My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Sat, 14 Feb, 2004

Sine Waves and Electron Music

The sine wave, or the sine curve: for a kid back in the '60s, when I was growing up, this was a classic symbol of the Mystery of Science. The shimmering wave showed up in the ominous opening to the old TV series (1963-1965) THE OUTER LIMITS, where the disembodied voice intoned:

"There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission… We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical… you are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… the outer limits."

The spooky science fiction series reinforced in my impressionable mind (and probably many others) the connection between scariness, weirdness, sine waves, and Science in general. Science was something that was done by odd men (never women) dressed in odd clothing, and it usually brought about horrific effects, monsters, and disasters.

The sine curve on the screen brings back, for those of a certain age, Sputnik images of science, where guys with very short hair and white shirts, and the famous pens and pencils in the plastic pocket protectors, stared into oscillator screens, slide rules at the ready. They were fighting the Commies with science and brains, they were rocket heroes under the sign of the sine and the atom.

It never occurred to me that I would, or could be one of them. Not only didn't girls do this, but in my own artistic and academic family, none of us did it. And yet now that I attend to sines and cosines and their wavy graphs, I remember those early images of sines and scientists.

A few years after THE OUTER LIMITS, in the late '60s, I found myself looking with wonder at those same glowing green sine waves, not because I was in a science lab, but because I was working with electronic sound generators. That same curve which introduced the "Outer Limits" was also a picture of a sound, which you heard at the beginning of the program: the sine tone. For electronic music, it was the sweet song of the sine siren, the most basic of sounds.

While my peers in 1968 and 1969 were doing drugs, marching in protest marches, and "expressing their biological ascendancy" (euphemism), I was in a gadget-packed room creating electronic music. My father, professor of music at Brandeis University, was the director of the electronic music studio there and I had free run of the place when the students weren't using it. I was a teenage nerdgirl having fun with big reels of shiny brown tape and what were then state-of-the-art music synthesizers. We used the Buchla modular synthesizer and later the Arp synthesizer as well. Later on (1973) I worked a summer as tester and sound designer for Moog Synthesizers.

You can read about my adventures in electronic music here, in my "Growing up with Electronic Music" series:

Part One: From Forbidden Planet to Brandeis University

Part Two: The Electronic Music Studios of Europe

Part Three: Minnies and Pollies: My work at Moog Music, Inc.

All of this is an introduction to the other main topic of this Electron Blue Weblog: music, especially electronic music. In the next few entries I'll be talking about what makes electronic music tick (or beep), the different styles it comes in, and electronic composers I particularly like.

I also plan to say quite a lot about classical, or "serious" music, which is the music I was brought up with. My favorite "classical" music is that of the 20th century, though I listen to music from all eras.

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