Arie Altena

Imaginary Landscapes of Electrical Nature

A Journey Along Some of the Inspirations for the 2011 Kontraste Festival

Arie Altena

This text was published in the Kontraste Cahier The Aelectrosonic (PDF), 2011

In the spring of 1939 John Cage, then just 26 years old, wrote a composition for two variable-speed turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano and cymbal. The piece is meant to be recorded in a radio studio and presented as a broadcast or recording. At the time Cage was experimenting with the possibilities of the radio studio for composing music, and he prescribed how the sound was to be picked up by four microphones. The piece premiered live on 24 March 1939 as part of a “Hilarious Dance Concert” – actually a dance class – at the Cornish School in Seattle, and was performed by John Cage, Xenia Cage, Doris Dennison and Margaret Jansen. Two of the four performers operated two variable-speed phonograph turntables. One played a Victor constant frequency test recording (catalogue number 84522B) and a Victor constant note record (#24, catalogue number 84519B), the other played another Victor constant frequency test recording (84522A). Cage’s use of turntables can be seen as a crude example of handmade “electronic” music. The frequency recordings were normally used to test if the speed of a gramophone was correct and stable. Varying the speed of the turntable changed the sound, a method which is to some extent comparable to modulating a sine wave.1


Cage entitled his work for two turntables Imaginary Landscape – the first one in what would become a series of five. Imaginary Landscape #4 (1951), probably the most famous, uses a different source of electronic sound. Twelve radios are operated by 24 players – two performers are stationed at each radio, with one tuning into the radio stations, while the second controls amplitude and timbre.

The title Imaginary Landscape seems to indicate that the sounds evoke a landscape. The texts Cage wrote about these works mainly deal with the compositional methods; critics have stressed the indeterminacy of the compositions and Cage’s radical proposal to use all possible sounds and noises as music. Perhaps the title is not that important. Nevertheless it is intriguing that Cage’s first electroacoustic composition is presented as a landscape. Maybe we should see it as an imaginary depiction of the landscape of electricity? electromagnetic waves travelling through the air? It sounds somewhat like it.

But rather than a depiction in the sense of Romantic program music– imitating the sounds of a little brook, singing birds or a furious storm, as in Ludwig von Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony – it is as if the metaphor of a “landscape” grafts itself onto such an arrangement of sounds. The sounds evoke something in the brain of the listener for which one is inclined to use the word “landscape”.


The word “soundscape” did not exist in 1939; it came into use as late as the 1970s with the Vancouver Soundscape Project led by the Canadian composer Murray Schafer. Schafer defined soundscape in his 1973 pamphlet The Music of The Environment as: “the vast musical composition which is unfolding around us ceaselessly”.2 He quotes Cage: “Music is sounds, sounds heard around us, whether we are in or out of the concert halls (cf. Thoreau)”3 and, referring to Cage and musique concrète states that, “This blurring of the edges between music and environmental sounds may eventually prove to be the most striking feature of all 20th-century music”.4 

Both Cage’s and Murray Schafer’s approaches are ecological – but not in the same way. It is Cage who included the electrical soundwaves of everyday in his works. Where Cage favoured a truly all-inclusive approach allowing all sorts of noises and sounds in his compositions, Murray Schafer and some of those who followed in his footsteps favoured an approach of recording existing soundscapes, and of listening to these soundscapes as an exercise in opening our ears to the beauty of the environment. 


Cage’s first Imaginary Landscape predates Pierre Schaeffer’s experiments with tape music by almost a decade. On 5 October 1948 Schaeffer’s Cinq études des bruits (1948) premiered in a radio programme entitled Concerts des bruits. The five studies are the earliest examples of musique concrète, and exclusively use recorded sounds. Schaeffer composed these pieces in the Studio d’essai – he had already been experimenting in radio studios for some years. He would continue on this track, establishing the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) in 1951, after meeting Pierre Henry, with whom he collaborated on many different musical compositions. The GRMC would become the GRM in 1958. 

In 1948, operations such as sound transposition, looping, sample extraction, and filtering were available in radio studios, but the processes were complex and time consuming. The early musique concrète by Schaeffer, Henry and others was pasted together by hand. For Schaeffer, using the sounds of the world as a compositional resource was also an attempt to reconstruct music from the bottom up: starting with the sound object (l’objet sonore), instead of working with received ideas about instruments, harmony, or melody. At the basis of Schaeffer’s music was a totally new phenomenology of music and listening.5 In a way quite different from Cage, musique concrète creates landscapes of sounds. 

Etude aux chemins du fer is a recording, manipulation and arrangement of train sounds which transports the listener to a train station, and into a train: it becomes a journey through a landscape, through sound. 


