Notes from the Director: Music and Invention :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Arthur Molella, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

This month we are exploring the symbiosis between music and invention. Our ever-amazing digital revolution is transforming culture in myriad ways, not least through music. Electronically synthesized sound, which virtually anyone can now generate on a laptop computer, has become a staple of the music and dance scene. It has spun off a range of electronic musical genres and a revolution in music "mash ups" and remixes, and prompted debates about quality control and barriers to music production among bloggers. Rivaling even the electric guitar as a pop culture icon, the ubiquitous iPod now inhabits not only our cell phones and PDAs but almost every corner of our lives. The universal availability of music through downloads has in turn spawned countless other societal changes and conundrums. Such dazzling examples of our digital and internet age make us think that we belong to a unique era of technological and cultural change. We all tend to be "period chauvinists" in this respect.

However, a technological revolution at least as transformative as our own occurred a century ago, and it, too, called forth characteristic forms of musical expression. The so-called Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries ushered in automated machinery, the radio, the car, the airplane, and new synthetic materials. It also launched a fascinating musical avant-garde associated with the surrealists, Dadaists, and futurists, among other cultural shock troops.

To give just one example, F. T. Marinetti, the spiritual father of the Italian futurist movement, called in 1909 for radical new art forms that expressed the speed, power, and, as he saw it, the violence of the Machine Age. Futurist followers F. B. Pratella and Luigi Russolo in turn published radical music manifestos celebrating the machine and invented new instruments that were ancestors to today’s synthesizers. The latter’s "intonarumori" contained acoustic generators that produced odd noises--screeches, hisses, whispers, whistles, and thunder--all designed as a deliberate insult to what futurists saw as the mediocrity of the musical status quo. Concerts using such instruments were not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but Russolo’s intonarumori influenced such famed compositions as George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique. The electronic music pioneer Edgard Varèse also owed a musical debt to the futurists. So inspired by science and technology that he once even wrote to Bell Laboratories for a grant, Varèse was known for his use of innovative instruments and for compositions like Hyperprism and Ionisation, the latter a non-electronic piece that used novel percussive sounds.

Russolo’s synthesized noise opened the door to a panoply of 20th-century sounds, including those produced by German composer and electronic music pioneer Oskar Sala. A student of Friedrich Trautwein, inventor of the trautonium, Sala developed his own "Mixtur-Trautonium" in 1952. Though you may not have heard of Sala, you have probably heard his "music." He synthesized the chilling screeches of the avian invaders in Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. Technological revolutions find mysterious ways to infiltrate culture.

From Prototype, July 2008

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