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Canadian Electronic Music Timeline
by Leonard J. Paul
Canadian electronic music history is full of important technical achievements, artistic innovations, and often-surprising facts. From the gramophone and the sackbut to electroacoustic music and video games, this timeline created by sound artist Leonard J. Paul documents essential moments in Canada's digital scene, illustrating academic and popular milestones that inspire further investigations into a fascinating century of sonic discovery.
The following is a text-only transcription of the Canadian
Electronic Music Timeline. The full interactive version of this audiovisual
media feature may be viewed on HorizonZero's Flash site.
This interactive timeline presents a history of electronic music in Canada.
It covers a wide range of events in the nation's past, but it is by no means
exhaustive. It is my hope that it will inspire interest and further investigation
into the history of Canada's many contributions to electronic music.
Canada has a history of great invention. Unfortunately, it also has a history of being overly modest, which has resulted in many inventions gathering dust before being shared with the world. This project is meant to toot Canada's digital horn and show the world what we've been up to - time to kick some Sackbut!
(Viewers are invited to email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org)
~ Leonard Paul
Alexander Graham Bell [www.science.ca/scientists/scientistprofile.php?pID=120]
maintained that he devised the telephone while in Brantford, Ontario in 1874.
However, in 2002, US Congress officially
stated that Italian immigrant Antonio Meucci, who had demonstrated a working
version fourteen years earlier in New York City, was the real inventor of the
Although Italian electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi sent a wireless telegraph signal one-way across the Atlantic Ocean in 1895, Canadian Reginald Fessenden [http://collections.ic.gc.ca/heirloom_series/volume4/42-45.htm] was the first to achieve two-way voice transmission by radio from Brant Rock, Massachusetts to wireless operators along the Atlantic northeast coast. In this first radio broadcast, Fessenden played "Handel's Largo" from phonograph and performed "O Holy Night" on his violin. Thus, not only was he the "father of radio", but also the first radio DJ!
The Robb Wave Organ is designed by Morse Robb in Belleville, Ontario. He attempts to reproduce the sound of a cathedral pipe organ by amplifying sounds generated by a series of rotating metal cylinders.
The first movie film sound system [www.nortelnetworks.com/corporate/corptime/1920.html]
in the British Empire is installed in the Palace Theatre in Montréal.
During his spare time away from his research work in atomic physics at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), Hugh Le Caine [http://hughlecaine.com/en/sackbut.html] (see Appendix 1) begins work on the Sackbut (see Appendix 2), the world's first voltage-controlled synthesizer.
National Film Board of Canada (NFB) filmmaker Norman McLaren [www.onf.ca/e/highlights/norman_mclaren]
produces his first animated sound film, Now is the Time. By drawing
on the audio track of the optical film directly by hand, he is able to create
specific tones that play along with his drawings on the visual frame of the
Osmond Kendall develops the "Composertron" [www.keyboardmuseum.org/pre60/1950/composertron] for the Canadian Marconi Company. It allows composers to draw images in grease pencil and hear their drawings translated into audio signals.
Hugh Le Caine begins to invent and design electronic musical instruments full-time at the National Research Council of Canada. [http://cec.concordia.ca/econtact/Issues_in_ea/Le_Caine.html]
Le Caine builds the "Multi-Track Tape Recorder". [www.sciencetech.technomuses.ca/english/collection/music13.cfm] It uses a keyboard interface to dynamically change the playback of sounds recorded onto several magnetic recording tapes. Using the "Multi-Track", Le Caine composes "Dripsody", a piece of music entirely based upon the sound of water dropping into a pail.
Alberta-born Bruce Haack [www.brucehaack.com] begins creating highly inventive electronic music compositions - primarily for children, and often using modified synthesizers and self-created instruments such as the "Dermatron", which reacts to touch. Thanks to his pioneering work, a documentary about his life, entitled The King of Techno, is produced by Philip Anagnos in 2003.
Montréal-based composer István Anhalt [www.musiccentre.ca/apps/index.cfm?fuseaction=composer.FA_dsp_biography&authpeopleid=519&by=A] and Hugh Le Caine begin a series of artistic collaborations.
University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS; see: www.utoronto.ca/icm/) is founded, being only the second electronic studio to open in North America. The first was the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City, founded a year earlier.
