Profile: Vladamir Ussachevsky – American Tape music and the Electro revolution

…the moment you get away from the handicraft aspect of electronic music
…working with tapes and measuring the tape and cutting the tape, and mixing several tape recorders
…the moment you go completely to a keyboard, 
with the digital availability of various pre-made timbres and so forth, it’s a different attitude.

Ussachevsky (1987)

A new wave

In The autumn of 1952 a concert took place at the New York museum of modern art. It featured works by Otto Luening, a Columbia University professor of Music and his Post doctorate student Vladimir Ussachevsky. Both men had firm roots in classical composition and lectured in traditional counterpoint and harmony. Alongside this, however, they pursued experiments with the new medium of magnetic tape. The New York concert was the culmination of these initial forays into this novel way of working.

The concert, also broadcast live, featured Ussachevky’s now seminal work ‘Sonic Contours’. A five minute soundscape of modernist piano playing, not atypical of its time and hinting at Ussachevky’s background in Romanticism.  It was of course it’s treatment post recording that made it exceptional.

The piece begins with a low rumble beneath the ever present tape hiss. Then, what could be a huge sheet of metal struck with a pick-axe; several more of these impacts can be heard and only as two octave-vaulting chords enter do we realise it is the piano. Slowed down to the point where frequency returns to noise and wavelength to Rhythm. Even to modern ears it is unsettling and brilliant; at the time it was astounding.

It is now possible to reproduce these sounds on a cheap laptop with free software or even a smartphone. Few however can still employ the methods and dedication exhibited by pioneers such as Ussachevsky. One piece, he famously remarked, was four and a half minutes long when completed but born of 120 reels of unedited tape. 

Many artists have laid claim to the tags Experimental or Avant-garde. Especially in our current age of DIY cassettes and Bandcamp accounts. Ussachevsky gave birth to these sounds however and all we do is rearrange them.

Manchuria to Manhattan

Ussachevsky was born in 1911 in Russian Manchuria; where his father had been stationed following Russia’s inglorious defeat at the hands of the Japanese six years before. He learnt Piano from his mother at an early age and like her would perform in Restaurants and Vaudeville houses. He also absorbed the music of the Russian Orthodox church; an influence that would reemerge in his choral works. Ussachevsky spoke in later life about the harshness of his upbringing and ultimately his mother was forced to take the family to America in 1930 when Ussachevsky’s father left for Moscow and never returned.

Ussachevsky arrived in a country that had seen a decade and a half of Russian immigration. The second wave or white emigre were refugees of the Civil war raging in their homeland. Among them were many intellectuals who would come to have a huge impact on their adopted land. Stravinsky and Rachmanninov, Nabokov and the actor Yule Brinner were among the artists but it was perhaps the scientists who had the greatest impact. Among them was Vladimir Zworykin, a pioneer of the cathode ray tube and Igor Sikorsky the inventor of the helicopter. Interestingly too, a man by the name of Alexander M. Poniatoff who would go on to found Ampex. The company that would provide Ussachevsky with the reel to reel tape machine on which he composed Sonic Contours.

It was in these post depression, inter war years that a young Ussachevsky would make his first steps into academia. Initially wishing to study electrical engineering he quickly switched to composition and Graduated from Pomana college, California with a BA in 1935. From here he went on to pursue a PHD at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Returning to California in the early Forties, he taught music in schools and colleges whilst composing chamber and choral works in his spare time. The second world war brought service in the US army intelligence Corps and it would take until 1947 for Ussachevsky to return to music full time.

War and Peace

Like many technological breakthroughs of the twentieth century, the history of magnetic type is tied to the second world war. It was initially discovered in Germany in 1928 by Fritz Pfleumer, His design being based on the magnetic wire recording system of the Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen, who’s research also extended into early radio broadcasting systems.

