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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 But the last 20 or so years have provided ample evidence of the enduring relevance of ostensibly outdated musical devices: take, for example, the return of vinyl records as a listening medium, the resurgent interest in analog synthesizers, and the fascination with circuit bending as a means of breathing new life into outdated consumer electronics.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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Paul Hindemith: Suite for Mechanical Organ (Triadic Ballet), fourth movement

From the album Paul Hindemith Organ Concertos / Suite for Mechanical Organ

The frenzy for all things mechanical in 1920s Europe possessed not only architecture, design, painting, and film, but also music and dance. Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of the whole movement was the Triadic Ballet, an abstract theater piece by Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer

Although he was trained as a visual artist, rather than as a choreographer or actor, Schlemmer was the primary figure associated with stage productions at the Bauhaus. He welcomed the merger of the arts and hailed the “confusion of artistic concepts” as the sign of a dawning new order. Schlemmer understood his innovations in theater as a continuation of the experimental tendencies explored in the abstract film and stage production of the early 1920s. 

First performed in 1922, the Triadic Ballet received its most famous presentation at the festival for new music in the small Black Forest town of Donaueschingen in 1926. The work comprised three major sections, each further subdivided into a series of short dances. Each section is characterized by a dominant color and mood: the first series is lemon yellow and “jovial-burlesque,” the second is pink and “ceremonial-solemn,” the third is black and “mystic-fantastic.” 

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A schematic overview of the individual dances in Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet

In Schlemmer’s costumes for the Triadic Ballet, the impetus toward abstraction that dominated the visual arts in the early 20th century is extended to the human body.  He sought to reduce the body to its constitutive shapes in order to establish the basic dynamics of motion derived from the formal properties of the organism. Through their abstract shapes and their constriction of natural bodily motion, the costumes were intended to enforce a discipline and at the same time enable a new freedom of movement.image

Sketches from Schlemmer’s essay “Man and Art Figure”

To accompany the 1926 performance, composer Paul Hindemith created original music for the Welte-Philharmonie mechanical organ by punching holes by hand in the paper rolls that controlled the instrument’s automatic playback mechanism.  Although the rolls were destroyed in World War II, the music survives in this period recording of a reworking of the Triadic Ballet suite’s first movement. 

Hindemith’s score is in the characteristic madcap style that marks much of the "mechanical music" of the period. While he would later champion the use of automatic instruments as a means of providing musical accompaniment to silent film (in 1928 he wrote a mechanical organ piece for the then-popular "Felix the Cat" cartoon), Hindemith would before long give up on composing for mechanical instruments, which were soon overshadowed by radio, phonograph, and the emergence of the first electrophones.

Response to the Triadic Ballet varied from acclaim to dismay and everything in between. One critic questioned why, in a world of automobiles, airplanes, and neon signs, the dancers should not themselves be automatons. He drolly noted that the only thing missing was a mechanical audience that automatically whistled and applauded.  


Played 423 time(s).

June 03, 2012, 9:54pm

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Two images of radio from Weimar Republic Germany

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Kurt Günther, Der Radionist (1927)

Max Radler, Radiohörer (1930)



June 18, 2011, 1:00am

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Erwin Schulhoff: Bassnachtigal (1922)

From the album Divertissement / Concertino

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was a Czech composer of German-Jewish descent whose compositions from the 1920s represent a relatively rare musical manifestation of the Dada movement of Weimar Republic Germany. His highly imaginative works from this period include the early piano piece In futurum (from his 1919 set of piano pieces, Five Picturesques), consisting entirely of rests of varying rhythmic values (see below); the Sonata Erotica for Solo Mother-Trumpet, which features an explicitly notated fake orgasm for soprano voice; and Das Wolkenpumpe (The Cloud Pump), a set of short chamber songs based on an absurdist text by the Dada poet Hans Arp.

In 1929 Schulhoff completed an ambitious operatic tragicomedy based on the story of Don Juan, entitled Flames. Combining musical elements of 19th-century German opera, jazz, and Gregorian chant, this boldly polystylistic work flopped in its premiere and disappeared from the repertoire until a 1995 revival.  In 1932, Schulhoff wrote a massive cantata on the text of the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, a work that signaled his adoption of the doctrine socialist realism propagated in the Soviet Union under Stalin. A simplified, monumental mode of composition would characterize the remainder of his music, in which programmatic symphonies featured prominently. Doubly damned as a socialist and a Jew, Schulhoff was imprisoned by the Germans in 1941 and died the following year in a Bavarian concentration camp.

Schulhoff’s 1922 composition Bassnachtigal (Bass-nightingale) entrusts a virtuosic birdsong to the voice of the typically unlyrical contrabassoon, a gesture at once absurd and touchingly sincere in its attempt to transcend conventional musical associations. The composer penned a short prefatory poem to accompany the score, beginning with the lines, “The divine spark may be present / in a liver sausage or in a contrabassoon.”