István Anhalt obtains a grant to spend a month working with the RCA Mark II synthesizer at RCA's Princeton Laboratories. After his time in New York, Anhalt spends a week with the "father of computer music" Max Mathews [www.csounds.com/mathews] and his Music V computer music system at Bell Labs. During this time, Anhalt produces forty five seconds of instrumental synthesis, which was likely the first computer music created by a Canadian.
Commodore Business Machines Canada [www.commodore.ca] goes commercial. It went on to produce the wildly popular Commodore 64 home computer in 1982, selling an estimated 22 million units worldwide, partly due to its advanced audio chip for the time, the SID, for which soundtracks are still composed.
István Anhalt opens the Electronic Music Studio [www.music.mcgill.ca/~gems/current_info/gems_history (link no longer active)] at McGill University in Montréal, becoming its director. There he utilizes many of Hugh Le Caine's electronic music inventions.
Hugh Le Caine begins work on the Serial Sound Structure Generator (SSSG) [www.hughlecaine.com/en/serialg.html], a machine regarded as a precursor to the sequencers later used in electronic and digital synthesizers.
Le Caine presents a modified version of the SSSG for Expo 67 in Montréal. It allows visitors to compose electronic music by changing notes, pitch, and timbre on an array of buttons.
Hugh Le Caine invents the Polyphone [www.hughlecaine.com/en/poly.html], a polyphonic synthesizer. This was the most extensive synthesizer built to date, and was probably the first analogue, voltage controlled, polyphonic synthesizer in the world, preceding the Moog and Buchla synthesizers by nearly a decade.
Canadian synthesizer player Ralph Dyck designs a digital sequencer that is developed into the Japanese-made Roland MC-8 in 1977.
The longest continuously-running live electronic group in the world, the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE), [www3.sympatico.ca/larry_lake/cee.htm] is founded by David Jaeger, Larry Lake, James Montgomery, and David Grimes. The musicians devote themselves to promoting live electronic music in Canada. Sergio Barroso is a composer favoured by the CEE.
University of Toronto music researcher Bill Buxton begins the Structure Sound Synthesis Project (SSSP) [www.billbuxton.com/buxtonSSSPVideos.html] and develops it into one of the first real-time interactive digital synthesizers for live performance.
Experimental Toronto rock band FM, [www.collectionscanada.ca/4/17/m17-118-e.php?uid=5532&uidc=ID] pioneering in their use of synthesizers, release their first album Black Noise, which includes the FM classic "Phasors on Stun" written by electric mandolin/violinist Nash the Slash and keyboard player Cameron Hawkins.
American composer Larry Austin is commissioned by the CBC to produce Canadian Coastlines: Canonic Fractals for Musicians and Computer Band, [http://www.music.unt.edu/cemi/larry_austin/LApnotes.htm#canadian] a musical work based on data derived from maps of Canada and the mathematics of fractals.
Montréal pop group Men Without Hats [www.menwithouthats.com] release their international hit single "The Safety Dance", which makes extensive use of keyboard and drum synthesizers in an "electro-pop" style.
CBC radio begins broadcasting Brave New Waves (BNW)
from Montréal. This late night showcase features cutting edge music, much of
which is electronic. Hosts for the show have included Augusta LaPaix (1984-85),
Brent Bambury (1985-95), and Patti Schmidt (1995-today).
Vancouver electro-industrial pioneers Skinny Puppy [www.canoe.ca/JamMusicPopEncycloPagesS/skinnypuppy.html] release their influential debut full-length album Bites on Vancouver-based Nettwerk records.
The 11th annual International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) [www.computermusic.org] is hosted by electroacoustic composer and communication researcher Barry Truax at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University (SFU).
Barry Truax [www.sfu.ca/~truax] implements real-time granular synthesis and incorporates it within an interactive compositional environment, the PODX computer system, at SFU. He composes "Riverrun" with the PODX, and is awarded the prestigious Magesterium from the International Competition of Electroacoustic Music in Bourges, France in 1991.
The Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC) [http://cec.concordia.ca] is founded to promote electroacoustic music in Canada.
Canadian Richie Hawtin (aka Plastikman) [www.plastikman.com] starts DJing.
Soon afterward he begins to make his own music and becomes a pioneer in the
house music scene.
Francis Dhomont [www.electrocd.com/bio.e/dhomont_fr.html]
receives the highly coveted Magisterium prize from the International Electroacoustic
Music Competition in Bourges, France. Dhomont, who today is an Associate Composer
at the Canadian Music Centre, also conducted early experiments in what would
later be called music concrète (see Glossary) in France during
the late 1940s.
