The ‘Groupe de Recherches Musicales’ Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry & Jacques Poullin, France 1951

Console at GRM Paris

Console at GRM Paris showing the EMI mixing desk and parts of the Coupigny Synthesiser c1972

The GRM was an electro-acoustic music studio founded in 1951 by the musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, composer Pierre Henry and the engineer Jacques Poullin and based at the RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) buildings in Paris. The studio itself was the culmination of over a decades work into musique concrète and sound objects by Schaeffer and others at the ‘Groupe Recherches de Musique Concrète’ (GRMC) and the Studio d’Essai. The new studio was designed around Schaeffer’s sound theories later outlined in his book  “Treaty of Musical Object – Traité des Objects Musicaux”:

“musique concrète was not a study of timbre, it is focused on envelopes, forms. It must be presented by means of non-traditional characteristics, you see … one might say that the origin of this music is also found in the interest in ‘plastifying’ music, of rendering it plastic like sculpture…musique concrète, in my opinion … led to a manner of composing, indeed, a new mental framework of composing” (James 1981, 79). Schaeffer had developed an aesthetic that was centred upon the use of sound as a primary compositional resource. The aesthetic also emphasised the importance of play (jeu) in the practice of sound based composition. Schaeffer’s use of the word jeu, from the verb jouer, carries the same double meaning as the English verb play: ‘to enjoy oneself by interacting with one’s surroundings’, as well as ‘to operate a musical instrument’
(Pierre Henry. Dack 2002).

Along with the WDR Studio in Germany, the GRM/GRMC was one of the earliest electro-acoustic music studios and attracted many notable avant-garde composers of the era including Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis, Michel Philippot, and Arthur Honegger. Compositional output from 1951 to 1953 comprised ‘Étude I’ (1951) and ‘Étude II’ (1951) by Boulez, ‘Timbres-durées’ (1952) by Messiaen, ‘Konkrete Etüde’ (1952) by Stockhausen, ‘Le microphone bien tempéré’ (1952) and ‘La voile d’Orphée’ (1953) by Pierre Henry, ‘Étude I’ (1953) by Philippot, ‘Étude’ (1953) by Barraqué, the mixed pieces ‘Toute la lyre’ (1951) and ‘Orphée 53′(1953) by Schaeffer/Henry, and the film music ‘Masquerage’ (1952) by Schaeffer and ‘Astrologie’ (1953) by Pierre Henry.

The original design of the studio followed strict Schaefferian theory and was completely centered around tape manipulation, recording and editing. Several novel ‘tape instruments’ were built and integrated into the studio setup including the phonogène (Three version were built; the phonogène Universal, Chromatic & Sliding) and the Morphophone.


The Phonogène Chromatique

The phonogène

The Phonogène was a one-off multi-headed tape instrument designed by Jacques Poullin. In all, three version of the instrument were created;

  • the Chromatic Phonogène . A tape loop was driven by multiple capstans at varied speeds allowed the production of short bursts of tape sounds at varying pitches defined by a small one-octave keyboard.
  • The Sliding phonogène created a continuous tone by varying the tape speed via a control rod
  • The Phonogène Universal allowed transposition of pitch without altering the duration of the sound and vice-versa obtained through a rotating magnetic head called the ‘Springer temporal regulator’ (a similar design to VHS video tape recorders)
The Morphophone

The Morphophone

The morphophone

The Morphophone was a type of tape loop-delay mechanism, again designed by Jacques Pollin. A tape loop was stuck to the edge of a 50cm diameter rotating disk and the sound was picked up at varying points on the tape by ten magnetic heads (one recording, one erasing and ten playback heads). The resulting sound was passed through a series of bandpass filters (for each playback head) and amplified.

 Images from the Groupe de Recherches Musicales Studio


GRM Archive

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.


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

‘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.

