The Akaphon. Hellmut Gottwald, Austria 1963

The Akaphon at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria. ©  Technisches Museum Wien
The Akaphon at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria. © Technisches Museum Wien

In 1958 the composer Karl Schiske and the pianist  Karl Wolleitner, following the development of electronic music in Paris (GRM) and Germany (WDR), founded the Electronic Music studio at the Vienna Music Academy. The sound engineer Hellmut Gottwald (1938–2004) was employed to design and technically direct the studio. Gottwald built numerous components and devices including the Akapiep (‘aka Beep’) an instrument for producing polyrhythmic compositions and the Akaschieb (‘Aka shifter’) an audio processing filter bank and finally in 1963, the Akaphon (the ‘Aka’ in the name referring to the Vienna ‘Akademie’).

The instrument itself was a one-off custom built polyphonic synthesiser, with 13 germanium transistors oscillators played by a keyboard manual built into the frame of an upright piano to keep the cost down. Each oscillator could be individually tuned with a variable potentiometer and modified using an LFO and variable filters. Uniquely, the wave form was shaped using opto-couplers to create attack, decay and sustain of each note.

The Akaphon at the  Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria
The Akaphon at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria. © Technisches Museum Wien

The Akaphon was used as the main electronic instrument at the academy until 1978 when it was replaced by a digital realtime sound processor called the AKA 200 designed by Peter Mechtler.

Gottwald’s Akaphon is preserved at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria.

Helmutt Gottwald
Helmutt Gottwald (1938–2004)

Dieter Kaufmann remembers Hellmut Gottwald;

Hellmut Gottwald (1938–2004) was one of the most important partners and stimuli in my “electroacoustic existence.” When in 1959 he was recruited to the studio at what was then the Vienna Academy of Music and Performing Arts, the studio was equipped with devices to measure, generate and reproduce electronic frequencies, until then mainly used to measure the hearing ability of students hoping to be accepted or to document performances, but there was no “wizard” who knew how to use them creatively. Until the courses in “Sound engineering” and “Electronic music” were set up in the mid-1960s, Gottwald was practically the driving force behind the new technology. He made contact with composers and persuaded them to discover the new sound possibilities.

He was probably most successful at this with Anestis Logothetis, whose twenty-minute work Fantasmata, created as early as 1960, represents a milestone in the history of composition with electronic media. In Austria, it was in any event the first larger work to mediate between concrete and synthetic music – between noise and sine wave, between Paris and Cologne, as it were – and to demonstrate the electronic processing of speech (even before Herbert Eimert) and the inclusion of political references of the time (the Congo war). Although designed as a ballet, as far as I know it has never been danced to.

In the 1960s, Friedrich Cerha, Otto M. Zykan, Günther Kahowez, Klaus-Peter Sattler, Franz Blaimschein and Heinz Karl Gruber were also working on the creation of electronic works that would certainly have never been created without Hellmut Gottwald. Visitors were also allowed to use the creative climate: with Gottwald’s assistance, Boris Blacher created radio play music; Kurt Rapf required Gottwald to create a bottom B that should sound like a concentration camp – and got it; Fatty George found what he was looking for in terms of electronics for use on the radio …

In order to meet all these demands, Gottwald was forever designing and building new devices, starting with filters that he made using Matador components, through the akapiep and the akaschieb and finishing with the legendary akaphon. In the 1963/64 academic year, the course in electroacoustic music was set up at the Institute, and in the same year, Gottwald began to build an electronic instrument that can be regarded as the precursor of the later voltage-controlled synthesizer. He called the instrument the akaphon, in homage to the Academy of Music. To keep costs down, he used the casing of an old upright piano.

He himself also created examples of music on this early synthesizer, such as akaphon adaptations of well-known works (such as The Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov) or independent electroacoustic works (such as Hommage à Mailüfterl, dedicated to the eponymous development by the Vienna computing guru Heinz Zemanek). And always he was making inventions using the simplest of means that practically always worked perfectly. And sometimes it was necessary to kick or implore the machine – after all this was the age of analogue technology.

