The ‘Polychord’ Harald Bode, Germany, 1949

The Polychord II

Bode’s Polychord III 1951

The Polychord Organ was Harald Bode’s first postwar design commissioned by the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Southern German Radio as an electronic organ for live radio broadcasts and was often heard played by the popular organist Fekko von Ompteda and on occasions by Harald Bode himself.  The instrument remained in use at Bayerischer Rundfunk from 1950 until 1973 used for  in-house productions such as special effects, music for comedy shows, dance music and religious music.

Early version of the Polychord

Early version of the Polychord

The Polychord was a simpler, polyphonic version of the rather complex Melochord, re-designed with the professional organist in mind; offering a bank of preset sounds as well as free control of sound synthesis. Bode produced a second version, The Polychord III in 1951, produced and marketed by  Apparatwerk Bayern gmbh (ABW) company in Bavaria Germany, and the Bode Organ which became the prototype of the Estey Electronic Organ after his departure to the USA in 1954. The Bayerischer Rundfunk Polychord can be seen (2014) at the Musical Instruments collection at the Deutsches Museum von Meisterwerken der Naturwissenschaft und Technik in Munich, Germany.

 

Bode's notes for a prototype of the Polychord c 1949

Bode’s notes for a prototype of the Polychord c 1949

Bode's notes for a prototype of the Polychord c 1949

Bode’s notes for a prototype of the Polychord c 1949

 


Sources

Bode’s Melodium and Melochord by Thomas L. Rhea. Contemporary Keyboard magazine (January 1980)

http://cec.sonus.ca/econtact/13_4/palov_bode_notebooks.html

The ‘Baldwin Organ’ Winston E. Kock & J.F. Jordan, USA, 1946

Early Model of Winston Kock's Baldwin organ

Winston Kock’s Baldwin Organ Model Five 1947

The Baldwin organ was an electronic organ, many models of which have been manufactured by the Baldwin Piano & Organ Co. since 1946. The original models were designed by Dr Winston E. Kock who became the company’s director of electronic research after his return from his studies at the Heinrich-Hertz-Institute, Berlin, in 1936. The organ was a development of Kock’s Berlin research with the GrosstonOrgel using the same neon-gas discharge tubes to create a stable, affordable polyphonic instrument. The Baldwin Organ were based on an early type of subtractive synthesis; the neon discharge tubes generating a rough sawtooth wave rich in harmonics which was then modified by formant filters to the desired tone.

Tone modifying circuits of the Baldwin organ

Tone modifying circuits of the Baldwin organ

Another innovative aspect of the Baldwin Organ was the touch sensitive keyboard designed to create a realistic variable note attack similar to a pipe organ. As the key was depressed, a curved metal strip progressively shorted out a carbon resistance element to provide a gradual rather than sudden attack (and decay) to the sound.  This feature was unique at that time, and it endowed the Baldwin instrument with an unusually elegant sound which captivated many musicians of the day.

“How did it sound? I have played Baldwin organs at a time when they were still marketed and in my opinion, for what it is worth, they were pretty good in relative terms.  That is to say, they sounded significantly better on the whole than the general run of analogue organs by other manufacturers, and they were only beaten by a few custom built instruments in which cost was not a factor.  It would not be true to say they sounded as good as a good digital organ today, but they compared favourably with the early Allen digitals in the 1970′s.  Nor, of course, did they sound indistinguishable from a pipe organ, but that is true for all pipeless organs.  To my ears they also sounded much better and more natural than the cloying tone of the more expensive Compton Electrone which, like the Hammond, also relied on attempts at additive synthesis with insufficient numbers of harmonics.”

From ‘Winston Kock and the Baldwin Organ; by Colin Pykett

Electronic Generator of the earlt model Baldwin Organ

Electronic Tone Generator of the early model Baldwin Organ showing neon gas-discharge tube oscillators.

Kock’s 1938 Patent of the Baldwin organ

Winston Kock playing an early experimental design for an electric instrument

Winston Kock playing his early experimental electronic instrument 1932

Winston E. Kock Biographical Details:

Winston Kock was born into a German-American family in 1909 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Despite being a gifted musician he decided to study electrical engineering at Cincinnati university and in his 20’s designed a highly innovative, fully electronic organ for his master’s degree.

The major problem of instrument design during the 1920′s and 30′s was the stability and cost of analogue oscillators. Most commercial organ ventures had failed for this reason; a good example being  Givelet & Coupleux’s  huge valve Organ in 1930. it was this reason that Laurens Hammond (and many others) decided on Tone-Wheel technology for his Hammond Organs despite the inferior audio fidelity.

