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Electric Music of the Spheres: The Forgotten Futurism of Jörg Mager

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“Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” –Walter Benjamin

The history of electronic music—whatever that term may mean—is characterized by a deeply rooted teleological bias. Past events are understood in terms of a more or less explicit evolutionary drive toward some inevitable terminus of technological development. Most often, this endpoint is represented by the digital computer, of which all earlier manifestations are seen as groping, imperfect approximations. But the last 20 or so years have provided ample evidence of the enduring relevance of ostensibly outdated musical devices: take, for example, the return of vinyl records as a listening medium, the resurgent interest in analog synthesizers, and the fascination with circuit bending as a means of breathing new life into outdated consumer electronics. In the face of this apparently “post-historical” phase of modern music technology, the conventional narrative loses its explanatory force.

We are in need of new models. Instead of seeing the past simply as a means of explaining the present, we need to view history as a reservoir of possibility whose significance depends on its rapport with our imaginative sense of futurity. The discovery of technological paths untread can both point up the contingency of the technological process and provide imaginative seeds for new avenues of development. Understood this way, the purpose of history is, in the words of Siegfried Zielinski, “to dig out secret paths in history which might help us to find our way into the future.”

One of the most remarkable “secret paths” in 20th-century music was that of the German musician and instrument builder Jörg Mager. Amid the turmoil of the Weimar Republic, Mager rose to prominence as a visionary inventor and a prophet of modern music. For a brief moment, he was among the most visible and controversial figures in European musical culture. Mager’s sudden decline and eventual disappearance mirrored the grim fate of Weimar modernism after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.

Born in the small Black Forest town of Aschaffenburg in 1880, Mager entered into a family that prepared him well for his eventual destiny: his father was a clockmaker and his mother sang in the church choir. His education was modest, and he was musically self-taught, as his family couldn’t afford to send him to conservatory. After reaching adulthood, he settled into a career as a schoolteacher and amateur organist.

Mager’s baptism into musical experimentation came by happenstance. According to his own account, during a summer heat wave in 1911, the organ he played at church went badly out of tune. Enchanted by the instrument’s strange sonorities, Mager began investigating the history and theory of microtonal music. He soon commissioned the construction of a harmonium tuned in quarter-tones, and in 1915 he self-published the fruits of his research in a little pamphlet entitled Vierteltonmusik (Quarter-tone Music). 

In 1918, Mager fled Munich after participating in the failed Communist revolution in Bavaria. He made his way to Berlin, where he joined up with a cadre of microtonalist composers who had gathered in the Prussian capital to study under Ferruccio Busoni. This cosmopolitan group included the Germans Mager and Richard Stein, the Czech Alois Hába, and the Russian Ivan Wischnegradsky. These composers were united in the search for instruments capable of playing microtonal intervals. While the others pursued specially constructed variants of traditional instruments, Mager hit upon the idea of creating a new kind of instrument based on the technological resources of the emerging radio industry. In the early 1920s, while working in a factory assembling radio components, Mager cobbled together his first electric instrument. It consisted of a simple hand-crank that could be rotated about a semi-circular metal plate. An electrically generated tone varied continuously in pitch as the handle was moved. Mager called this invention the “Spherophone,” inspired by the Pythagorean legend of the perfect music of the spheres.

In his 1924 manifesto A New Epoch of Music through Radio, Mager proclaimed his vision of a musical revolution made possible by electric instruments. “Radio” for Mager did not mean a medium for broadcasting pre-existent music, but rather the technological basis for a radical new form of musical production:

The music of the future will be attained by radio instruments! Of course, not with radio transmission, but rather direct generation of musical tones by means of cathode instruments! […] Indeed, the cathode-music will be far superior to previous music, in that it can generate a much finer, more highly developed, richly colored music than all our known musical instruments!

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After years of development, Mager’s instrument was finally unveiled at the 1926 summer music festival in the Black Forest town of Donaueschingen. This event was a stunning showcase of experimental musical technologies of the time: Mager’s invention vied for attention with the eponymous instrument of the Russian inventor Leon Theremin, as well as an array of original compositions for player piano and mechanical organ.

Although it was overshadowed at the time, Mager’s instrument quickly gained notoriety throughout Germany. Several major composers, including Paul Hindemith, enthusiastically endorsed Mager’s efforts, and in 1929 the Society for Electroacoustic Music was founded in Darmstadt to support his research. He was given a luxurious Rococo manor to use as his musical laboratory and provided with skilled technicians to work under his guidance.

Mager’s instrument had by this time taken on a different form. He had abandoned the crank mechanism in favor of a conventional musical keyboard connected to an ingenious device he called the “musical pantograph.”  This functioned by adjusting the capacitance of the sound-generating circuit so as to alter the musical intervals between the keys. The acoustic “length” of the keyboard octave could be made as small as a major second, so that each successive step represented an interval of a 12th tone.

