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 ‘Ekvodin’ Andrei Volodin, Russia, 1937

The Ekvodin was a pioneering electronic synthesiser designed by the Russian engineer Andrei Volodin with Kovalski Konstantin and Yevgeny Murzin (later to invent the ANS synthesiser). The first versions of the Ekvodin were home-built experimental models that eventually became successful commercial keyboard instruments, used extensively in Russia throughout the 1940′s until the 1950′s. The Ekvodin won gold medals at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels and the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy in Moscow. By the 1970s, Andrei Volodin was teaching musical acoustics and sound synthesis at the Moscow State Conservatory, continuing research and development of the Ekvodin synthesizer and a new polyphonic instrument that was never finished.

Andrei Volodin playing an early model of the Ekvodin

Andrei Volodin playing an early model of the Ekvodin

The instrument was controlled via a six and a half octave, velocity sensitive keyboard which allowed the player to add vibrato by applying sideways movement to the key, plus a foot controlled volume pedal was included to add expression. Sound was generated from vacuum tubes and passed through a number of pre-set filter banks and octave dividers that could be combined to a total of 660 settings. the Ekvodin “was capable of imitating almost any symphony orchestra instrument, including percussion”

Ekvodin Diagram

Ekvodin Diagram

“We give musicians throughout the world a unique opportunity to breathe new life into their emotional art. Ekvodin – a musical instrument that’s perfect for orchestra and ensemble, and solos with piano accompaniment. The keyboard of this instrument is literally capable of singing glamorous melodies to fill every home. Any modern composer is pleasantly surprised when he discovered that Ekvodin is capable of producing a wide range of musical timbres with an extraordinary clarity and purity of sound. Performers, conductors and teachers will be fully satisfied with the outstanding expressive possibilities. Ekvodin opens truly cosmic prospects for every musician. Developed and manufactured in the USSR. ”

Ekvodin Advertising

Ekvodin B9 1950's Model

Ekvodin B9 1950′s Model


Sources

http://www.ruskeys.net

http://cuntroll.ru/articles/article15

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

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

‘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.

tumblr_mfwpbz0em51r5yt7ko4_1280

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.

tumblr_mfwpbz0em51r5yt7ko6_1280

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.

0cc9cbc899ba0ebfbae36e9f7eb8934985b7364b

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 ‘Audion Piano’ and Audio Oscillator. Lee De Forest. USA, 1915

 “Audion Bulbs as Producers of Pure Musical Tones”  from 'The Electrical Experimenter' December 1915

“Audion Bulbs as Producers of Pure Musical Tones” from ‘The Electrical Experimenter’ December 1915

Lee De Forest , The self styled “Father Of Radio” ( the title of his 1950 autobiography) inventor and holder of over 300 patents, invented the triode electronic valve or ‘Audion valve’ in 1906- a much more sensitive development of John A. Fleming’s diode valve. The immediate application of De Forest’s triode valve was in the emerging radio technology of which De Forest was a tenacious promoter. De Forest also discovered that the valve was capable of creating audible sounds using the “heterodyning”/beat frequency technique: a way of creating sounds by combining two high frequency signals to create a composite lower frequency within audible range and in so doing inadvertently invented the first true audio oscillator that paved he way for future electronic instruments and music.

Lee De Forest's Triode Valve of 1906

Lee De Forest’s Triode Valve of 1906

De Forest Created the ‘Audion Piano’, the first vacuum tube instrument in 1915 based on earlier audio experiments in 1907 and by using his invention of the triode tube as an audio oscillator  had laid the blueprint for most future electronic instruments until the emergence of transistor technology some fifty year later. The Audion Piano was the first instrument to use a beat-frequency or “heterodyning” oscillator system and also the first to use body capacitance to control pitch and timbre ( The heterodyning effect was later much exploited by the Leon Termen with his Theremin series of instruments and Maurice Martenot’s Ondes-Martenot amongst many others. ). The Audion Piano, controlled by a single keyboard manual, used a single triode valve per octave controlled by a set of keys allowing one monophonic note to be played per octave. This audio signal could be processed by a series of capacitors and resistors to produce variable and complex timbres and the output of the instrument could be sent to a set of speakers placed around a room giving the sound a novel spatial effect. De Forest planned a later version of the instrument that would have separate valves per key allowing full polyphony- it is not known if this instrument was ever constructed.
De Forest described the Audio Piano as capable of producing:

“Sounds resembling a violin, Cello, Woodwind, muted brass and other sounds resembling nothing ever heard from an orchestra or by the human ear up to that time – of the sort now often heard in nerve racking maniacal cacophonies of a lunatic swing band. Such tones led me to dub my new instrument the ‘Squawk-a-phone’….The Pitch of the notes is very easily regulated by changing the capacity or the inductance in the circuits, which can be easily effected by a sliding contact or simply by turning the knob of a condenser. In fact, the pitch of the notes can be changed by merely putting the finger on certain parts of the circuit. In this way very weird and beautiful effects can easily be obtained.”
(Lee De Forest’s Autobiography “The Father Of Radio”)

And From a 1915 news story on a concert held for the National Electric Light Association

“Not only does de Forest detect with the Audion musical sounds silently sent by wireless from great distances,but he creates the music of a flute, a violin or the singing of a bird by pressing button. The tune quality and the intensity are regulated by the resistors and by induction coils…You have doubtless heard the peculiar, plaintive notes of the Hawaiian ukulele, produced by the players sliding their fingers along the strings after they have been put in vibration. Now, this same effect,which can be weirdly pleasing when skilfully made, can he obtained with the musical Audion.”