Kock had decided early on to investigate the possibility of producing a commercially viable instrument that was able to produce the complexity of tone possible from vacuum tubes. With this in mind, Kock hit upon the idea of using much cheaper neon ‘gas discharge’ tubes as oscillators stabilised with resonant circuits. This allowed him to design an affordable, stable and versatile organ.

Kock's Sonar device during WW2

Kock’s Sonar device during WW2

In the 1930’s Kock, fluent in German, went to Berlin to study On an exchange fellowship (curiously, the exchange was with Sigismund von Braun, Wernher von Braun’s eldest brother –Kock was to collaborate with Wernher twenty five years later at NASA) at the Heinrich Hertz Institute conducting research for a doctorate under Professor K W Wagner. At the time Berlin, and specifically the Heinrich Hertz Institute, was the global centre of electronic music research. Fellow students and professors included; Jörg Mager, Oskar Vierling, Fritz Sennheiser, Bruno Helberger, Harald Bode, Friedrich Trautwein, Oskar Sala and Wolja Saraga amongst others. Kock’s study was based around two areas: – improving the understanding of glow discharge (neon) oscillators, and developing realistic organ tones using specially designed filter circuits. 

Kock worked closely with Oskar Vierling for his Phd and co-designed the GrosstonOrgel in 1934 but disillusioned by the appropriation of his work by the newly ascendant Nazi party he decided to leave for India, sponsored by the Baldwin Organ Company arriving at the Indian Institute of Music in Bangalore in 1935.

Returning from India in 1936, Dr Kock became Baldwin’s Director of Research while still in his mid-twenties, and with J F Jordan designed many aspects of their first electronic organ system which was patented in 1941.

NASA

Winston E Kock (L) as the first Director of Engineering Research at NASA

When the USA entered the second world war Kock moved to Bell Telephone Laboratories where he was involved on radar research and specifically microwave antennas. In the mid-1950’s he took a senior position in the Bendix Corporation which was active in underwater defence technology. He moved again to become NASA’s first Director of Engineering Research, returning to Bendix in 1966 where he remained until 1971 when he became Acting Director of the Hermann Schneider Laboratory of the University of Cincinatti. Kock Died in Cincinatti in 1982.

 Winston Kock was a prolific writer of scientific books but he also wrote fiction novels under the pen name of Wayne Kirk.

Acoustic lenses developed by Winston Kock at the Bell Labs in the 1950's

Acoustic lenses developed by Winston Kock at the Bell Labs in the 1950′s

Acoustic lenses developed by Winston Kock at the Bell Labs in the 1950's

Acoustic lenses developed by Winston Kock at the Bell Labs in the 1950′s

lenses

Acoustic lenses developed by Winston Kock at the Bell Labs in the 1950′s


Sources:

Hugh Davies. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

http://www.pykett.org.uk/drkock.htm

The ‘Mixturtrautonium’ Oskar Sala, Germany, 1936

Oskar Sala's mixturtrautonium

Oskar Sala’s mixturtrautonium

Later developments of Freidrich Trautwein’s original  Trautonium were continued by the Trautonium virtuoso and composer Oskar Sala. In 1936, Sala christened his first instrument the ‘Rundfunktrautonium’ (‘Radio-Trautonium’) and also developed a concert version, the “Konzerttrautonium”. After the end of the Second World War the instrument was re-named the ‘Mixturtrautonium’ but all were essentially developments of the original subtractive synthesis principles of the Trautonium.

Mixturtrautonium at the Vienna Technology Museum

Mixturtrautonium at the Vienna Technology Museum, showing two resistant-string manuals and double foot pedals

The essential design principles of the Trautonium were retained by Sala; sound production on the basis of sub-harmonic ‘mixture’, and the method of playing with two string manuals. The latter are made of wire-covered catgut strings which act as variable resistors. according to the position at which they are pressed againts the contact rail beneath them, they control the frequencies of the electronic sound generators. when the finger glides over the string a continuous glissando results over the entire tonal region which has just been tuned up. Micro-tonal intervals could be produced on the Mixturtrautonium. To ensure accurate contact with the notes leather covered sprung and moveable metal tongues are added to each string.  Unlike with a vibrating string, the gradation of the electrical-resistant string manual is linear and not exponential so that all octave have the same finger range.

