the archive of the Ernst Krenek Institute is, according to recent findings, probably one of the first produced exemplars of this model. The devices were not even furnished with a company label and, as can be seen from the likewise preserved correspondence, personally delivered by Don Buchla.

The synthesizer from Krenek’s estate is currently on loan to the Anton Bruckner Private University in Linz and at the disposal there of Prof. Volkmar Klien’s composition students for the development of their own works. These works can be heard on 24 May 2018 in the Ernst Krenek Forum and on 25 May 2018 in the Alte Schmiede in Vienna.