Electric Oscillations: The Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio: Part I
Dr. Friedrich Trautwein the Radio Experimental Laboratory
The story of The Studio for Electronic Music at the WDR is linked to the earlier work of two German instrument makers, Dr. Friedrich Trautwein and Harold Bode. Two institutions were also critical precursors for the development of the technology around electronic music, the Heinrich Hertz Institute for Research on Oscillations and the Staatlich-akademische Hochschule für Musik. For the latter, in particular, the opening of its Rundfunkversuchstelle, or Radio Experimental Lab, will be briefly explored as they important in the history of radio and electronic music. The philosophical and aesthetic milieu surrounding what was called “electrical music” in Germany at the time, became one of the intellectual cornerstones from which the studio in Cologne was created.
Dr. Friedrich Trautwein was born on August 11, 1888 in Würzburg, Germany and became an engineer with strong musical leanings. After beginning an education in physics, he quit and turned his attentions to law, so he could work for the post office in the capacity of a patent lawyer, and protect intellectual properties around developments in radio technology. When WWI broke out he became the head of a military radio squadron. The experience cemented his love for communications technology. After the war ended he went on to receive a PhD in electrical engineering. Between 1922 and 1924 he got two patents under his belt, one for generating musical notes with electrical circuits. Trautwein then went to Berlin in 1923 where worked at the first German radio station, the Funk-Stunde AG Berlin.
On May 3, 1928 the the Staatlich-akademische Hochschule für Musik (State-Academic University of Music) opened their new department the Rundfunkversuchstelle (RVS) or the Radio Experimental Lab. One of their goals was of researching new directions and possibilities associated with the development of radio broadcasting. At the time in Germany, much thought was going into the way music was played and heard over the radio. There were many issues around noise and fidelity on early broadcasting equipment and receiver sets that made listening to symphonies, opera singers and other music not as pleasant to listen to when it came over the air. Some people thought it was because listening to a radio broadcast was just different from the way music was perceived when at a concert hall or music venue. These minds thought that a new form of music should be created specifically for the medium. This idea for a new musical aesthetic came to be known as rundfunkmusik, or radio-music and neue sachlichkeit, or the new objectivity. The RVS was in part established to explore the possibilities of radio-music.
In 1930 Trautwein was hired as a lecturer on the subject of electrical acoustics for the RVS. One of the other goals of the institution was to create new musical instruments that specifically catered to the needs of radio. An overarching goal was to create new tonalities that would electrify the airwaves and sing out in greater fidelity inside people’s homes on their receiving sets. It was at RVS that Trautwein collaborated with the composers Paul Hindemith, Georg Schünemann and the musician Oskar Sala to create his instrument the trautonioum. Another objective Trautwein had during his time at RVS was to analyze problems around the electronic reproduction and transmission of sound, like Harvey Fletcher and others had at Bell Labs. Unlike the people at Bell Labs, the RVS was specifically part of a music conservatory, and though they also had the goal of clarifying speech, they were very interested in electronic music. It took Bell Labs until the 1950s to get in on that game.
One of the aims of the trautonium was to be an instrument that could be used in the home among family members for what the Germans called hausmusik. They wanted it to be able to mimic the sounds of many other instruments in a way similar to an organ. To achieve this aim they worked with various resistors and capacitors and employed a glow lamp circuit to create the fundamental frequencies. Changes in resistance and capacitance on the circuit altered the frequency. Trautwein also added additional resonance circuits to his design that were tuned to different frequencies. He connected these to high and low pass filters that could then create formants with the sound. All this control over the sound led to the ability to create very unusual tonalities alongside the familiar and traditional.
Changes in tone color were made available with the turn of a dial. A new sound could be dialed in just as a new station could be listened to by turning the knob of radio. Tone color isn’t static either, but changes as the sound moves through time. This is the acoustical envelope of a sound, and Trautwein took this into consideration when designing his instrument.
In their search for rich tonalities Trautwein and his colleagues stumbled across the mystery of the vowels. Preceding Homer Dudley’s vocoder by eight years, it became the first instrument able to reproduce the sounds of the vowels. This led Trautwein and Sala to discover the many similarities that exist between vowel sounds and the timbre of a variety of instruments.
Trautwein compared the oscilliograms of spoken vowel formants with those played by the trautonium and found that they conformed to each other. “The trautonium is an electrical analogy of the sound creation of the human speech organs” he wrote in his 1930 paper Elektische Musik. “The scientific significance lies in the physico-phsyiological impression of the synthetically generated sounds compared with the timbre of numerous musical instruments and speech sounds. This suggests that the physical processes are related in many cases.”
For the first iteration of the instrument there were knobs for changing the formants and timbre, and a pedal for changing the volume. The process it used to change the tone color was an early form of subtractive synthesis that simply filtered down an already complex waveform, rather than building one up by adding sine waves together.
On June 20th 1930 a demonstration of the Trautonium was given at the New Music in Berlin festival. This was to be an “Electric Concert” and one of the main attractions was the premiere of Paul Hindemith’s Trio-Pieces written for the instrument. On one of the three instruments Hindemith himself played the top part with Trautwein and Oskar Sala playing the middle voice. A piano-teacher named Rudolph Schmidt played the bass portion.
