I’ve been working on a project that I hope to be able to announce soon. It’s a program that will help people to learn the fundamentals of electronic music by letting them build synths and drum machines out of simple building blocks; it’s sort of like Lego Mindstorms for sound.
This has meant that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the history of electronic music, which has been fascinating. In particular, I’ve been reading about how the first electronic music was performed, using musical instruments built from vacuum tubes and other early electronics. And one thing that struck me is that none of these instruments were intended for use in public performances.
The Theremin, for example–the only early electronic instrument to achieve wide popularity–was never intended as a concert instrument. Its inventor, Leon Theremin, had trained as a scientist and physicist before turning his attention to music, and he was interested in creating an instrument that could reproduce sounds not usually associated with traditional musical instruments–sounds like birdcalls or car horns or sirens. The Theremin was designed (and named) with this goal in mind: “Theremin” is short for “thereminvox,” meaning “sound/voice/vocalization.”
Similarly, Bob Moog
The invented history of electronic music is very long, and the dates and events are often confused. This blog will hopefully clarify some of the confusion around the history of electronic music and hopefully correct some of the invented history that has been written about the subject.
The first electronic music was performed in the 19th century, long before there were synthesizers. Some of the most popular instruments back then were the ones you could play inside a big box, such as the harmonium and the cabinet organ.
In 1874, Leon Scott of Paris invented the Phonautograph, a machine capable of recording sound waves on a sheet of paper. In other words, it was a sound-to-paper recorder. He also built a sound-to-glass recorder, which he named Phonoscope.
Scott’s device used a stylus to make impressions on a piece of smoked glass or paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The stylus moved up and down with the air pressure changes caused by the vibrations of sound waves.
Scott’s Phonautograph could only write down sound waves, but it did so accurately enough that if you look at these writing closely enough you can tell what notes are being played by their shapes (see pictures below).
The first electronic music was produced by a completely mechanical device using steel reeds. The instrument was called the Telharmonium (or Dynamophone). It was invented in 1897 by Thaddeus Cahill, a man who many consider to be the inventor of electronic music. His invention was unique at the time, and also quite ahead of its time.
It took Cahill and his team of engineers six years to build their first prototype. This prototype weighed 200 tons and generated sound through an array of rotating dynamos, which powered oscillators built from steel reeds, similar to those found in player pianos. The sound was transmitted over telephone lines to public subscribers.
The Telharmonium had several advantages over other musical instruments of the day. First, it could produce loud sounds that would fill large concert halls without needing amplification (this made it popular with the owners of restaurants and hotels). Second, it could play for long periods of time without requiring any physical exertion on the part of the performer. Third, it could play more than one note simultaneously (unlike an organ or piano). Fourth, it could be controlled remotely over telephone lines, so that performances could be heard in other cities.
The Telharmonium had several disadvantages as well. First
The first electronic music was made for the wireless.
In the first decades of this century, inventors discovered that signals could be generated from a simple circuit consisting of a battery, an inductor and a capacitor. They used those signals to transmit morse code messages over long distances.
But in 1923, the British postmaster general refused to allow the BBC to use radio signals for entertainment purposes, so it started experimenting with telephone lines instead. This led to the discovery that telephone lines also produced signals, and these too could be amplified and converted into sound using simple equipment.
By 1930, it looked as though radio would be superseded by telephone-based audio transmission. The BBC set up a studio in Selfridges department store on Oxford Street in London and instructed people to phone in and listen via their earpieces to programmes of music transmitted down the line while they continued shopping. The shop even had its own orchestra playing live from the basement.
I haven’t even finished yet, and I have to say that I find it hard not to be impressed by what this book is doing. It’s a history of electronic music, but it’s also a history of the development of technology. One thing that comes through in this book is how many technological advances electronic music has driven. There are many examples of composers who were interested in synthesizing sounds, and because there wasn’t any equipment available to do it (or it was too expensive), they invented new techniques for getting sound out of machines. The author says that this happened all the time and that he could have filled the book with examples, but really there are only a handful in the book, so I’d like to see more.
The other thing that comes through is how much innovation happened in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. In America we think of this as kind of a dead period for composition, with Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Webern being about it for interesting stuff coming out of Europe. But there was a lot going on in electronic music; it just didn’t get exported to America until later thanks to World War II and its aftermath.
The origin of electronic music dates back to the late 19th century and early 20th century, when composers started experimenting with electrical instruments. The first known example was an experiment by German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz in 1876, which consisted of a system of tuned steel reeds tuned to octaves and fed into a resonator. When the reeds vibrated, they created complex harmonics which Helmholtz later called “tone colors.”
Another example is the well-known Theremin, invented by Russian inventor Lev Termen (Leon Theremin) in 1919. It is played by moving one’s hands in the space between two antennas on the instrument. The distance from the antennas determines the tone’s pitch, while the relative closeness of one’s hands determines its volume.
In 1930, German physicist Oskar Vierling created a more precise version of Helmholtz’s harmonium called a Schaeffer-Vierling.
And in 1933, French composer Edgard Varèse created his Poème électronique for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair. A famous account of this is given in Vladimir Ussachevsky’s memoir Wireless Fantasy: A composer’s memoirs (p. 35):