The Distinctive Electronic Music of Oskar Sala and the Mixtur-Trautonium, Part 1
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.
For the next two episodes of the podcast, I want to take you on a sonic journey along one of the most fascinating tributaries in the history of electronic music: the music of Oskar Sala (1910-2002). Sala was a student of Paul Hindemith when, in the year 1930, he was asked to assist in the development of an electronic music instrument with Hindemith and the engineer Dr. Friedrich Trautwein.
The Trautonium of Dr. Friedrich Trautwein was developed in Germany between 1928 and 1930. This was before the age of high fidelity recording, so the Trautonium was considered an instrument for live performance, lile the Theremin. The Trautonium had a fingerboard consisting of a metal plate about the width of a medium-sized keyboard instrument. Stretched only a few millimeters above the plate was a wire. Pressing the wire with a finger so that it touched the plate closed a circuit and sent electricity to a neon-tube oscillator, producing a tone. The monophonic instrument spanned three octaves, with the pitch going up from left to right along the fingerboard. Volume was controlled by a foot pedal. The fingerboard was marked with the position of notes on the chromatic scale to make it easier for a musician to play. By 1934, Trautwein had added a second finger board so that two notes could be played at once. At the same time, he introduced an ingenious feature for manually presetting notes to be played. A rail was mounted just a few centimeters above and running parallel to each of the two resistor wires. To this were attached 10–15 springy metal strips or “tongues” covered in leather, each of which could be slid to any position along the length of the wire. This enabled the musician to preset the location of notes to be played. Pressing a tongue was like pressing a key: it pushed the wire down so that it contacted the metal plate and played a tone. Watching Sala play the instrument is reminiscent of someone pressing the keys on a manual typewriter.
Oskar Sala, who was a composition student of Hindemith’s at the time, recalled that Trautwein probably got the idea for his “electrical string manual” from Hindemith, who was an accomplished viola virtuoso. When a “string” or wire was pressed by the finger to play a sound, it produced a sawtooth waveform using a neon-tube oscillator that was rich in harmonic sidebands. This waveform distinguished the sound of the Trautonium from that of the Theremin and Ondes Martenot, both of which used a beat frequency technology and produced cleaner waveforms with fewer harmonics. To take advantage of this unique characteristic of the neon-tube oscillators, Trautwein devised a set of filters, controlled by rotary dials, to adjust the amplitude of the harmonics in relation to the fundamental tone being played. This was an early experiment with subtractive synthesis— the careful reduction of sidebands to produce timbral changes in tone color.
When Hindemith asked his students to help construct several Trautoniums, Sala jumped at the chance. He later said, “I had become a virtuoso on the soldering iron before becoming a virtuoso on the instrument.” The German electronics manufacturer Telefunken, maker of the neon-tube oscillators used in the instrument, decided to manufacture and market a Trautonium for home use. The model featured a single fingerboard and a single pedal. Only 100 were built between 1932 and 1935.
Hindemith composed several concert pieces for the instrument, and we will hear examples of works composed in 1930, 1931, and 1935. But it has been his student Oskar Sala who has been most closely associated with the instrument over the years, as both a composer and performer.
After Trautwein’s death in 1956, Sala assumed the role of keeper of the Trautonium and continued to make incremental enhancements to the instrument for many years. Sala essentially, became the keeper of the flame of the Trautonium. He developed his own improvements to the instrument and saw it evolve into five different incarnations over the decades, a list of which are included in the notes for this podcast. 1952 marked the first appearance of a distinctive new version of the instrument that he called the Mixtur-Trautonium. Sala expanded the harmonics available for the tones and improved controls. He added a noise generator, an envelope generator, bandpass filters, and expanded subharmonic oscillators. Sala’s definition of a “mixtur” was a combination of four “subharmonics” or harmonics for a given master frequency. The warm, rich sound of the Mixtur-Trautonium and touch-sensitive performance technique gained Sala quite a reputation as a composer for dance, theater, and motion pictures. With its expanded controls—two manuals, two pedal, and dozens more timbre controls at his disposal, Sala was also better able to create compositions on tape for motion pictures. The Mixtur-Trautonium was more than a live performance instrument by this point. Between the years 1953 and 1966, Sala composed over 135 works on tape, mostly for film and television, although his interest in concert music continued throughout his career.