Advert for De Forest wireless equipment

Advert for De Forest wireless equipment

De Forest, the tireless promoter, demonstrated his electronic instrument around the New York area at public events alongside fund raising spectacles of his radio technology. These events were often criticised and ridiculed by his peers and led to a famous trial where De Forest was accused of misleading the public for his own ends:
“De Forest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public … has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company. “
Lee De Forest, August 26, 1873, Council Bluffs, Iowa. Died June 30, 1961

Lee De Forest, August 26, 1873, Council Bluffs, Iowa. Died June 30, 1961

De Forest collaborated with a sceptical Thadeus Cahill in broadcasting early concerts of the Telharmonium using his radio transmitters (1907). Cahill’s insistence on using the telephone wire network to broadcast his electronic music was a major factor in the demise of the Telharmonium. Vacuum tube technology was to dominate electronic instrument design until the invention of transistors in the 1960′s. The Triode amplifier also freed electronic instruments from having to use the telephone system as a means of amplifying the signal.


Sources:

Lee De Forest “Father Of Radio” (Autobiography).
Wireless: From Marconi’s Black-Box to the Audion (Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology) 2001 author(s) Sungook Hong
Lee de Forest: King of Radio, Television, and Film 2012. Mike Adams (auth.).
Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. By Albert Glinsky
Electronic Music. Nicholas Collins, Margaret Schedel, Scott Wilson
Media Parasites in the Early Avant-Garde: On the Abuse of Technology and Communication. Arndt Niebisch 2012
Electric Relays: Principles and Applications. Vladimir Gurevich

The ‘Optophonic Piano’, Vladimir Rossiné, Russia and France. 1916

 

The Optophonic Piano

The Optophonic Piano

The Optophonic Piano was a one-off electronic optical instrument created by the Russian Futurist painter Vladimir Baranoff Rossiné (Born in 1888 at Kherson , Ukraine – Russia, died Paris, France 1944). Rossiné started working on his instrument c1916. The Optophonic Piano was used at exhibitions of his own paintings and revolutionary artistic events in the new Soviet Union, Rossiné later gave two concerts with his instrument (with his wife Pauline Boukour), at the Meyerhold and Bolchoi theatres in 1924. Rossiné was influenced by the ideas of Alexander Scriabin who connected sound and colour with music to produce a aesthetic synthesis – this current formed an important, almost mystical theme within Russian electronic music; through the photo-audio experiments of the 1930′s until the ANS Synthesiser (itself named after Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin- ANS) in the 1940s.

Painted glass disk of The Optophonic Piano

Painted glass disk of The Optophonic Piano

Detail of painted disk

Detail of painted disk

Vladimir Rossiné left the Soviet Union in 1925, emigrated to Paris where he continued to hold exhibitions of paintings and concerts of his instrument.The Optophonic Piano generated sounds and projected revolving patterns onto a wall or ceiling by directing a bright light through a series revolving painted glass disks (painted by Rossiné), filters, mirrors and lenses. The keyboard controlled the combination of the various filters and disks. The variations in opacity of the painted disk and filters were picked up by a photo-electric cell controlling the pitch of a single oscillator. The instrument produced a continuous varying tone which, accompanied by the rotating kaleidoscopic projections was used by Vladimir Rossiné at exhibitions and public events:
bolchoiFR
bolchoiwg
“Imagine that every key of an organ’s keyboard immobilises in a specific position, or moves a determined element, more or less rapidly, in a group of transparent filters which a beam of white light pierces, and this will give you an idea of the instrument Baranoff-Rossiné invented. There are various kinds of luminous filters: simply coloured ones optical elements such as prisms, lenses or mirrors; filters containing graphic elements and, finally, filters with coloured shapes and defined outlines. If on the top of this, you can modify the projector’s position, the screen frame, the symmetry or asymmetry of the compositions and their movements and intensity; then, you will be able to reconstitute this optical piano that will play an infinite number of musical compositions. The key word here is interpret, because, for the time being, the aim is not to find a unique rendering of an existing musical composition for which the author did not foresee a version expressed by light. In music, as in any other artistic interpretation, one has to take into account elements such as the talent and sensitivity of the musician in order to fully understand the author’s mind-frame. The day when a composer will compose music using notes that remain to be determined in terms of music and light, the interpreter’s liberty will be curtailed, and that day, the artistic unity we were talking about will probably be closer to perfection…”Extract of an original text by Baranoff Rossiné (1916) Copyright ©Dimitri Baranoff Rossine 1997 – Adherant ADAGP -
Vladimir Baranoff Rossiné. Born in 1888 at Kherson , Ukraine - Russia, died Paris, France 1944

Vladimir Baranoff Rossiné. Born in 1888 at Kherson , Ukraine – Russia, died Paris, France 1944


Sources

http://www.iencheres.com/

zdocuments of the collection of Dimitri Baranoff Rossine. Copyright © Dimitri Baranoff Rossine Paris 2010

Pravda. 2002.06.20/13:21