Sala at the

Sala at the Mixturtrautonium

The 1948 post-war Mixturtrautonium was a polyphonic version of the original Trautonium, generating sound from two AEG Thoraton tubes with a 3 ½ octave range (which could be extended with an octave switch). The instrument could also be controlled with a foot pedal that not only allowed variation in volume but also with a lateral foot movement, select three different sets of sub-harmonics. The Sub-harmonic ‘mixture’ technique basically used un-natural low frequency harmonics to modulate a sawtooth signal creating complex harmonic ‘mixtures’ which could be further coloured with noise generators, mixers, an envelope controller and a frequency shifter.

mixturtrautonium2

Mixturtrautonium

During the pre-war period, the ”Rundfunktrautonium’ was used extensively for film and radio broadcasts and after Paul Hindemith’s endorsement, became the instrument of choice for ‘serious’ electronic music composition (Hindemith’s switching of allegiances from Jörg Mager’s Sphärophon family of instruments to the Trautonium signalled the end  of Mager’s career in instrument design). A portable version, the ‘Konzerttrautonium’ was designed in 1936 specifically for the composer  Harald Genzmer’s ” Conzert für Trautonium und Orchestrer” and saw more than fifty performances before the outbreak of the war.

Berlin had in the early Thirties become the world capital of electronic music, with inventors and designers such as Jörg Mager , Oskar Vierling , Fritz Sennheiser , Bruno Helberger, Harald Bode, Friedrich Trautwein and Oskar Sala (with much of the work centred around the Heinrich-Hertz-Institute). These instruments often explored radical new approaches to tonality and expression and were enthusiastically adopted by the avant-garde of the period. This period of musical ferment coincided with the seizure of power by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party (NDSAP), who initially tried to absorb this strain of modernism for their own propaganda ends – indeed, the name ‘Volkstrautonium’ echoes the name ‘Volkswagen’ as a peoples instrument for a modern, new Germany. On the 18th August 1933, Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s Propaganda Minister) presided over the IFA ‘Internationale Funkausstellung’ (International Radio Exhibition) in Berlin. The music for the exhibition was provided by the ‘Future Orchestra’ (Das Orchester der Zukunft) composed of the most advanced electronic instruments of the time: The Volkstrautonium played by Oskar Sala, Bruno Helberger’s Hellertion, Oskar Vierling’s Elektrochord , the Neo-Bechstein of Walther Nernst, a collection of electric violins and cellos and Leon Termen’s  Theremin.

'Das Orchester der Zukunft' at the Berlin IFA 1933

‘Das Orchester der Zukunft’ at the Berlin IFA 1933

The rise of the Hitler’s National Socialist party presented electronic and avant-garde musicians with a difficult choice; either the hope that by collaborating they would survive and be left alone and be able to continue working or, simply, leave the country. Trautwein, who had joined the NDSAP in the late thirties used his connections:

Luckily Trautwein knew a general who was on our side and arranged that we could play the instrument to the minister of propaganda Joseph Goebels, Hitler’s right hand man. I Played something by Paganini and of course he liked it. After that, they left us in peace.
Oskar Sala

This collaboration resulted in a commission from the Reich’s Radio organisation for several new instruments to be built for a weekly fifteen minute programme “Musik Auf Dem Trautonium” (playing German classical music accompanied by a pianist) and later commissions to use the instrument at large scale NDSAP rallies, outdoor concerts, speeches and, (alongside other electronic instruments such as Vierling’s GrosstonOrgel) the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. However, this patronage was short-lived as the Nazi’s asserted their traditional conservatism; Atonal, Experimental and avant-garde music alongside Jazz and other non-German culture was branded ‘entarte’ or ‘degenerate’. Trautwein and Sala’s workshop was denied funding and closed, the Trautonoium was relegated to performing Reich-approved music. Sala spent the war years touring throughout Germany and Axis occupied countries until he was conscripted in 1944 and sent to the Eastern Front

Oskar_Sala_Konzert_Trautonium_Friedrich_Trautwein_Leo_Borchard_Budapest_1942

Oskar Sala playing the Trautonium at a concert with Leo Borchard, Budapest 1942

After the end of the war Sala founded a studio for film music soundtrack production in Berlin,where, amongst many other projects, he recorded music for Hitchcock’s “the birds” .

