The ‘Radio Harmonium’ Sergeĭ Nikolaevich Rzhevkin, Russia, 1925

One of the earliest electronic instruments of the Soviet period, the Radio (or ‘Cathodic’) Harmonium was a three voice polyphonic cathode vacuum tube instrument controlled by a manual keyboard, designed for playing atonal music by the audio physicist Sergeĭ Nikolaevich Rzhevkin (1891-1981). The instrument was used by the philosopher Ivan Orlov in his investigations of aural phenomena.


Sources:

‘A course of lectures on the theory of sound’ Sergeĭ Nikolaevich Rzhevkin. Pergamon Press, 1963

Orlov, I. E. 1926e. “Experiments with Rzhevkin’s cathode harmonium.”A Collection of Articles in Musical Acoustics (Russian),State Institute of Musical Science, 1925, 1.

The ‘Neo Violena’ Vladimir A Gurov, V.I. Volynkin & Lucien M. Varvich. Russia 1927

Designed by the engineers Vladimir A Gurov and V.I. Volynkin with the musical input from the composer Lucien M. Varvich, the Neo Violena was manufactured in Russia in 1927 and seems to have reached the USA during sometime during the 1930’s. The Neo Violena, as it’s name suggests, was a monophonic violin like instrument. The sound was generated by the player pressing a metal string to contact a metal conductive fingerboard; the position of the finger on the string determining the pitch and finger pressure varying the volume. Sound was produced from a heterodyning vacuum tube. The instrument was said to be capable of “producing a pleasant and ‘juicy’ sound that resembled different symphony orchestra instruments and possessed a wide range of sounding shades and timbres.”

“ On Thursday evening at the School House, A. R. Hamilton, president of the Hamilton College of Commerce at Mason City will give an address on “How the “Violena” Is Played” . The “violena” a musical instrument that is a whole orchestra in one, has been perfected at Leningrad, Russia, by the inventor, Vladimir A. Gurov and the young composer, Lucien M. Varvich. The player twirls a dial and the violena turns into a bass viol, another twirl and it becomes a guitar, still another and it is a flute, and so on. Besides its ability to reproduce faithfully almost- any musical instrument.”
The Bode Bugle. Page 5 USA. 28 May 1937.


Sources

The ‘Orgue des Ondes’ Armand Givelet & Edouard Eloi Coupleux, France. 1929

Organist Charles Tournemire at the Orgue Des Ondes in the église de Villemomble 1931

Organist Charles Tournemire at the Orgue Des Ondes in the église de Villemomble 1931

In 1929 the radio engineer Armand Givelet began a long collaboration with the organ builder Edouard Eloi Coupleux with the ambition to build on his experience with the ‘Clavier à Lampes‘ to create a popular electronic organ for use in churches, cinemas and concert halls. The resulting instrument, the ‘Orgue des Ondes’ or ‘Wave Organ’ was based on the same vacuum tube technology as the Theremin and Ondes-Martenot. Uniquely, the “Wave Organ” had an oscillator for each key therefore the instrument was polyphonic, a distinct advantage over its rivals – despite the amount of room needed to house the huge machine.

the multiple oscillators of the 'Orgue Des Ondes'

Some of the thousand tubes of the ‘Orgue Des Ondes’

The organ had over 700 vacuum oscillator tubes to give it a pitch range of 70 notes and ten different timbres – for each different timbre a different set of tubes was used. The Organ may have used as many as 1,000 tubes in total for oscillators and amplifiers. The sound of the organ was said to be particularly rich due to small variations in the tuning between each note creating a chorus like effect – in fact, the organ was capable of an early type of additive (addition of sine or simple waveforms) and subtractive (filtering complex waveforms) synthesis due to its number of oscillators and distortion of the sine waves produced by the LC oscillators. Despite it’s initial success, the “Wave Organ” eventually succumbed to the practicality and portability of the American built Hammond Organ and banknotes the Givelet-Coupleux partnership.


Sources

“1900-1935 L’aventure industrielle des frères Coupleux”, by Olivier Carpentier.

the ‘Clavier à Lampes’ or ‘ “Piano Radio Èlectrique’ Armand Givelet, France. 1927

Armand Givelet , an engineer and physicist at the radio laboratory at the Eiffel Tower in Paris produced his first instrument the ‘Clavier à Lampes’ in 1927 as a way of solving audio technical problems at the radio station. Because microphones of the time were of poor quality, it was impossible to record or broadcast decent quality sound. Givelet’s response was to build an electronic organ that could be directly injected into the transmitter without using microphones. The resulting instrument, the ‘Clavier à Lampes’ was a monophonic keyboard instrument that used vacuum tube oscillator for the sound source.


