You have to love German. In English, I can string together whole paragraphs that try and fail to capture the potential of electronic sound. In German, we get to call an event Technosphärenklänge – a word whose utterance is a timbral adventure in itself. And in an event with that name promising to be a landmark for the electronic music sphere, CTM Festival is bringing together pioneering machines and pioneering humans. It’s a convergence of the worlds of mathematics and music that has never happened in this combination on one stage before – and we’ll take you there.

For one, there’s John Chowning. Chowning’s name will always appear first in sentences involving “the inventor of FM (frequency modulation) synthesis.” But while the impact of that can’t be overstated, he’s also a pioneer in finding mathematical beauty in composition and in equally significant contributions to sound spatialization. Moreover, like his late colleague Max Mathews, John’s teaching reaches beyond even his own discoveries – so much about electronic music achievement can be connected to his students and his students’ students.

So it’s fitting that Holly Herndon will do an interview with John, as she has studied with him.

FM synthesis you know, but in celebration of John’s work, let’s share still more. There’s his gorgeous milestone 1977 composition Stria, which holds up today as computer music, and is built in mystical mathematic beauty around the Golden Mean.

Here, via AES, he talks about his role in the origins of FM.

Here’s John in action in some wonderful historical moments:

Chowning at Stanford's CCRMA - the program he founded - with Thierry Lancino and Chris Chafe. Photo credit: CCRMA.

Chowning at Stanford’s CCRMA – the program he founded – with Thierry Lancino and Chris Chafe. Photo credit: CCRMA.

John Chowning (standing, plaid shirt) at CCRMA with Pierre Boulez (at computer), Max Mathews (glasses, far right) and others. Photo credit: José Mercado.

John Chowning (standing, plaid shirt) at CCRMA with Pierre Boulez (at computer), Max Mathews (glasses, far right) and others. Photo credit: José Mercado.

Pairing John with Holly is already a meeting of minds that should be fun to witness, but we also get a world-premiere musical collaboration that unites Chowning’s musical imagination with Mark Fell.

Mark Fell. Photo courtesy the artist / CTM Festival.

Mark Fell. Photo courtesy the artist / CTM Festival.

If Chowning represents the mathematics of music in digital form, a creation of none other than Leon Theremin makes it physical-mechanical. The Rhythmicon could be seen as the prototypical drum machine. The 1932 invention, in a 60s-built rendition made by Theremin himself, will debut in Berlin via Moscow-based researcher Andrey Smirnov.

Watch it in action:

Theremin's Rhythmicon - progenitor of drum machines ever since. Photo: Andrey Smirnov, courtesy CTM Festival.

Theremin’s Rhythmicon – progenitor of drum machines ever since. Photo: Andrey Smirnov, courtesy CTM Festival.

Andrey Smirnov gives a lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy Synth Lab in Moscow in 2013.  Photo: Denis Klero/Red Bull Content Pool.

Andrey Smirnov gives a lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy Synth Lab in Moscow in 2013. Photo: Denis Klero/Red Bull Content Pool.

Marcus Schmickler will join CDM's Peter Kirn in conversation. Photo by Marc Comes, courtesy CTM Festival.

Marcus Schmickler will join CDM’s Peter Kirn in conversation. Photo by Marc Comes, courtesy CTM Festival.

We hope to share content from the whole program. I’ll also be talking personally to German composer Marcus Schmickler. His numbers tickle the brain directly. Building on the work of Jean-Claude Risset, his Fortuna Ribbons project plays with sonic perception. If the Shepard Tone is the sonic barber pole of sound, sine waves superimposed in a fashion that seems to make them constantly ascend or descend, the Shepard–Risset glissando is an M.C. Escher staircase – continuous sonic aural illusion.

The best way to appreciate Schmickler’s work may be simply to watch how people respond when they hear it (keep watching, as the reactions start to get more interesting):

You can also try putting on this record at your next party:

More on his work:
http://piethopraxis.org/
http://morecrazycrazy.com/

Let us know if you’ve got a question you’d like me to ask him, especially if you’re a Schmickler fan.

