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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution
Richard Taruskin
Generating Synthetic Sounds

fig. 4-1 Luigi Russolo, Il risveglio di una città (“The awakening of a city,” 1914), a composition for an ensemble of futurist intonarumori (noise intoners). Reading down the left margin of the score as usual, they are ululatori (hooters), rombatori (rumblers), crepitatori (cracklers), stropicciatori (scrapers), scoppiatori (exploders), ronzatori (buzzers), gorgogliatori (gurglers), and sibilatori (hissers).

Another approach was taken by electrical engineers in several countries, who designed new musical instruments that produced sounds that flaunted the electronic origins that made them sounds specific to the twentieth century. Perhaps the earliest, very likely the simplest, and surely the most famous, was invented in 1920 by a Russian physicist named Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896–1993, also renowned as a television pioneer), who thought he was building a burglar alarm. His device featured a pair of antennas that set up an electromagnetic field, into which the intrusion of any electrical conductor (say a human body) would touch off a signal from a radio oscillator.

Generating Synthetic Sounds

fig. 4-2 Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Leon Théremin) with his termenvox (theremin).

As one approached the vertical antenna at the top of the cabinet, the signal (just a controlled version of the “squeal” one obtained between stations when tuning an early radio) became higher in pitch; as one approached the loop antenna at the side of the instrument, the signal became weaker (and silent if one touched the antenna, making articulations possible).An amateur cellist, Termen amused himself by moving his hands in such a way as to make the invisible field respond with tunes from his repertory: Massenet's Elegy, Saint-Saëns's The Swan, and the like. Since he found himself playing his new instrument without touching it, just moving his hands in the air, Termen christened his invention the “etherphone.” In March 1922, Termen was summoned to demonstrate his device to Vladimir Lenin, the head of the young Soviet government, in his office at the Moscow Kremlin. Lenin was interested in the machine chiefly as a security device. He wrote to Trotsky, the head of the Red Army, suggesting that they procure some etherphones so that the guard duties of the Kremlin cadets might be reduced. But he also authorized Termen to tour Russia with a free railway pass and show off his invention as a miraculous musical instrument one did not touch, as propaganda for the wonders of electricity (one of Lenin's pet slogans being “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country”). In 1924, after Soviet Russia had signed a patent convention with Germany, Termen was sent abroad to set up a facility for the mass production of his instrument, to be marketed as the Termenvox.

In Germany, and later in the United States, where he lived and worked from 1927 to 1938 (both as promoter of his electrical devices and as a Soviet espionage agent), the inventor signed his name Leon Theremin, and his instrument became known, simply, as the theremin. The manner in which it was promoted, and the repertoire that (following the inventor's lead) was normally performed on it, led to its being regarded as something like an electronic violin or cello, rather than a vehicle for a new music. Few composers took an interest in it. John Cage went out of his way, in his lecture on the Future of Music, to deride “Thereministes,” who, despite the “genuinely new possibilities” that the device offered in its unbroken frequency continuum, “did their utmost to make the instrument sound like some old instrument, giving it a sickeningly sweet vibrato, and performing upon it, with difficulty, masterpieces from the past.” In effect, Cage complained, “Thereministes act as censors, giving the public those sounds they think the public will like.” As a vexing result, “we are shielded from new sound experiences.”12 A somewhat more optimistic and imaginative view was taken by Ernst Toch (1887–1964), an Austrian composer who would eventually emigrate to the United States, but who caught the theremin act in Berlin. He realized that the inventor's lack of musical sophistication, and his exclusive interest in marketing his instrument as a medium for conventional performance rather than for composition, made him a poor herald of its possibilities. Reacting precisely the way Busoni might have done, Toch noted that “the concrete material of music has consisted until now of a limited series of exactly fixed pitches and of a limited series of exactly fixed sound colors,” and complained that “the closer Theremin in his ‘concert’ attempts to come to them, to produce them in a deceiving manner, the less interesting his demonstration becomes for the composer.” What interested Toch was not the performance of the hackneyed musical selections but rather

the sound phenomena which, demonstrated before the “concert” and during the lecture as rough raw material, often similar to animal or climatological sounds of nature, appeared during the “concert” as uncalled-for byproducts and hardly noticed waste products. Just in these lies the fertile germ of a true new vista which Theremin lays open to the composer of music, still incalculable in its consequences,

—for in them one heard material that “lies between the fixed pitches and between the fixed tone colors: rich, tempting, promising and enchanting for the artist.”13

Most of the music composed for (or performed on) the theremin was of the hackneyed substitute-violin type. The first concerted work for the instrument, Simfonicheskaya misteriya (“Symphonic mysterium”) by Andrey Pashchenko (1885–1972), composed in 1923 on commission from the Soviet government, incorporated its eerie, otherworldly timbre into a Scriabinesque pastiche for orchestra. The best-known concerto for the instrument, written in 1944 by the Cypriot-American composer Anis Fuleihan (1900–70) for Clara Rockmore (1911–98), a Russian-American violin prodigy who became the world's most accomplished “thereministe,” was an exercise in orientalisms. Rockmore's special achievement was to defeat the built-in glissando normally heard between the notes within the theremin's seamless pitch continuum and (with the help of some attachments the inventor designed for her) to actually manage staccato articulations and fast passagework without sacrificing purity of intonation.

It was a marvelous feat, but in light of Toch's comment, it defeated the instrument's potential as a novel resource for composers. The only composer to capitalize fully on the theremin's “defects” was the Australian-American Percy Grainger (1882–1961), best known during his lifetime as a piano virtuoso who, significantly, had studied briefly with Busoni and had been infected with the latter's idealistic notions of musical freedom. The theremin, which had no “natural” tuning system, was completely free of prejudice where intervals were concerned.

