Dude, Where’s My Van? Part 17: Les Champs Magnetiques


In 1961, the composer John Cage said:

“I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the use of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.”

John Cage: The Future of Music: Credo

Well, we’ve reached the point in the series timeline where we can start to hear electrical instruments!

Who was the first musician to create their own electronic compositions? Regardless of who was first, I’m giving out some awards for pioneering efforts.

Let’s see who makes it on the stage!

Most Creative Deranged Fascist:

An important precursor to electronic music was the industrial noise of Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo, who we met previously.

In 1913, Russolo debuted his special machines, called intonarumori, to generate a host of noises that emulated the whirs and roars of the modern city. 

The intonarumori were completely acoustic devices, mechanisms guided by a hand-turned wheel that causes a catgut belt to vibrate.

Then again, they were modulators of vibration, tunable in amplitude and frequency, and so the function they served was very similar to the synthesizers of later generations. 

Loudest American:

Another important step forward was the soundtrack for the film “Ballet Mechanique.” French Artist Fernand Leger made this in 1924, with the help of the American Dudley Murphy.

Their film is a gem of Dada/Surrealist weirdness, made so much weirder by George Antheil’s musical score.

I briefly mentioned Antheil in my piece about the Jazz Age, as Paul Whiteman debuted Antheil’s fusion piece “A Jazz Symphony” in 1925. That piece, while certainly more avant garde than Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” has got absolutely nothing on “Ballet Mechanique.” 

The soundtrack is another early foray into industrial music. Like Russolo, Antheil invented many of the devices used for his aural assault—though he also used pianolas and traditional instruments as well. And like Russolo, the noise devices were mechanical in terms of how they generated sound. Still, these were electrically powered automated devices, so we’re getting closer!

Most Magnetic Personalities:

If we want the first true electronic instruments, we need to go to 1928.

That year, the theremin was patented by Leon Theremin in the Soviet Union, and the ondes Martenot (“Martenot waves”) was patented by Maurice Martenot in France. 

Theremin and Martenot both previously served in their respective military forces, and both inventors were inspired by the sounds that were produced by military radios during frequency tuning.

Both of these instruments provided an incredibly wide range of tones to play, and a whole new set of oddly beautiful sounds to work with.

Accordingly, both inventors developed devices that could generate sounds of differing tones based on the modulation of electromagnetic wave oscillation frequencies.

Interestingly, Leon Theremin’s original design for his device had nothing to do with music.

In fact, his priority was espionage. Theremin sought to develop a proximity detection device that would emit a sound to indicate the presence of an intruder.

His prototype achieved this feat, and more: the emitted tone could be modulated depending on the location of his hand relative to the receiver. 

However, Theremin was also a cellist, and soon realized the musical potential of his creation.

This was an instrument that could be played without any physical contact, as if one were playing the air itself.

Vladimir Lenin saw great potential as well, and he sent Theremin and his creation around the world to showcase the importance of the Soviet Union to the dawn of the modern age. 

While Theremin gained prominence over the years for his strange new musical device, he also worked clandestinely on other innovations that remained a secret for some time.

He developed the first covert listening device, or bug, which he planted in a large wooden seal, which was gifted to an American ambassador, who hung it on his office wall for seven years before the device was discovered.

Alas, Maurice Martenot did not have quite so colorful a biography. Instead, he spent much of his time throughout his life improving upon his signature instrument:

Providing a keyboard-like visual design for easier playing of notes, a later playable keyboard, different speaker types, increased control of timbre, microtone and vibrato, etc.

So while the theremin was a more elegant device than the ungainly ondes Martenot, the latter instrument would offer musicians a much wider range of playable sounds. 

Still, both instruments helped open the gateway to new possibilities in music, and the most adventurous composers of the time soon jumped on the chance to pursue those possibilities in their works.

Most Dedicated Fanboy:

Perhaps the first person to include electronic instruments in their work was Edgar Varese, that French-born ultra-modernist we met last time.

Varese had composed Ameriques in 1921, but once the ondes Martenot was announced in 1928, he started revising his work to include the new instrument, to replace what had originally been a fire siren. 

Then, in 1934, Varese wrote the piece Ecuatorial, which included two theremins. 

