World Music for Who: Personal Histories of Non-Western Electronic Synthesis

Posted by Jean-Hugues Kabuiku


I got intrigued by Jessica Ekomane twitter thread on early non-western avant-garde electronic music, as there is a total lack of historiography who doesn’t revolve solely on white cis-male “geniuses” who get all the credit on contemporary electronic music.

With this thread as motivation, I found myself digging into some of the archives of early experimentation with electronic music coming mainly from Iran, Indonesia, and Japan and interviewing artists in each respective scene. Firstly, I want to warmly thank: Jessica Ekomane, Ata Ebtekar AKA Sote, Wok the Rock, Nazanin Noori, and Erie Setiawan who all helped me by either answering questions, introducing me to their friend with knowledge or directed me in the right direction in order to attempt these personal historiographies. In that twitter thread, the national japanese tv channel NHK comes out a lot. It was also the first country getting their hands on this sort of technology, when Yamaha licensed the first algorithm for frequency modulation (FM) synthesis, after the American John M. Chowning worked at Stanford University on the digital implementation of FM synthesis. It's also telling how Japan’s influence on the popularization of electronic music is underrated compared to how Western Europe and the US dominate the discourse around electronic music histories.

When early sound exploration was documented, it was to center Pierre Schaeffer, Stockhausen, and their american counterparts. This article is an attempt to document some of the early avant-garde electronic music outside of Europe and the US, and some of the institutional conditions that provoked this erasure. This is a big and diverse field and it would be impossible to document it all here, I will therefore focus particularly on examples in Iran, Indonesia and Japan. I think this is one important missing link in the historiography of dance music and electronic music as a whole.

I began this journey interviewing Jessica Ekomane, who helped me find some of the missing links in this story. So I first want to thank her. Her Open Sources #29: Early Sound Synthesis in the “Non-West”show on Cashmere Radio had two tracks by Alireza Mashayekhi, an Iranian musician, composer and conductor.

Alireza Mashayekhi, Courtesy “editions delatour”. Alireza Mashayekhi is one of the first composers who represented avant-garde music in Iran and also a pioneer of electroacoustic music.

When I asked her why it's important that we explore the historiography of the early exploration of sound synthesis in a “non-western” context, she offered the following: I’m not a researcher but a composer, computer musician and sound artist. My interest in the topic of early sound synthesis is one area of my general interest in experimental and electronic music, because this is what I do myself. My intervention at the last Maerzmusik festival in Berlin for instance is related as it happened as part of their collaboration with Savvy Contemporary inside a programme dedicated to Halim el-Dabh. I played a new piece inspired by his time in Ethiopia where he collaborated with street musicians. The aspect of his work that concerns labour, class and collectivity was what inspired me the most about him and what makes him the most forward-thinking and contemporary in my eyes. He also wanted to create a bridge between Arabic world and Sub-Saharan Africa, which is the starting point of my piece that I developed with some elements of algorithmic compositions.

I also teach on the side. I noticed an uncanny geographical/racial/gender gap in what I was able to reference in terms of historical examples of sound synthesis while preparing one of my seminars at the University of Art in Berlin (I teach Max/MSP in the Sound Studies department). While researching that topic I noticed that it was not straightforward to come across information about it. For instance I have a 400-page book on “the history of electronic music” at home, which seems to follow a dominant and by now familiar historical narrative that highlights Western states such as the USA and Western Europe. There was only a small mention of the NHK studios in Tokyo so I started there and discovered all those interesting composers, and then through tips and research I discovered other people such as Alireza Mashayekhi in Iran for instance, whose electronic work and philosophical texts I got really into.

There is this problematic tendency to see white western male composers whose whole practice depends on the heavy influence of musical forms from Africa, Asia and the diasporas as groundbreaking “geniuses", whereas when the contrary happens and composers with those backgrounds are looking at what’s happening elsewhere while still using their own language they are perceived as some sort of “footnotes” or copies etc. That’s a complex topic, there’s a lot of things to take into account, to unearth and research more in depth in this area, I’m looking forward to reading this research when it will become more widely and easily accessible.