Schulhoff’s “silent piece” In Futurum


Played 197 time(s).

May 14, 2011, 5:26pm

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Carlos Chavez: Energía for nine instruments (1925)

From the album Xochipilli, La Hija de Colquide Suite, Tambuco, Energia, Toccata

Along with Julián Carrillo and Silvestre RevueltasCarlos Chavez was one of the leaders of Mexican musical modernism in the early 20th century. Chavez was a spirited “public intellectual” of modern music, writing copiously for the popular press, collaborating with Edgard Varèse in organizing the Pan-American Association of Composers, and conducting for 21 years the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, the country’s first permanent symphony orchestra. As director of the national conservatory in Mexico from 1928-1933, Chavez oversaw wide-ranging reforms in curriculum, including the study of indigenous musical traditions and a compositional focus on “new musical possibilities.”

Chavez’s position as an visionary of musical modernism was cemented by his 1937 book Toward a New Music: Music and Electricity, which stemmed from a series of writings first published in El Universal in Mexico City in 1932. Although Chavez wrote compellingly of the unlimited possibilities of “electric music,” he did not make use of them in his own work. In this respect, Toward a New Music can be compared to Ferruccio Busoni’s Sketch of a New Aesthetics of Music (1907), another influential piece of writing on music technology by a composer who never touched the stuff himself.

Composed for an unconventional chamber ensemble of piccolo, flute, bassoon, horn, trumpet, bass trombone, viola, cello, and double bass, Energía was commissioned in 1925 by Varèse’s International Composers’ Guild, but not premiered until 1931. Evoking by turns the raw outbursts of German expressionism and the dissonant counterpoint of the American “ultra-modernists,” Energía is strikingly unique in its complete disavowal of repetition. The work fulfill’s Chavez vision of “a music that continually evolves from itself, the entire piece constituting a single, long, main theme.”


Played 100 time(s).

March 28, 2011, 12:28pm

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Kurt Schwitters: “Third Part: Scherzo—Trio—Scherzo”

From the work Ursonate (1922-32)

A crucial landmark in 20th-century sonic art, Kurt SchwittersUrsonate is likely much better known by poets than by musicians. It is perhaps the most famous exemplar of sound poetryan explicitly performative genre of verbal art that operates in a domain between conventional poetic recitation and the nonreferential expression of music. In the words of contemporary poet Steve McCaffery, the object of sound poetry is the “liberation and promotion of the phonetic and subphonetic features of language to the state of a materia prima for creative, subversive endeavors.”

The sound poem was very much in the air in the early 20th century, to the extent that Schwitters’ Ursonate represents not so much a pioneering work of the genre but rather a kind of classical apex of its mature form. This is signaled even by the title of the work, which references the musical genre of the sonata, on whose carefully balanced form Schwitters’ poem was deliberately modeled.

The Ursonate was developed over a ten-year period from 1922 to 1932, the year in which its “score” was first published. Schwitters’ score consists of a precisely notated invented language complete with indications for tempo and volume. Like a musical score, Schwitters’ notation leaves much to the discretion of the performer, and many interpretations of the work have been made over the years. Schwitters’ own performance of the Ursonate resurfaced in 1992 through the hands of the Dutch composer Dick Raaymakers. The date of the performance is unknown.

The complete Schwitters performance, in its 40-minute duration, is a unique and powerful experience, though not for the faint of heart.

Schwitters perfroming the Ursonate in 1944


Played 90 time(s).

March 06, 2011, 7:44am

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Paolo Buzzi: “Stravinsky” (c. 1922)

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The nebulous bursts,

The semibarbarous surges

clad in the colors of Eastertide,

and he sings and dances, mystically,

and in dancing he plunders

alders, birches, larches.

All is fairtime and market and the merry-go-round

and the barrel organ is crammed with the noisemaker

and it is raining pure vodka

and fireworks are set off

to the sparks of a pipe

and the orchestra is flaming in the wood.

A fiddle-bow Catherine-wheel, all,

and trumpets spurt skyrockets

up to the constellations

and the drums are cracking

and the tom-toms slap the stars

with terrible golden blows.

All turns to dizziness,

the moujik idiocy

vomits divine cacophonies,

the night grows sad with stars

sluggish as living chains upon the steppes.

Peace!  It is Night, O Black Earth!

But the music surges rowdily forth

from the red and inextinguishable crater.



February 12, 2011, 12:00am

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László Moholy-Nagy: “Mechanized Eccentric”

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From The Theater of the Bauhaus (1925)

Though better known for his work in visual art, photography, and design, the Hungarian modernist László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was a visionary polyartist whose radical constructivist approach to aesthetics touched on virtually every possible medium, including music and theater.

