The Subharchord [www.subharchord.com]
Unique Electronic Music Instrument Rediscovered!
* This website is about the fascinating search for new electronic sounds, and the subharchord, a unique instrument that was constructed as a result of this quest.
1. The Birth of New Electronic Music in Divided Germany
In 1950s Germany, in the wake of musique concrète, the first fully electronic compositions were written. During this period many countries established electronic music studios to discover and explore these new worlds of sound. In Germany, new music was composed and experiments conducted on electronic equipment that often came originally from the physics lab or radio. However, development in the East and the West differed considerably. The political division of Germany after World War II led to the foundation of two politically independent states in 1949, geographically neighbours yet entirely separate: the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the east and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the west. In the years that followed, each state defined its own cultural policy. One result was that young artists and musicians, who saw themselves as the avant-garde, were valued and tolerated differently in the two states. In the West, from the outset it was easier for musicians to remain independent and to experiment relatively unhampered. For example, at the famous WDR (West German Broadcasting Corporation) studio of electronic music, many new works were written by composers such as Herbert Eimert, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Gottfried Michael König. The publications that came out of the WDR studio had an international audience. In other studios, such as Milan, Rome, Eindhoven, Brussels, Gravesano, and New York, experiments with musical structures and technical innovations were also ongoing.
2. An Invention by East German Engineers
development in music, together with the utilisation of new electronic
sources of sound, was followed with great interest in East Berlin. Like
the rest of the country, the city of Berlin was divided politically into
East and West. In the competitive struggle between the two systems, the
GDR did not merely want to be part of international developments, it wanted
to take the lead. Thus, around 1960, technical experts at the Labor
für Akustisch-Musikalische Grenzprobleme (laboratory for problems
at the acoustics/music interface) began with the construction of a sound-generating
device, which would be a compact sound lab and centrepiece of an electronic
music studio; furthermore, it would be unrivalled and unsurpassed. The inventor of the subharchord was the East-German engineer Ernst Schreiber.
3. The West German Mixturtrautonium
Do you know Alfred
Hitchcocks film The Birds? If you have seen it, do you remember
the rather menacing sounds of these usually harmless creatures? The bird
noises were produced synthetically on an electronic instrument, a mixturtrautonium
a further development of the trautonium. The mixturtrautonium is
a special case in the fascinating history of electronic music instruments
for it uses the afore mentioned subharmonic mixtures to generate sound.
4. A (Re)Discovery in the Year 2000
In 2000 through extensive research on the history of electronic music instruments, Berlin artist and musician Manfred Miersch made a truly remarkable discovery: the “subharchord” is an instrument that produces subharmonic sounds, something previously only thought possible with the “mixturtrautonium”. As described above, the subharchord was invented in former East Germany under difficult technical conditions using the latest technology available at the time. However,
the subharchord differs from the mixturtrautonium in key respects. The
subharchord has a keyboard and is played like an organ whereas the mixturtrautoniums
manual is a resistor wire over a metal plate, which is pressed at various
points to create sound (like a ribbon-controller), a rather difficult
procedure. In addition, the subharchord possesses considerably more possibilities
than the mixturtrautonium for generating and manipulating sounds.
5. Subharchord News
In the meantime, both historic and new recordings are now available on CD; the first appeared in 2003: Der Krautopia Sampler. At the end of 2004, an exceptional production was realised as a Special Edition: the vinyl single Subharmonische Mixturen mit dem Subharchord (EP extended play, 33 rpm). It includes a historic recording, a tribute to Ernst Schreiber, inventor of the subharchord (1962), and two new recordings of pieces played by Manfred Miersch on the subharchord owned by the Berlin Academy of Arts (2003/2004). The subharchord has been saved from oblivion and efforts to preserve the last surviving instruments have been successful! However, much work remains to be done. Sections of the Subharchord Website will shortly be available in English. Research continues and there will surely be more surprises to come.
Alan Gould, 2006
Update from 2016:
In the year 2000, Manfred Miersch began researching and publishing his findings on the subharchord, giving focus to what had been a hitherto forgotten East German instrument. To commemorate the 15-year anniversary of the beginning of this journey, Manfred Miersch released an album using the subharchord from the German Museum of Technology, Berlin: Das Subharchord - The Subharchord (new subharmonic mixtures).With the exception of a small vinyl EP which appeared in 2004, Manfred Miersch - Subharmonic Mixtures with the Subharchord, this CD is appearing as the first sound carrier to feature an encompassing acoustic portrait of the Subharchord to be released since 1964.
In the meantime Manfred Miersch’s work continues to focus on the subharchord and other rare instruments and will no doubt uncover other surprises and discoveries in electroacoustic music history.
C. Hampel, 2016