The Inventors of Electronic Music, Pt. 1
by David Battino and Kelli Richards
If you were a musician or composer in the 1940s or 1950s, you were likely a fan of science fiction. The future was coming: space travel was just around the corner; rock and roll would soon replace big band music as the popular sound of the day; and, if some people had their way, all music would be electronic.
The idea that music could be played without humans actually touching instruments had been with us for centuries. The organ is a prime example. Pull a lever or press a key, and air flows through pipes to make sound. But it’s all mechanical—there are no electronics involved, unless you built one like this 1939 Hammond Novachord organ with vacuum tubes. Today’s modern synthesizers are purely electronic and don’t rely on air moving through pipes to create sound. But in the early days, there was a fine line between “electronic” and “electric.”
It’s the year 1927. The world is still reeling from the Great War, and the Roaring Twenties are just beginning. In the midst of it all, a German inventor named Oskar Sala is tinkering with an electronic device in his Berlin workshop. A few hundred miles away, a French physicist named Maurice Martenot is doing exactly the same thing.
Neither of them know that a few years later, they will each be responsible for inventing one of the first electronic musical instruments in history.
This is part one of a three-part series on the inventors of electronic music. We’ll start with Oskar Sala and the Trautonium, then move on to Martenot and his instrument, before finishing off with Russian inventor Lev Sergeivich Termen (better known as Léon Theremin) and his namesake invention: the theremin.
There’s a thread on the Lab which is concerned with early electronic music and the composers who helped to shape it. I thought that it might be useful, then, to have a central blog where people can discuss and listen to these important works.
The earliest electronic instruments were invented in the late 19th century, even before the invention of radio. Over the next few decades, their sound was developed and refined by pioneers such as Thaddeus Cahill, János von Neumann, Leon Theremin and several others, who explored the possibilities of synthesizing musical sounds with complex machinery. The first true musical synthesizer was created in 1876 by Cahill; it weighed around 200 tons and took up half a room.
By the 1930s, there were only a handful of musicians working with this new technology, but they were beginning to produce some amazing results. Some of their work will be featured in this blog: most of it has been digitally remastered for your listening pleasure! I hope that you’ll enjoy discovering this forgotten music.
I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the early electronic music pioneers. I have read and heard a lot about this subject, but I usually rely on my memory to tell me what I need to know. That’s not good enough for a blog post though, so this time I decided to do research and write about it properly.
I was too young to experience the dawn of electronic music myself. My first encounter with this new sound was probably in the late 70s when Kraftwerk released Trans Europe Express (1977) and The Man-Machine (1978). I remember that these records were unlike any other music I knew or heard before. The sound was cold, mechanistic and futuristic; it was like nothing else at that time. It opened my eyes to a new world of possibilities, and it still does today.
When I was a teenager in the early 80s, I was into music. Like most teenagers, I liked rock and roll, but I also liked musicals and other styles of music. In my high school years, I had a band called “Leisure Suit” that played the hits of the 70s. When we played at parties, it wasn’t unusual for me to be the only person there who really knew the words to “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
But my favorite kind of music was electronic music. Not just synthesizer pop like “Cars” by Gary Numan or “Gold” by Spandau Ballet, but actual electronic music: electronic sounds created by machines instead of people. In those days, before Internet and digital recording changed everything, it took a lot of time and money to make electronic music. Most people couldn’t afford to do it themselves, so they had to buy records by people who did. And since they were buying records by artists they’d never heard of (because radio stations didn’t play that kind of music), they tended to stick with what they knew: rock and roll.
The first part of this post is about the role of individuals in technological change. The second part is a brief history of electronic music.
If you want to understand what’s happening today, you need to look at the past. Not just at the past of technology, but also at the past of technology reporting.
In particular, the difference between reading about tech today and reading about it back in the early 90s is instructive. Because there was a time when people were not just interested in new technologies; they were obsessed with them–and with the heroes who championed them.
Back then a new platform would come along, and everyone would write about it in breathless terms: Mosaic is going to change everything! Netscape is going to change everything! Java is going to change everything! Google will change everything! Facebook will change everything! Twitter will change everything!
Reading those stories now, you can see that they overstated things a bit. You could also see that there was some method to their madness: behind each new platform was an interesting group of hackers working on interesting problems. Which one would emerge triumphant was not obvious at the time. But whatever happened, you felt sure it would be exciting.
Fast forward two decades, and tech reporting has lost
Towards the end of World War II, experiments in sound generation using vacuum tubes were carried out in the US. These experiments would lead to the invention of the first subtractive synthesizers. The earliest compositional use of these instruments was explored by pioneers such as Milton Babbitt and Edgard Varèse in the late 1940s and early 1950s. John Cage and Pierre Boulez, arguably the most influential composers of their time, embraced electronic music as an important new medium.
The World War II-era research that led to the development of early electronic music instruments was driven by a number of different factors. Military applications such as sonar, radar, and speech obfuscation required new types of waveform generators for creating test signals. Early sound synthesis experiments were carried out by researchers such as Dr. Herbert Belar at RCA Laboratories (now Sarnoff Corporation) in Princeton, NJ, Dr. Harry Olson at RCA Laboratories in Camden, NJ, and Dr. Jurgen Meyer-Eppler at Robert Bosch GmbH in Stuttgart Germany.
Belar’s research was supported by a contract from the Office of Naval Research for developing a speech scrambler for secure military communications during WWII. This project required him to generate a