Admittedly, the role of the theremins there was more as support than as the main feature. Gliding through gargantuan blocks of drums, brass, organ, and operatic vocals is an eerie whistle that’s equal parts sweet and shrill.

The theremin offers some welcome breathing spots, some short reprieve from the tension that runs throughout the work. Yet, taken as a whole, Ecuatorial has an otherworldly sound to it, both from the ghostly electronic whines and how they undulate against the more frantic components.

Varese and Leon Theremin had met at least once, and Varese was hoping they eventually would be able to work together on modifications to the instrument. Alas, the inventor/spy was spirited back to the Soviet Union in 1938, before a collaboration could happen. Varese would continue to play with electronic elements in his music throughout his career.

Most Heroic of the Villains:

Regarding the electroacoustic experimentation technique known as “musique concrete,” most people tend to cite Pierre Schaeffer as the inventor, around 1948. 

Some have more recently pointed out that an Egyptian musician Halim El Dabh made an electroacoustic work as early as 1944.

But why does nobody talk about Walter Ruttman or Dziga Vertov? They each made some truly strange and innovative sonic manipulations, sound collages that fit the bill for musique concrete. Yet their work was made almost two decades before Schaeffer ever tried his hand at it. 

German artist Walter Ruttman had previously worked with Carl Meyer of Dr. Caligari fame to create a narrative-free symphony film about the city of Berlin—an early template for the 80s film Koyaanisqatsi.

He then made the film Weekend in 1928, and it was released in 1930. This was a “sound-film,” meaning there were no images, only sounds. Some of the sounds were conventional recordings of dialogue and parades, while others were clearly manipulated to sound disjointed and alien. 

Once Hitler came into power, the pacifist Ruttman worked as a filmmaker within the Nazi Party. In 1934, he was working on a documentary about the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, when Hitler found his editing style to be “too Communist,” and he was fired. Leni Riefenstahl took the job, and the documentary became her famous Triumph of the Will.

Speaking of Communists, Dziga Vertov made some even more weird and wonderful films within the Soviet regime.

In 1922, Vertov began making short silent news reels that started off normal enough, but the series grew increasingly experimental as he went on, featuring rapid transitions from one shot to the next.

In 1929, he made the film The Man With a Movie Camera, now considered a landmark of avant garde cinema, but panned at the time.

Legendary Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein dismissed it as “camera hooliganism.”

Vertov made his first sound film with the 1931 documentary Enthusiasm.

The film is ostensibly trying to convey to the people of Russia the beauty of industrial development, but only in the most obscure and inscrutable ways possible.

And then there’s the soundtrack. Interspersed with some speech segments and some musical passages are odd, distorted loops of sound, crafted by Vertov.

I can’t help imagining Stalin watching the film and thinking: “What in the hell is this crap?”

It was terrible propaganda, for sure. But it’s a riveting and hilarious experience as avant garde nuttiness. And with its soundtrack, I argue that Vertov’s place in musical history is concrete.

Most Heavenly Moment to Precede Hell:

If we want the first original and purely electronic musical piece, we have to go to 1937.

That year, an International Expo was held in Paris, France.

These expos are known as World’s Fairs in the US, and they allowed the most powerful industrial nations to come together and wow their rivals with impressive advancements in architecture, technology, and art.

It was at the 1937 Paris Expo that Picasso debuted his Guernica painting, to lament the region’s bombing by Spain’s rising fascist Francisco Franco. 

This year’s event also happened to feature the two most prominent authoritarian superpowers in attendance: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It would be another two years before those nations would erupt into war with one another, but even in this peacetime context the tension was palpable. Incidentally, both Germany and the Soviet Union won medals for their respective architectural feats, though Germany ultimately came out on top with the grand prize.

For one evening of the Expo, there would be a festival of light and water, featuring fountain jets, fireworks, and music from some of France’s top composers.

20 composers were enlisted to provide one musical piece of 30 minutes each to be played through the evening.

Olivier Messiaen was one of the 20 composers chosen for this soiree, and he decided to write a piece to invoke the beauty and mystery of the fountains at night.

His composition, Fete des Belles Eaux (Festival of Beautiful Waters) was written for six Ondes Martenot, a rarity both then, and now given how hard the instruments are to come by.

As a musical snapshot of the nighttime fountain scene, Messiaen was right on the money.