Pleumer’s system Like Poulsen’s worked on the principal of an electrical signal, analogous to an audio input, being fed past a magnetisable material; in this case an oxide coated paper tape. This signal would polarise the material and encode patterns of frequency, wavelength and amplitude. this data could then be fed past a playback head (in essence the same as the record head) and the encoded magnetism converted back to an electrical signal. A major drawback of Pleumers system however was the needle like heads on which the tape was wound; they had a tendency to shred the fragile paper. A solution was found by Eduard Schüller and the AEG company of Germany. The Magnetophon K1, first demonstrated in 1935, had ring shaped heads and was in essence the worlds first reel to reel.

The outbreak of war made this technology valuable to the Nazi regime and subsequently these developments were not shared with the world. Allied intelligence, for whom Ussachevsky worked, were aware that the Germans must be in possession of some kind of recording medium. Mainly due to their ability to make simultaneous broadcasts from different points around the globe. It was only towards the end of the war, however, that one of these machines would be captured. It is lost to history how close Ussachevsky was to these events. One thing is Certain however; the Americans took this technology and ran with it.

Research into so called “dictation machines” had been undertaken in the US as far back as the late 1930’s. Led in the most part by a German exile by the name of S. Joseph Begun. His work with the Brush Development Company had led to a device that recorded onto steel tape. This medium however lacked fidelity and was expensive to produce. A solution would come in the form of a polyester tape coated with Oxide. it was developed by a company now synonymous with audio recording; Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing; or 3M.

Investment and development

A colleague of Ussachevsky’s in the Intelligence service was a man by the name of John T Mullin. During the war he had led a unit in researching German communications technology and in 1945 had stumbled across two Magnetophon machines at a Frankfurt Radio station. Amazingly he was able to retain possession of these and had them shipped back to the US after the war.

Mullin saw the value in his acquisitions and spent the next two years learning all he could about the technology; improving the performance of the machines and experimenting with their potential. In 1947 he gave two demonstrations of the machines; the second of these was attended by Murdo Mackenzie, technical director for Bing Crosby. Mackenzie impressed onto his employer the viability of using these recorders to “pre-tape” radio segments for broadcast. Crosby had been experimenting with various formats to prerecord his musical segments, there-by allowing him greater creative freedom away from the pressures of live broadcast. Upon realising the potential of this new technology, Crosby invested $50,000 in what was then a very small company named Ampex.

Alexander Poniatoff had made good on his new life in America, founding the Ampex company in 1944 and manufacturing electric motors and generators for Radar. Famed for his shrewd business skills, Poniatoff took Crosby up on his offer and began manufacturing the worlds first commercial tape recorder. Working closely with Mullin and basing the design on the captured German machines; Ampex released the model 200 in April 1948. It used 3M’s patented Oxide tape and immediately revolutionised the American Radio industry. 

Another quiet revolution occurred when guitarist Les Paul, a Friend of Crosby, acquired a model 200 in 1949. he realised that by introducing a second record head, it was possible to play along with an initial recording and essentially produce a composite of the two; sound on sound recording was born. Ampex integrated this discovery into their model 400, the first batch being released in 1950. One of the first orders placed for this new machine was from Columbia University’s music department.

Collaboration and discovery

The department had acquired its first tape recorder, an Ampex 400, and Vladimir was assigned to care for it. After using it extensively to record live performances, he began looking for new ways to use the tape machine. He created new musical sounds by speed changing, playing segments of tape backwards, splicing, looping, and electronic processing, and then assembled the sounds into experimental compositions

Robert Moog

Ussachevsky’s military service ended in 1945 and a crossroads presented itself. His facility for languages, he was fluent in Russian and Mandarin Chinese, alongside his knowledge of the socio-political landscape of Russian east Asia; made him very valuable to a post war American government, aware of the looming cold war. He continued to work for the State department conducting research on his native Manchuria until 1946. Two years previous he had met and married the Poet Elizabeth Kray. And it would be alongside her that Ussachevsky would return to teaching.

The couple both took jobs at the Putney school in Vermont. Ussachevsky teaching Piano, Politics and Russian; his wife English. They would stay, however for just a single school year. In the autumn of 1947, Ussachavsky took a post doctoral research position at Columbia under Luening. Initially teaching foundation classes in composition and theory it was his role as junior faculty member that led to his custodianship of the departments new tape recorder.

