Der Komponist and the machines for opera – Moogtonium


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Heard about “Der Komponist” before, most likely not, but if we throw in the Moogtonium into the equation, you may think of Max Brand. Max Brand was an Austrian composer focusing both on traditional classical music and, at the same time, pioneering in the field of electronic music.

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As you will see further down in this article there is a new book out featuring the fascinating life of Max Brand called “Maschinen für die Oper”. But before we dig into this new release let’s shed some light on the background of this true pioneer in electronic music.

Max Brand was truly avant-garde and early on he was searching for someone to build him a version of a Trautonium, an early electronic musical instrument invented in 1929 by Friedrich Trautwein and later perfected by Oskar Sala. Sala’s instrument, the Mixture Tratonium, was famous for its subharmonic oscillators and ribbon controller interface (instead of a keyboard). Max approached the legend himself – Bob Moog.

The result became what was known as the Moogtonium.

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Brand had learned of Bob’s  early work in creating synthesizer modules, and contacted him about building a version of this rare instrument. Bob, still in the early phases of developing the Moog modulars, agreed. The two men worked for two years to develop the instrument, with Bob building and Brand honing needed specifications and capabilities. The instrument was ultimately delivered in 1968. But Max had experimented with electronic music well before the delivery of this new instrument and one early now famous composition is the Triptych and listening on this early piece one can see many similarities with today´s experimental artists, intriguing soundscapes and electric noises.

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Interesting enough there is now a new book out on the subject and here is a short presentation of the book. A contemporary of Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill, Max Brand was a figure between late romanticism, futurism and outbreaks of the electronic age. The cultural breakdown by the Nazis, before which he fled in 1937 from Vienna and ended up in Rio de Janeiro, began a promising career as an opera composer till the end. In 1940 he settled in New York, where he pursued his vision of an electronic music machine for the stage. Many attempts did not lead on, one of which was an optical synthesizer with self-drawn waveforms, finally Moogtonium, a slightly ajar to the Mixturtrautonium Oskar Salas, Robert A. Moog synthesizer built. The development work on the machine dragged on far too long, so that fire could never realize his dream to have an electronic one-man band for the operatic stage. In 1975 he returned to Austria, where he lived in Langenzersdorf and in 1980 died.

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As indicated by his early manuscripts from 1946, Brand imagined an electronic keyboard instrument that was capable of imitating the sounds of a piano. Within a decade, he had realized that new instrument technology demanded a new musical language; he understood that the pure imitation of conventional instruments was foolish. At the time, most early synthesizers were located at universities and research facilities.

The Moogtonium was built as two monophonic synthesizers, arranged in a symmetrical fashion. It is controlled by two keyboards, each with a ribbon/linear controller above. Each keyboard and ribbon control one side of the machine; providing a duo-phonic machine overall. The heart of the Moogtonium is two subharmonic oscillators which can synthesize a basic frequency, as well as 4 additional partials, generated by dividing the base frequency harmonically. Though functionally similar to the Mixtur-Trautonium, its circuitry was a unique design by Bob Moog. There is an array of standard and not-standard Moog modules above the main sound generating area of the machine. This is an important aspect that makes the machine different from the Mixtur-Trautonium, as Sala’s machine did not have any modular-patching capabilities.

Benedikt Guschlbauer & Uli Kühn improvise on the Max Brand Synthesizer (aka Moogtonium) live at the Ars Electronica Festival 2009 in Linz, Austria.

For modern day listeners we can recommend this record that makes full use of the Moogtonium.

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VA – KABELBRAND – SOUNDS FROM THE MAX BRAND SYNTHESIZER

THE ATYPICAL AND EXTRAORDINARY MAX BRAND SYNTHESIZER, ALSO REFERRED TO AS MOOGTONIUM (WHICH IS BASICALLY A RECONSTRUCTED AND ENHANCED TRAUTONIUM) WAS ONE OF THE FIRST INSTRUMENTS BUILT BY BOB MOOG, AND WAS BEGUN IN A TIME WHEN MOOG’S WORLDWIDE SUCCESS WAS YET TO COME.
THIS CD AIMS TO CAPTURE THE MACHINE’S ORIGINAL SONOROUS SPIRIT – EVERY SINGLE TRACK ON THIS CD WAS PRODUCED WITHOUT THE AID OF ANY MODERN SOUND-ALTERING PRODUCTION TOOLS, AND IN THE ARRANGEMENT PROCESS ONLY TECHNIQUES THAT WERE AVAILABLE IN THE 60IES WERE USED. THUS THE SOUNDS YOU ARE HEARING ON THIS ALBUM REPRESENT THE TRUE SOUND OF THIS POWERFUL SYNTHESIZER.

ADDITIONALLY THE CD FEATURES 2 LATE AND PREVIOUSLY UNRELEASED PIECES BY MAX BRAND HIMSELF. BOTH PIECES WERE PRODUCED ENTIRELY ON THE CURRENT MOOG SYNTHESIZER SETUP. TRIPTYCH WAS COMPOSED BY BRAND AT THE REMARKABLE AGE OF 74 IN 1970, WHILE ILIAN 4, A BALLET COMPOSED IN 1974 AND INSPIRED BY ROBERT GRAVE‘S BOOK THE GREEK MYTHS IS THE LAST PRESERVED PIECE BRAND COMPLETED IN HIS LIFE. WE ARE VERY PROUD TO RELEASE THESE IMPRESSIVE TRACKS WORLDWIDE FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME.

Get your copy here >>

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Brand died in 1980, and his wife died 5 years later. In his will, he directed that his inheritance be used to support younger artists, thus the Max Brand Prize was founded (given away until 2003). The Moogtonium, just as Max Brand left it, is a patchwork of parts from different eras, and no longer one complete conceptual instrument. For Bob Moog, it was a memorable (if difficult) project, and one of the very few synthesizers he kept full notes on. The Moogtonium has totally unique custom-built features, and it can create sounds unheard on any other Moog synthesizer. Today, it sits as unfinished and full of promise as the life and career of Max Brand. It is a rather unique piece of synthesizer history, a special instrument finally being heard publicly for the first time.

Links and references:

http://www.wienbibliothek.at/veranstaltungen-ausstellungen/ausstellungen/unstillbare-sehnsucht-max-brand-1896-1980-ausstellung

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Brand_(Komponist)

Electronic music by Max Brand:

  • Notturmo brasiliero, 1959
  • Meditation, 1960
  • Rhinozeros, 1960
  • Triptych, 1960
  • The Astronauts: an Epic in Electronics, 1961
  • French Folksongs für Sologesang und Elektronik, 1962
  • 3 Pieces of Gordon Brown’s Transparencies in Motion, 1963
  • 3 Pieces for Dance Group, 1963
  • Ilian I und II, 1966
  • Ilian IV, 1974