Timeline of the Trautonium
This timeline shows the evolution of the Trautonium and Mixtur-Trautonium, all played by Oskar Sala.
1929-30: Trautonium (Friedriech Trautwein). One manual.
1935: Radio-Trautonium. Two manuals, two pedals.
1938: Konzerttrautonium (Concert Trautonium, a portable model. Two manuals, two pedals.
1952: Mixturtrautonium (Mixtur-Trautonium). Two manuals, two pedals.
1988: Micro-Electronic Mixtur-Trautonium (transistorized model). Two manuals, two pedals.
For this first part of a two-part series, I thought I would explore concert music and film music. Among other things, we’ll hear some of the interesting sounds Sala created for the Hitchcock movie The Birds in 1963 and some interesting theatrical works combining dialog from various actors with his electronic sounds. In the second part, I will explore Sala’s electronic compositions, primarily studio work.
The playlist below details the eleven recordings I drew upon to create this program. A few of the works are excerpted so that I could bring you additional examples. The music you have been listening to in the background is called Fantasie and is a Mixtur-Trautonium solo played by Sala.
The Distinctive Electronic Music of Oskar Sala and the Mixtur-Trautonium, Part 1
1. Oskar Sala, “Demonstration” from My Fascinating Instrument (1990 Erdenklang). Demonstration of the Mixtur-Trautonium by Sala, providing a sampling of the many various effects that he could create in real-time without magnetic tape tricks. In addition to the audio track, here is a terrific video from 1993 showing Sala playing the newer, fully transistorized version of the Mixtur-Trautonium in his home studio. Note the dexterity needed to press the little “tongues” of the instrument and press them from side to side to enable note expression. If you were only listening, you would assume that he was playing a keyboard. This view reveals why playing the instrument was quite different than any other. There are, of course, many other videos available showing Sala and his instrument over the years. But I thought this one illustrated the performance aspects of the Mixtur-Trautonium that make it a remarkable, and unique, electronic music instrument. 7:14.
2. Paul Hindemith, Oskar Sala, “7 Triostücke Für 3 Trautonien (1930) (part 1) from Elektronische Impressionen (1980 Telefunken). Recording made in 1977 with Oskar Sala of one of the very first concert pieces composed for the original Trautonium. This later performance from 1977 used the Mixtur-Trautonium and multi-tracking of Sala as he performed all three parts of this trio. In 1930, the other two players on the three Trautoniums were Paul Hindemith and Rudolph Schmidt. This recording was made in the Bavarian Radio studios with the Munich Chamber Orchestra conducted by Hans Stadlmair. 1:21.
3. Paul Hindemith, Oskar Sala, “Konzertstück Für Trautonium Mit Begleitung Des Streichorchesters (1931) (part 1) from Elektronische Impressionen (1980 Telefunken). Recording made in 1977 with Sala at the Mixtur-Trautonium. This recording was made in the Bavarian Radio studios with the Munich Chamber Orchestra conducted by Hans Stadlmair. 3:02.
4. Harald Genzmer with Oskar Sala, “Konzert Für Trautonium Und Orchester” (1938-39) (excerpt) (1942 DGG). Early performance of this work for the Concert Trautonium, performed by Sala and composed by Genzmer. Performed by the Städtisches Orchester Berlin under the direction Helmuth Thierfelder. The complete work was in the vicinity of 30 minutes long. 7:00.