There are periods of slow, quiet undulations and others of dramatic “jets” of tones rising and falling, all of it marked by a dark and elegant beauty. The piece also shows off the versatility of the ondes Martenot, providing sounds that range from flutelike sonorities to the square-wave squelches of analog synthesizers not yet invented.

By today’s standards the piece is not far off from Wendy Carlos’ Moog synthesizer compositions some 30 years after this debuted.

Several of Messiaen’s later pieces would feature the Ondes Martenot, though none with so exclusive a focus as his sextet for the Paris Expo.

Most Hip of the Hipsters:

Around the same time, John Cage was just starting to make his mark as a composer.

Though he would later grow even more radical in his approach to music, Cage had always been driven to find new sounds to explore. Inspired by Henry Cowell’s inventive use of piano strings in The Banshee and Sinister Resonance, Cage wrote his first piece for “prepared piano” in 1938.

The work featured a piano with small objects, such as wood screws or bolts, placed on its strings. The  weighted objects help to diversify the piano’s range of playable sounds, and to emphasize its resonant percussive properties.

Just one year later, he would include electronically generated sounds in his 1939 work, Imaginary Landscape, No. 1. This was unique in being the first piece of electro-acoustic performance music, as it required two musicians to each play a vinyl LP of recorded tones via turntable.

The theremin-like oscillations featured in the piece come from the musicians’ steady manipulation of the turntables’ playing speeds. 

The high sharp tones of the vinyl recordings swim through darker clouds of resonance from a hand-muted piano and a Chinese gong. To me, Landscape evokes the rocky terrain of an alien world: strange, desolate, unnerving, and captivating.

As the opening quote suggests, Cage would continue to incorporate electronic sounds into his work. We’ll be sure to encounter him again at some point. 

Tune in for later awards shows in which any and all sounds are made available to those on the proper wavelength. Until then!

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Phylum of Alexandria

Committed music junkie. Recovering academic. Nerd for life.

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Famed Member
November 2, 2023 7:21 am

This is a little off the beaten trail, but I like to share whenever there’s an opportunity.

Here’s Orkestra Obsolete playing New Order’s “Blue Monday” using any instruments available in the 1930s. I used to wonder why composers weren’t experimenting with sounds like this, but it seems they were!

Famed Member
November 2, 2023 7:59 am

Fascinating stuff, here, Phylum. To understand the rise of the synthesizer in popular music and otherwise, these lesser known corridors must be explored and you did a good job of enlightening us here. I definitely need to check some of this stuff out. I knew some of these names from my music studies, but the majority of it was unfamiliar to me, or long forgotten.

Famed Member
November 2, 2023 5:58 pm

Oh, that name is very familiar.

Famed Member
November 2, 2023 9:21 am

My username comes from an electronic instrument, so of course I am interested in this

Famed Member
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November 2, 2023 9:50 am

Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead uses a ondes Martenot on several songs. It’s a really interesting instrument. Good stuff, Phylum!

Famed Member
November 2, 2023 10:14 am

Not a comment on the article, but the TITLE mt put in today’s header:

Billboard decided to shorten their eligibility window for their year-end charts this year to mid-October.

That’s because they want it revealed in time not for their final issue of the year as has been the case forever, but for their awards show in November that nobody cares about.

JJ Live At Leeds
Famed Member
November 2, 2023 12:58 pm

Lots of fascinating trivia here, nevermind the music. Had no idea of the backstory of Theremin and Dziga Vertov’s work is one of those where the description is way more entertaining than my inclination to subject myself to it.

Famed Member
November 2, 2023 5:20 pm

Luigi Russolo is a fascist? I play “Awakening to the City” a lot. No idea.

Famed Member
November 2, 2023 11:13 pm

Luigi Russolo didn’t know who his audience was.

I’m going to make myself sad if I write about Morrissey.

Ariel Pink, now.that’s easier. I’m not a huge David Bowie fan, but I don’t think the two names belong in the same sentence. And yet, I have to make allowances for people who have no connection to rock classicism. I quite enjoyed The Beatles debate on the mothership. I mostly stayed out of it.

Ariel Pink’s fans are not the gatherers who showed up at the state capitol.during the first week of January 2021.

Indie rock, too, does not mix well with extremism.

I play “Risveglio di un Citta”, too. Oh, no. I’ll translate the sentence later on.

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