Many hundreds of kilos of equipment were dragged into performing rooms when I began teaching on the studio course in 1970, soon replacing the previous head Friedrich Cerha in this function. My aim was to acquire a broader public for the new medium, inconceivable without the master of the technology … And so together we brought sound to rooms in Austria and abroad.

Hellmut Gottwald, who in his leisure time was a champion dressage show-jumper, later ran his own company, developing circuits for traffic lights, the electronics for machines to sole shoes, or to make indestructible car tires; he was even asked to provide the foam for trenches in the Middle East war. It stimulated him to try to make the apparently impossible both possible and easy, and in that he succeeded.

The Akaphon at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria
The Akaphon at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria

From ‘ A brief History of The Institute of Electroacoustics and Experimental Music at the Vienna University of Music’ by Tamas Ungvary & Peter Mechtler

The composer Karl Schiske (1916-1969) and the pianist and producer Karl Wolleitner (b. 1919) already in 1955 planned to establish a studio for “Elektronische Musik” at the “Vienna Academy of Music”.The installation of the Viennese studio was definitively completed by Wolleitner in 1958/59, being perhaps the first Studio to be established at a School of Music in Europe.

In 1959/60, the first significant electroacoustic composition ever realized in Austria was produced in this studio, the ballet “Fantasmata” from Anestis Logothetis (1921-94) with the technical assistance of the sound enginneer Helmut Gottwald (b. 1938). The piece, tending to the French “musique concrete” approach already anticipates the future aesthetic development of the studio. In the academic year of 1963/64 the course of electroacoustic music has been founded.

In the same year, Gottwald started to build an electronic instrument which could be regarded as a forerunner of the voltage controlled synthesizer. This instrument, called AKAPHON as hommage to the “Musikakademie”, was used for many years as a source for electronic sounds and is now is a part of the collection in the Museum of Technology in Vienna. In the next year other electronic instruments, the AKAPIEP and the AKASCHIEB, were build. The first was a rhythm machine which allowed the production of unusual polyrhythmic structures. The second a kind of third filter bank graphic equalizer.

During the sixties aproximately 20 pieces have been produced by avantgarde composers like Karl Heinz Gruber, Gunter Kahowez, Peter Kotik, Friedrich Cerha and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. The last two were latter sucessively appointed institute directors. In 1970 the composer Dieter Kaufmann (b. 1941), former student of Schiske, came back from a period of studies in Paris, where he attended the classes of Olivier Messiaen and Rene Leibowitz, as well as the course offered by the GRM (the “Groupe de Recherches Musicales”) under guidance of Pierre Schaeffer and Francois Bayle. His engagement as head of the course of electroacoustic music in the Viennese studio, now raised to the status of an institute inside the school of music, gave a new impulse to the spreading of the new form of music in Austria, also beyond the academic sectors.

In 1978 a digital system for real time sound processing controlled by a graphic interface., AKA 2000, was build by Peter Mechtler. The catalogue of works realized at the Institute increased in the seventies in more than 70 compositions from Austrian and foreign composers. To mention some names: Kaufmann, Wilhelm Zobl, Camila Soederberg, John Maryn, Wolfgang Danzmayr, Logothetis, Riszard Klisowski, Bruno Liberda, Gunther Rabl, Christian Teuscher, Mayako Kubo. The Institute moved to a new location and the composers Haubenstock-Ramati, Erich Urbanner and Francis Burt sucessively took the direction of the Institute in the eighties.


“Österreichs neue Musik nach 1945”: Karl Schiske edited by Markus Grassl, Reinhard Kapp, Eike Rathgebe

“The Institute of Electroacoustics and Experimental Music at the Vienna University of Music” Ungvary, Tamas; Mechtler, Peter. Volume 1995, 1995

Zauberhafte Klangmaschinen: Von der Sprechmaschine bis zur Soundcard (First Edition)by Florian Cramer, Kulturfabrik Hainburg
Gebundene Ausgabe, 250 Pages, Published 2008 ISBN-10: 3-7957-0197-X / 379570197X

Technisches Museum Wien
Bereichsleitung Sammlung Musikinstrumente
Mariahilferstrasse 212
1140 Wien

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