5. Paul Hindemith, Oskar Sala, “Langsames Stück Und Rondo Für Trautonium” (1935) from Subharmonic Mixtures (1997 Erdenklang). A newer performance by Sala of this early work by Hindemith. Originally written for the Radio Trautonium, this version was performed on the Mixtur-Trautonium. This was recorded in 1985. 5:29.
6. Oskar Sala, Großes Tanzorchester, Frank Fux, “Bezaubernde Melodien” (1941 Telefunken). This German popular music disc features an early solo by Sala using the Concert Trautonium. You can hear its distinctive melodies, reminiscent of a flute or clarinet, but clearly different. 2:56.
7. Oskar Sala, “Poor Hansi” (1943). This animated short film included a singing canary, the voice of which was provided by Oskar Sala using the Concert Trautonium. The instrument also provided some miscellaneous sound effects such as the squeaking cage door. 3:04.
8. Fritz Kreisler, Oskar Sala, “Scherzo im Stile von Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf” (1946) from Das Konzertrautonium Wandlungen (2011 Der Trautonist). Concert Trautonium, Oskar Sala; piano, Gerhard Schael. This recent recording (not Sala) was made in 2011 using the third incarnation of the Trautonium, the Concert Trautonium (1938). 3:29.
9. Oskar Sala, “A Fleur D´eau ( In wechselndem Gefälle)” from Elektronische Filmmusik (1963 Metronome). Music and sound effects from a film, composed, performed, produced, electronics, Mixtur-Trautonium, Oskar Sala. 6:22.
10.Oskar Sala, “Der Fluch Der Gelben Schlange” from Elektronische Filmmusik (1963 Metronome). Music and sound effects from a film, composed, performed, produced, electronics, Mixtur-Trautonium, Oskar Sala. 6:39.
11.Oskar Sala, “Intro, The Birds” from Alfred Hitchcock – The Classic Soundtrack Collection (2021 Enlightenment). This UK collection features the electronic sounds created for the film by Oskar Sala on the Mixtur-Trautonium. Occationally, you may hear some ambient bird sounds in the soundtrack mix, but the truly eerie, intimidating bird sounds are those produced by Sala. An original “soundtrack” was never released at the time primarily because, despite the popularity of the movie, no music was orchestrated for the movie other than the eerie electronic music sounds of birds created by Oskar Sala. 1:33.
12.Oskar Sala, “Bird's Attack/After Explosion” from Alfred Hitchcock – The Classic Soundtrack Collection (2021 Enlightenment). Electronic sounds created for the Hitchcock film The Birds by Oskar Sala on the Mixtur-Trautonium. 2:01.
13.Oskar Sala, “The Crows Again/Annie Is Dead” from Alfred Hitchcock – The Classic Soundtrack Collection (2021 Enlightenment). Electronic sounds created for the Hitchcock film The Birds by Oskar Sala on the Mixtur-Trautonium. 0:35.
14.Oskar Sala, “The End” from Alfred Hitchcock – The Classic Soundtrack Collection (2021 Enlightenment). Electronic sounds created for the Hitchcock film The Birds by Oskar Sala on the Mixtur-Trautonium. 4:26.
15.Henrich Heine, Oskar Sala, excerpts from “Denk Ich An Deutschland - Eine Politische Reportage Über "Deutschland - Ein Wintermärchen" (1966 Electrola). Sala contributed music and sound effects made on the Mixtur-Trautonium for this drama production. 4:41.
16.Oskar Sala, “Rede Des Toten Christus Vom Weltgebäude Herab, Dass Kein Gott Sei” (1986) from My Fascinating Instrument (1990 Erdenklang). Mixtur-Trautonium, Oskar Sala; narrator, Friedrich Schönfelder; words, Jean Paul (1797). 12:52.
Opening background music: Oskar Sala, “Fantasie-Suite In Drei Sätzen Für Mixturtrautonium Solo” from My Fascinating Instrument (1990 Erdenklang). Composed, Performed on the Mixtur-Trautonium and produced by Oskar Sala. 10:38.
Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.
Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.
See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation.