Electroacoustic Mythmaking: National Grand Narratives in Electroacoustic Music




Journal Title

Journal ISSN



Volume Title


Taylor & Francis


Book chapter

Peer reviewed



Histories of electroacoustic music tend to converge around a limited set of grand narratives, which construct an outline of electroacoustic history organized around themes including the 'Great Studios', a small handful of 'Great Composers' (Stockhausen, Schaeffer, Berio, Cage...), and contrast and conflict between 'Great Nations' – primarily, between France and Germany. While all of the above had roles to play in the development of the genre, these narratives can at best be described as misleading, and at worst be accused of rather sinister undercurrents. As with all such historical narratives, the attempt to consolidate an enormous outpouring of human creativity into a more easily comprehended collection of grand themes and 'major players' serves to circumscribe and belittle the work of a great many historical contributors whose work or background don't happen to fuel the narrative at hand. More importantly, however, the dominant narratives regularly reinforce a number of dubious and occasionally unsavoury stereotypes. A key case in point here is the tendency to reduce electroacoustic history to a single, towering conflict between recorded and electronic sound, which is then tied to France and Germany respectively, via the key figures on either side of this imagined 'divide': Pierre Schaeffer at the RTF/GRM in Paris on the one hand, and Karlheinz Stockhausen at the WDR in Cologne on the other. All too often a connection gets made to long-standing national stereotypes – the poetic soul of the French; the cold, clinical Germans – which burdens a relatively young art form with a regrettable and unnecessary cultural cliche. Not only are such simplifications extremely reductive, and at times demonstrably false, they also support a form of broad national caricature that demands a thorough and critical rethinking. Where composers of this period of post-war Modernism were desperate to ensure that the nationalist romantic mistakes of the past would not be repeated, the retrospective gaze of electroacoustic history has re- imposed this same narrative once again, by emphasizing post-war animosity as the key factor in the birth of a new musical genre. The absurdity of imposing such a broadly nationalist and political agenda onto what should be a purely musical and intellectual narrative is not without consequences. Electroacoustic music from around the world for the next several decades is forced into this same limited worldview, as works by composers as diverse as Jonathan Harvey and Michael McNabb are defined retroactively as 'bridging the divide' between musique concrète and elektronische Musik, by which the Americans and the British are imagined as 'making peace' between the French and the Germans, as late as the 1980s. This chapter will:

  • examine the construction of such narratives in the electroacoustic historical literature,
  • demonstrate aspects of this narrative which are false or misleading, with reference to both electroacoustic history and the electroacoustic repertoire, and
  • recommend alternative perspectives or frameworks that can serve to structure our understanding of electroacoustic history without relying so heavily on national grand narratives.



Electroacoustic music, History


Andean, J. (2018) Electroacoustic Mythmaking: National Grand Narratives in Electroacoustic Music. In: Kelly, E. et al. (eds.) Confronting the National in the Musical Past. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.


Research Institute

Music, Technology and Innovation - Institute for Sonic Creativity (MTI2)