Many of the composers who started working with electronic sounds in the 1950s experimented with the spatialisation of sound. Stockhausen famously used rotating loudspeakers to achieve a space effect. Schaeffer and Pierre Henry distributed speakers throughout a space. Their engineer Jacques Poullin built a potentiomètre, a system using induction coils to spatially control the sound. On stage, the potentiomètre allowed a performer to position a sound either to the left or right, above or behind the audience by moving a small transmitter towards or away from four somewhat larger receiver coils arranged around the performer.6 The effect is that a sense of space is created for the listener. 

François Bayle, who took over the direction of the gRM in 1966, further explored this approach and in 1974 commissioned the design of a massive loudspeaker orchestra. The Acousmonium is an orchestra of up to 100 speakers of different sizes placed across a stage at varying heights and distances. Their placement is based on their range, power, quality, and their directional characteristics. When built, Bayle stated: “It puts you inside the sound. It’s like the interior of a sound universe.” The Acousmonium was conceived as “another utopia, devoted to pure listening, (...) as a projection area, arranged for the immersion in sound, and a spatialised polyphony”.7 Such a spatial sound landscape is just one step away from a sound or audiovisual installation that can be explored interactively by an audience. 


How “electrical” are these imaginary landscapes, sound environments and spatial compositions? Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes #1 and #4 use electricity, but neither of them fits comfortably in a narrower history of electronic sound. If these landscapes are electrical, then it is primarily because they imagine a landscape of electricity, of radio waves, and electromagnetic fields. Schaeffer’s musique concrète is not purely electronic in nature – its source material consists of recorded concrete sounds. Rather, both examples point to a certain use of the idea of a landscape of sound in a broader history of electronic sound. On the other hand, both Cage and Schaeffer were experimenting with sound propagated in an electronic way, and carefully researched the nature, effects and aesthetic possibilities of such sounds. 

There is also a real landscape of pure electricity. We are surrounded by electromagnetic fields. Apart from naturally appearing electromagnetic fields there are fields generated by electrical wires and appliances. Computers, mobile phones, street lights, security systems, surveillance cameras, elevators, ATMs, neon lights – all these create electrical fields. The electrical landscape is ubiquitous – and invisible. We have broadcast radio waves for over a century and can imagine how these transmissions are still travelling through outer space. And there is, for instance, the electrical activity in our brains, which can be measured and made audible. 

At the end of the 1970s, the german artist and composer Christina Kubisch started making works using electromagnetic fields. She developed special headphones that make electromagnetic fields audible and built several sound installations that listeners explored wearing these headphones. The headphones, which she continues to develop, respond to electromagnetic fields in the environment: the magnetic component is picked up by sensor coils, and after amplification, made audible by the speakers in the headphones. She has been creating Electrical Walks since 2003 to explore electrical landscapes. She maps a territory, identifying hot spots where the signals are strong or interesting, and creates a sound walk through this hidden dimension. What the listener hears during her Electrical Walks are predominantly sounds emitting from man-made electrical equipment. But there is natural electricity too, which is also picked up by the headphones. In an interview with Christopher Cox in 2006 Kubisch recounted: “This summer I put on my headphones during a very strong thunderstorm. There was no electricity, because all the power had gone out. But, when I recorded, I got the sounds of natural electricity, which was wonderful. The recording is so strange: very low, but very clear. At two points, you hear voices. you can’t understand the words, but you can tell that they are voices. I knew that electricity could transport voices, but I had never heard it before. It’s quite breathtaking when you hear things like that. This is nature, too – electrical nature!”8 

1. Later performances of Imaginary Landscape #1, like John Cage – Imaginary Landscapes, hatART CD 6179, (1995), do not use turntables, but for instance an oscillator and a yamaha DX7 as the test recordings are not available anymore.
2. quoted here from Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (eds.), Audio Culture. Readings in Modern Music, Continuum, (London, New york, 2004), 29.
3. Ibid, 30.
4. R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape. Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester: Destin Books, 1977 / 1994), 111.
5. See Daniel Teruggi: “Technology and Musique Concrete: The Technical Developments of the groupe de Recherches Musicales and Their Implication in Musical Composition”, in Organised Sound, vol. 12, no. 3, 2007, 213–31; and, for instance, Michel Chion, Guide To Sound Objects. Pierre Schaeffer
and Musical Research
(Paris: Ina, edition Buchet Castel; translation by John Dack, 2009 / 1983).
6. See Teruggi op. cit., 218.
7. See François Bayle, Musique acousmatique, propositions... ...positions (Paris: Ina-gRM-Buchet/ Chastel, 1993).
8. Christoph Cox, “Invisible Cities: An Interview with Christina Kubisch”, in: Cabinet Magazine, issue 21 Spring 2006, “electricity” online www. issues/21/kubisch.php. For a description of Kubisch’ work see

© Arie Altena, Sonic Acts
Arie Altena