Electro-Musical Oddities. This lecture by Terry B. Ewell presents an overview of 20th century applications of electricity to unusual musical instruments. Lecture 13 created for “Music, Technology, and Culture,” a course at Towson University. BDP #273.

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There are fascinating and rather odd applications of electricity to musical instruments that have been occurring for well over 100 years. Let’s first have an overview of a few of these and then focus our attention on the instrument called the Theremin.

I recently came across a website titled “120 Years of Electronic Music.” This website contains an incredible amount of information. So, for most of this lecture I am just going to explore the website with you and make a few comments.
You will notice a few trends on this website. Very early on, there were inventions with electricity and keyboard instruments: this instrument here, this one here, the electromechanical piano, and the audition piano. You can see how the keyboard instruments factored into a very prominent role throughout the inventions of electronic music.

I found this one really interesting: a musical telegraph. So the invention of the telegraph elicited someone trying to send music over the telegraph. You can see another type of keyboard instrument that is set up for a telegraph. They actually even had a concert with this. Here it is. They are giving a demonstration, a concert, in which they are playing some different tones that are telegraphed from somewhere else. It is hard to imagine what the quality of that would have been.
Now, there are interesting experiments with electronic sounds as well. Look at that: 1889, the singing arc. You have someone who is taking the lightbulb and then discovering that it emits some noise. Let’s have a listen here. It doesn’t sound very musical, does it? This is the beginning with experimenting with electronic music and finding different ways in which you could make audible sounds.

Now, I found this dynaphone very interesting, particularly in terms of Varèse and the work that he had in France. The inventor was a collaborator with Varèse. They would be able to make different sweeping sounds using electricity. They could add vibrato by moving their hands to and fro.

Now, there were experiments with rhythm in music too. Here is the Rhythmicon. Here is Termen as well and Henry Cowell was an experimenter in the USA. It looks like he was working with Termen to create this. Let’s have a listen to this. What is this going to sound like? Here we go.

So, you can hear the pitches correlate to this (keys depressed) but then, somehow, there is a repeated rhythm to it.

This is a fascinating little instrument.

Now, it was also interesting for me to observe how trends seem to happen around the same time. In 1935, all of a sudden, you have people looking at light. Here is a light-tone-organ in Germany. The year before is a Marimbalite and then you have the Jowiphon. So, these are experiments with light and music. I am not quite sure how all of that worked there.

Let’s see what that Maribalite looks like, That looks futuristic, doesn’t it? It looks like he is holding light sabers, zapping light bulbs! I guess when the flash light beam hits the photocells then some music goes off.  Flashlights play the marimba.
One last item I wanted to bring to your attention is the RCA synthesizer I and II. This is the beginning of the development of the synthesizer. There was important work at Columbia University with a number of things going on. Here is these paper-punch terminals. You can see here Milton Babbit and Leuning—they were prominent American composers. They were all working with electronic music. Oh, wow, look at that synthesizer—that looks old. Here we have electronic music and I want to show you a video on this.

In another view, music can now be produced entirely by electronics. No known instruments are involved. Coded information is punched out and an electronic music synthesizer does the rest. This is music with strictly an electronic beat.

Well, let’s move on to one of the more interesting electronic instruments of the 20th century. Of all of the odd instruments on this list, the theremin gained more popularity than the rest in several venues.  For instance, here is an announcement of a performance in France in 1927. First let’s hear a performance by Leon Termen himself.

This is a stirring performance. I am struck by the elegance of the instrument and the virtuosity of Termen. He was not only an innovator, but truly a musician. Let me quote from Wikipedia to further our discussion now.
The theremin is distinguished among musical instruments in that it is played without physical contact. The thereminist stands in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands in the proximity of two metal antennas. The distance from one antenna determines frequency (pitch), and the distance from the other controls amplitude (volume). Higher notes are played by moving the hand closer to the pitch antenna. Louder notes are played by moving the hand away from the volume antenna.

Let’s listen to a portion of the video again with my comments on this.

The theremin was often featured in science fiction movies! Particularly the b movies, that is the low budget movies, of the 1950s featured the haunting sound of this instrument. This is where the instrument made its most impact in the 20th century USA. Watch the video that I have selected for you of various SciFi movies. It may be that you have heard the theremin before, but you did not know the name of the instrument.

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