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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)

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



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 ‘Ondes-Martenot’ Maurice Martenot, France, 1928

Ondes Martenot

Ondes Martenot

Maurice Martenot a Cellist and radio Telegraphist, met the Russian electronic engineer Leon Termen in 1923, this meeting lead him to design an instrument based on Termens ideas, the first model, the “Ondes-Martenot” was patented on the 2nd of April 1928 under the name “Perfectionnements aux instruments de musique électriques” (improvements to electronic music instruments). His aim was to produce a versatile electronic instrument that was immediately familiar to orchestral musicians. The first versions bore little resemblance to the later production models: consisting of two table mounted units controlled by a performer who manipulated a string attached to a finger ring (using the bodies capacitance to control the sound characteristics in a manner very similar to the Theremin) this device was later incorporated as a fingerboard strip above the keyboard.

Female Ondes Orchestra

Female Ondes Orchestra

Later versions used a standard keyboard.The Ondes-Martenot became the first succesfull electronic instrument and the only one of its generation that is still used by orchestras today, Martenot himself became, 20 years after its invention, a professor at the Paris Conservatoire teaching lessons in the Ondes-Martenot. The Ondes-Martenot’s success was the Theremins loss, although both used the vacuum tube oscillator as a sound source and were both monophonic, where the Theremin had a sliding scale and no fixed preset notes the Ondes-Martenot had a keyboard and a strip control for glissando and vibrato, organ like stops for preset timbres and an appearance that was familiar to any keyboard player.

Pre-set sounds on the later Ondes Martenot were:

  • Onde (O): A simple sine wave timbre. Similar in sound to the flute or ocarina.
  • Creux (C):  A peak-limited triangle wave. Similar in sound to a clarinet in high registers.
  • Gambe (G):  A timbre somewhat resembling a square wave. Intended to be similar in sound to string instruments, as the French title would suggest.
  • Petit Gambe (g): A similar but less harmonically-rich timbre than Gambe. The player can control the number of harmonics present in the signal by using a slider situated in the control drawer.
  • Nasillard (N): A timbre resembling a pulse wave. Similar in sound to a bassoon in low registers.
  • Octaviant (8): A timbre with a reinforced first harmonic whose intensity in the signal can be controlled by using a slider. This setting is analogous to the 4 foot stop in organ terminology.
  • Souffle (S): A timbre often described as white noise, but in fact pink noise of indefinite pitch.

The sound from the instrument could be output to a number of speakers or ‘Diffuseurs’ who’s physical properties further coloured the sound, the were:

  • ‘Principal’ A traditional, large loudspeaker.
  • ‘Résonance’ A loudspeaker which uses springs to produce a mechanical reverb effect.
  • ‘Métallique’ A small gong is used as the loudspeaker diaphragm to produce a ‘halo’ effect rich in harmonics.
  • ‘Palme’ An iconic lyre-shaped loudspeaker, using strings to produce sympathetic resonances.

loudspeakers or Diffuseurs of the Ondes Martrnot: the Métallique, the palm and the Principal

The instrument also had a bank of expression keys that allowed the player to change the timbre and character of the sounds. A later (1938) version of the instrument featured microtonal tuning as specified by the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore and the musician Alain Danielou. The Ondes-Martenot was quickly accepted and became one of the few electronic instruments to be admitted to the orchestra (at least in France) and had a wide repertoire by prominent composers such as Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messian (The “Turangalîla Symphonie” and “Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine” amongst others ), Darius Milhaud , Arthur Honegger, Maurice Jarre, Jolivet and Koechlin.


The ‘Ondium Péchadre’ H. Péchadre. France, 1930

The Ondium Péchadre was developed in France by H.C.R.Péchadre in 1930. The instrument was a monophonic heterodyning vacuum tube oscillator based instrument built into a light and portable heart shaped box, in performance the base of the instrument rested on the players knees and the instrument was supported against a table. The six octave range of the instrument was controlled by moving a pointer around a circular calibrated dial while the left hand controlled the volume of the sound with a velocity sensitive push button device. The attack and timbre of the sound wave could be altered to give a more staccato effect or softened to give a more string like sound.

