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Organic Instruments: Early Electrophones and the Valorization of Technology in the Weimar Republic

Patteson, Thomas (2016) Organic Instruments: Early Electrophones and the Valorization of Technology in the Weimar Republic. University of Leeds. [Dataset]

This item is part of the Alternative Histories of Electronic Music collection.

Dataset description

In standard histories of electronic music, early electric instruments typically appear as mere novelties in contrast to the studio technologies of the post-WWII period. But these earlier devices not only anticipated later developments in the history of what became known as “electronic music,” they also reveal connections to bigger debates about the role of technology in modernity. In this paper, I examine how the instruments of two German inventors of the 1920s and ‘30s change our understanding both of history of that period and the broader contours of sound technology in the twentieth century and into the present. Jörg Mager (1880-1939) is arguably one of the most important forgotten figures in the history of electronic music. Inspired by the rhapsodic visions of Busoni’s Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, Mager first experimented with microtonal organ building before delving into electric tone-generation in the early 1920s. In 1926, Mager unveiled his crank-operated instrument called the Sphärophon at the summer music festival in Donaueschingen, a major center of European modernism. By 1930, his instrument had evolved to a multiple-manual “electric organ” that could create both microtonal intervals and stunning new tone-colors. Supported by an organization called the Society for Electroacoustic Music, Mager conducted groundbreaking research into the production of timbre and noise by electric means. He demonstrated his instruments around Germany and was hailed as the prophet of a new age of music. In 1930, another new instrument appeared: the Trautonium. It was the pet project of three men: Friedrich Trautwein, inventor and namesake, Paul Hindemith, who wrote its first original compositions, and Oskar Sala, the instrument’s sole virtuoso. From the beginning, the Trautonium promised to bring “electric music” to the masses: a year after it was introduced, a companion booklet included a blueprint instructing how radio enthusiasts could build their own model. Within a few years, the instrument was developed from a modest laboratory prototype to an ambitious, mass-produced version called the Volkstrautonium, unveiled in 1933. Funded by the radio firm Telefunken, the instrument could be plugged into domestic radio receivers for amplification, and its marketing copy promised that anyone could learn to play it. In spite of its failure to seize the market, the Trautonium gained considerable notoriety under the Third Reich, as electric instruments became powerful emblems of the political-aesthetic program Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called “steel romanticism.” The instruments of Mager and Trautwein, far from being marginal phenomena in the musical culture of the Weimar Republic, figured prominently in ongoing debates about technology and its role in modern life. In contrast to “mechanical” devices such as the player piano and gramophone, which threatened to replace performers with machines and stoked the public’s fears of technology run amok, the Spherophone and Trautonium were seen as “organic” instruments that gave their performers enhanced powers of expression. Thus, these inventions became symbols of a perfectly humanized instrumentarium, and so contributed to the valorization of technology that became one of the most powerful trends in twentieth-century culture.

Subjects: W000 - Creative arts & design > W300 - Music
W000 - Creative arts & design > W300 - Music > W310 - Musicianship/performance studies > W316 - Electronic/electro-acoustic music performance
Divisions: Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures > School of Music
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Date deposited: 27 Jul 2017 19:19



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