Methods of synthesising sound using a photo-electrical system flourished during the late 1920s, particularly after the development of sound-film techniques around 1926. In brief, the technique involved projecting a light beam through a transparent strip (or glass plate or rotating disk) onto a selenium cell. A graphic representation of a sound wave drawn onto the transparent surface varied the intensity of the light beam which in turn generated a variable and corresponding voltage output from the selenium cell i.e. a variable pitch corresponding to the drawn graphic. This technique was much used in Germany during the 1930s – for example: Oskar Fischinger’s sound-film based Tönende Ornamente (1932), Rudolph Pfenninger’s similar Tönende Handschrift (1932), Spielmann’s glass-disc keyboard, the Superpiano (1928) and Welte’s Licht-Ton Orgel (1936) with other examples from around the world including the Luminaphone (UK/USA 1925), the Hardy Goldthwaite Organ (USA 1930) and Pierre Toulon’s Cellulophone (F 1927). However it was in 1930s Soviet Russia that light-sound synthesis was explored with particular interest, possibly because of the mystical synaesthetic theories of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1871–1915) who, even in the 1930s, exerted an immense influence over young soviet musicians.
The Russian avant-garde composer and theorist, Arseny Mikhailovich Avraamov is probably best known for his “Simfoniya Gudkov” or “Symphony of Sirens” (November 7, 1922, Baku, USSR – an epic production which involved a score that coordinated navy ship sirens and whistles, bus and car horns, factory sirens, cannons, the foghorns of the entire Soviet flotilla of the Caspian Sea, artillery guns, machine guns, seaplanes, a specially designed “whistle main,” and renderings of Internationale and Marseillaise by a mass band and choir.) Later, however, through his pursuit of new sounds and particularly microtonal tuning, Avraamov became a central figure in soviet optical sound synthesis.
Avraamov studied at the music school of the Moscow Philharmonic Society from 1908-11 but fled the country when the first world war broke, working, among other things, as a circus artist. Avraamov returned during the revolution of 1917 where he developed his own “Ultrachromatic” 48-tone micro tonal system ( “The Universal System of Tones,” 1927). Avraamov later (1930) began to develop a technique of optical sound synthesis which involved hand-drawing geometrical representations of sound shapes and then repeatedly printing these shapes onto the audio-optical strip on a cine-film. 1Smirnov, Andrey, Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia, Walther Koenig, 2013, pp28-37. Avraamov’s technique bore a striking resemblance to those developed simultaneously by Fischinger and Pfenninger (circa 1930) in Germany, despite this similarity, it seems that both soviet and German techniques were developed in isolation.
“By knowing the way to record the most complex sound textures by means of a phonograph, after analysis of the curve structure of the sound groove, directing the needle of the resonating membrane, one can create synthetically any, even most fantastic sound by making a groove with a proper structure of shape and depth”.2 Avraamov A. ‘Upcoming Science of Music and the New Era in the History of Music’. Musical Contemporary Magazine, 1916, No.6, p.85
“Composer Arseny Avraamov at the scientific-research institute conducts the interesting experiments on a creation of the hand-drawn music. Instead of common sound recording on film by means of microphone and photocell, he simply draws on paper geometrical figures, then photographing them on sound track of the filmstrip. Afterwards this filmstrip is played as a common movie by means of film projector. Being read by photocell, amplified and monitored by loudspeaker, this filmstrip turns out to contain a well-known musical recording, while its timbre is impossible to relate to any existing musical instrument. Comrade Avraamov conducts now a study in recording of more complicated geometrical figures. For instance, to record graphical representations of the simplest algebraic equations, to draw molecular orbits of some chemical elements. In this research composer is assisted by a group of young employee of the Research Institute for Film and Photo. By the end of December Avraamov will finish his new work and to show it to the film-community. Quite possibly the listening of the abstracts of “Hand Drawn Music” will be organized in radio broadcast”3‘Drawn Music’. Kino, Moscow, 16.12.1931. Trans. AS. in: Smirnov, Sound in Z, 178
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 Avraamov, 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 1937.4Smirnov, Andrey, Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia, Walther Koenig, 2013, p181.
Much of the biographical information is from Andrey Smirnov’s pioneering work Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia, Walther Koenig, 2013. It is currently out of print but available here as a pdf download.
- 1Smirnov, Andrey, Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia, Walther Koenig, 2013, pp28-37.
- 2Avraamov A. ‘Upcoming Science of Music and the New Era in the History of Music’. Musical Contemporary Magazine, 1916, No.6, p.85
- 3‘Drawn Music’. Kino, Moscow, 16.12.1931. Trans. AS. in: Smirnov, Sound in Z, 178
- 4Smirnov, Andrey, Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia, Walther Koenig, 2013, p181.