The East of the West: The context for electroacoustic music in Czechoslovakia, 1948–1992

From Unearthing The Music

Pražská skupina Nové hudby; Marek Kopelent, Rudolf Komorous, Vladimír Lébl, Josef Bek, Zbyněk Vostřák, Eduard Herzog, Vladimír Šrámek (zleva)

The East of the West: The context for electroacoustic music in Czechoslovakia, 1948–1992 - An essay by Martin Flašar for Sound Exchange.

Facing Socialist Realism (1948)

The history of electroacoustic music (EM) in Czechoslovakia began later than it did in Western Europe. Unlike the situation in West European countries, it was not until the mid-1950s that EM was first mentioned in the Czech musical press, and it took almost ten more years before the movement pervaded Czechoslovakia on a practical level.

The official doctrine of socialist realism meant a big step back during the post-war era. Although Czechoslovakia had been able to keep up with the inter-war European avant-garde, whether in Paris, Vienna or Berlin, this »new« official dogma of socialist realism meant at least a partial retreat. A special organization controlling the observance of official doctrine – the Czechoslovak Composers’ Union – was established in 1949. This union answered directly to the state, and it was not possible to work officially as an artist outside the union. EM, as an autonomous movement opposing the official doctrine, was viewed with suspicion.

Close encounters (1950–60)

The spread of both foreign movements and contemporary developments in art was hampered by the impossibility of crossing the Iron Curtain and learning about new music. For Czech composers, the primary sources for information about EM were »underground« private listening seminars and discussions held in the flats of composers and their friends. It was not until the 1960s that there was any direct contact with musique concrète and electronic music in a global context. The first references to musique concrète and electronic music began appearing in the Czech press in the mid-1950s, and they provided very basic information about this phenomenon. [1] The chance for direct acquaintance with EM came with the founding of the Warsaw Autumn festival 1956 by the Polish Composers' Union. This was made possible by the thaw that followed the Stalinist era. The Warsaw Autumn was for a long time the only venue for contemporary music in Eastern Europe - and as such it served as a bridge between West and East.

From Rite of Spring to spring fever (1960s)

There were important changes in the reception of EM in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. The sudden détente in the political situation in Czechoslovakia allowed reformist currents to form in the Czech Communist Party. During this short period of liberty, the most prominent representatives of EM were able to visit the country.

Representatives of EM to visit Czechoslovakia during the 1960s:

  • In 1961, Lejaren Arthur Hiller came to Czechoslovakia.
  • In 1966, Pierre Schaeffer, François Bayle, and Guy Rebeil visited Prague.
  • A visit to the Groupe des Recherches Musicales was followed by a practical seminar on musique concréte.
  • In 1968, Karlheinz Stockhausen was a guest of the seminar at Smolenice in Slovakia
  • In 1969, Luigi Nono came to Prague.

In the early 1960s, several »home-made« experiments in EM were undertaken under the aesthetic influence of Surrealism. Techniques like collage and montage were used for the earliest compositions, such as »Smích« (Laughter, 1962) by Vladimír Šrámek, based on the poems of Jiří Kolář, or »Geologie, aneb jak jsme zabíjeli tatínka« (Geology, or how we were killing Dad, 1963) by Ladislav Novák.

A first attempt was undertaken at an institutional level in 1963 with the creation of a Cybernetic committee, led by the musicologist Vladimír Lébl, within the official Czechoslovakian Composers Union. In 1958 he published an overview of EM and musique concrète, and in 1964 and 1970 he edited two anthologies called »Nové cesty hudby« (New Paths in Music), which provided the first consistent information available in Czech on the New Music movement. The first volume included newly translated articles by Abraham Moles, »Uvedení do současného stavu hudby« (Introduction to the contemporary state of music), and Joel Cohen, »Teorie informací a hudba« (Information theory and music). The article by Czech author Antonín Sychra, »Hudba a kybernetika« (Music and cybernetics), published in the same volume, played an important role. His contribution was concerned mainly with the use of computers in the structural analysis of folk songs. This analysis was considered a first step towards a more complex process involving subsequent synthesis. The goal of cybernetics should be an understanding of the basic laws and principles involved in building a musical structure, and its reverse algorithmic modelling and synthesis. Sychra overcame the handicap of international isolation by studying publications by D. A. Bell, Wilhelm Fucks, Collin Cherry, Abraham Moles, Jan Mukařovský and Norbert Wiener. He personally participated in Lejaren A. Hiller’s lecture Information Theory and Musical Analysis in the Electronic Studio at Polish Radio on September 15, 1961.

The first seminar on electronic music was held at the Czechoslovakian Radio Station in Plzeň in 1964. It was organized by the Cybernetic committee and the Research Institute of Radio and Television in Prague, both newly established institutions. Special laboratories were created for sound synthesis, complex sound analysis and the processing of pre-recorded electronic sounds, and for recording concrete sounds. The seminar had 57 participants, including 19 composers and 10 musicologists, sound engineers, researchers, technicians and other guests. Participating experts were composer Miloslav Kabeláč (1908–1979), Eduard Herzog and Vladimír Lébl.

In Slovakia, EM developed under the same cultural-political conditions as it did in the Czech scene. First attempts in the field of EM in Slovakia were made by composers Ilja Zeljenka and Roman. EM was also used in the Czechoslovakian television studio in Bratislava as an element in soundtracks for films and documentaries. This studio and its equipment were used as a basis for all following experimental works. Nevertheless, most of the music produced was functional, and was used for films or the theatre (I. Zeljenka: »The Sun In the Net«, 1962; R. Berger: »Uprising in the Sycamore Street«, J. Malovec: »A Cross Switch«).

