The Sound of the Future: The Siemens Studio for Electronic Music

From Carl Orff to Karlheinz Stockhausen to John Cage: the history of a revolutionary experiments lab for the musical avant-garde

Codiergerät Siemens-Studio (1959)Deutsches Museum

Music of a New Age

It wasn't operational for long—only around 10 years. A short time, but long enough to earn it an important place in history. The Siemens Studio for Electronic Music is still considered one of the pioneering establishments in the development of a new genre of music. Here, countless composers from the world of electronic music experimented with producing and recording sounds using generators, modulators, and vocoders. The studio can now be seen as an exhibit in the music section of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, where it can also occasionally be heard.

Profumo (1910) by Luigi RussoloMart, Museum of modern and contemporary art of Trento and Rovereto

The story behind the studio goes back to the 1920s. Representing Italian futurism, painter Luigi Russolo (his 1910 painting Profumo pictured here) presented his book L'Arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises). It was a heartfelt plea not only to imitate noises but actively create them yourself as well. To achieve this, Russolo built intonarumori (sound intonators)—wooden boxes with cranks, bells, and switches. His vision greatly influenced the later techniques of musique concrète, where collected and recorded sounds and noises are used for compositions.

Trautonium (1930)Deutsches Museum

Electronic musical instruments already existed during the first half of the 20th century, including the Dynamophon, a 200 tonne monster also called the telharmonium and invented by Thaddeus Cahill, and the Trautonium, originally invented by Friedrich Trautwein and further developed by Oskar Sala…

Das Theremin (1920)Deutsches Museum

…the theremin created by Russian physicist and musician Lew Termen

Bode Polychord Organ (1950) by Harald Bode (1909 –1987), DachauDeutsches Museum

…and even the electronic organ created by Harald Bode in 1940.

WDR-Studio für Elektronische MusikDeutsches Museum

In the early 1950s, a new musical avant-garde group began to not only experiment with individual instruments but also the whole studio. The first of its kind, the Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio in Cologne which was founded and later run by Karlheinz Stockhausen was new territory for the majority of composers who mostly came from a classical music background. It was a large experiments lab—a playground for producing and arranging tones, sounds, and noises.

The history of the Siemens Studios began in 1955. The company headquartered on Wittelsbacher Platz in Munich as pictured here commissioned a documentary film about their own company. But this industry film was still missing suitable music. As decided by the company directors: For the soundtrack for the film Impulse of our Time (Impuls unserer Zeit) a device for producing electronic sounds should be developed.

Carl Orff (1895-1982)Bavarian State Library

Ernst von Siemens (1903–90), the music-loving grandson of company founder Werner von Siemens, tried to get Carl Orff (1895–1982) to compose the soundtrack. Even though the two of them became active penpals, Orff eventually refused as he already had enough work to do and had limited interest in the project. But he still continued to help Siemens and delegated the task to one of his students…

Adorno und Riedl im Siemens-Studio (1961)Deutsches Museum

Josef Anton Riedl, pictured on the right next to philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, who later recalled that the company was considering more of a classical soundtrack with a choir and orchestra. On the other hand, the company was also open to innovation. After all, there was an in-house research lab dealing with electroacoustics, as well as numerous registered patents for loudspeakers and microphones. The green light was therefore given for the electronic sound design of the film.

Oskar Sala am MixturtrautoniumDeutsches Museum

At the time, however, internal correspondence revealed there was also another pioneer of electronic music who hoped to be awarded the contract for creating the soundtrack to the Siemens film: Oskar Sala, the developer of the Trautonium.

It was only in February 1958 when the company director finally awarded the contract. Interestingly, however, it was still given to Carl Orff who was living in Diessen am Ammersee with the hope that they could adorn the film with the name of the prominent composer. Still, there was always a certain level of scepticism toward Josef Anton Riedl.

Neumann, Orff und Riedl im Siemens-Studio (1959)Deutsches Museum

Riedl, pictured here on the right next to sound editor Joachim Neumann (left) and Carl Orff, had always been intensively involved with electronic devices suitable for music production, even in the company's own Labor 345 in Gauting, a suburb in southwest Munich. This is where Riedle created the music for the company film Impulse of our Time (Impuls unserer Zeit), which was finally finished in 1959. The film received distinguished awards, and also received the Deutscher Filmpreis for the best feature-length documentary film.

Peirre Boulez (1971-03-11) by Carlo BavagnoliLIFE Photo Collection

Riedl's film music was the first electronic, binary-coded music created using punched tape. This technology was considered groundbreaking in the electronic music scene and drew attention from countless composers. The Gauting lab was visited by huge celebrities of the time: Pierre Boulez, Henri Pousseur…

Egk's New Opera At Schwezingen. (1957) by Michael RougierLIFE Photo Collection

…Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and Werner Egk. However, the Gauting lab, which could never be described as a studio but more an increasingly expanding collection of new devices with various related machines, shut in 1959. The company director saw great potential based on the spectacular successes of Riedl's production, and decided to found a company-owned studio in a set location in Munich.