There’s also an in-depth interview of Mashayekhi online that is quite informative about some of the institutional circumstances in which those kinds of power relationships become apparent. Commenting about the The Shiraz Art Festival, he says: "the festival had the appearance of an invasion. Sociologically, at a time when we needed a modest electronic studio, we should not have spent a fortune to invite big foreign names. The presence of composers like Mr. Stockhausen and the late Mr. Xenakis was a miserable example of opportunism. While we had no adequate facilities in our small Tehran Conservatory, great leftist and religious composers enjoyed expensive trips for sightseeing with helicopters that were furnished by the Shah’s army. For most Iranians who visited the Shiraz Art Festivals, it was a show by Europeans for Europeans! Some Iranian musicians who attended that festival told me it was a very good occasion for European composers to do their experimentations using Iranian taxpayer’s money.”

Also only after the episode of my radio show was already recorded, I found out about "Electronic Music for Dance" by Bulent Arel & Daria Semegen. That’s a great work, so this is my “additional listening” to the episode.


Since Jessica Ekomane opened her Cashmere Radio mix with Alireza Mashayekhi’s “Yaad, Op.66 (1970)”, I started my research with the Iranian scene and was delighted to hear from her that she was in contact with Sote (Ata Ebtekar) who has been pushing the Iranian experimental music scene for the last past 7 years, supporting upcoming artists through mentorship, and launching the SET festival to showcase Iranian electronic music artist.

I soon got in contact with Sote and they talked to me about their record, Ebtekar / Mashayekhi ‎– Persian Electronic Music: Yesterday And Today 1966 - 2006 release, and his own personal history in the Iranian electronic scene:

It's a double album which consists of Alireza Mashayekhi's early electronic music curated by me, titled "Yesterday", plus a collection of my Iranian influenced electronic music, titled "Today" as the second disc. In the early 2000's, I came to Iran in order to spread the word about experimental electronic music. During that time, I couldn't find anyone yet who was making that sort of music in a serious manner and of high quality. It was an accident when I was at a CD store and they were playing a CD-R of Alireza Mashayekhi's early electronic music. I went to the shop owner, and in a thrilling manner asked whether I could buy this music… Unfortunately, the answer was negative as it was not released yet. Of course I already knew about Alireza Mashayekhi's classical music, but my mind was blown when I found out that he had experimented making electronic music in the 60's, 70's and 80's.

And of course after the "Persian Electronic Music - Yesterday and Today" project, we collaborated together and did the Ornamental/Ornamentalism project with his Iranian Orchestra For New Music.

When talking with Nazanin Noori, Berlin-based interdisciplinary sound artist and one of the Iranian producers from the new generation born in 1991, she told me how she’s been influenced by a lot of different artists:

Just to name a few: Ghédalia Tazartès' deconstruction of sentiment, his play with audio narratives, as well as his very personal translation of space is a never-ending reference to me. Shahram Nazeri's music is played in heavy rotation in my living room. His inclusion of poetry, especially sufi poetry, in music is incomparable. Bijan Mofid, who was a playwright and stage director, created musical plays, composed the music for them and also set the spoken poetry in scene, is a major artist to me.

His most famous work is 'Shahre Ghesse' in which he defines a new standard for audio dramas:

Mohammadreza Darvishi is an Iranian musician, film composer and researcher, who is known for being the author of the 'Encyclopedia of the Musical Instruments of Iran (2000)'. He worked together with directors such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf inter alia. The "Selected Works Of Mohammadreza Darvishi For Cinema And Theatre (2006)" is a compilation in 5 volumes (as far as I know). His oeuvre is a trip into a variety of musical genres. This one is my favorite track from the compilation. I am a sucker for choral music and throat singing. I would categorize it as classical Iranian doom music.

And on her connections to the electronic music scene in Teheran:

My friend Shahin Entezami, who is also known as Tegh. I have listened to his album "Emergent Errors" on Opal Tapes over and over, but it always feels like listening to it for the first time. In one second it pulls me in and in the next second it leaves me on my own. His sound dramaturgy translates the Iranian reality of life to me. People that live in Iran live with extremes all day, everyday. Talking of extreme music from Iran, I also need to mention Behrouz Pashaei, who is a producer, guitarist. I adore his work. His latest work 'Suffocation' is a journey into dark spaces.

On her latest work:

At the moment I am working on a radio play that will be installed in the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in 2021, a walk-in sound installation for the EIGEN+ART Lab in Berlin and a score for a theatre play. Apart from that I am working on a track for a compilation that will be released on Traumgarten. And I will hopefully start to work on my second album at the end of this year, in which I will sing and speak poetry.


