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We Have Also Sound Houses: How A 17th C. Utopia Foresaw Electronic Music
Robert Barry , September 12th, 2020 08:44

The English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon wrote his utopian tale New Atlantis at the very end of his life in the early 17th century. Three centuries later it was heralded by Daphne Oram and others as a prophecy of modern electronic music. In an exclusive extract from his introduction to a new edition of the book for Repeater Books, tQ's books ed Robert Barry explains why

We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We also have divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.
             – New Atlantis by Francis Bacon

Daphne Oram resigned from the BBC in November 1958, mere months after her petitions for an electronic music studio were finally granted with the opening of the Radiophonic Workshop, in April of that year. It seems her disillusionment with the new studio started to set in almost as soon as it opened. By August of ‘58, Oram was writing to her parents to complain, “I never thought the new Workshop could have so many teething troubles.” She speaks of “tussles” with the equipment and regular interruptions from various “high ups” getting in the way of her experiments. “There is no time to concentrate on the real work!”

A few months later, in October, she was sent by the BBC to the Exposition Universelle in Brussels. While she was there, she attended the Journées internationales de musique expérimentale where she saw concerts by Pierre Henry and Luciano Berio, attended lectures given by Stockhausen and Schaeffer. Was this the “real work” she lamented being kept from at the Workshop?

It’s hard to say. A report on the Expo that she wrote for BBC management is somewhat equivocal, beginning with “expectations stirred” only to be baffled by Berio’s ‘Mutations’ and left finding Schaeffer’s musique concrète studies “all rather blatant”. “Here in England,” she concluded “we use electronic and concrete sounds only where their use is shaped by an architecture outside the music itself – for instance, as incidental music to a play, or wedded to a poem to make a radiophonic composition. We find it most useful in creating a mood which will be built upon by the spoken drama itself.” Of course, such a statement might be interpreted in the light of who it was addressed to: the BBC’s management. Perhaps she was simply writing what she thought was expected of her, more than her true feelings on the matter. What is sure is that just three weeks after returning to England, she handed in her resignation to the director-general, Ian Jacob.

Upon her departure from the BBC, Oram set up her own electronic music studio in a converted oast house near Wrotham in Kent. She made her own headed notepaper and took to corresponding with other composers around the world: Henk Badings in the Netherlands, Pietro Grossi in Italy, and Lejaren Hiller in the United States, among others. Despite a number of significant commissions – from the Royal Academy to James Bond – Oram struggled to make ends meet as a freelance composer. She supplemented her income through public speaking, maintaining a steady volley of talks on the history of electronic music during the 60s and 70s. Bacon’s text on sound-houses from the New Atlantis was a recurring presence throughout these lectures.

In the Daphne Oram archive maintained at Goldsmiths College in South London, there are more than half a dozen typed copies of Bacon’s sound-houses passage amongst her personal effects and many, many more references to it in her handwritten notes and correspondence. “When did electronic music begin?” she asked a Westminster audience in 1974. “Before the war? After the war? 350 years ago.” At this point, having answered her own rhetorical question, she would brandish her copy of the New Atlantis and read out her favourite passage.

By this stage, she was following an established routine. Practically every lecture she gave for which some form of notes survive has Francis Bacon as the first bullet point on a list that then proceeded through Schaeffer and Stockhausen to her own music.

By the end of the 60s, it’s clear that she had a recording on tape of someone (perhaps herself) reading the sound-houses passage that she would open her talks with, before drawing out the links between each line in Bacon’s text and more recent developments. One typed copy of the text is marked up in pencil, with, for instance, Bacon’s reference to “all sounds and their generation” circled and lassoed to a note in the margin indicating Henk Badings’ (1958) electronic work, ‘Genese’. Then “harmonies which you have not” is linked to Stockhausen’s early ‘Studie II’ from 1954, and so on. From other scattered notes and loose pages in the archive, it seems clear that she frequently used the same device as a way of structuring her lectures. In Oram’s telling, the whole history of electronic music had been played to a score written by Bacon more than three centuries before the fact.

In his own time, Bacon himself was fascinated by music. As a child he dabbled with the lute. At Cambridge in his teens, he took courses in music. His already enquiring mind must have been alive to the vast gulf which separated these two practices.

Music studies at Cambridge in those days placed the subject within the medieval quadrivium, together with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The arts of measure. Its object was the monochord and the divisions of its single string. And the calculations of those proportions were devised with a mind less to please the ear than to please God. ‘Music’, as a scholastic discipline, had almost zero communication with music as played by musicians or as engineered by instrument-builders. It was less an art form, as we would understand such today; more a branch of mathematics.

Another significant early experience: whilst staying in France as a young man at the residence of the English ambassador, ostensibly to further his legal studies but actually to act as information-gatherer to his uncle, the secretary of state Lord Burghley, Bacon travelled one day to Charenton, to the south-east of Paris. He went there with a specific purpose: to hear, in the nave of a small church, a famous echo said to return the voice sixteen times (Bacon himself, when calling out, could only make out thirteen distinct echoes). The trip would spark – or perhaps merely confirm – an early interest in acoustic phenomena. He mentioned it several times in his later published writing. It made sound feel real to him, thing-like, as the tossing of “a ball, to and fro”.