Besides studios in Bratislava and Plzeň, other studios were making early forays in EM. The most important impulse for the development of the Electronic Music Studio in Brno was the visit to the Groupe des Recherches Musicales in Prague in 1966, followed by a practical seminar on musique concréte. In the same year the first crucial publication on the subject in Czech appeared: »Electronic Music«, by Vladimír Lébl. The Electronic Music Studio at the Czechoslovakian Radio Station in Brno was founded by its leader Jiří Hanousek. Nevertheless, at the beginning it was impossible for the studio to be managed officially. Activities at the Studio culminated at the turn of the decade. In 1969 the »Exposition of Experimental Music« was staged for the first time in Brno. It was just one year after the invasion on August 21 1968 of Czechoslovakia by so-called »friendly forces« from the Eastern bloc. This rare festival of contemporary music could only be staged twice, in 1969 and 1970, before it was banned. The »Exposition of Experimental Music« brought into Czechoslovakia the hitherto unknown German and French compositions »Kontakte« and »Gesang der Jünglinge« by K. Stockhausen, and »Violostries« by B. Parmegiani. Jiří Hanousek was sacked in 1971. He left the country and the Studio was closed.

The Sound Studio at the Music Academy in Prague had a better position it was founded quite late (in 1970), and was, surprisingly, supported by high officials. First compositions – »Etudes« by Ivan Kurz – were already completed in that first year.

»A bout de soufflé« (1970s)

During the 1970s and 1980s, production of EM slowly decreased. There were two main reasons:

1) Firstly, as Carl Dahlhaus pointed out, by about 1970 EM had already lost its appeal and had become a marginal phenomenon: »The electronic music lost its horrors but also the passionate sympathy which it had gained in its early times. After it had been pulled into the centre of New Music by excited press, it became a marginal phenomenon.« [2]

2) The second reason was the political restriction of EM production under the conditions of the so-called »normalisation«. This policy of censorship and repression followed the events of the »Prague Spring« in 1968. The hostile political situation was immediately reflected in EM Compositions, for example, Miloslav Ištvan's »Avete morituri« (1968) or Alois Piňos' »Grate« (1970).

Volume of EM production in the Czech Republic (1960–1992): (Dohnalová 2001) [3]

  • until 1964: 5 compositions a year
  • circa 1970: almost 30 pieces a year
  • 1981: almost none 1991: more than 35 a year
  • 1993–1997: relative stagnation, about 15 compositions/year
  • Future of History (1989–)

    The next crucial breaking points in the history of Czechoslovakia, which also influenced the political and artistic situation, were the »Velvet Revolution« in November 1989, which signalled the end of the Communist era, and the partition of Czechoslovakia into two autonomous states in 1993. This turbulent period was also reflected in several EM compositions, as in »Fence stake« (Kůl v plotě, 1996) by Martin Marek, a parody of the last speech of the Central Committee Secretary Miloš Jakeš, or audiovisual compositions by Alois Piňos and Dalibor Chatrný: »Grate« (Mříže, 1970/1991).

    During this optimistic time several new institutions were founded: the »Society for Electroacoustic Music« (in 1989), which provided the International EM Competition »Musica Nova«: the »Audiostudio« in Prague (1990), which five years later became »Studio F«: and, finally, the »Exposition of New Music« in Brno was restored in 1990 carrying the 1960s tradition of the »Exposition of Experimental Music« into today.

    EM Institutions in Czechoslovakia (1960–92):

  • 1961 TV Studio in Bratislava
  • 1964 Czechoslovakian Radio Studio Brno
  • 1965 Experimental Studio at Czechoslovakian Radio in Bratislava
  • 1965 Research Institute of Radio and Television in Prague
  • 1967 Experimental Studio in Plzeň
  • Exposition of Experimental Music (1969–70) / Exposition of New Music (1990–)
  • Musica Nova – International EA Music Competition (1969–70, 1989–)
  • 1970 Sound Studio of the Music Academy in Prague
  • (1989–) Society for Electroacoustic Music
  • Audiostudio (1990–95) – became Studio F in 1995
  • The East of the West – Conclusions

    The historical context in which EM existed in Czechoslovakia was highly paradoxical, mainly due to the political situation. A delay in the spread of the new movements in our region greatly reduced the time during which EM could develop. Contact between developments in West European art and developments in the politically isolated Czechoslovakian scene were limited. EM remained a minor movement within the wider world of art production. Once the political obstacles had been eliminated in 1989, the volume of EM production quickly reached the same or higher levels it had enjoyed during the »golden era«, i. e. the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nevertheless, political obstacles were replaced by economic ones [4], and interest in EM slowly dwindled in the face of the mass production of electronic music. Experimental EM returned to the places from which it emerged more than 30 years ago – to the homes and small studios of curious musicians and composers.


    [1] J. Matějček, »Poznámka o elektronické a konkrétní hudbě«, in: HRo, pp. 294–295; M. Novotný, »Hudba očima techniky: Tak zvaná ›konkrétní‹ a ›elektronická‹ hudba«, in: HRo 1958, pp. 364–68; V. Lébl, »O hudbě budoucnosti a budoucnosti hudby«,. HRo 1958, pp. 696–700.

    [2] Carl Dahlhaus, »Ästhetische Probleme der elektronischen Musik«, in: Experimentelle Musik: Schriftenreihe der Akademie der Künste, Vol. 7, Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1970, p. 81.

    [3] L. Dohnalová, »Estetické modely evropské elektroakustické hudby a Elektroakustická hudba v ČR«, Praha 2001.

    [4] L. Zajíček, »History of Electroacoustic Music in the Czech and Slovak Republics«, The Leonardo Music Journal, vol. 5, 1995, pp. 39–48.