Moving further East, I spoke with the Indonesian researcher Erie Setiawan (introduced to me by Indonesian promoter Wok the Rock, founder of the label Yes no Wave), he mentioned Slamet Abdul Sjukur, “a pioneer of electronic music...he lived and studied in Paris (1963-1976) and studied electronic music with Pierre Schaefer at the Ecole normale de musique. In 1976, Slamet went back to Indonesia and introduced "electronic music" to the public, before synthesizer or instant device era”. He continued and explained to me that after Slamet Abdul Sjukur, a lot of Indonesian artists followed this path in early sound synthesis. Otto Sidharta, Sapto Rahardjo, Ben Pasaribu, Fahmi Alatas, etc. “At the same time, electronic music in the industry developed around MIDI, synthesizer, etc, through Aminoto Kosin as another example of a pioneer”.

He also explained to me that the government wasn’t giving any support to electronic music actors in his country in his own words:

This is a small culture, small supporter, and the life of electronic music just grows in some central cities, example: Jakarta, Jogja, Bandung.

And on the support of national television and radio:

“(A) little bit, both Geronimo FM in Yogyakarta and Sapto Rahardjo bring "electronic music" to the broadcasting landscape. Mostly all of radio in Indonesia is “pop music".

I also talked to Lintang Radittya, an instrument builder and d.i.y Indonesia synth researcher, he told me the following on the birth of Indonesian electronic music:

In the 70's decade, the synthesizer was more easy to access by musicians. Few artists were raised in this era : Harry Roesli and Otto Sidarta. Harry Roesli`s “Batas Ech” (1978) it’s one of the most important electronic pieces in this era. In popular music, we saw the same phenomenon, since synthesizers are more easy to access. In my research about synthesizer culture in Indonesia, “The Rollies' ' are the first band who used synthesizer (ARP Odyssey) in their records. And after that other musicians followed thru.


I came across Takehito Shimazu (born in 1949) historiography of Japanese electronic music, he studied electronic and computer music composition at the Technical University of Berlin and is a professor at the Fukushima University. As a composer he received prizes from (1979), International Wienawski Competition in Poland (1980), the Hombach Prize in Germany (1985), the Prize of the Japanese Ministry of Culture in 1988 and the 23rd Prize of International Electroacoustic Music. The development of electronic music in Japan can be divided into four periods, according to Shimazu-san:

  1. The 1950s: the introduction and imitation of European musique concrete and electronic music
  2. The 1960s: the development of spe­cial compositional techniques for and the growing popularity of elec­tronic music
  3. The 1970s: the rise of live electronics and the decline of electronic music
  4. The 1980s: the era of synthesizers in popular music and personal computer, or "pasocon", music.

A recurring theme while doing this research is how the access to resources changes everything. We will see how the NHK, a state owned Japanese radio/tv channel was funded in order to push electronic music in the archipel. Takehito Shimazu explains “ Kyokai (NHK) (Society of Japanese Broadcasting) was modeled after the Westdeutschen Rundfunk elec­tronic music studio in Cologne. The NHK studio in Tokyo became a center for electronic music in Japan, and many compositions were produced and broadcasted there. The first composition produced at this studio was also com­posed by Mayuzumi; it was entitled Etude I and consisted of three movements: "Music for Sine Wave by Proportion of Prime Number", "Music for Modulated Wave by Proportion of Prime Number" and “Invention for Square Wave and Sawtooth Wave”.

The NHK, commissioned Stockhausen to create two new pieces of work in their electronic music studio between 1965-1966 . In what seems to be orientalism 101, he declared about his stay in Japan: “I recommend that you should go to Japan,” Stockhausen said to the crowd in 1972, in his lecture on Telemusik at the University of Essex. “It is absolutely necessary nowadays to have a totally new concept of how human beings can live profoundly, artfully. And I don’t think it will be washed away by industrialization and new collectivity. Japan has great chances at being a new source of culture for the whole world.”

Colonial heritage of avant-garde electronic music

The history of the two well-known institutions for electronic music in Paris, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) and Group of Musical Research GRM, is deeply influenced and intertwined with colonialism and white washing.

It was during a residency at IRCAM that US computer musician, composer and improviser George Lewis laid the foundations for Voyager, a software that listens and learns to improvise with musicians. The project was the first of its kind, and is cited as a major influence in the present development of the OMAX software at IRCAM, as well as their subsequent focus on improvisation. Voyager "is considered as a kind of computer music-making embodying African-American aesthetics and musical practices”.