Stay tuned to CDM for more with the artists and the results of the talks.

But if you are in Berlin this month, you can come visit us in person. Marcus Schmickler joins Carsten Goertz, Mark Fell and John Chowning perform, Andrey Smirnov performs, and gamut inc (whom we joined at CTM Festival in February) are back. Then Holly and I take on the talks the following day.

Technosphärenklänge #2: Konzerte [HKW]

Technosphärenklänge #2 – Concerts [CTM]

Technosphärenklänge #2: Talks und Vorträge [HKW]

Technosphärenklänge #2 – Lectures [CTM]

And the series:

The Technosphärenklänge (Sounds of the Technosphere) concert series aims to explore current practices in sound and music as an element and expression of the technosphere – the quasi autonomous entity that is the sum of operational and technical processes and infrastructures around the globe, and whose conflicted interaction with natural planetary processes characterises the Earth’s current geological time, dubbed the Anthropocene. Developed in close collaboration between HKW and CTM Festival, the series is scheduled to take place at irregular intervals until 2018.

  • David Dvorin

    The common conception that the Rhythmicon is related to drum machines/beatboxes (probably the name) is very misleading. Termen designed this to connect intervallic ratios (i.e. P5th = 3:2, P4 = 4:3) with polyrhythms. So, as illustrated in the video posted, when something like an octave is held down, you hear a pattern that plays 2 notes for every one (2:1) while simultaneously hearing the pitches (an octave).

    I don’t get why people associate this with drum machines at all! It’s pitched, has nothing to do with bars/beats/meter, and does not produce a timbre even close to percussion…sigh. It is something entirely different.

    • Well, I think the answer to that is simple — the drum machine in the end has come to mean a device that generates rhythms, which has brought it full circle back to Theremin’s concept.

      Also, I don’t know how a device that generates regular rhythms “has nothing to do with bars/beats/meter.” 4/4 is not the only meter. So really this is down to the fact that it’s polyrhythmic and pitched?

      Given that people are often now demanding sequencer/drum machines that are polyrhythmic and can drive synthesizers, I’d say what’s really happened is that increasingly these devices have gotten more like the Rhythmicon over time. Lev was one heck of a visionary.

      (Also, I only said one “could think of it as a prototypical” drum machine … not sure how I could have qualified that any more)

      • David Dvorin

        Almost all web info on the Rhythmicon ties it to drum machines (statements like your photo caption calling it the “progenitor of drum machines ever since”) in terms of it’s musical function. Drum machines create musical patterns that are drum-like, no? These patterns are usually expressed with non-pitched sounds/timbres (at least if you want it to be like standard non-pitched drums)…

        This device is something that is functionally VERY different than drum machines. When using it you are not thinking about bars/beats/meter, but instead exploring the same ratios that create the tuning of pitch intervals (like shortening a string). This device allows you to hear the PITCH intervals expressed rhythmically as well (2 against 3, etc.).

        IMO this is something that should be acknowledged when presenting information on it, especially not framing it as the inspiration for all drum machines/groove boxes. I mean no undue criticism of this site, which I love and read everyday. This website is not alone in this, just check out the Wikipedia entry…

        Here’s a good explanation of the instrument and how Henry Cowell inspired it:

        http://120years.net/the-rhythmiconhenry-cowell-leon-termenusa1930/

  • chaircrusher

    The Rhythmicon has some things in common with Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s Drum Buddy, in that it uses optical triggering. Theremin was there first (as he was in most things), but I’m betting Quintron was unaware of the Rhythmicon when he came up with the Drum Buddy.

    And maybe I’m crazy, but is that Ursula Mertens in the center of the frame in the Fortuna Ribbon video? It sure looks like her!

  • lala

    After I have listened to this I want to kill some kittens.

  • Will

    “German: a timbral adventure” should be used to pitch German lessons from this day forward.

  • kuehnl

    Not sure why everyone says Chowning “invented” FM synthesis. He developed an algorithm for digital FM synthesis. Analog FM synthesis had already been available in Moog and Buchla synths years before.