Das Thowiphon (1968)Deutsches Museum

A 650 square foot area in the basement of a Siemens building on Oskar-von-Miller-Ring was selected as the location. The recording director of the new studio was Joachim Neumann. In 1973, he was replaced by Hansjörg Wicha who, together with composer Peter Thomas, had developed his own electronic instrument, the Thowiphon. The head of the studio was former Gauting lab director Alexander Schaaf. Their aim was to both produce commercial productions for film and records as well as offer artists a space for their compositions and experiments.

Mauricio Kagel im Siemens-Studio (1962)Deutsches Museum

Riedl, who acted as a musical consultant, had free reign when selecting artists and invited the very best of the current musical avant-garde to the Siemens Studio in Munich. Pousser and Boulez, Györgyi Ligeti, Argentinian-German composer Mauricio Kagel (1931–2008)…

Josef Anton Riedl und Milko Kelemen (1962)Deutsches Museum

... and even the Croatian founder of the Music Biennale Zagreb Milko Kelemen, pictured here on the left next to Riedl, were invited. The crème de la crème could come and go any time they liked. Even Stockhausen worked here, and John Cage himself paid a visit to experiment with sounds. Commercial productions mostly included soundtracks for numerous short, advertising, and educational films. Music for theater productions was also composed here, and the studio created sounds for the Bavarian State Opera, German Theater, and Munich Chamber Orchestra. In 1962, it even produced an LP with dance music.

Detailaufnahme Siemens-Studio (1959)Deutsches Museum

Still, as successful and fruitful as the work may have been, the company pulled the plug on the Studio for Electronic Music in 1963. The profitability, the high costs, and the clear financial returns might have been some of the decisive reasons for the declining interest. There had been numerous requests from television companies and radio broadcasters in particular at home and abroad for whole studio facilities or even individual composers, and yet Siemens still closed up shop.

On the lookout for a new site, they eventually discovered the Ulm School of Design where both filmmakers Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz had founded their own Institute for Film Design which they ultimately wanted to move the Munich studio to. However, it didn't move until 1966. Shortly after, the school was beset with financial difficulties and the studio never reached its prime early years ever again.

Das Siemens-Studio für elektronische Musik by Alexander Schaaf und Helmut KleinDeutsches Museum

After the school closed in 1968, the studio was stored in the building's basement and lay forgotten. Eventually, at the beginning of the 1990s, Josef Anton Riedl himself went in search of it and found the old machines and equipment. Following intensive talks between the Siemens company, the Institute for Film Design, and the Deutsches Museum, the studio finally found its permanent home in the music department on the Museum Island. Today, the Siemens Studio is one of the masterpieces of the Deutsches Museum. There are also public presentations held every three months…

Video zum Siemens-StudioDeutsches Museum

Generatorenwand Siemens-Studio (1959)Deutsches Museum

The composition of the generator wall with its 20 sinus generators, low tone, and noise generators with a frequency band of between 16 and 16,000 Hz…

Raumpatrouille Countdown (1964)Deutsches Museum

…along with a vocoder developed to encode speech during the war, which now acts as a voice changer and was most famously used in the countdown in cult science-fiction series Orion Space Patrol (Raumpatrouille Orion)

Die Hohnerola im Siemens-Studio (1955)Deutsches Museum

…as well as the Hohnerola organ which couldn't be played manually…

Der Lochstreifenleser im Siemens-Studio (1955)Deutsches Museum

…but could only be controlled with punched tape readers. Using punched paper strips as physical media, this was the studio's greatest attribute. For the first time, tape strips no longer had to be cut and glued together. Automatic control was the real revolutionary innovation of the Siemens Studio.

Die Hohnerola im Siemens-Studio (1955)Deutsches Museum

Other important components of the Siemens Studio included its own reverberation device made by the company, as well as the sawtooth generator

Siemens-Studio Detailaufnahme Mischpult (1959)Deutsches Museum

The studio was controlled from a central mixing desk. Some of the most significant compositions created here include…

Herbert Brün Wayfaring Sounds (1961)Deutsches Museum

Wayfaring Sounds by composer Herbert Brün

Mauricio Kagel Antithese (1962)Deutsches Museum

Antithesis by Mauricio Kagel, which was also adapted for the stage as a Play for a Performer With Electronic and Open Sounds (Spiel für einen Darsteller mit elektronischen und öffentlichen Klängen) as well as an experimental music film in 1965…

Josef Anton Riedl Studien für elektronische Klänge (1962)Deutsches Museum

…and Studies for Electronic Sounds (Studien für Elektronische Klänge) by Josef Anton Riedl.

Siemens-Studio Detailaufnahme Hohnerola (1959)Deutsches Museum

What remains are progressive works and avant-garde compositions from a fascinating studio—a true masterpiece.

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