The primary function of this cumbersome new device was the preservation of live performances undertaken by the University’s various musical ensembles. And Ussachevsky dutifully transported the machine to said performances; carefully cataloguing and archiving the tapes in his own meticulous manner. It was in this capacity that Ussachevsky encountered Peter Mauzey, an engineer at the University radio station.

Mauzey possessed a great deal of expertise in the emerging field of audio reproduction and demonstrated to Ussachevsky the concept of tape “feedback”; whereby ghostly reverberations of an audio source could be produced. The concept involved running a tape past two playback heads and Mauzey adapted the Ampex for this purpose. Together he and Ussachevsky also experimented with the speed and direction of play. All of these new sonorities can be heard in “Sonic Contours”. A further colour in Ussachevsky’s new palette was splicing; editing sounds together to create pieces previously unachievable. The same year, in Paris, an ex telecommunications engineer by the name of Pierre Schaeffer was pursing similar research.

A Lifetime of Correspondence

Following Ussachevsky’s death in 1990, a great deal of his personal effects were donated to both the archives of Columbia university and the library of congress. It was among this latter resource that researchers discovered a treasure trove of correspondence between Ussachevsky and most of the major figures in music at the time. Also found were plane tickets and hotel receipts from his many trips to Europe; on which he met with his counterparts in the field of “tape music”.

 1952 was an important year for both Ussachevsky and Schaeffer. The former debuted his tape compositions at the Columbia University composers forum. And the latter released his book À la Recherche d’une Musique Concrète (in search of a concrete sound). It was these events that brought the men to each others attention.

Schaeffer’s concept of Musique Concrete was a reaction against what he saw as a stagnation in western music. He believed traditional composition to be an abstraction that  only gained form in performance. Whereas the use of real, or concrete sounds, provided an immediacy to the art form. In  À la Recherche d’une Musique Concrète Schaffer explains his desire to free sound from the constraints of melody, harmony and rhythm; “…to rebulid music from the ground up”

An extract from one of Ussachevsky funding applications gives an insight into his own reasons for pursuing new forms in music

 The specific branch of music (electronic music) I discovered is compatible with my Asian-Russian origins, my American College education and subsequent performing life. Until that discovery, the varied music experiences had seemed hostile and mutually neutralising.

The search for a way of reconciling these two life experiences led me to experiment with sounds – a means of finding a channel between the action in the 40’s and early 50’s. … that to follow would implicate me in a kind of slavish imitation, between the art of 19th cent. Russian music in which my early musical training was immersed.

An alternative way had to be found — & while my colleagues were turning to serialism as the engine of contemporary musical expression, for me that way wasn’t inviting. I wanted to explore sound resources — perhaps because early in life other sounds were reminiscent [of] the sounds of Chinese – a strict Western European affinity could not satisfy me.

It is interesting to consider that so much of our contemporary “tape music” may be born of A desire to imitate Asian concepts of micro-tonality and poly-rhythms.

Other items in Ussachevsky archive bare record to a number of visits he made to Cologne. Here he would meet one of Schaeffer’s pupils and one of the most important figures in European electronic music; Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Stockhausen spent only a brief period in Paris but had returned to his native Germany with a desire to forge his own take on Shaeffer’s teachings. He found a home at the Studio für elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks or the Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio a facility founded primarily by Robert Beyer and Herbert Elmert.

Together they began working on sound pieces that used for instrumentation, electronic noise generators, These weighty pieces of equipment could generate anything from a click like pulse to a wall of white noise. In between these extremes was a sine wave. the sound of which being akin to the noise made by running ones finger around a wine glass. These signals were then passed through various filters, an apparatus that could attenuate certain frequencies within the noise whilst leaving others audible. The final link in this sonic chain was the ring modulator, a device which could blend two signals together using one to affect the frequency and spectral output of the other.

Together these devices created other-wordily soundscapes that would inspire soundtracks for science fiction and horror for decades to come. They might also be viewed as the building blocks of analogue or Subtractive Synthesis. Something that Ussachevsky would turn to next in his quest for new sounds.