According to Richard Kostelanetz, Moholy-Nagy “envisioned certain technological innovations still not achieved, such as mobile loudspeakers suspended on overhead wire tracks, and recognized the availability of all materials, including ‘film, automobile, elevator, airplane, and other machinery, as well as optical instruments, reflecting equipment, etc.’”  Moholy-Nagy’s idea of the “Mechanized Eccentric” was conceived as a “concentration of stage action in its purest form,” a “humanless environmental field of lights, sounds, films, odors, music, mechanized apparatus, and simulated explosions.”  All this in the 1920s!

This “Sketch for a Score for a Mechanized Eccentric” was originally included in volume 4 of the “Bauhaus Books” series in 1925.  The book was translated into English and published as The Theater of the Bauhaus in 1961.



October 29, 2010, 4:48pm

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Birth of the Radio Play: Hans Flesch’s Enchanted Radio

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Broadcast in October 1924, just a year after the start of regular radio operation in Germany, Enchanted Radio (Zauberei auf dem Sender) was the creation of Hans Flesch (1896-1945?). Flesch was a pioneer of radio art in 1920s Germany. From 1924 he was the artistic director at Southwest German Radio in Frankfurt. In 1929 he became the director of Berlin Radio, where he commissioned the famous “blind film” Weekend from filmmaker Walter Ruttmann.  After being imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1933 and working later as a doctor in German military hospitals, Flesch disappeared in the vicinity of Berlin in 1945.

Anticipating the realistic premise of Orson Welles’ famous War of the WorldsEnchanted Radio depicts a broadcast gone horribly wrong. A disgruntled magician wreaks havoc on the station: the regular program breaks down into confusion and noise. The supervisor, attempting to restore order, is tormented with an auditory illusion: he hears a distorted rendition of the song “Hab’ ein blaues Himmelbett,” and is incredulous that no-one else in the studio claims to have heard it. Flesch puts in the mouth of the deranged supervisor the question at the heart of the new medium: “Is it possible that music could fill the air, although no one plays it?”  A technical malfunction prevents the technician from stopping the broadcast, casting an allure of auditory voyeurism over all these bizarre happenings: we are “listening in” behind radio’s invisible curtain.

At a time when radio was an untested technology, Flesch challenged the implicit conventions of the medium and confronted listeners with the fascinating and disturbing implications of radiophonic listening. Although the original broadcast is lost to the ether, Flesch’s radio play was produced and recorded in 1962 by the radio station of the German state Hesse.  

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Photo reproduced from Daniel Gilfillan’s book Pieces of Sound, p. 47.



September 10, 2010, 2:25pm

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Hans Haass: Fugue in C Major (1926)

From the album Piano Music without Limits: Original Compositions of the 1920s

Experimental music for the player piano is usually associated with the work of Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who beginning in 1948 worked for many years in obscurity in Mexico before being discovered and championed in the late 1970s and 80s. (Nancarrow was featured here in August 2009.) But in fact the history of original, “unplayable” music for player piano goes back much further, to the first decades of the 20th century. Although the earliest pieces date from the late teens, the majority of compositions in this vein were written in the 1920s, in the experiment-happy environment of Weimar Republic Germany.

The period’s dominant mood of “new objectivity,” as well as the general adulation of the machine in both capitalist and socialist thinking, led to a fascination with so-called “mechanical music.”  This could mean anything from gramophone recordings to new electronic instruments, but it was perhaps best exemplified by the player piano, which was able to reproduce with utter precision and superhuman ability virtually anything that was demanded of it.

At the new music festivals in the towns of Donaueschingen and Baden-Baden in 1926 and 1927, a handful of works for player piano were premiered by Paul Hindemith, Ernst Toch, and other composers. These pieces were deliberately composed to take advantage of the mechanical potential of the instrument (specifically, a model of player piano known as the Welte-Mignon), apart from all conventions of piano technique derived from the physical nature of the human hand. The paper rolls which stored the musical information were created not through live recording, as was customary, but by hand-pricking each tiny perforation in order to exactly determine the pitches, durations, tempo, and dynamics of the music.

One of the pieces premiered in 1927 was this Fugue in C Major (also known as the Capriccio Fugue) by Hans Haass, an accomplished composer and concert pianist who had became a director of recording for Welte-Mignon in 1925. He recorded over 300 rolls of popular and classical music, and knew as well as anyone the capabilities and limitations of the machine. According to player piano expert Jürgen Hocker, Haass’ pieces for the Welt-Mignon are the among the most adventurous and depart radically from the conventions of piano composition.  

