Back in the 1930’s, the music realm was characterised by bold inventions and free thinkers. Combining ideas with emerging technologies and daring concepts, music composers and inventors worked together to create some revolutionary technologies. Considered the first electronic rhythm machine, the Rhythmicon was such an invention that changed the perception regarding the sequence of rhythms and overtones.
The idea dates back to 1916 when the American composer Henry Cowell started to work on a keyboard that could control tonal sequences, overtones and rhythms. However, the machine became real only in the 1930’s when Cowell shared his idea with Leon Termen, a renowned inventor. Termen took the challenge of building a machine that could transform harmonic information into rhythmic data and the other way around.
What was the machine actually about? Taking inspiration from his previous invention, the Theremin, Termen created a 17 key polyphonic keyboard that used heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators. The machine produced a single note that was repeated in a periodic rhythm generated by rotating disks. The sequences, pitch and tempo could further be adjusted by levers. In order to illustrate the complexity of his invention, Cowell composed two special Rhythmicon works, “Rythmicana” and “Music for Violin and Rhythmicon”. Over time Cowell lost interest in the machine but its functionalities were adopted by psychological researchers and even brought back to life by producer Joe Meek. The invention was also used to produce music and sound effects for different movies from the 50’s and 60’s. You can see one surviving machine at the Smithsonian Institute or check the video below for a better feel of how the Rhythmicon actually sounded:
Long before music became the ground for experimentation and innovation, a free thinker dared to dream and release a series of sound mosaics that will influence the entire music landscape, and especially the electronic movement.
Imagine the music landscape of the 1940’s. France. Imagine a radio engineer thinking about the philosophy behind music and music theory. His name, Pierre Schaeffer. Now known as the father of Concrete Musique, he is one of the well known and important pioneers of electronic music.
Born in 1910, Schaeffer was not a trained musician, but after landing a job as a radio engineer he started to experiment with music sounds and techniques. He discovered that he could lock-groove records, meaning that he could make the needle of a record stay in one single groove, creating a loop. He also experimented with natural sounds, from trains to animals. In 1948 he even produced his first piece of what will became known as “musique concrete”, a term that captures his entire philosophy: using collages of sounds found everywhere around us and manipulated through changes in pitch, duration and amplitude. His innovative idea gave a new interpretation of music form and perception.
The public’s reaction wasn’t really encouraging, but by broadcasting his pieces over French radio airwaves, Schaeffer gained the attention of many composers and performers. Among them, Pierre Henry with whom he will found the Groupe de Musique Concrète/Groupe de Recherches Musicales. As its name stands, their mission was to discover new musical techniques by constructing and deconstructing pieces from vinyl records and magnetic tape. Their studio became essential for the electronic music composition movement (they launched Edgard Varèse’s famous “Deserts”).
Although he lost interest in music production later in life, Pierre Schaeffer remains among the most visionary artists of his era. He pioneered an electronic revolution that is still felt in the contemporary musical landscape, especially in the electronica genre.