Oskar Sala and Alfred Hitchcock working on the sound effects for "The Birds"

Oskar Sala and Alfred Hitchcock working on the sound effects for “The Birds”



Music

Oskar Sala – Triostück Paul Hindemith


Sources:

Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition. Thomas B. Holmes, Thom Holmes

Framing the Fifties: Cinema in a Divided Germany. edited by John Davidson, Sabine Hake

Music and German National Identity. edited by Celia Applegate, Pamela Potter

Peter Badge (2000). Oskar Sala:Pionier der elektronischen Musik. Satzwerk, 100pp. ISBN 3-930333-34-1

http://www.trautoniks.de/

The ‘Oscillon’ William Danforth & William Swann, USA, 1937

Oscillon

Mrs Danforth plays the ‘Oscillon’ 1937

The Oscillon was a one-off vacuum tube instrument created by Dr. W.E. Danforth to play the wind instrument parts for his local amateur Swarthmore Symphony Orchestra. The instrument was played by sliding the finger over the metal box to produce French Horn or Bass Clarinet tones fro  the loudspeaker:

When he is not experimenting on cosmic rays, high-haired Director William Francis Gray Swann of Franklin Institute’s Bartol Research Foundation, plays a cello. Young William Edgar Danforth, his assistant, plays a cello too. Both are mainstays of the Swarthmore (Pa.) Symphony Orchestra, a volunteer organization of about 40 men and women who play good music free. Because nobody in the orchestra can handle a French horn or a bass clarinet, Drs. Swann and Danforth built an electrical “oscillion” so ingenious that it can be made to sound like either, so simple that a child can master it. Last week at a Swarthmore concert the oscillion made its world debut, playing the long clarinet passages in Cesar Franck’s D Minor Symphony without a mishap. Listeners thought the oscillion lacked color, was a little twangier in tone, otherwise indistinguishable from the woodwind it replaced.

The Danforth & Swann oscillion is a simple-looking oblong wooden box with an electrical circuit inside. Current flows through a resistance, is stored up in a condenser, spills into a neon tube, becomes a series of electrical “pulses.” A loud speaker translates the pulses into sound.

To play music the oscillionist presses down on a keyboard and changes the resistance. This alters the frequency, thereby the pitch. As now constructed the oscillion has a range of five octaves which can easily be increased to eight. Inventors Danforth & Swann deplore the oscillion’s higher ranges, expect it will be most useful pinch-hitting for bass clarinet, bassoon, tuba and string bass.”

Courtesy: TIME http://www.time.com 2/4/2008


Sources

Time Magazine http://www.time.com 2/4/2008

Dr. W. E. Danforth, Bartol Research Foundation

Science Service at the Smithsonian Institute

http://www.amphilsoc.org/mole/view?docId=ead/Mss.B.Sw1-ead.xml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Francis_Gray_Swann

the ‘Nivotone’ Alexei Voinov. Russia, 1931

The Nivotone optical reader

The Nivotone optical reader

The animator Nikolai Voinov (1900-1958), part of Arseney Avraamov‘s group ‘Multzvik’ in Moscow, 1931, started his own method of optical synthesis. Instead of drawing or printing to film Voinov cut wave forms from strips of paper which were then optically read by his machine the ‘Nivotone’ (‘Paper-Sound’) and translated into sound by a photo-electric process.

The Multzvuk group

Multzvuk group was formed in 1930 by Arseney Araazamov to conduct research into graphical sound techniques. The group was based at the Mosfilm Productions Company in Moscow (one of the leading film production companies in Moscow, renamed Gorki Film Studio in 1948) and consisted of composer and theoretician, Arseney Araamov, cameraman and draughtsmen  Nikolai Zhelynsky, animator Nikolai Voinov, painter and amateur acoustician Boris Yankovsky. In 1931 the group moved to ‘NIKFI’,  the Scientific Research Institute for Photography for Film. Moscow, and and was renamed the ‘Syntonfilm laboratory’. In 1932 NIKFI stopped funding the group who then moved to Mezhrabpomfilm and finally closed in 1934.

From 1930-34 more than 2000 meters of sound track were produced by the Multzvuk group, including the experimental films ‘Ornamental Animation’, ‘Marusia Otravilas’, ‘Chinese Tune’, ‘Organ Chords’, ‘Untertonikum, Prelude’, ‘Piruet’, ‘Staccato Studies’, ‘Dancing Etude’ and ‘Flute Study’. The Multzvuk archive was kept for many years at Avraamov’s apartment, but destroyed in 1937.


Sources

Electrified Voices: Medial, Socio-Historical and Cultural Aspects of Voice …edited by Dmitri Zakharine, Nils Meise

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 ‘Maestrovox’, Victor Harold Ward, United Kingdom, 1952

Maestrovox

Maestrovox Consort Model

The Maestrovox was a monophonic portable vacuum tube organ built by Maestrovox Electronic Organs in Middlesex, UK. The instrument was one of the many designs similar to the Clavioline, Tuttivox and Univox and intended as a piano attachment instrument for dance bands and light orchestras of the day. The Maestrovox was produced from 1952 onwards and came in a number of models, the Consort, Consort De-Luxe, Coronation and a later version that mechanically triggered notes from a Piano keyboard, the Orchestrain.