Sources

“1900-1935 L’aventure industrielle des frères Coupleux”, by Olivier Carpentier.

the ‘Warbo Formant Orgel’, Harald Bode & Christian Warnke, Germany, 1937

the Warbo Formant Orgel

The Warbo Formant Orgel

Harald Bode’s first commercial design was the wonderfully named ” Warbo Formant Orgel” built while at the Heinrich-Hertz Institut für Schwingungsforschung at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin. The Warbo Formant Orgel was designed and built with the musical input from the composer and band-leader Christian Warnke (hence ‘War- Bo’  Warnke/Bode);

“Christian made the contribution of a musician — that means he told me what to do as far as all the features the instrument should have. I’ll have to go into more detail. Christian Warnke was a composer and musician, a bandleader with a fine ear for music, and he was an excellent violinist. He wasn’t involved in the design per se, just the specifications of the Warbo. And he sponsored the project on a minimum budget. Mind you this was in the second part of the 30s, which had still terrible after-effects of the depression. But the Warbo was my first major contribution in the field.”
Harald Bode in  SYNE magazine 1980
Description of the Formant operation of the Warbo Formant Orgel

Description of the Formant operation of the Warbo Formant Orgel

Two versions of the instrument were made and later stored at the  Heinrich-Hertz Institute in Berlin. The institute was completely destroyed during the war and with it the Warbo Formant Orgel. No recording of the Warbo Formant have been found. As with many other instruments designed by Bode the ‘Warbo Formant Orgel’ pioneered aspects of electronics that became standard in later instruments. The Warbo Formant Orgel was a partially polyphonic four-voice keyboard instrument with 2 filters and key assigned dynamic envelope wave shaping – features that were later used on the postwar ‘Melodium’ and  ‘Melochord’.

“… It [The Warbo Formant Orgel] was built with a relaxation type of oscillator. Four oscillators actually, that were selected for the 44-note keyboard. The major problem being the stability of the oscillators, which is critical when comparing one with the other, especially with four. So I dropped the idea of a four-note organ at that time and went on to the Melodium, which was created in 1938 and used in many large performances with the Berlin Philharmonic as a solo instrument. It was also used in some significant motion pictures of that era.”
Harald Bode in  SYNE magazine 1980

Biographical notes

Harald Bode; October 19, 1909 Hamburg Germany – January 15, 1987 New York USA.

Harald Bode; October 19, 1909 Hamburg Germany – January 15, 1987 New York USA.

Bode Studied  mathematics, physics and natural philosophy at Hamburg University, graduating in 1934. In 1937, with funding support provided by the composer and band-leader, Christian Warnke, Bode produced his first instrument the ‘Warbo-Formant Orgel’ (‘Warbo’ being a combination of the names Warnke and Bode). Bode moved to Berlin in 1938 to complete a postgraduate course at the Heinrich Hertz Institute where he collaborated with Oskar Vierling and Fekko von Ompteda. During this period Bode developed the ‘Melodium’ ;  a unique monophonic touch-sensitive, multi-timbral instrument used extensively in film scores of the period.

When WWII started in 1939 Bode worked on military submarine sound and wireless communication projects “…We had the only choice in Germany, to go to military service or do work for the government. I praise myself lucky, that I was able to go to the electronic industry” and moved to the  small village Neubeuern in southern Germany, where in 1947 Bode built the first European post-war electronic instrument, the ‘Melochord’. In 1949 Bode joined the AWB company where he created the  ‘Polychord’ a simpler, polyphonic version of the ‘Melochord’ which was followed by the ‘Polychord III’ in 1951 and the  ‘Bode Organ’, a commercial organ which became the prototype for the famous Estey Electronic Organ. After leaving AWB, Bode’s designs included the ‘Tuttivox’, a miniature electronic organ and collaborated on a version of Georges Jenny’s ‘Clavioline’, both big sellers throughout Europe.

In 1954 Bode moved to the USA, settling in Brattleboro, Vermont where he lead the development team (and later, Vice President)  at the Estey Organ Corporation. In 1958, while still working at Estey, Bode set up the Bode Electronics Company where in March 1960 he created another unique instrument; a modular synthesiser “A New Tool for the Exploration of Unknown Electronic Music Instrument Performances” known as the  ‘Audio System Synthesiser’ which Robert Moog used as the basis for his line of new Moog synthesisers.