IRCAM is also the place of birth of the software Max/MSP , created by Miller Puckett while on a residency there. In his article “After Afrofuturism”After Afrofuturism”, George Lewis retraces the genealogy of Max/MSP back to Olly Wilson and David Levitt, two African-american composers and computer scientists. As Miller Puckett mentions himself, the overall idea of the graphical user interface itself of Max/MSP was not novel when it appeared by 1987. Olly Wilson and David Levitt had for instance created a software called HookUp which was "an early visual patching language that was developed and running among Levitt’s students at the Media Lab while Miller Puckette, the author of the now dominant patch language, Max/MSP, was a graduate student there”.

Oberlin College Archives. Composer, musicologist and computer musician Olly Wilson teaching at Oberlin (1968). Wilson established the first undergraduate electronic music program in the US and is the co-creator of the HookUp software.

There used to be some internal rivalry between IRCAM and GRM in the past. The latter was founded in 1951 by Pierre Schaeffer as an institution of the ORTF, the national institution providing public radio and television in France, where he developed his electro-acoustic practice of “musique concrète" with other well-known figures. Although the roots of the GRM and of Schaeffer’s experimentations are usually traced back to what was called the “Studio d’Essai”, a studio that originally acted as a center for the French Resistance movement in French radio during World War II, less is known about the fact that Schaeffer also created a radio school for the French colonies that he named the “Studio-Ecole”.

After research on the ground of state backed radios on the african continent, the “Studio-Ecole” was created in 1955 by Schaeffer within the "Société de radiodiffusion de la France d’outre-mer" (SORAFOM), a TV and radio network broadcasting in France’s overseas territories and stemming from its colonial empire. The aim of the school was to train future executives for the country’s radio broadcasting in the African continent.

Photo credit: APJS. Pierre Schaeffer and Modibo Keita at the opening ceremony of Radio-Bamako (1957)

Following the independence of the former French colonies between 1958-60, the SORAFOM was renamed Office de coopération radiophonique (OCORA), adapting its functioning to this new political situation and increasing its number of African students. By the end of the sixties, several African officials had complained about the difficulty of its entrance examination, which led to its subsequent dissolution.

Installed in a XVIIth century castle in the Paris region, the model of the “Studio-Ecole” was inspired by the Scout movement and sought to isolate its students from the influence of the French capital, emphasising field experience through local research and broadcasting. The objective of the program was to have African presenters report on their local events, instead of broadcasting news directly from France, with the intention of preserving their local cultures and identities. Between 1950-1970, the school hosted about 500 students (some of them later finding positions in their country governments) in newly created national radios or at RFI (Radio France Internationale). At the initiative of Schaeffer and Charles Duvelle in the 60’s, OCORA also became the name of the ethnomusicological label of radio France, starting a collection of “traditional world music”, as it is still known today.

France's colonial history is also present in the work of François Bayle, one of the GRM's most active members. Born in Madagascar from a father working as a French colonial official, they left the country in 1946, one year before the Malagasy Uprising. This childhood is alluded to in works such as “Grande Polyphonie” (1974), which evokes a sort of nostalgia through “memories of my native Africa”. Moreover, “Musique concrète” invocation of the ‘primitive’ and universalizing rhetoric further recalls a colonial violence that still has to be acknowledged.

The colonial “world music” trope can be found again in Stockhausen essay “World music”, his approach to Japanese culture as well as his piece Telemusik from that time. Japanese noh, gagaku music or Buddhist ceremonial music from Nara were used in the piece. But he also used elements from Bali, Vietnam, Spanish music, and more. In his essay he writes about Telemusik: “The work integrates different Japanese musical styles, as well as elements of folklore from many other societies, into one unified work of concrète and electronic music”. Known for his egomania, his intentions become extremely apparent in his writing: “For someone [...] who has also discovered the planetary being in himself; someone whose culture is that of the entire earth, and in whom a sense of responsibility for the future of humanity has awakened; [...] a concern for the music of other cultures will be no hobby, but rather a condition necessary to understanding other people better, thus to awaken the whole of one’s being, and to ‘cultivate’ it”.