Not only did the above mentioned composers exchange ideas and inspire each other. There was in fact an enormous amount of dialogue between like minded musicians of the time. Stockhausen, whilst in Paris had studied with Oliver Messiaen; an early pioneer of the Ondes Martenot. An instrument that generated a Theramin like sound through electrical impulse. Another student of Messian at this time was Pierre Boulez who went on to found IRCAM. A Paris research institute responsible for some of the most important discoveries in the computer age of electronic music that would follow on from these 50’s pioneers.

At least one of Ussachevsky’s trips to Europe was funded by the Guggenheim institute. This was undertaken as a more formal investigation into the methods of European composers at that time. Aside from the paper written by Ussachevsky to summarise this research, two further things were born of this trip. Firstly he and Luening had work included in the Radiodiffussion festival; the program notes for which coined the phrase “American tape music”. Secondly Ussachevsky returned to Columbia and implemented ideas given to him by his French and German counterparts. He would create an institute for musical research very much in the model of Schaeffer’s Club d’Essai  or the Studio of Cologne. And for this institute he would obtain a synthesizer

 Funding and Know How

Ussachevsky’s communication with his fellow composers back in the US was no less prolific as that with the Europeans. His archive contains a number of correspondences with John Cage, Aaron Copeland, Arthur Schoenburg, his fellow emigre Igor Stravinsky and crucially two Princeton Professors of music; Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions.

The RCA Mark II

Sessions had a background in compositional style not dissimilar to Ussachevsky. He had written in a neo-classical idiom up until the war and then, like Ussachevsky, had faced a desire to break free of the limiting tonalities and colours of the Western system. Originally Sessions had followed Stockhausen, Boulez and so many others down the path of twelve tone serialism. He had, however, found a greater degree of freedom in the system. employing harmonies that borrowed more from Stravinsky or even Be-Bop. But as the fifties rolled around, Sessions was looking to up end even this most Avant Garde of tables. 

Babbit, however, was a died in the wool serialist of the Second Viennese school. Setting out in life with the intention of becoming a mathematician, he settled on putting music first and teaching maths on the side. Babbit’s real interest in Electronic music lay in the level of  precision it might afford. Also if Ussachevsky and Luening wanted a synthesizer, Babbit was the man to know. Not only was he a genius when it came to understanding the necessary routing and patching required to make certain sounds. He was also composer in residence for RCA; the company tasked with building it.

The association between the two Columbia men and their opposite numbers at Princeton began shortly after Ussachevsky and Luenings’ New York concert. The four men worked intermittently together for the next five years or so. Initially on further tape experiments and increasingly, as the decade drew to a close on designing modules for what would become the RCA Mark II sound Synthesizer. Key in this R & D phase was also Peter Mauzey; he Ussachevsky and Luening had worked alongside each other for the best part of a decade and Mauzey was an old hand at realising the composers technical demands. In essence, Ussachevsky and Mauzey conceived of the machine with Babbit as consultant. these ideas were then realised by Harry Olsen and Hubert Belar; chief designers at RCA

The final piece in this puzzle was the Rockefeller foundation; for after all the five year design process, RCA needed to be paid. An unproven story from this time suggests that Ussachevsky and Luening persuaded RCA to put their faith in the deal by claiming this new synthesizer could replace costly session musicians; thereby saving them money in the long run; it of course did neither of those things and the company actually hit financial trouble just a decade later.

Installation of the RCA Mark II was completed in 1959 and The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre was officially opened.

Recording Artists

Ussachevsky had continued to collaborate with Luening on a number of compositions throughout the fifties and this association led to a number of vinyl releases. Most notably at the time “Tape Recorder music” released in 1955. It features those pieces first debuted in 1952 and a collaborative piece named “Incantation”. Conceived as an exercise in joint composition, the various sections of the piece were created independently and joined together retrospectively.

It was this spirit of discovery and collaboration that drove the CPEMC to new heights. Musicians, scientists and Mathematicians came from all over the world to see the wonder that was the RCA Mark II and the four ordinary looking college academics that had created this revolution. The roster of visitors features every living composer of the day and the  Alumnus reads like a who’s who of electronic music.