 

Maestrovox Consort

Maestrovox Consort

 

Maestrovox – By Charles Hayward of ‘This Heat’

I used a Maestrovox keyboard with This Heat, set up just to the left of my drum kit (alongside a Bontempi electronic organ with about 3 sounds). It can be heard throughout This Heat’s recordings and was used onstage for most of the group’s gigs.

The Maestrovox was a fascinating instrument, it was advertised second-hand in the Evening News small-ads, maybe 1966 or 68, I didn’t really know what it was that I was going to see, just that I wanted to use an electronic keyboard in conjunction with domestic tape machines and this was going fairly cheap, £15 or so. I persuaded my brother to go half although in truth he never really used it. When we got it back home the unusual qualities of the instrument slowly became clear.

Firstly it was monophonic, with priority given to the highest note played; this was heavenly, you could ‘yodel’ between notes, sometimes using the lower note as a drone, sometimes playing contrary lines in 2 hands with only 1 note being heard at any time, sort of ‘strobing’ between 2 places. The keys were highly sprung, so that on the black notes, if played very quickly, the springs would activate even faster and the rate of change between the higher played note and a sustained lower sound would be very distinctive. This sound was used at the beginning and end of the 1st This Heat album and also played very quietly for about 20 minutes immediately before a gig, a bit like a distant alarm.

Tuning was an unsolvable problem that became a fantastic strength and the predominant reason for using the keyboard with the group. There were a couple of little tuning knobs on the console of filters that were changed with a screwdriver. No matter how I tried I could not find the place where the keyboard was in tune with itself, the nearest I could get was the low D to have its octave on the E 9 notes higher, in other words a 14 note octave (instead of the usual 12). Consequently every note was slightly flat or sharp. This meant that melodies had to be re-learnt when using the Maestrovox so that the tuning would bend in and out with other ‘orthodox’ tuned instruments. When played at the ‘back’ of the group’s sound the result would be to inexplicably ‘widen’ the sound.

The 4-step vibrato didn’t seem to work properly and had the effect of flattening the tuning by very small amounts, a little more than a quarter tone at the fullest extent. A series of filters changed the sound, 5 or 6 little buttons that could be engaged in different permutations. A 2- page pamphlet had a list of filter combinations that imitated ‘real’ instruments (always a doomed idea). I seem to remember that 13 was bassoon in the lower register (a particular favourite) and oboe in the higher register. These sound filters also effected the tuning. Another row of 3 buttons changed the attack parameters, without a little ‘slope’ it was kind of ‘clicky’, like the sound was being switched on.

The keyboard was about the size of a PSS Yamaha (which is sometimes confusingly described as a ’midi’ keyboard), and had a range of perhaps 3 octaves. The Maestrovox was designed to sit under a piano keyboard as a sort of addition to the acoustic instrument, although the tuning must have made any orthodox use hilarious. There was a sort of tripod that was supposed to hold it up against the underneath of the piano keyboard, this looked very shaky and unreliable, so my dad knocked up a stand, something like a shrunken Hammond. Valves glowed inside the keyboard which was connected via a multi-pin plug and lead to an amplifier that also served as a box for transportation. Both mains electricity and sound signal were conveyed by this lead. To boost the signal I connected a pair of crocodile clips to the speaker and this was then plugged in to a larger amplifier. I’m not sure if a connection socket was fixed for ease and reliability when This Heat started touring more regularly. The volume was controlled by a knee-operated lever (I remember harmoniums used this method too), I found a way of holding this in place and used a foot swell pedal instead.

It blew up sometime before This Heat began and it was quite a problem getting replacement valves. During the recording of ‘Cenotaph’ on the Deceit album it blew up again, in fact the track starts out with 2 tracks of Maestrovox and by the end there’s only 1 because it stopped working during the overdub. Getting replacement parts was time consuming, perhaps impossible, and then other things meant that a lot of equipment held in our rehearsal studio Cold Storage got lost, including the Maestrovox. By this time This Heat had split and it’s sound was so much part of that group that I was both sad and pleased to see it go.

Charles Hayward


Sources

http://www.debbiecurtis.co.uk/id99.html

‘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.

CMIM000031776
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.

Nicolas_Obouhow_35_h683

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.

Bienheureux6

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)
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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