The history of electronic musical instruments from 1800 to 2019
‘DIMI’ & Helsinki Electronic Music Studio, Erkki Kurenniemi. Finland, 1961
The DIMI (Digital Music Instrument) series synthesisers were the work of the Finnish pioneer in electronic art and all-round visionary, Erkki Kurenniemi. Kurenniemi’s career encompassed computer-based music, electronic engineering, film and robotics.
In 1962 Kurenniemi volunteered to construct the electronic music studio for The Institute of Musicology at the University of Helsinki. The studio had a leading role in the development of Scandinavian electronic music and is still functioning today, it is the oldest electronic music studio still in active use in Scandinavia. The studio was used by Kurenniemi for his own compositions including the improvised ‘On/Off ; “my first and so far best electronic composition. Its name reflects the idea that in a distant future computer music studio the only control should be an ON/OFF switch.”. From 1963 onwards other composers began to visit the studio including Reijo Jyrkiäinen, Henrik Otto Donner, Bengt Johansson, Erkki Salmenhaara. Through the studio the Finnish Avant-garde scene established strong links with Karlheinz Stockhausen and the WDR studio in Darmstad, Germany – the leading influence on electronic music at the time
Kurenniemi worked at the university studio until the end of the sixties, when he left to found his company Digelius Electronics Ltd to build and market his electronic instrument designs. The company was funded by The Finnish National Fund for Research and Development to develop the DIMI-A but, By 1972 the company had collapsed:
“Digelius Electronics, the company founded to manufacture and market digital instruments, crashed, and I moved to industrial robotics. Jukka Ruohomäki, a Finnish pioneer of electronic music, wrote a sophisticated piece of software called DISMAL for the Dimi-6000. It was in effect a music assembly language. But then the world was not interested in code twiddling. It wanted to twiddle knobs instead and pound keyboards.”
After the collapse of Digelius, Kurenniemi pursued a varied career in robotics (at Rosenlew in the 1970s’), computing (Kurenniemi is credited with creating the first commercially available microcomputer in 1973), artificial intelligence, as ‘automation designer’ in Nokia’s cable division in the early eighties, and as head of exhibition planning at the Heureka Science Center in Vantaa (Finland) from 1987 to 1999. Today Kurenniemi works as an independent researcher, specialising in subjects such as artificial intelligence. Kurenniemi’s instruments still exist and function at the Musicology Institute in Helsinki.
The DIMI A
“the Institute of Musicology could not afford a computer, not even a PDP-8. There was a rumour of a “microcomputer,” a “computer-on-a-chip” coming. It sounded unbelievable. The first DIMI instrument was to be as powerful as a computer, but cheaper.”
The instrument consisted of two oscillators, octave dividers, digital attenuators, three modulators, and two analogue octave filter banks and was played using two electronic pens.
The DIMI-T or ‘Electroencephalophone’, 1970
Dimi-E was not a actual ‘digital’ instrument but an electronic unit that registered a weak EEG signal from the users earlobe. This signal was filtered and amplified and used as a control source for a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO).
“The original idea was to build four of these instruments, and let the musicians to go to sleep while hearing each other’s generated sounds. During sleep there appears in the EEG slow high-amplitude delta waves, and short duration “sleep spindles.” Would the brain waves of the sleeping players get synchronized? This test was never made.”
The DIMI-S or “Sexophone” 1971
Was a six player ‘fun’ version of the DIMI-T. Handcuffs and wires connected the players to the central electronic unit which measured the electrical resistance between all six pairs. “When two people touched each other repeatedly, a sequence of musical tones were heard. With increasing skin moisture and contact area, the intensity of the music increased. “
The DIMI-O or “Optical Organ” 1971
The company Digelius Electronics was founded to develop Kurenniemi’s instruments including the Dimi-0, an optical video synthesiser. The instrument synthesised music by reading a digitised image. The 1 bit video input had a resolution of 32 (time) by 48 (pitch: equivalent to four octaves). The original intention was to have an instrument that could read a musical score but it was soon used to experiment with more interactive techniques such as allowing a dancer to create sounds by movements. Kurenniemi demonstrated the instruments capabilities in an early piece of interactive art the 11 minute long film ‘DIMI Ballet’ (1971)
The DIMI-600 (1972)
The last “and most unsuccessful” in the series was Dimi-6000, an analogue voltage controlled synthesizer using the then new Intel 8008 based microcomputer. The computer ran a control programme specially written for the instrument called DISMAL (Digelius System Music Assembly Language) in effect a music assembly language the complexity of which lead to the instruments lack of popularity and the eventual downfall of the Digelius company.