Busoni had ended his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music with ruminations about microtones, but warned that all fixed tuning systems, whether based on equal semitones, quarter tones, or sixth tones, were equally arbitrary artifacts of culture when compared with nature's limitless resources. Tempered keyboard instruments, the great pianist fumed, “have so thoroughly schooled our ears that we are no longer capable of hearing anything else—incapable of hearing except through this impure medium. Yet Nature created an infinite gradation—infinite! Who still knows it nowadays?”14 The theremin, Grainger was quick to realize, offered that infinite gradation to composers. It could turn Busoni's fantasy of a free music into a practical reality.

He had responded immediately to Busoni's Sketch with a composition actually titled Free Music for string quartet (1907). After hearing Clara Rockmore's debut recital, Grainger arranged the piece for four theremins, and completed a sequel, Free Music No. 2 for six theremins, in 1936. In a letter to the critic Olin Downes, he echoed Busoni's nature rhapsodies, rejoicing that he had created conditions under which “a melody is as free to roam thru space as a painter is free to draw & paint free lines, free curves, create free shapes.”15 A description he wrote for publication was more reminiscent of Futurismo: “It seems to me absurd to live in an age of flying and yet not be able to execute tonal glides and curves.”16 He invented a special notation for his glides and curves, plotting them on graph paper in inks of different colors to represent the different instruments in the ensemble. He never published the scores, however; nor were the Free Musics ever performed. What held Grainger back was the sense, reminiscent of Cage, that music could never be truly free as long as human beings were involved in its performance:

Too long has music been subject to the limitations of the human hand, and subject as well to the interfering interpretations of a middle-man: the performer. A composer wants to speak to his public direct. Machines (if properly constructed and properly written for) are capable of niceties of emotional expression impossible to a human performer.17

Grainger was among those who placed their creative ideas on hold, awaiting the advent of a technology that might render them feasible. In 1944, he collaborated with an engineer acquaintance in designing a “Free Music Machine” that would combine the sound-gliding principle of the theremin with a mechanism for performing “complex irregular rhythms accurately, rhythms much too difficult for human beings to execute.” They built a working model in 1955, by which time tape technology was available; but Grainger, creatively exhausted, did not take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, as Albert Glinsky, Lev Termen's biographer, put it, “the theremin debate— melodic voice instrument or microtonal sound resource— was easily reconciled among the larger public; it came down to the instrument as simple, quirky entertainment.”18 Until a new wave of interest in the instrument was suddenly inspired in its homeland by the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, few if any serious compositions for it postdated Fuleihan's concerto. Instead, it became a ubiquitous sound effect in radio dramas (beginning with the Green Hornet mystery serial) and science fiction and horror movies, or “psychological thrillers” (beginning with Robert Emmet Dolan's 1944 score for Lady in the Dark and continuing the next year with Alfred Hitchcock's classic Spellbound, with music by Miklós Rózsa). In the 1950s simple theremin-type devices were marketed in do-it-yourself kits to teenagers, and began turning up in youth-oriented popular music (most famously, in 1966, in the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations).

Less notorious than the theremin, and less spectacular, but perhaps more significant in terms of the musical repertory that it stimulated, was a device called ondes musicales (“musical waves”), unveiled in 1928 by the French engineer Maurice Martenot (1898–1980) and now called ondes martenot after him. It produces its sound on the same principle as the theremin. At first the performer inserted a finger in a ring and pulled a ribbon from side to side to alter the pitch along a smooth continuum. Later models added a keyboard to make conventional tunings available in addition to glissando effects.

Its greater compatibility with familiar musical styles and playing techniques made the ondes martenot easier than the theremin to assimilate into standard musical practice. Pianists or organists could master it quickly, and it could effectively augment symphony orchestras with extremely low sounds (Arthur Honegger, a member of Les Six, preferring it for this purpose to the contrabassoon) or, alternatively, a high vibrato-laden wail that Olivier Messiaen exploited memorably to evoke the figure of the love goddess in his Turangalîla-symphonie of 1948. After the war a class in ondes martenot was established at the Paris Conservatory, and Pierre Boulez won his first local fame as an exponent of the instrument.

The trautonium, a third electronic instrument of a type similar to the theremin and the ondes martenot, was invented around 1930 by the German engineer Friedrich Trautwein (1888–1956), but never had a comparable success. Its playing technique, involving the pressure of a finger against a continuous metal wire on which pitches were marked off, was more easily learned than that of the theremin, but it lacked the ondes's advantage of a keyboard. Hindemith, who made a point of writing concertos or sonatas for every instrument, wrote a Konzertstück for trautonium and strings (never published) in 1931. Later a pair of keyboards was added to the design by one of Trautwein's former pupils. In this form the instrument (or at least its sounds) became familiar to moviegoers from the soundtrack score by Bernard Herrmann (1911–75), with Remi Gassman and Oskar Sala, to Alfred Hitchcock's horror thriller The Birds (1963).


(12) Cage, Silence, p. 4.

(13) Ernst Toch, “Theremin und Komponist,” Neue Badische Landes-Zeitung (6 December 1927), trans. Richard and Edith Kobler, in Albert Glinsky, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), p. 67.

(14) Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music, p. 89.

(15) Quoted in Glinsky, Theremin, p. 252.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Glinsky, Theremin, p. 252.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 The Third Revolution. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004004.xml