Signal Strength

The Early Days of
Synthetic and
Electronic Music

One of the earliest electromechanical musical instruments can be traced back to 1893. Conceived by Thaddeus Cahill (1867 - 1934), the Telharmonium (or Dynamophone) was to be far more than a mere musical instrument. In many ways Cahill invented the whole concept of streaming media a hundred years before the Internet made it both possible and popular. Back in 1893, if, say, a hotel or restaurant wanted music in its lobby or dining area, it had to employ musicians to perform it live. Cahill's great idea was to create music electronically at a central base and stream it to anyone who subscribed to the service via the telephone network. It was a sound idea, but complicated by the fact amplifiers hadn't been invented back then. If amplifiers had been invented, he could have simply amplified existing traditional music. The solution was to create the music electronically and play it very loud down the phone lines. A large cone (like on an old gramophone player) fixed to the telephone receiver at the far end helped too. The high powered signal caused many problems, notably interference (crosstalk) with other telephone cables, so people on other telephone calls would sometimes hear music drifting into their conversation.

Cahill first conceived his great idea in 1893, patented it in 1896 (US patent 580035 - "Art of and Apparatus for Generating and Distributing Music Electrically") and had a working prototype by 1901. Trouble was, it was huge. To generate a signal loud enough required enormous electric generators - one for each note. Weighing in at seven tons this really was a mammoth synthesizer (and yes, Cahill even used the term "synthesizing" long before Moog was even born). Yet this was just a baby. Its successor, the second Telharmonium, weighed in at two hundred tons (equivalent to around two hundred cars), was sixty feet long and took four years to build at a cost of $200,000. It wasn't the most portable synth in the world, so when it was moved to its new home on Broadway, New York City, it had to be loaded onto thirty railroad trucks. By 1907 even the prestigious Waldorf Astoria hotel had subscribed and New York was abuzz with electronic music. Even celebrities came to hear including Giacomo Puccini. By 1911 they'd built the third Telharmonium (and yes it was even bigger) but the novelty had worn off, the public had lost interest and the new Wurlitzer was stealing the show. By 1950, only one Telharmonium survived - the original prototype. But no one was interested in it, so it was sold for scrap.

From Zang Tumb Tumb
to Intonarumori:
The Art of Noises
Manifesto by the
Futurist Luigi Russolo

On February 20, 1909, the wealthy, young Italian poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, published his Futurist manifesto. He advocated the total rejection of the past and all sentiment for it, denouncing museums, libraries and academies as "those cemeteries of wasted effort, calvaries of crucified dreams, registers of false starts." The Futurists instead celebrated anarchy and embraced the heady excitement, grime and raw power of machinery that was surely the future. Marinetti wrote in 1909 "Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past?" To the Futurists, the past was dead and the future belonged to man and inhuman machine.

So when the painter Luigi Russolo (1885 - 1947) applied the Futurist manifesto to music in 1913, there were going to be no oboes or clarinets in sight. Russolo was convinced the human ear had become accustomed to the sounds of industry and technology. He believed the limited variety of timbres available to an orchestra of traditional instruments was insufficient; it had to be superseded by new instruments with an infinite variety of timbres, and these new instruments demanded new compositional methods. Already Marinetti had played around with 'found sounds' taking recordings of street noise, boxing matches, etc and collaging them together, decades before musique concrète. And his 'onomatopoetic artillery' work "Zang tumb tumb" sent to Russolo from the trenches of war-torn Bulgaria in 1912 inspired Russolo to investigate the art of noise further. A concert by Balilla Pratella in March 1913 further convinced Russolo that machine sounds were a viable form of music. Shortly after, he published his own manifesto The Art of Noises, which is considered one of the most important influences on Twentieth Century music.

Futurist Luigi Russolo (left) with his intonarumori Russolo sought to create entirely synthetic sounds, rejecting conventional harmony and timbre as inadequate for the Twentieth Century. With his assistant Ugo Piatti, he set about building a bewildering array of noise machines or "intonarumori" with catchy names like the "Howler", the "Burster", the "Hummer" and the "Rustler". Performances of 'noise music' were given at Marinetti's Millan villa, Modena's Teatro Storchi, Milan's Teatro Dal Verme, Genoa's Politeama, and London's Coliseum, though the audience's pleas of "no more" by the end of the first part went in vain as the performance rumbled on regardless. The Futurists' view was an angry, restless audience was the mark of a great performance. Marinetti even wrote a manifesto on "The Pleasure of Being Booed", insisting performers must despise the audience and that applause merely indicated something mediocre and dull. Hurling vegetables had never been more popular with audiences.

Luigi Russolo's manifesto The Art of Noises is still considered one of the greatest influences on Twentieth Century music and is thought to have inspired John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Arthur Honegger, George Antheil, Edgar Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, among others.

Written by Kelwin

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