One notable student was Egyptian born Halim Abdul Messieh El-Dabh. In the US on a Fulbright Scholarship, El-Dabh could lay claim to the first recorded “Tape Music” or “Musique Concrete”. He had, in 1944, recorded a religious ceremony onto an early wire recorder and manipulated the recording using a home made echo chamber and various types of natural Reverb. Eventually recorded onto magnetic tape, the piece was performed at the All Saints Cathedral in Cario. An official from the US embassy attending this performance put El-Dabh forward for a scholarship the following year.

Eventually becoming an important figure in American Electroacoustic music, El-Dabh features on another album to come out of the University. Entitled simply, Columbia–Princeton Electronic Music Center; it features El-Dabh’s piece “Leiyla and the Poet” alongside works from Ussachevsky, Luening, Babbit and students Bülent Arel and Mario Davidovsky. Interestingly only Babbit could claim American heritage, all the other artists featured were variously from Egypt, Russia, Germany, Turkey and Argentina. This album so iconic of American Tape Music was really a world wide phenomenon.

The album features a number of differing techniques by the various artists and provides an insight into just how much the American, French and German schools had cross pollinated. El-Dabh’s piece consists solely of tape manipulations, variously of acoustic instruments and the human voice. As such, it sits somewhere between the American and French Schools. Arel and Davidovsky Pursue a purely electronic path in the German style. Luening and Babbit make use of the RCA Mark II. And Ussachevsky mixes some of his old talent for choral pieces with an electronic accompaniment.

The sixties led to many of Ussachevsky’s pupils ploughing their own furrow whilst still retaining close contacts with CPEMC. One ex pupil of Ussachevsky’s Robert Moog would go on to develop his titular range of synthesizers; the discovery of which would partly lead to the obsolescence of the RCA Mark II. Another student, Pauline Oliveros would go on to work with San Francisco tape music centre. An organisation inspired partly by the three Schools of the 1950’s and partly by the emerging hippie culture. Alongside Oliveros were such luminaries as Terry Riley (one of the first to combine Jazz and tape music), Steve Reich (a key figure in the world of minimalism) and a man Influential on a number of levels, Morton Subotnik

Winding down

Subotnik was quick to spot the potential of the new solid state technology available to designers of synthesizers. He and fellow SFTMC composer Ramon Sender commissioned designer Don Buchla to build them a synth. The result was the Buchla 100 series, A truly modular affair that allowed huge flexibility over tone generation and an immediacy of control Hitherto unknown; The RCA for instance was given playback instructions via paper punch cards and its output recorded onto a shellac disc. The Buchla, alongside the Moog, set the bar in terms of accessibility and quality and many more were to follow in their wake.

During this same period another evolutionary branch of electric music began to move at an exponential rate. Digital sound synthesis or computer music dated back to early experiments in London in 1951. these was followed by breakthroughs at the University of Illinois’ experimental music studios in 1957 and at Bell laboratories in 1963. The basic premise of all of these investigations was to digitally recreate the sound output of the types of noise generators used by the likes of Stockhausen. The easiest of these to produce was found to be the sine wave; it is after all the simplest. It was discovered too that other timbral qualities could be generated by combining sine waves of different frequencies. This in turn led to attempts to recreate real instruments in the digital realm, a goal met with mixed success.

These developments continued apace throughout the seventies, though most systems were huge, expensive machines with no ability for “real time” composition. The micro chip changed everything and the possibilities practically exploded overnight. A full breakdown of the history of digital synthesis is of course well beyond the scope of this article.

As 1970 rolled around, Ussachevsky was 59; at an age when most people have one eye on retirement, he took on more commitments. Retaining a position on the faculty of Columbia he also became composer in residence at the University of Utah. a role that would see him frequently commute the considerable distance from New York to Salt Lake City.

In the thirteen years between Ussachevsky joining Columbia and his tenure-ship at Utah; he had accumulated a vast Canon of work. Although many of his ensemble works and pieces for theatre survive only as manuscripts; with accompanying parts for tape recorder. Much was recorded and indeed another area of Ussachevsky’s focus in the 1960’s was Film scoring.