The record label empreintes DIGITALes [www.empreintesdigitales.com] is founded by Jean-François Denis and Claude Schryer in Montréal. It specializes in publishing electroacoustic music.
John Oswald releases Plunderphonics. [www.plunderphonics.com] The album features a sound collage of samples from popular recording artists such as Michael Jackson, James Brown, and The Beatles. All copies are later destroyed due to copyright violations prosecuted on behalf of the recording industry. In 2000, Oswald releases a new version entitled 69 Plunderphonics 96 containing remixes with titles such as "Anthrax Squeeze Factory" and "Beastie Shop Beach".
Electronic Arts purchases Distinctive Software, renames itself EA Canada, [www.eacanada.com] and becomes a highly successful video game development studio focused on sports games such as FIFA Soccer, NBA Live, NHL Hockey, and SSX Snowboarding. EA later becomes the first video game studio to implement the Digital Theater Surround sound system on the Sony PlayStation 2.
Radio Canada International (RCI) releases the 37th installment of its Anthology of Canadian Music [www.electrocd.com/cat.e/acm_37.html] series. The four cd set, subtitled Electroacoustic Music, presents a wonderful survey of contemporary practitioners of electroacoustic music in Canada, including works by Robert Normandeau, Paul Dolden, and Jean Piché.
Jean-François Denis of empreintes DIGITALes launches the Web site www.electrocd.com. By 2004 the site offers the largest selection of electroacoustic recordings available in North America.
The 21st annual International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) [www.computermusic.org] is hosted at The Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Alberta.
Kid Koala (aka Eric San) [www.kidkoala.com] releases ScratchHappyLand on Ninja Tune records. Legendary for his highly musical turntablist techniques, and mixtapes that sample commercials for Canada Dry ginger ale and Lotto Quebec, Kid Koala had already won the Montréal DMC title championship in 1996.
Fifteen-year-old DJ A-Trak [www.dmccanada.com/history_of_dmc_dj_championships.htm] becomes the first Canadian to win a DMC Technics World Championship, an accomplishment equivalent to being named the "best DJ in the world".
Vancouver-based Qdesign [www.qdesign.com] releases the Qdesign music codec (see Glossary) licensed by Apple's Quicktime multimedia format.
The company TacTex [www.tactex.com/STC.htm] is established in Victoria, British Columbia to commercialize pressure-sensing technologies, including touch controllers adapted for musical expression.
The Elektra Festival [www.elektrafestival.ca] is started in Montréal by composer Alain Thibault to showcase Canadian electronic arts and music worldwide.
The first edition of MUTEK [www.mutek.ca] takes place in Montréal. The event soon grows to become a world class electronic music festival.
CBC Radio 3 launches
a new suite of Web sites conceived to promote Canadian talent via the Internet.
The sites are: 120seconds.com [www.120seconds.com],
New Music Canada [www.newmusiccanada.com],
Roots Music Canada [www.rootsmusiccanada.ca],
Just Concerts [www.justconcerts.com],
and CBC Radio 3 [www.cbcradio3.com].
The first edition of the New Forms Festival, [www.newformsfestival.com] an event celebrating innovations in art and technology (and which incorporates a strong emphasis on music), takes place in Vancouver.
CBC Television launches ZeD TV, [www.zed.cbc.ca] a contributor-based television show and Web site which invites viewers to upload their DIY content (including hip music) onto the Internet and vie to have their work shown on TV.
One man electronica act Manitoba [http://justconcerts.ca/concerts/concert.cfm?Concert_Id=79] releases its debut Start Breaking My Heart, turning Dan Snaith into an overnight sensation combining microsound techniques with indie-pop influences. (See the Glossary for more about "microsound".)
Marc Leclair aka Akufen [http://zed.cbc.ca/go.ZeD?user_id=14999&page=content] releases his debut album My Way, a "micro-funk" project made up entirely of small edited recordings sampled from the radio.
DJ Dopey becomes the second Canadian-born DMC Technics World Champion.
The New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) [www.music.mcgill.ca/musictech/nime] conference is held at Montréal's McGill University. This three day event features demos, paper presentations, and performances utilizing new instruments. Canadian presenters include Philippe Depalle [www.ircam.fr/equipes/analyse-synthese/listePublications/articlesDepalle], Sid Fels [www.ece.ubc.ca/~ssfels], and Ichiro Fujinaga [www.music.mcgill.ca/~ich].
