The items in the Studio for Electroacoustic Music at the Berlin Academy of Arts include a collection of unique musical artifacts. Among them are prototypes such as the Subharchord II, developed in East Berlin, and the rotating loudspeaker sphere designed by Hermann Scherchen. The sound machines are kept in full working order and coexist in the studio with contemporary production equipment.
Prototype Subharchord II
The Subharchord is an electronic sound and noise generator, designed in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as an alternative to the production methods used by western electronic music studios. The instrument went through various stages of development between 1959 (when development began) and 1968.
The Subharchord, inspired by Oskar Sala's Mixtur-Trautonium, was developed during the 1960s at the Rundfunk- und Fernsehtechnisches Zentralamt (Central Radio and Television Office) (RFZ) radio and TV studio in Berlin-Adlershof. The aim was to provide composers with a central, easy-to-operate sound and noise generator that could be used to produce novel sounds quickly and easily. In the 1960s, it was used not only by independent composers to synthesize and manipulate sound in purely electronic music, and to create backing tapes synchronized with acoustic instruments or orchestras, but also to generate noises and special effects for feature films and cartoons, radio dramas, and television movies.
After being used in all kinds of ways for music production in the Laboratory for Problems at the Acoustics-Music Interface at RFZ (illus. left), the Subharchord II was given to the GDR Post Museum in 1968. In January 1981, the prototype was handed over to the newly founded Studio for Electroacoustic Music at the Academy of Arts of the GDR (illus. right).
The Subharchord II (1963/64) at the Studio for Electroacoustic Music at the Academy of Arts is the earliest preserved instrument from the development of the Subharchord. In addition to this prototype, out of the total of seven instruments that were produced, other examples can be found in the German Museum of Technology in Berlin, the Technical Museum in Vienna and the Ringve Museum in Trondheim.
Gerhard Steinke, former studio director and in charge of planning the Subharchord, describes the development of the instrument between 1959 and 1968: A talk at the KONTAKTE ’15 Festival on 27 September 2015 at the Academy of Arts, Berlin.
The Subharchord-II prototype has four oscillators with subharmonic frequency splitters that enable the production of a subharmonic series (the intervallic mirror image of the harmonic series) between 1/2 and 1/16. By using switches and potentiometers on the user interface, both the frequency splitting ratio and the control of the subharmonic mix, as well as the filtering through a high pass, low pass, or mel filter can be individually set for each of four voices. The mel filter was a band-pass filter bank that was specially developed for the Subharchord, with cut-off frequencies weighted for the mel scale and controlled from the user interface by 14 rocker switches. When the instrument was restored in 2005 the Subharchord's functionality was extended by incorporating a MIDI interface, which made it possible to operate the mel filter bank externally from a computer.
Other features of the Subharchord II include pressure-dependent volume control of the 37-key manual keyboard, a special effects section (with rhythm-generating device, ring modulator, and vibrato), and a connector panel that allows external sound sources to be processed and the signal to be accessed at different points on the instrument's main control panel.
Among the outstanding works produced on the Subharchord II in the experimental studio at RFZ—and a work remarkable not least for the extraordinary story of how it was created in the middle of the Cold War—is Zoologischer Garten (Zoological Garden) (1965), a piece for tape by the American composer Frederic Rzewski. In more recent times, Georg Katzer used the prototype for sound processing in Dialog Imaginär 2 (Imaginary Dialog Nr. 2) (1987), a work for piano and backing tape.
Tomomi Adachi: The Love for Forty-Six Oranges (2018) for Subharchord II with four-channel live electronics and voice. First performed as part of the EM4 | Berlin Studios for Electroacoustic Music concert series on 11 July 2018 at the Academy of Arts, Berlin.
In 2005, the Subharchord II was presented at the opening of the new Academy of Arts building on the Pariser Platz as part of the audiovisual installation named sub vision by Carsten Nicolai. The instrument can still be played today and in recent years has inspired artists such as Tomomi Adachi, Mark Barden, Christoph Grund, and Susann Maria Hempel to create new works.
Hermann Scherchen's Universally Radiating Sphere
Hermann Scherchen's unique loudspeaker sphere was one of the earliest instruments for spatial sound reproduction. It consists of 32 speakers spread over the surface of a constantly rotating sphere, emitting sound evenly in all directions.
In 1954, the Berlin-born conductor, composer, and champion of modern music Hermann Scherchen (1891–1966) founded the Gravesano Experimental Electroacoustic Studio in a village in the mountains of the Swiss canton of Ticino. Throughout his life, his vision had been to bring about radical reform in music through the use of modern technology. The loudspeaker sphere that was developed in Gravesano in 1961 symbolizes Scherchen's fascination with the perception of spatial sound phenomena. Its purpose was to reproduce sound and speech in such a way that the sound was heard with the same clarity everywhere in its range. Scherchen imagined the so-called universally radiating sphere being used at open-air events with 5,000–6,000 spectators, but he also planned a smaller version for living rooms and entered into negotiations with hi-fi manufacturers about selling the design commercially. The French composer and creator of radio dramas, Luc Ferrari, used the loudspeaker sphere as the basis for his electroacoustic composition Tautologos I (1961).