The ‘Givelet’ or ‘Coupleux-Givelet Organ’ Armand Givelet & Edouard Eloi Coupleux, France. 1930

Coupleux playing the

Edouard Coupleux playing the Givelet

The last instrument of the Givelet – Coupleaux collaboration was the ‘Coupleaux -Givelet Organ’ or ‘Givelet’. The Givelet was a unique instrument that combined vacuum tube oscillators with a sound control system using a punched paper roll in a way similar to a player piano to define the sound synthesis. Pitch, volume, attack, envelope, tremolo and timbre could be controlled by cutting and splicing paper rolls and like the “Wave Organ“, the Givelet was polyphonic. The technique of using punched paper “programs” was not exploited until fifteen years later in the 1950′s with the RCA Synthesiser.  Givelets and Coupleaux’s instrument was designed to be a commercial and cheap replacement for pipe organs and utilise the ability for ‘silent recording’ or direct injection into radio transmitter. The Givelets were installed in churches around France and at a broadcasting radio station in Paris. The Givelet eventually lost out commercially to the more efficient and less complex  Hammond Organ.

Givelet of 1930

The Givelet-Coupleux Organ of 1930

Patent Documents


A.J.Givelet: ‘Les Instruments de Musique à oscillations électriques: Le Clavier à Lampes ‘, Génie civil, xciii(1928)

The ‘Sonothèque’. L. Lavallée, France.1936

L. Lavalée’s ‘Sonothèque’ or “sound library” was a  “coded performance electronic instrument using photo-electric translation of engraved grooves”. The instrument was capable of reading music and sounds encoded graphically with conductive ink sensed by a set of electrically charged brushes


Thomas LaMar Rhea. ‘The Evolution of Electronic Musical Instruments in the United States’ 1972

The ‘Ondioline’ Georges Jenny, France, 1940

George Jenny's 'Ondioline'

Georges Jenny’s ‘Ondioline’

By the late 1930′s with the advent of reliable vacuum tubes and octave divider techniques it became possible to create small, portable electronic instruments that could, despite their size and simplicity, deliver a complex and variable sound. The  Ondioline was part of this new family (which includes the Clavioline, Tuttivox, Univox and others) and was designed as an affordable, versatile piano-attachment that could extend a solo pianists tonal range and repertoire – as such, the Ondioline became hugely successful with pianists, dance bands, light orchestras and cabarets  throughout the 1940′s and 50′s.

The first version of the Ondioline was created by Georges Jenny in 1938 whilst undergoing treatment in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Jenny continued to re-design and build new versions of the instrument at his Paris company “Les Ondes Georges Jenny” (later known as “La Musique Electronique”) until his death in 1976. The instruments were individually built by Jenny himself or supplied in kit form, eventually over a thousand instruments were sold in the USA alone. In an attempt to keep production costs low (Ondiolines originally sold for a mere $400) poor quality components were often used, and after a few years, the instrument became unplayable if not maintained.
The Ondioline was, like many other instruments of the time, a monophonic vacuum-tube instrument, but rather than relying on the heterodyning principle the Ondioline used a single multi-vibrator oscillator which gave the instrument a tone much richer in harmonics. The Ondioline was played using a small eight octave (switch-able through six octaves and tune-able via an octave transposer) touch sensitive keyboard mounted on internal springs that allowed the player to bend the notes using sideways pressure. Via a series of fifteen filters switches It was possible to create complex waveforms and additionally the sound wave could be shaped with the use of a touch wire, effecting the attack with a vertical finger movement or adding glissando or modulation by horizontal movement; this enabled the Ondioline to reproduce a wide range of sounds from soft strings to drum-like percussion. The overall volume of the machine was controlled by a knee lever allowing the player control the overall envelope of the instruments output.
The Ondioline was marketed in Germany as the “Pianoline” and in The Netherlands as the “Orcheline” and made a notable appearance during the Brussels World Fair (1958) when it was played on top of the Atomium building. A microtonal version of the instrument was built for the composer Jean-Etienne Marie during the sixties consisting of a four octave keyboard which could be tuned to a variety of microtonal systems.

Videos of the Ondioline


‘Ondioline’ Book. Georges Jenny  1957


G.Jenny: “L’initiation à la lutherie électronique” , Toute La Radio (1955) Jean Jacques Perrey.