Montréal musicians Plogue invite the world to download Bidule, their modular music creation software, for free at www.plogue.com.
The NFB [www.nfb.ca] launches CineRoute, a Web site that allows members to view 250 selected films for free on the Internet, including the work of early electronic music pioneers such as Norman McLaren. A new album is also due out by Warp Records artists Boards of Canada [www.boardsofcanada.com] who were inspired to create music by the soundtracks of NFB films they watched while growing up in rural Scotland. Their name is a reference to the films of the NFB.
Appendix 1: Hugh Le Caine
Canadian physicist and inventor Hugh Le Caine (1914-1977) [www.hughlecaine.com]
developed twenty-two new electronic music devices which were not only ground
breaking and technically ahead of their time, but also remarkably playable,
expressive, and responsive for the player. He gave up a promising career in
atomic physics to work full time on the development of musical devices at Canada's
National Research Council in 1954. His inventions included the Sackbut (1945),
the Multi-Track (1955), and the Polyphone (1970).
Every single one of Le Caine's inventions became obsolete before they became widely known, and none were ever commercially manufactured. Perhaps if his work had been better promoted, the history of electronic music would be a very different one.
Appendix 2: The Sackbut
Hugh Le Caine's Sackbut, [http://hughlecaine.com/en/sackbut.html] the inspiration behind the interactive design of this Canadian Electronic Music Timeline, was invented in 1945, and was the first voltage controlled synthesizer.
The keyboard was touch sensitive, allowing the volume to be controlled by the amount of finger pressure exerted. Pitch was controlled by moving the keys from side to side, allowing the creation of convincing vibrato effects. The right hand rested on top of the instrument where, by moving a touch sensitive disc, the player could dynamically change the waveform to simulate instruments from oboes to organs. The thumb accessed other controls used for shifting the resonant emphasis of the Sackbut, and the player's remaining fingers controlled the periodicity, enabling trills and other effects. Not only was the Sackbut incredible from a technical point of view, but it contained many musically expressive capabilities not available on instruments even today.
A compressor/decompressor algorithm that makes the digital representation of an audio signal smaller for greater ease of storage and transmission via computer.
Music fabricated with the aid of digital and electronic devices, often meant to explore new aesthetics or technology.
A synthesis method in which a multitude or "cloud" of split-second "grains" of sound are produced, often using a real-world sound as the "seed" from which the grains are derived.
A form of music rooted in the production of split-second digital edits, samples, and syntheses using modern computer software.
A type of music produced by editing together fragments of recorded acoustic sounds.
An art movement that investigates the role of copyright in opposition to the
artist's right to create new artwork from existing cultural products and media.
About the Artist: Leonard J. Paul
Leonard Paul attained his Honours degree in Computer Science
at Simon Fraser University with an Extended Minor in Music concentrating in
electroacoustics. He has a ten year history in video game audio coding and composing,
and has worked as a sound designer for games companies such as Electronic Arts
and Radical. As a professional musician and composer, he has also worked with
film, theatre, dance, and interactive media. He was the composer for the documentary
The Corporation (www.thecorporation.com)
by Mark Achbar, which won the Documentary Audience Award for World Cinema at
Sundance 2004. Paul is also the composer and sound designer for two upcoming
Web documentaries which examine the modern history of Africa: War Hospital
and Pax Warrior. He composed for the anti-war multimedia dance
project Painting Peace, which was was awarded entry into the 2003
Barcellona Video Dansa Festival. In theatre, he scored music for strings and
performed live multi-channel diffusion electroacoustics for the recent Tempest
in a Teacup production Revolutions. In March 2003, he toured Germany
with Urban Guerilla Records playing underground dance clubs in Hamburg, Munich,
and Berlin under the moniker Freaky DNA (see: www.freakydna.com).
His live music show IDUB (Interactive Digital Urban Ballet) has
been described as "a dance hall experience where audience and dancers mix in
a Dionysian blurring of lines between performer and observer" accompanied by
video projections and Paul's electroacoustic combination of ambient, dance,
jungle, drum and bass, and down tempo music. He also currently teaches Game
Audio and Interactive Music at the Art Institute, Vancouver, and Video Game
Audio in the Sound Design department at the Vancouver Film School. For more
information about his work, visit his Web site: http://lotusaudio.com