The Experimental Electroacoustic Studio Gravesano (1954–66), a private initiative with an interdisciplinary approach, was a unique concept (illus. left). The sphere can be seen rotating in a film portrait of Hermann Scherchen made by Luc Ferrari in 1966 (illus. right).
"In Gravesano Scherchen had invented a revolving loudspeaker, a loudspeaker made of many loudspeakers: a kind of prism that projected the sound while rotating in various ways. This invention was underestimated at the time, but was actually full of great potential because it overcame the principle of the fixed sound source, producing superimpositions and reverberations that added up in layers one over the other.” <br>– Luigi Nono, in: Incontri. Luigi Nono in an interview with Enzo Restagno, pub. by Matteo Nanni and Rainer Schmusch, Hofheim: Wolke, 2004, p. 57.
The 32 speakers are symmetrically arranged on a plywood sphere that can rotate around two axes. The movement of the sphere is powered by an electric motor via a ball bearing-mounted shaft in the hollow main column and a drive belt. The electrical signal is transmitted through the rotating structures via multipole sliding contacts.
Hermann Scherchen's legendary rotating loudspeaker sphere was restored between 2015 and 2017 at the Studio for Electroacoustic Music at the Academy of Arts (Studio für Elektroakustische Musik der Akademie der Künste) and can be experienced there in regular demonstrations. To mark its recommissioning in 2017, three new works using the loudspeaker sphere, by Wolfgang Heiniger, Kirsten Reese, and José María Sánchez Verdú, were given their first performances as part of the studio's KONTAKTE '17 Festival. The historic focus for the festival program was Hermann Scherchen's Experimental Studio Gravesano.
Maihak W49 Hörspielverzerrer (Sound Distorter for radio plays)
The W49 sound distorter for radio plays was developed in the early 1950s by a company called Maihak for the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German radio) to alter the sound when producing radio plays.
The W49 filter was used to generate acoustic effects for radio, movies, and television by reducing the high and low frequencies; for example, to simulate telephone conversations. The device consists of two separately controllable, locking high- and low-pass filters. The distorter was designed principally so it could be incorporated in producers' consoles.
The cut-off frequencies for high and low pass are adjustable to 100, 200, 300, 450, 600, 800, 1,000, 1,500, 3,000, and 5,000 Hz. The edge steepness of the filters can be changed in eight steps.
During the 1960s, composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen used the Maihak W49 in live electronic compositions, in which they attempted to combine electronic and instrumental music. For example, in Mikrophonie I (Microphony I) (1964) for tam-tam, two microphones, two filters, and equalizers, the W49 serves as a way of using live electronics to change the timbre of the tam-tam sounds. This work is regarded as one of the first musical compositions to use filters and equalizers to distort acoustic events generated by instruments in real time.
AMS3 Modular Synthesizer
The AMS3 modular synthesizer was designed and made by hand by Hartmut Lehmann, an electronic assembly technician in East Berlin's DEFA Studio for Synchronization, for the Studio for Electroacoustic Music at the Academy of Arts.
The AMS3 builds on the principle of the Moog synthesizer and consists of separate modules—VCOs, VCAs, VCFs, LFOs, envelope generators, noise generators, and triggers—which can be connected together. The AMS3 is based on an earlier device made by Hartmut Lehmann in 1979 for generating noise and distorting sounds electronically that was used in the production and editing of sound material for movies at the DEFA Studio for Synchronization.
The AMS3 is remarkable for its flexibility in processing external signals (illus. left). The frequency controller for the VCOs was retrofitted at a later date to increase precision by using multiturn potentiometers (illus. right).
The Studio as a Media Archeology Laboratory
The Subharchord, Scherchen’s universally radiating sphere, Maihak W49 and AMS3 are idiosyncratic sound-generating devices that extend and enhance the sound palette of a modern experimental studio. They also bear witness to the spirit of radical change that, from the middle of the last century, sought to find a new unity between music and technology and inspired some of the most well-known pioneers in electroacoustic music. At the Academy of Arts, caring for and maintaining these instruments is combined with a mission to show the public how they work—in art projects and workshops and on guided tours: the studio understood as both a media archeology laboratory and a living museum.
Concept, Text & Layout: Gregorio García Karman
Coordination: Karoline Czech
CMS & Media Management: Till Vesely
Photos: Kaj Bienert, Christian Kraushaar, Martin Wolff
Lectorate: Viola van Beek
Assistance: Gerriet K. Sharma