The ‘Composer-tron’ Osmond Kendall. Canada, 1951

Osmond Kendall Composer-tron
‘This how the Composer-tron would look in your home – it may cost less than a piano’ Osmond Kendall’s ‘Composer-tron’ c1953 at the Film Board of Canada promoted as a domestic instrument (photo: Maclean’s, Canada’s National Magazine, June 11, 1955)

Developed as early as 1944 by Osmond ‘Ken’ Kendall, an electronic engineer at the National Film Board of Canada (NFBC) (and colleague of the animator Norman McLaren) the ‘Compositron’ and later the ‘Composer-Tron’ was an analogue synthesis and composition apparatus that utilised an innovative and unique control system. The Composer-Tron had a cathode ray tube input device that could ‘read’ patterns or shapes hand drawn on it’s surface with a grease pencil. The drawn shape could be defined as the timbre of the note or as the envelope shape of the sound, rhythmical sequences could be written by marking a cue sheet type strip of film:

“The Composer-tron is an electronic device that enables a composer or arranger of music to create his composition directly as he conceives it. The conventional aeries of intermediate steps—sheet music—musicians—musical instruments—room acoustics—microphones—are all eliminated. The composer produces his musical record for instant audition and he may do it in nearly the same time that he would take to compose and write a conventional musical score. The musical sounds he may use are limited only by his imagination since they may be like familiar musical instruments or completely unique.

The Composer-tron is not a musical instrument and it cannot he “played” in any sense at all. It’s designed to make records and it may be used for recording from a microphone. However, the Composer-tron is fitted with a new kind of electronic musical tone generator that may he adjusted by the composer to provide sound waves of any pitch, having overtones of any degree of complexity The tones may be made to match those of any known musical instrument or the wave structure may be set to tone qualities that could never be duplicated by any conceivable mechanical musical instrument whatever. The complex tones thus generated are shown to the composer in greatly enlarged form on a television tube screen. The composer then draws a design or pattern on a second screen. These designs may be original or they may be copied from the designs presented by recorded musical playings. Such designs often contain the elements of the “‘touch” of the musician and they can be made visible on the TV tube screen. This facility provides for the first timer means whereby the nuances of a musician’s touch may be superimposed on an electronic sound source. The design is transferred by methods similar to television. The resulting combined visible tone designs are converted into waves which are recorded and instantly auditioned over a loud-speaker.

The machine has a capacity for memorising op to 80-component instrument notes which may be finally recorded in any desired sequence. Other, facilities, such as a means for precisely timing the advent of each note, a means for developing chords directly (not necessarily derived from component notes), and a means for erasing faulty sections in a recording, etc., are all provided in the Composer-tron.”

Osmond  Kendall quoted in ‘Canadian Film Technology, 1896-198’ (Gerald G. Graham, Ontario Film Institute University of Delaware Press, 1989)

Osmond Kendall Composer-tron
” The compositron contains an oscilloscope to analyze sound patterns and a series of tapes or film on reels to record sound. Every sound has a pattern and when these patterns are played in a certain order on the films and then are played together, the required effect will be produced”
Osmond Kendall at the Composer-tron/Compositron in Maclean’s  Magazine, June 11, 1955

The purpose of the Composer-Tron, like that of the ‘Hanert Electrical Orchestra‘, was to provide a synthesis and composition tool that closed the gap between composer and performer allowing the composer to define all the aspects of the music in one session:

“At present, the composer writes his mental symphonies as black symbols on white paper. He has no way of knowing wether they’re just what he had in mind. Months or years may pass before he hears them played by a symphony orchestra. Not uncommonly he never hears his best work……with Kendal’s grease pencil, the composer can, in effect, draw the grooves in the record. Working with a Composert-Tron….he can walk out of his study with his recorded composition under his arm.”
Maclean’s  Magazine, June 11, 1955
Osmond Kendall Composer-tron
Osmond Kendall (L) and Louis Applebaum (R) at a photoshoot for Macleans Magazine analysing sound for the Composer-tron. “with the magic of electrons this inventive Canadian composes piano concertos and turns doodles into the sounds of an eighty-piece orchestra” (Maclean’s, Canada’s National Magazine, June 11, 1955)
The Composer-tron was designed primarily to provide synthesised soundtracks for films produced by the National Film Board of Canada during the post-war period of interest in hand-drawn audio soundtracks and experimental techniques (see the works of Norman McLaren and others). However with limited funding and scepticism from the NFBC the Composer-tron project ran into financial difficulties – An attempt during the early 1950’s to develop a commercial model aimed at amateur composers with funding from the Marconi Company proved unsuccessful. In desperation, Kendall and his mentor Louis Applebaum tried to keep the project alive by seeking funding from the Canadian military and the Bell Telephone Company which were ultimately also unsuccessful. The project was mothballed sometime in the late 1950’s.

Sources

‘The Art Of Electronic Music’ p46 Rhea,Tom.L. Edited by Darter,Tom & Greg Armbruster 1984 GPI Productions.

Alan Phillips, ‘Osmond Kendall’s Marvellous Music Machine’ Maclean’s Magazine, June 11, 1955. [p.54]. York University Archives, Louis Applebaum fonds 1979 -002/030.

‘Music in Canada: Capturing Landscape and Diversity’. Elaine Keillor. McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 18 Mar 2008

‘Louis Applebaum: A Passion for Culture’. Walter Pitman. Dundurn, 1 Oct 2002

Louis Applebaum, letter to Arthur Irwin, Commissioner, NFB, December 6, 1950. York University Archives, Louis Applebaum fonds, 1979-002/022

‘Composertron’ Hugh Davies. The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, 2nd edition, issue Published in print January 2001.

‘Canadian Film Technology, 1896-1986’. Gerald G. Graham, Ontario Film Institute. University of Delaware Press, 1989

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