After the Estey Organ Company foundered in 1960, Bode joined the Wurlitzer Organ Co and moved to Buffalo, New York where he was one of the first engineers to recognise the significance of transistor based technology in electronic music.  Bode’s concepts of modular and miniature self-contained transistor based machines was taken up and developed in the early 1960′s by Robert Moog and Donald Buchla amongst others. 1962 saw the beginning of a long collaboration between Bode and the composer Vladimir Ussachevski at the  Columbia Princeton Center for Electronic Music which lead to the development of innovative studio equipment designs such as the  ‘Bode Ring Modulator’ and ‘Bode Frequency Shifter’. The commercial versions of these inventions were produced  under the Bode Sound Co and under license Moog Synthesisers.

Harald Bode retired in 1974 but continued to pursue his own research. In 1977 he created the ‘Bode Vocoder’ (licensed as the ‘Moog Vocoder’). In 1981 he developed his last instrument, the ‘Bode Barberpole Phaser’.

Harald Bode’s sketchbooks

 


Sources

Robb Wave Organ. Morse Robb. Canada. 1927

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The Robb Wave Organ designed by Morse Robb in Belleville, Ontario was said to be  musically superior to the Hammond Organ. The instrument attempted to reproduce the sound of a cathedral pipe organ by amplifying sounds generated by a similar tone-wheel mechanism. Prototype models were created in 1927 and the production model came on the market in 1936 and remained available until 1941.

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A newspaper article on  the organ-printed almost ten years before it became available-was headlined: “Young Canadian Invents Pipeless Ethereal Organ” (Toronto Star, 1927). The Robb Wave Organ was more expensive than other electronic organs, and sales suffered because of the Depression and World War II. With only thirteen units sold, the company ceased operation in 1941. The Museum has preserved prototype and final tone wheels and drums from Mr Robb’s workshop.

Michael J. Murphy professor RTA School of Media talks about the Robb Wave Organ

 

Sources

Canada Science and Technology Museum

‘La Croix Sonore’ Nicolai Obukhov. Russia – France, 1929-1934

Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L'Opéra, Paris.

Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L’Opéra, Paris.

The “Sonorous Cross /La Croix Sonore” was one of several Theremin type instruments developed in Europe after Leon Termens departure to the USA in 1927, others included the “Elektronische Zaubergeige” and the “Elektronde”. The Sonorous Cross was designed and built in Paris by Michel Billaudot and Pierre Duvalier for the the Russian emigré composer Nikolay Obukhov in 1929. The instrument was the result of several years experimenting with beat frequency/heterodyning oscillators. As with the Theremin the Sonorous Cross was based on body capacitance controlling heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators. To suit Obukhov’s mystical and theatrical style, the circuitry and oscillators were built into a 44 cm diameter brass orb and the antennae disguised by a large 175 cm high crucifix adorned with a central star.

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The Sonorous Cross was played in the same way as the Theremin – using the bodies capacitance to control the oscillators frequency, in this case moving the hands out from the central star on the crucifix altered the pitch and volume of the instrument. The ritualistic gestures made while playing this most unusual looking of instruments complemented the occult and mystical nature of Obukhov’s music and life.

Nikolay Obukhov composed numerous pieces using his instrument as well as several using the Ondes-Martenot, culminating in his major work;”Le Livre De Vie” which exploited the glissando effects the Sonorous Cross could produce. Obukhov continued to develop the instrument and produced an improved version, completed in 1934. Obukhov also designed two other instruments, the “Crystal” a piano type instruments where the hammers hit a row of crystal spheres and the “Éther” an electronically powered instruments where a large paddle wheel created various, apparently inaudible, humming sounds that was supposed to have a mystical effect on the listener.

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Nicolas or Nicolai Obukhov ( also Obouchov, Obuchov, Obouhow, Obuchow), Born April 22, 1892 in Ol’shanka, Kursk, Moscow – died, June 13, 1954 in St. Cloud, France

 

Nikolay Obukhov studied counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory from 1911 and later at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1913 (with Kalafati, Maksimilian Steinberg and Nikolay Tcherepnin). His first published works date from this period, and were published as ‘Quatre mélodies’ by Rouart et Lerolle in Paris in 1921.

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In 1915 Obukhov developed his own idiosyncratic form of musical notation (similar to one invented in Russia by Golïshev during the same period) using a 12-tone chromatic language highly influenced by the mystical Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The only performances of his music in Russia took place at this time. A report of the performance describes Obukhov as ‘a pale young man, with gazing eyes’ who ‘confused the audience’. Obukhov left Russia during the revolution with his wife and two children; they eventually settled near Paris a year later. In Paris he encountered financial hardship until helped by Maurice Ravel who found Obukhov a publisher allowing him to devote his time to his music.