His score for the Orson Welles’ film No Exit (1962) is both thrilling and unsettling. His use of the human voice particularly, both manipulated and pure, gives Suite for No Exit a particular immediacy. Children’s choirs, backward screams, daemon like voices pitched down and reverberated or modulated have all become cliches in the tool kit of modern day film composers; Ussachevsky coined them all. 

The film itself is an adaptation of the Jean-Paul Satre play of the same name. A claustrophobic meditation on the human condition and the hell that is “other people”. Ussachevsky’s soundtrack heightens the cloying sense of the walls closing in. A balance of organic or human sounds and metallic machine like screeches act as alternating themes. And the overall effect is one of descending in a lift, past floor after floor of nightmarish scenes.

One thing Ussachevsky does in almost all his work, is retain musicality; Suite for no Exit has many balanced elements; tension and resolution, light and shade, high and low. Compare it for instance to the music from The Twilight Zone TV series first aired that same year. The score here is purely instrumental and although brilliant in itself, sounds kitsch and twee against Ussachevsky’s eternal horror.

Line of Apogee (1967) was quite a different beast. Firstly the film itself is an exercise in abstract surrealism; dream like and unstructured. And as a result, Ussachevsky’s score becomes the film; The images seemingly driven and given context by the undulating textures of the music. As in much of Ussachevskys work ,contrast and juxtaposition are key. At one point a simple Piano nocturne is interrupted by an insistent ringing telephone, which is in turn replaced by electronic babble that seems to almost coalesce as bird song. Finally, what at first seems like a siren reveals itself to be an operatic female singing voice. The throaty sustain of which is chopped up and reduced to glitch like textures.

The Sequence ends with another female voice, this time laughing; seemingly at us, the passive helpless listener. The overall effect is one of shifting viewpoints and frames of reference. It not only breaks down the forth wall, it invites you on stage to stare back out.


Ussachevsky was not possessed of Stockhausen’s bombastic arrogance or Schaeffer’s existentialist philosophising. He was a quiet thoughtful man with a keen sense of humour and a passion for everything he undertook. His legacy is subtle and not always apparent.

The landscape of so called Classical music in the years following the second world war was one dominated by a tendency towards form over content. Much experimental music was just that; from the mathematical games of the Serialists to the a-melodic churpings of the early synthesists. The act of Composition became the focus and any aesthetic considerations of the final product secondary.

What Ussachevsky possessed and bequeathed to future generation was a desire to create new sounds that express the new world in which we find ourselves. The 19th century composers palette is not adequate in the machine age, it doesn’t evoke the modern experience. In the end, all of Ussachevsky’s technical innovations were a means to an end; he was ultimately gifted with a brilliant musical ear and his works, like all truly great music, were merely filtered impulses of the human condition.

Ussachevsky stepped down from Columbia in 1980 and he and Kray settled into a contented life of semi-retirement. There was still his commitments at Utah not to mention countless guilds and societies. The correspondence continued too, as did his writings for The New Music Edition; a journal of movements in contemporary Classical. Together they pursed a number of philanthropic causes and Ussachevsky revisited his homeland a number of times.

He passed away on January 2nd 1990 in New York, a city that had been his home for 41 years. His funeral was attended by most of the major living composers of the time and by hundreds of ex colleagues and pupils. They all remember him as a kind and patient man, fond of puns and known for his spontaneous dancing. And whilst never a household name, Ussachevskys influence extends far beyond those lucky enough to have met and worked with him.

Selected Discography

Metamorphosis (1957) Download/Buy

Linear Contrasts (1958) Download/Buy

Wireless Fantasy (1960) Download/Buy

Of Wood and Brass (1965) Download/Buy

Computer Piece No. 1 (1968) Download/Buy

Two Sketches for a Computer Piece (1971) Download/Buy

Three Scenes from The Creation (1960; rev. 1973) Download/Buy

Missa Brevis (1972) Download/Buy

“Vladimir Ussachevsky: Film Music”. New York: New World Records (80389), 1990. (features scores from No Exit and Line of Apogee)  Download/Buy



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