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Re-introducing the trautonium to a new audience

Wednesday, 01 June 2016

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With only a handful of examples of this antique synthesiser left in the world, a WAAPA research student decided to build her own.

PhD candidate Meg Travers has created her own version of the early electronic instrument, the trautonium, and will give a West Australian-first performance at the WA Museum on Friday, 3 June.

“The trautonium was invented in Germany in 1929 and it was the first electronic instrument that could produce a wide variety of sounds. It was the forefather of today’s synthesizers,” Ms Travers said.

“When it was invented the instrument was taken fairly seriously and concertos were written for it. But ultimately it found its main use in the creation of film soundtracks, most famously for the bird noises in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

“The few remaining examples of the trautonium are preserved in museums in Germany, on display for people to view, but unavailable for musicians to perform the music written for the instrument.”

Ms Travers PhD research is investigating how we can preserve early electronic instruments in a way that we can still enjoy them in performance, rather than locked away in showcases.

“This built trautonium is the cornerstone of my research,” she said.

“I want to compare it to the original instruments in museums in Germany, to see if this modern version of the instrument would be able to be used in performing works for the trautonium.”

Today’s trautonium true to the past, but modern in construction

Ms Travers said her version of the trautonium looks like a modular synthesizer and has the many varieties of sound that a sound synthesizer can make.

“Importantly though, it uses formant filters and subharmonic synthesis, which were both developed by the inventor Oskar Sala,” she said.

“It also makes extensive use of a frequency shifter, which is quite an unusual effect to use in music today, but was very much the calling card of the trautonium. It uses analogue electronics still, but 21st century versions of them, making the instrument smaller and more robust.”

Learning from historical performance

Ms Travers said her performance at the WA Museum will be a work written by Oskar Sala, however she also plans introduce the trautonium into the music she plays with her ensemble MotET (Music of the Electronic Times).

“Learning how to play the trautonium has been challenging,” she said.

“There’s no one left in the world who knows who to play it, so I am listening to recordings and learning by watching videos of Oskar Sala’s performances.”

Meg Travers will play Western Australia’s first ever performance on the trautonium at A Moment in Time, on Friday 3 June at the Western Australian Museum, Perth Cultural Centre. The concert is a closing event paying tribute WA Museum ahead of its four-year closure for redevelopment.

“This concert provides a great bridge between my new version of the trautonium, and the original instruments which are displayed in museums. Perhaps it will build a bridge between Western Australian and German cultural institutions and their preservation practises?” Ms Travers said.

If you would like to know more, you can view Meg Travers talk on preserving electronic music, on the TEDxPerth YouTube channel.

At ECU, we’re committed to research that has strong social, economic, environmental and cultural impact. If you want to make a practical difference to people’s lives, enquire now about a postgraduate research degree.

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