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The 1920s saw a handful of performances, most notably that of the ‘Predisloviye knigi zhizni’ (‘Introduction to the Book of Life’) under Kussevitzsky. During this and the next decade he put into practice ideas for electronic instruments Obukhov had conceived as early as 1917: the ‘efir’ and ‘kristal’ (‘ether’ and ‘crystal’) he had described in Russia eventually gave rise to the croix sonore, and even though he built and wrote for the ether, it was with the croix sonore that he gained most attention. He found an exponent of the instrument in his pupil Marie-Antoinette Aussenac-Broglie who had also performed some of his piano music; she demonstrated the instrument around France and Belgium. Similar to both the theremin and the ondes martenot in that pitch production is reliant upon the distance of the performer’s arm from the instrument, the croix sonore was the subject of a film of 1934. During the mid-1940s his notation again provoked heated discussion, this time in Paris; a book containing works from the 18th to the 20th centuries in Obukhov’s notation was published by Durand. In 1947, his ‘Traité d’harmonie tonale, atonale et totale’ ‚ which had already interested Honegger ‚ was published, while a year later he lectured on this subject in the Russian Conservatory in Paris. Obukhov spent his last years incapacitated by a mugging in 1949 where the final version of  ‘the Book of Life’ was stolen; he composed only a few works after this incident.

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Obukhov’s output is dominated by vast works of which the most notorious ‚ notwithstanding the gargantuan ‘Troisième et dernier testament’ and ‘La toute puissance’ ‚ is the ‘Kniga zhizni’ (‘The Book of Life’) on which he worked from around the time he left Russia until at least the mid-1920s. Described by the composer as ‘l’action sacrée du pasteur tout-puissant regnant’ it was intended to be performed (or ‘accomplished’) uninterruptedly every year on the night of the first and on the day of the second resurrection of Christ. Obukhov did not consider himself the composer of this work; instead, he saw himself as the person permitted, by divine forces, to ‘show’ it. Parts of the score, one version of which is nearly 2000 pages in length, are marked in the composer’s blood. The music is preceded by a lengthy exposition in archaic Russian, while the work concludes with one section the score of which unfolds into the form of a cross and another, taking the shape of a circle, which is fixed onto a golden and silver box decorated with rubies and red silk. (Nicholas Slonimsky, in his memoir ‘Perfect Pitch’ relates that the composer’s wife, driven to despair by Obukhov’s obsessive behaviour regarding this piece, attempted to burn ‚ or ‘immolate’, in the composer’s terminology ‚ the manuscript but was interrupted in her crime.) Much of the instrumental writing is characterized by the alternation of chorale-like material (often ornamented by filigree arppegiation) with tolling patterns, building to textures of considerable rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity. The vocal parts ‚ as with his writing for the voice in most of his other works ‚ have huge tessituras and are bespattered with glissandi and instructions for screaming or whispering. The style which is consistently applied in this magnum opus is prevalent in all of his mature works and has its roots in the songs and piano miniatures written in Russia.

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Taking as a starting point the language employed by Skriabin in his mid- and late-period works, Obukhov evolved a harmonic technique based on the systematic configuration and manipulation of 12-note chords or harmonic areas. The sonorities resulting from this ‘total harmony’ are often broadly octatonic and frequently have a quasi-dominant character due to the prevalence of diminished fifths in the lower elements. Although longer structures appear to unfold in a schematized yet organic manner, the detail of musical procedure is curiously static. Obukhov saw his work as a musical articulation of his strongly-held religious beliefs and would sometimes sign his manuscripts ‘Nicolas l’illuminé’ or ‘Nicolas l’extasié’. Possibly inspired by Vladimir Solov´yov’s idea of ‘sobornost´’ (collective spiritual or artistic experience), Obukhov sought to abolish the traditional performer-audience polarity in favour of a merging of these previously mutually exclusive groups into one of participants. Obukhov mostly used his own texts which are frequently inspired by the Book of the Revelation or the Apocrypha. It is thus no coincidence that the only poets whose work appealed to him spiritually and compositionally were Solov´yov and Bal´mont, since it was the former’s orthodox mysticism that significantly informed the apocalyptic vision of the latter. In addition to these sources, mention should be made of Obukhov’s use of two verses by Musorgsky; it is between his work and that of Messiaen that Obukhov’s visionary language can be placed.