A commercial version of the instrument, dubbed the Volkstrautonium, was manufactured and distributed by the German radio equipment company Telefunken starting in 1932, but it was expensive and difficult to learn to play, and so remained unpopular. The company managed to only sell about two a year, and so by 1938 the product was discontinued. Composers remained were somewhat interested in its abilities and Hindemith, who had acted as an advisor to Trautwein, wrote the Concertina for Trautonium and Orchestra in 1940.
Oskar Sala became a virtuoso on the instrument and would play compositions by Niccolò Paganini on it. In time, he took over the further development of the trautonium and created his his own variations- the Mixtur-Trautonium, The Concert-Trautonium and the Radio – Trautonium. He continued to champion it until his death in 2002. Famously, the sound of the birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of the same name is not sourced from real birds, but come from the Mixtur-Trautonium as played by Sala.
In 1935 the RVS was shutdown by Joseph Goebbels, but it did not disappear entirely as its various elements were diffused into different parts of the music school. After WWII, Trautwein had a hard time getting a job because he had been a card-carrying Nazi. He did build a few more instruments, including the Amplified Harpischord in 1936 and the Electronic Bells in 1947. A modified version of the original Trautonium called the Monochord (not to be confused with the stringed instrument and learning tool of the same name) was purchased by the Electronic Music Studio at the WDR in 1951, as detailed below. His later legacy was to create the first sound engineering programs in Dusseldorf in 1952.
Harold Bode and the Heinrich Hertz Institute for Research on Oscillations
Harold Bode was the next instrument maker to place his stamp upon the Electronic Music Studio at WDR, and later added a few flourishes to the work done at the Columbia-Princeton Center for Electronic Music. He was born the son of a pipe organ player, and in his own time became an inventor of musical instruments. He had studied mathematics, physics and natural philosophy at Hamburg University. His first instrument was the Warbo-Formant Organ in 1937, a completely electronic polyphonic formant organ. New sounds could be created on it by simply adjusting its half-rotary and stop knobs.
Bode’s next step for further education was the Heinrich-Hertz-Institut für Schwingungsforschungin or the Heinrich Hertz Institute for Research in Oscillations (HHI), located in Berlin where he went for his postgraduate studies. At the time the HHI had a focus on the following subjects: high frequency radio technology, telephony and telegraphy, acoustics and mechanics. The research done at the HHI had a focus on radio, television, sound-movie technology, architectural acoustics and the new field of electronic music. The HHI, like the RVS, was interested in developing and promoting the idea of electronic music and radio-music.
It was in this phase that Bode developed his Melodium, alongside his collaborators Oskar Vierling and Fekko von Ompteda. The Melodium was a touch-sensitive monophonic yet multi-timbral instrument that became popular with film score composers of the era. Since it was monophonic, it presented fewer problems with tuning than had his wobbly Warbo-Formant Organ. Feeling inspired by his achievement, Bode then decided that creating electronic musical instruments would be “the task of my life time.”
His dream was put on hold when WWII broke out in 1939. Despite the dire conflict, and the spiritual sickness at work in his country, Bode counted himself lucky for being able to go into the electronics industry. The only other choice was active military duty. He still did make things for the German project, but he wasn’t a foot soldier, and worked on their submarine sound and wireless communications efforts.
In the aftermath of WWII he was newly married and moved from Berlin to a small village in southern Germany where he tinkered on his next invention up in the attic lab of the home where he had started a family. The result was the first iteration of the Melochord in 1947.
The Melochord was a two-tone melody keyboard instrument. Its most interesting features were the controls for shaping formants that included various filters to attenuate the sound, ring modulation for harmonics, and the ability to generate white noise and apply attack and decay envelopes. The Melochord was promoted on the radio and in the newspapers, where it was praised for its clear and resonant tones.
Werner Meyer-Eppler got wind of the Melochord and started to use it in his experiments at the Bonn. There was a lot of skill that went into playing the Melochord, and while Meyer-Eppler experimented, Bode set his sights on making a more user friendly version called the Polychord that became that first in a series synthesis type organs that Bodes took on his path of continued electronic creation.
Genesis of the Studio for Electronic Music
Just as the GRM had been built around a philosophy of the transformation of sound, so too was the Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio (WDR) built around a philosophy of the synthesis of sound. Werner Meyer-Eppler was the architect of the strategies to be employed in this laboratory, and the blueprint was his book, Elektronische Klangerzeugung: Elektronische Musik und Synthetische Sprache (Electronic Sound Generation: Electronic Music and the Synthetic Speech). This philosophy placed the emphasis on building up the sounds from scratch, out of oscillators and lab equipment. This was in contrast to the metamorphic, transformational approach purveyed by Schaeffer and Henry with musique concrete. Tape, however, remained an essential lifeblood for both studios.
