Music and Inventors Spirit New sounds, new worlds

The Tubax saxophone, built by Benedikt Eppelsheim from Munich
The Tubax saxophone, built by Benedikt Eppelsheim from Munich | Photo © Ralf Dombrowski

Without Theobald Böhm, the flute would sound different; without Heinrich Band, the tango would be missing its favourite instrument; without Walter Smetak, Brazilian music would be several ideas poorer. Inventions still inspire musicians today, including performers such as the Ensemble Modern. 

In the field of music, no limits are set to the inventor’s spirt. Experimental performance techniques on traditional instruments are here only one aspect. Another and equally important one is the development of new instruments and tone generators, which received an immense boost, for example, in the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century. To explore your own visions of sound or to realize the visions of others demands a great deal of imagination, creativity and unbridled pleasure in tinkering and trying things out. And the motives for taking the plunge into this world can be very different in nature.

Instruments of enchanting grace

An excellent example of the change of culture, and resultant encounter with different landscapes, models of life and “sounds”, stimulating the construction of new “bodies of sound” is Walter Smetak. Born in 1937 in Zürich, the son of Czech parents, after studying cello in Salzburg he immigrated to Brazil and, twenty years later, having settled in Salvador di Bahia, experienced an explosion of invention. Thenceforth he created his plasticas sonoras, his sound sculptures, which cast a spell over both eye and ear. They seem like devices from a dream or fairy tale world of sound: metal and wood constructions of archaic expressive power, string instruments of enchanting grace, consisting of a soundbox of pumpkin and coconut shells and curious shapes, enmeshed in tubes and wires.

The Ensemble Modern, one of the world’s leading groups for the performance of New Music, discovered Smetak in Salvador di Bahia, studied his instruments and brought them back to life. The Ensemble, however, is concerned not only with the revival of these sound sculptures but also with their transposition into different contexts, with their adaptation in compositions by musicians of our day. An exciting look at this process is afforded by Re-Inventing Smetak, a project of the Berlin artists programme of the DAAD and the Ensemble Modern in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut, which will be presented on 23 March 2017 as part of the Berlin festival MaerzMusik, featuring new works by Liza Lim, Arthur Kampela, Paulo Rios Filho and Daniel Moreira.

Bandoneon, trautonium

In the more than thirty-five years of its existence, the Ensemble Modern has been an exponent of sound experiment and border-crossing, both an essential feature of contemporary music. In the summer of 2016 the Frankfurt musicians explored Smetak’s instruments on the spot in Brazil; but there is also much to discover of his work in their own country. Germany is a centre for the invention of new instruments, not least because of its still functioning grant structures. Against this backdrop it is not surprising that innovative spirit applied to making unusual sound generators is particularly strong in Germany. In addition, the country can look back on a long tradition of new instruments, including the bandoneon and the trautonium. The latter, an early electronic instrument, was devised by Friedrich Trautwein and presented to the public for the first time in Berlin in 1930, whereas the bandoneon, which today is primarily associated with the tango, dates to the first half of the nineteenth century and can be traced back to the Krefeld music teacher Heinrich Band.

Whether the double bell trumpet, which was “invented” by the magnificent trumpet player Marco Blaauw at the beginning of the twenty-first century, will prevail on a broad front is still open. It has already enriched the musician’s sound palette, as works by renowned contemporary composers such as Rebecca Saunders und Peter Eötvös have shown. The tubax, in turn, invented by the Munich instrument builder Benedikt Eppelsheim, has gained many friends as an extremely compact bass saxophone, especially in the world of free improvisation. Time and again it is the composers themselves who set their hand to instrument invention, particularly those who also appear as performers of their own work. For example, the tuba player, drummer and composer Stephan Froleyks plays his own, self-made instruments almost exclusively in his concerts, including a “curved” tuba whimsically elongated by a metal funnel.

Bizarre soundscapes

Volker Staub also flanked his creative work from the very start with the production of his own instruments, which he used in his works: curious percussion instruments of wood, fur, metal, stone and glass, but also stringed instruments and electro-acoustic apparatuses. The performer and composer Andrea Neumann calls her creation the “inside piano”, an aluminium frame strung with strings, on which she explores bizarre soundscapes with self-devised performance techniques, technical and electronic alienation effects included.

In his Weapon of Choice (2009), for violin, motion sensor, live video and live electronics, Alexander Schubert is mainly looking for digitally-controlled realms that convert the violin bow into a kind of independent “instrument” by making its movements, and so the direct interaction with the performer (Barbara Lüneburg), the starting-point of a subtle synthesis of sound and image. The sound artist Erwin Stache, on the other hand, relies on the combination of “analogue” and digital ingredients and assembles mad sound objects – for example, a “cube wheel with hexadual display”. With their beguiling originality, these instruments build a bridge to Walter Smetak’s sound sculptures. Here symbolism combines with sound and in the end it is about the connection of the individual with the almost infinite world of aural sensation. For Smetak, there was something divine in the things he invented and played. Call it curiosity; it still drives people today.