In the context of the 1968 protests, Stockhausen became highly criticized by his students. In particular by Cornelius Cardew and Konrad Boehmer who denounced him as a servant of imperialism. In his book Stockhausen serves Imperialism, Cornelius Cardew, that turned his back on the avant-garde music scene, denounced his former teacher for being too elitist while others critiqued him for being too mystical.

In the sonic choice of pieces like “Refrain”, Stockhausen was presenting a mystical music. Mysticism being an ally of imperialism, hence the really fast adoption of new age theory in Germany and in the U.S in the west. Throughout its history in India and the rest of asia, mysticism has been used as a tool for the suppression of the masses.

There is also a connection between the reasons for erasure of non-white electronic music pioneer and the blurred link between the avant-garde and white supremacy. Take for example Luigi Russolo, an Italian Futurist painter and composer, author of the manifesto The Art of Noises (1913). He was such an influence on Pierre Schaeffer, the ”inventor” of the 'musique concrète', that there were polemics regarding the fact that he barely cites Russolo, when his manifesto ”Traité des objets musicaux”' is inspired by Russolo’s manifesto. The more I dove into my research, the more I found out about the lack of documentation around Early Sound Synthesis within a “Non-Western” centered story telling. “Non-west” is itself a problematic and reductive term to designate a non-monolithic majority of the world population, only useful when highlighting the ideology that produced it.

The connection between Italian Futurism and fascism is well known. I explore this in more depth in my article, The Italian Regency of Carnaro : accelerationist origins of fascism.

Russolo influence in sound avant-garde cannot be overlooked. As some have mentioned he inspired Pierre Schaefer, The Art of Noise, Einstürzende Neubauten, Test Dept, DJ Spooky, Francisco López. But he also co-signed with futurism main theorician Filippo Tommaso Marinetti a text called '”AGAINST PASSÉIST VENICE'” where he states, among other things, that he is “against the “Venice of foreigner”, which is anti-semitic dog whistle. But somehow his affiliation with Marinetti, who contributed to the implementation of facist theory in Italy, and his xenophobic writings get overlooked.

Futurism tradition is fascinated with violence, technological progress and by the destructive powers of airplanes, which finds a legacy in Stockhausen controversial comments on the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Stockhausen described the event as "the greatest work of art ever". A journalist asked him if he equated art and crime, he answered: "It is a crime because the people did not agree to it. They didn't go to the 'concert.' That is clear. And no one gave them notice that they might pass away [draufgehen]. What happened there spiritually, this jump out of security, out of the everyday, out of life, that happens sometimes poco a poco in art. Otherwise it is nothing”. Those historical and ideological ramifications give an idea on how an erasure of non-white/non-male contributors can take place.

Pierre Schaeffer has usually been presented as the first to have experimented with electro-acoustic music. However, Halim el Dabh’s early experiments in Cairo with his piece “The Expression of Zaar” in 1944 were more recently recognized as an earlier example of sound installation and electro-acoustic music. The recent project “Unsung Stories” by Columbia’s Computer Music Center (visited by Halim El-Dabh, Bülent Arel or Dariush Dolat-Shahi among others) was initiated as an attempt to tackle those issues of historical erasure of the contributions of women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ composers and musicians in its institutional functioning. In her presentation entitled “Labor and Technical / Sonic Practice”, artist and researcher Asha Tamirisa also recalled that a mere concentration on awareness and visibility would be an attempt at “empowering through the tool that exploits”. Indeed she noted the need for a perspective including the material conditions of the development of electronic music’s history, citing the importance of race and exploitation in the manufacture of electronic equipment alike.


It can be a difficult task when you don't have the support of the state or resources to start a scene from scratch and how resources that could be used to cultivate a local scene are instead used to book to big foreign name as institution perpetuate a neo-colonial logic applied to culture, most notably seen in Iranian subcultural politics. Centralization in big cities and a scene made of small communities seems to be the reality in the Indonesian scene. This is in direct contrast in the Japanese case of how collaboration with foreign institutions combined with a benevolent state can accelerate experimentation in the field of sound art.

We’ve seen in this essay the troubling past of avant-garde and how it can be used as an ally to imperialism. Writing about this is an attempt to detach the story-telling of early avant-garde electronic music from a western centered one. As cultural actors we have the responsibility to not look away from the history of avant-garde and its link with imperialism, colonialism and facism, or we are doomed to reproduce the error of the past, over and over.

Jean-Hughes Kabuiku is a journalist and techno-music critic. Follow him on twitter and substack.

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