Meyer-Eppler was still lecturing at the Institute for Phonetics and Communication Research of Bonn University while he wrote his book. In his book he had made an inventory of the electronic musical instruments which had so far been developed. Then Meyer-Eppler experimented at the Bonn with what became a basic electronic music process, composing music directly onto tape. One of the instruments Meyer-Eppler had used in his experiments was Harold Bode’s Melochord, and he also used vocoders. He encouraged his students to hear the sounds from the vocoder mixed with the sounds from the Melochord as a new kind of music.
The genesis of the Studio for Electronic Music came in part from the transmission and recording of a late-night radio program about electronic music on October 18, 1951. A meeting of minds was held in regards to the program broadcast on the Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk. At the meeting were Meyer-Eppler, and his colleagues Herbert Eimert, and Robert Beyer among others. Beyer had long been a proponent of a music oriented more towards its timbre than other considerations. Eimert was a composer and musicologist who had published a book on atonal music in the 1920s while still at school at the Cologne University of Music. He had also written a twelve-tone string quartet as part of his composition examination. For these troubles, his teacher Franz Bölsche had Eimert expelled him from the class. Eimert was devout when it came to noise, twelve tone music and serialism and he became a relentless advocate who organized concerts, events, radio shows and wrote numerous articles on this subject of his passion. He eventually did graduate with a doctorate in musicology in 1931 despite the attempts by Bölsche to thwart his will. Fritz Enkel who had also been at the meeting, was a skilled technician, and he designed a framework around which a studio for electronic music could be built. The station manager, Hans Hartmann, heard a report of the meeting and gave the go ahead to establish an electronic music studio.
Creating such a studio would give national prestige to Western Germany. After the war Western Germany took great pains to be seen as culturally progressive, and having a place where the latest musical developments could be explored and created by their artists was a part of showing to the world that they were moving forward. Another reason to develop the studio was to use its output for broadcasting. At the time WDR was the largest and wealthiest broadcaster in West Germany and they could use their pool of funds to create something that would have been cost prohibitive for most private individuals and companies.
Before they even got the equipment, when they felt the studio might not even get off the ground and become a reality, they made a demonstration piece to broadcast and show the possibilities of what else might be able to be achieved. Studio technician Heinz Schütz was tapped to make this happen, even though he didn’t consider himself a composer or musician. The fact that a non-musician was the first to demonstrate the potential of making music in an electronic studio is apropos of the later development of the field when people like Joe Meek and Brian Eno, who also didn’t call themselves musicians, none-the-less made amazing music with the studio as their instrument. The piece by Schütz was titled Morgenröte (The Red of Dawn) to signify the beginning of their collective efforts. The piece was made with limited means, using just what they had available, and its producer considered its creation to be at most, accidental.
The piece by Schütz was typical of what came out of the studio before funding was secured. They didn’t have much to work with except tape, test equipment, and recordings of Meyer-Eppler’s previous work with the Melochord and vocoders. Eimert and Beyer “remixed” these experiments while they got their set-up established. The process of working with the tapes and test equipment gave them the experience and confidence they needed for further work in their laboratory of sound creation.
Eimert and Beyer eventually put together some other sound studies as the studio came together piece by piece. These largely followed a “pure audio criteria” and were premiered at the Neues Musikfest (New Music Festival) presentation on May 26, 1953 at the broadcasting studio of the Cologne Radio Centre. The event marked the official opening of the WDR studio. Put together quickly, the pieces played did not live up to the standards Eimert had set for the studio, and this caused a falling out between him and Beyer, who thought they were adequate enough. The next year Beyer resigned.
Eventually Bode’s Melochords and Trautwein’s Monochord were acquired, and each was modified specifically for use in the studio. Once in place the studio really got cooking. Next to these they used electronic laboratory equipment such as noise and signal generators, sine wave oscillators, band pass filters, octave filters, and pulse and ring modulators, among others. Oscilliscopes were used to look at sounds. Mixers were used to blend them together. There was a four-track tape recorder they used to synchronize sounds that had been recorded separately and join them in musical union. It could be used to overdub sounds on top of each over as one tape was being copied to another, a then-new technique developed from Meyer-Eppler’s ideas. The mixer had a total of sixteen channels divided into two groups of eight. There was a remote control to operate the four track and the attached octave filter. A cross-plug busbar panel served as a central locus where all the other inputs and outputs met. Connections could be switched with ease between instruments and sound sources, as if one were transferring a call at a telephone switchboard.
Soon one of the early pieces of electronic music was transmuted from the raw electrons forged within its crucible of equipment into an enduring classic that showcased Karlheinz Stockhausen’s burgeoning genius.
Read the rest of the Radio Phonics Laboratory: Telecommunications, Speech Synthesis and the Birth of Electronic.
Schütz, Heinz, Gottfried Michael Koenig, Konrad Boehmer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Mauricio Kagel, and Rolf Gehlhaar. 2002. "Erinnerungen 2: Studio für Elektronische Musik". In Musik der Zeit, 1951–2001: 50 Jahre Neue Musik im WDR—Essays, Erinnerungen, Dokumentation, edited by Frank Hilberg and Harry Vogt, 147–54. Hofheim: Wolke.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.