By the late 1920s, however, Mager’s focus had shifted from pitch to timbre.  As early as his 1924 manifesto,  he had alluded to the idea of Klangfarbenmelodie (tone-color melody), coined by Arnold Schoenberg in his Treatise on Harmony. The notion of composing not with pitches but rather with artistically coordinated successions of timbre, which Schoenberg had imagined in the realm of orchestral music, was transposed by Mager to the virtually unlimited domain of elektrische Klangerzeugung (electric tone-generation). The fluid, malleable tone of electric instruments would enable not only the modeling and manipulation of all existing timbres, but also the exploration of a hitherto unknown world of synthetic sounds. Mager declared,  “Whoever has occupied himself even a little with electric sounds will be forced to the conclusion: there are yet things in music of which our book-learning cannot dream.”

Ever the empiricist, Mager used a variety of techniques to explore new timbres, including chains of electrical circuits (what we would now call high-pass and low-pass filters) and unconventional speaker membranes. To mark this shift, Mager called the new incarnation of his instrument the Partiturophon, from Partitur, the German word for a musical score. Just as a score represented the varied timbres of the orchestra, Mager’s instrument brought numerous electrically generated timbres under the control of a single apparatus.

By the early 1930s, Mager was at the peak of his fame, hailed throughout Germany as an inventor of genius. In 1931, he was commissioned to provide the sound of the legendary “Grail bells” for a production of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal. The next year, he produced sound effects for a staging of Goethe’s Faust in celebration of the centennial of the poet’s death. Mager’s account of his music describes a variety of surrealistic musical gestures:  “In the prologue the sun intones with an ethereal, oscillating vibrato. The growling of the poodle is accompanied by microtones. For Walpurgis Night there is ghostly, demonic, eccentric music. The howling of the long-tailed monkey is effected by powerfully vibrating metal membranes.”

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Just as he was enjoying these great successes, however, Mager’s fortunes began to turn. In 1930, a new electric instrument emerged: the Trautonium, invented by Friedrich Trautwein. Unlike Mager, Trautwein was a professional ly trained engineer, and the Trautonium quickly captured the imagination of the musical press and stole the spotlight from Mager. Paul Hindemith, who earlier had spoken favorably of Mager’s undertakings and expressed interest in composing for the Spherophone, now lent his considerable prestige to Trautwein’s fledgling instruments.

At the same time, Mager’s prickly manner and paranoid suspicions had begun to alienate his supporters and drive away many of his collaborators. In 1932, chafing at the pressure to complete a market-ready version of the Partiturophone, Mager allowed his contract with the Society for Electroacoustic Music lapse. In spite of further public appearances and published articles, Mager’s career soon began a precipitous decline. Efforts to ingratiate himself to the Nazi regime came to naught, and by mid-decade Mager led a virtually nomadic existence, bitter and impoverished. He died in 1939, and all of his instruments were destroyed in the conflagration of the Second World War.

Inevitably, the question arises, “How did these instruments sound?” Presumably, the tone of Mager’s instruments resembled that of contemporaneous instruments such as the Theremin, Trautonium, and Ondes Martenot. The music composed for all these instruments was often strikingly conventional, and Mager’s is no exception: in spite of his bold futuristic proclamations, his only notated composition for the Spherophone is a quaint “Little Christmas Lullabye” written in 1933. But Mager also spoke evocatively of “indirect” or “eccentric” music composed of noises and “extra-musical” sounds, and even advocated Seismophonie, or the amplification of sounds from beneath the earth’s crust, an interest that points toward later practices in experimental field recording. Ultimately, Mager’s primary form of musical production was the public demonstration of his instruments, a practice in which we may descry a precursor of the “live electronics” to emerge in the second half of the 20th century.

One account of such a performance provides a glimpe into the period’s tendency to hear electric sound in terms of metaphysical transcendence—a habit not unique to the early 20th century:

Mager plays for us a short, improvised piece, a truly intoxicating bacchanal of strangely mixed magical sounds, which gave one the impression that the door to another world had been thrown wide open. One doubts no longer the unique and unprecedented meaning of his work. The console, from which the closing of electrical contacts calls forth entire series of unexpected scales, entire floods of astounding harmony as if summoned from nothing, controls the gushing limitlessness of the sounding world. Mager stands on the threshold of something final and absolute, for no vibration, wisp of tone-color, no slightest trace of existing sound could resist the will of this magical organism. Everything must become sound, everything is subjected to the fate of tonal birth, and must emerge into reality: from this console, the spheres are orchestrated.

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Mager’s influence in the years after World War II was virtually nonexistent in his native Germany, where pioneers of elektronische Musik such as Herbert Eimert and Karlheinz Stockhausen sought a form of composition entirely free of the “touch” of the performing musician. Ironically, it was in France that Mager’s work found a receptive audience: Pierre Schaeffer, the father of musique concrète, frequently cited his influence, and Schaeffer’s colleague Abraham Moles honored the German as the “true founder of electronic music.” When the first histories of electronic music began to be written in the late 1960s, however, Mager was generally nowhere to be found—a negligence that continues more or less uninterrupted into the present. His importance for the genre—let alone the history of instruments—is to be found less in his direct influence than in his visionary quest for the transfiguration of music through modern technology.



July 17, 2012, 7:58pm

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