Though recognizable as a fugue thanks to its omnipresent theme and consistent imitative polyphony, this composition is really a showpiece for the unique effects of the medium: breakneck tempo, simultaneous use of the entire keyboard, and ultra-fast runs and trills which overload the ear’s ability to distinguish individual notes, creating what Hocker calls “clouds” and “hurricanes” of sound.

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Played 320 time(s).

July 22, 2010, 2:35pm

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Julián Carrillo: Preludio a Colón (1924)

From the album Julian Carrillo (date unknown)

Born in Mexico City in 1875, Julián Carrillo is a fascinating and little-known composer of the 20th century.  Around 1895, Carrillo began using his violin to experiment with microtonal intervals— distances between notes smaller than the semitone or minor second which is the smallest difference between two pitches in the conventional Western system of tuning.  The realization that a virtually infinite world of tones lay dormant between the notes of the equal-tempered scale took on revelatory significance for Carrillo, who christened his discovery “el sonido trece” (“the thirteenth sound”).  Carrillo’s experiments in microtonality were among the first efforts in what would become a major strain of new musical investigations in the 20th century— perhaps first brought to public awareness by Ferruccio Busoni in his Outline of a New Aesthetics of Music, written in 1907.  (N.B.: The link is to the 1911 translation of the text, which is faulty, but alas, the only English version available.)

Carrillo’s music met with great public success during his lifetime.  Championed by Leopold Stokowski from the 1920s on, his works were premiered in several cities in the United States.  In 1930, Carrillo returned to Mexico from abroad and formed the “Orquesta Sonido 13,” a group dedicated to his microtonal compositions.

He had a set of 15 microtonal pianos built for him and exhibited at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels— the same event which saw the famous Poème électronique of Varese, Xenakis, and Corbusier.  Carrillo’s “metamorphic pianos” were admired by other microtonal composers such as Alois Hába and Ivan Wyschnegradsky.

Carrillo also developed a new system of notation meant to rationalize musical production and make it easier to write microtonal intervals.  Like the many other efforts in this vein undertaken in the 20th century, Carrillo’s innovations did not catch on.

The title of this piece translates as “Prelude to Columbus.”  It is written for soprano, flute, guitar, violin, octavina, and harp.


Played 120 time(s).

December 09, 2009, 5:31pm

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Josef Matthias Hauer: “VII. Suite for Orchestra, 1st movement” (1926)

From the album Symphonic Works

The Viennese composer Josef Matthias Hauer is one of the stranger characters in 20th-classical music.  He beat Arnold Schoenberg to the discovery of twelve-tone composition by a couple of years when he published his piano piece Nomos in 1919, and he later anticipated the emergence of algorithmic thinking in music with his Zwölftonspiele (“Twelve-tone games”), in which the compositional structure is derived in a systematic way from the intervalllic structure of the “tropes” (complementary hexachords forming a complete twelve-tone pitch set).  But in spite of these would-be claims to fame, Hauer remains a marginal figure.  Even now, recordings of his music are hard to come by.

In contrast to the music of the Viennese School, which (with the partial exception of Webern’s later works) in spite of its rejection of tonality remained deeply indebted to the musical syntax of the Austro-Germanic tradition stemming from the 18th century, Hauer’s twelve-tone music is largely unmoored from conventional classical-romantic phrase structure.  Its constantly flowing, meandering melodies suggest a kinship with the Fortspinnung principle of Baroque music, in which the continual evolution of melody is paramount.  Together with the atonal harmonic language, this gives Hauer’s music a delightfully manic quality reminiscent of a  perpetuum mobile.


Played 130 time(s).

October 23, 2009, 4:29pm

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Velimir Khlebnikov: “The Radio of the Future” (written in 1921; radiophonic recreation by Miguel Molina Alarcon and Leopoldo Amigo, 2006)

From the album Baku: Symphony of Sirens (Sound Experiments in the Russian Avant Garde)

In 1921, the Russian futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov wrote a remarkable essay entitled “The Radio of the Future,” in which he projects a vision of the new wireless medium as a synaesthetic panacea for modern man— “the spiritual sun of the country, a great wizard and sorceror” which will unite humanity by allowing for the instantaneous, universal transmission of text, sound, flavor, and scent.

Khlebnikov’s essay, which must be read to be believed, has been imaginitively realized in sound by the scholar and sound artist Miguel Molina Alarcon of the Laboratorio de Creaciones Intermedia at the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia in Spain.  He has used the sonic references in “The Radio of the Future” to construct  a sound-collage that evokes the heady, futuristic atmosphere of Khlebnikov’s writing.

The album from which this track is taken is one of the most remarkable documents of experimental music I have yet discovered.  Consisting of one disc of reconstructions and one disc of historical recordings, Baku: Symphony of Sirens offers entry into the bizarre and beautiful sound-world of the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde.  I will be featuring more of it in due time.


Played 317 time(s).

March 27, 2009, 10:15am

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