Sound was a topic Bacon returned to often as a writer, from his first mention of an “acoustique art” (a term which seems to be his own coinage) in The Advancement of Learning in 1605 to the very last writing projects of his final months where it was given pride of place. It clearly occupied his thoughts for a long time. And throughout, we can sense a continuing attempt to hew together these two formerly quite distinct aspects – practical music-making and the speculations of its academic discipline – in such a way that it could make sense of the kind of strange acoustic effects Bacon had heard in Charenton. In Bacon’s lifetime, the understanding of such effects was primarily the domain of magic.

Magic, in Jacobean England, was a thing at once more commonplace and more feared than it is now. If today the word conjures up images of cloaks and broomsticks and illicit rituals performed at midnight, it is necessary to readjust one’s frame of reference to picture something like a kind of paleo-science encompassing such relatively mundane pursuits as jam-making, perfumery, and the production of lenses for reading glasses. Distinct from such potentially dangerous practices as ceremonial magic and demonology, what sixteenth- and seventeenth-century savants knew as ‘natural magic’ was simply an experimental practice concerned with the exploitation of material properties towards effective ends. It was proscribed by the church but employed nonetheless by many statesmen, pharmacists, and even priests. For the most part, it dealt with what today would be called ‘science’ – only it did so mostly in secret, behind closed doors and cloaked in sigils and passwords, led by some rather strange ideas about cause and effect.

Certainly it was not the part of any academic natural philosopher to conduct experiments – any more than a university music student would be expected to whip out a guitar and strum through Greensleeves. It would be beneath their dignity. Upon Francis Bacon’s shoulders fell the task of bringing together what had seemed like opposed and irreconcilable disciplines to produce a new kind of experimental science combining rational speculation over causes with a desire for useful, tangible results. As he wrote in the New Organum of 1620, “The true and lawful goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers.” What use theory if it didn’t lead to practice? In this sense, his approach to acoustics was typical of his work as a whole. And the text in which he laid out his lab notes for the new science in the most detail was published at the same time, even in the same volume, as the New Atlantis.

This work was titled Sylva Sylvarum. The name itself sounds mysterious to modern ears. In Latin, sylva can mean ‘forest’, but also ‘timber’ or even ‘material’. When the French belletrist Antoine Mizault published his Arcanorum Naturae Sylvula seventy years earlier, he employed the diminutive ‘sylvula’ to mean something like a small heap, a little collection of useful things, like it’s his iPhone notes, basically. For Bacon on the other hand, there was nothing little about his collection. It was more like a forest of forests, a collection of all the collections.

The book is divided not into chapters but ‘centuries’, of which there are ten – each one a hundred numbered paragraphs offering hypotheses, observations, and experiments, grouped thematically. There are centuries devoted to physics, to botany, to taste and smell, and so on. Century two and most of three deal with music and sound. They do so in a manner which is characteristically eclectic.

Unusually for Bacon, the basic theory is Aristotelian. Like Aristotle, Bacon regards sound as a sensuous phenomenon, received by the ear of the listener where it mingles with the spirit, forming affinities and correspondences which play directly upon the passions. But Bacon combines this with practical experiments in things like throwing the voice and eavesdropping cribbed from the book Magia Naturalis by the Neapolitan intellectual Giambattista della Porta, along with notes on various kinds of automatic musical instruments and other like marvels built by regular visitors to the British court like the Dutch engineer Cornelis Drebbel and the French architect and polymath Salomon de Caus. What it represents is a stab at gathering together all the knowledge and ideas related to sound available at that time – from whatever source. In that sense, the tone is lofty but also reserved, even tentative. This was a knowledge base that was expected to grow. It spoke of everything from the basic essence of sound to suggestions of new microtonal scales, drawn from de Caus’s recently published Institution Harmonique; techniques, pilfered from Porta, for amplifying and transmitting the voice with tubes and cones; descriptions of new instruments and automatons by Drebbel – everything, in fact, from the “the voices and notes of beasts and birds” to the “strange and artificial echoes” that Bacon’s wayward seafarers are told of in the sound-houses of the New Atlantis. There is almost nothing in the utopian ‘prophecy’ of Bensalem that does not find its counterpart in this catalogue of contemporary observations and experiments.

Upon publication, the two texts – New Atlantis and Sylva Sylvarum – came bundled together, registered as one volume with the printer mere months after Bacon’s death and published within the year. The book was put together by Bacon’s former chaplain turned executor, William Rawley, who claimed his Lordship had always insisted the two works were “designed for this place,” i.e., together, inseparable. The one was designed to illustrate the promise of the other, to show what wonders it made possible, the kind of world it implied. But the two texts would have markedly different fates.

The Sylva Sylvarum was reprinted more times than any of Bacon’s other scientific works in the seventeenth century. Its suggested experiments were the bread and butter of the new Royal Society formed in 1660, partly in Bacon’s image. Later on, as the specifics of its science grew outdated, interest in the Sylva withered. In its place, enthusiasm for New Atlantis, relatively neglected in its own time, has only grown. It is now one of Bacon’s most popular texts, everywhere feted for its visionary glimpse of modern technology. But far from foreseeing the future of science, the Sylva Sylvarum and New Atlantis together merely drew together and placed side by side the available knowledge of their own time. In the process, they brought something new into existence. The sound-houses of the New Atlantis did not so much predict electronic music as lay the ground for its development. The “acoustic” science they inaugurated was the condition of electronic music even happening.

New Atlantis by Francis Bacon with a new introduction by Robert Barry is published by Repeater Books