(details from: Commentary, Composers:4. Russian,Lithuanian and Jewish composers)
obukhov

List of works by Nicolai Obukhov:

1945 Adorons Christ, for piano (Fragment du troisième et dernier Testament) Keyboard
1942 Aimons-nous les uns les autres, for piano Keyboard
1915 Conversion, for piano Keyboard
1916 Création de l’Or, for piano Keyboard
1915 Icône, for piano Keyboard
1916 Invocation, for piano Keyboard
1948 La paix pour les réconciliés – vers la source avec le calice, for piano Keyboard
1952 Le Temple est mesuré, l’Esprit est incarné, for piano Keyboard
1915 Pieces (2), for piano Keyboard
Pieces (2), for piano Keyboard Piece
1915 Prières, for piano Keyboard
1915 Revelation, for piano Keyboard

 


Sources

Hugh Davies. “Croix sonore.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online

E.Ludwig: “La Croix Sonore” ReM, nos 158-9(935),96 ReM,nos 290-91 (1972-73)

Consciousness, Literature and the Arts. Archive. Volume 1 Number 3, December 2000 “Skriabin and Obukhov: Mysterium & La livre de vie The concept of artistic synthesis”. By Simon Shaw-Miller
Commentary, Composers: Russian,Lithuanian and Jewish composers

 

The ‘Staccatone’. Hugo Gernsback. USA, 1923

Hugo Gernsback's 'Staccatone'

Hugo Gernsback’s ‘Staccatone’

Hugo Gernsback, perhaps better known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction’  (and currently eponymously celebrated in the ‘Hugos’ Science Fiction Awards) also invented and built an early electronic instrument called the Staccatone in 1923 (with Clyde.J.Fitch)  which was later developed into one of the first polyphonic instruments, the Pianorad in 1926. Gernsback was a major figure in the development and popularisation of television, radio and amateur electronics, his multiple and sometimes shady businesses included early science fiction publishing, pulp fiction, self-help manuals and DIY electronics magazines as well as his own science fiction writing.
Practical_Electrics_Mar_1924_Cover
The Staccatone was conceived as a self-build project for amateur electronics enthusiasts via Gernsback’s ‘Practical Electrics’ magazine. The instrument consisted of a single vacuum tube oscillator controlled by a crude switch based 16 note ‘keyboard’. The switch based control gave the note a staccato attack and decay – hence the ‘Staccatone’. Gernsback promoted the instrument through his many publication and on his own radio station WJZ New York:
The musical notes produced by the vacuum tubes in this manner have practically no overtones. For this reason the music produced on the Pianorad is of an exquisite pureness of tone not realised in any other musical instrument. The quality is better than that of a flute and much purer. the sound however does not resemble that of any known musical instrument. The notes are quite sharp and distinct, and the Pianorad can be readily distinguished by its music from any other musical instrument in existence.”
Hugo Gernsback

Hugo Gernsback, born Hugo Gernsbacher August 16, 1884 of Jewish Luxembourgoise descent, moved to New York in 1904 and died on August 19, 1967

Self-build instructions for the Staccatone from ‘Practical Electrics’ magazine 1924:

Sources:

Hugo Gernsback: “The ‘Pianorad’ a New Musical Instrument which combines Piano and Radio Principles” Radio News viii (1926)

Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture. Thom Holmes

The ‘Pianorad’, Hugo Gernsback, USA, 1926

The Pianorad at WKNY

The Pianorad at WRNY

The Pianorad was a development of the Staccatone designed by Hugo Gernsback and built by Clyde Finch at the Radio News Laboratories in New York. the Pianorad had 25 single LC oscillators,one for every key for its two octave keyboard giving the instrument full polyphony, the oscillators produced virtually pure sine tones:

Hugo Gernsbacks' Pianorad

Hugo Gernsbacks’ Pianorad

“The musical notes produced by the vacuum tubes in this manner have practically no overtones. For this reason the music produced on the Pianorad is of an exquisite pureness of tone not realised in any other musical instrument. The quality is better than that of a flute and much purer. the sound however does not resemble that of any known musical instrument. The notes are quite sharp and distinct, and the Pianorad can be readily distinguished by its music from any other musical instrument in existence.”

Each one of the twenty five oscillators had its own independent speaker, mounted in a large loudspeaker horn on top of the keyboard and the whole ensemble was housed in a housing resembling a harmonium. A larger 88 non keyboard version was planned but not put into production. The Pianorad was first demonstrated on june 12, 1926 at Gernsback’s own radio station WRNY in New York City performed by Ralph Christman. The Pianorad continued to be used at the radio station for some time, accompanying piano and violin concerts.

Hugo Gernsback

Hugo Gernsback


Sources:

Hugo Gernsback: “The ‘Pianorad’ a New Musical Instrument which combines Piano and Radio Principles” Radio News viii (1926)