Bode’s Melodium and Melochord
Originally published in Contemporary Keyboard magazine (January 1980, p. 68) in Tom Rhea’s “Electronic Perspectives” column. Reprinted in eContact! 13.4 with the kind permission of the author.
Last time we looked at Harald Bode’s precocious four-voice Warbo Formant Organ [also published in this issue of eContact!] of the mid-30s. Its assignment system, a way of making many keys share a limited number of tone generators, was one of the many instances where Bode anticipated “modern” developments by many years.
In 1938 he built the Melodium, a solo keyboard featuring touch sensitivity. Its monophonic design arose from a technical liability of the Warbo Formant Organ. Bode had designed oscillators with good pitch stability given the technology of the time, but he realized that a monophonic instrument would present far fewer tuning problems than his radical Warbo Organ. Like all good designers, Bode understood the necessity for providing increased nuance capability in a solo instrument; hence, touch sensitivity. The Melodium had a 49-note keyboard (low-note priority). But unlike traditional keyboards, each key had a fulcrum, or pivot point, not at the rear of the key, but at its midpoint. Each key was an individual little teeter-totter; when the performer depressed any key, he or she could seesaw a long aluminium rail located at the rear of all keys up and down. This rail made contact with a strip of felt soaked in glycerine — a so-called “liquid potentiometer.” Depression of the felt altered the electrical resistance between two electrodes, providing loudness control. This was a direct keying system that should not be confused with modern force-sensitive keyboards found on certain synthesizers. On the Melodium, the actual onset of sound was begun like it is on most acoustic instruments: as a function of the performer’s continuously variable mechanical effort. This is unlike most of today’s synthesizers; they have electronic envelope generators with fixed time constants for attack and release. Even when a synthesizer is force-sensitive, this sensitivity is usually in conjunction with the unvarying envelope generator attack and release.
The articulation on the Melodium has been likened to that of Franklin’s Glass Harmonica, an instrument having rotating glass disks that are played with moistened fingers. This characteristic singing (slow) attack, and the tone colours produced by formant filters borrowed from the earlier four-note organ, made the Melodium an expressive and colourful instrument that found public acceptance. Bode says:
... it was a very responsive instrument to the response of the artist, although it didn’t have these automatic — or maybe because it didn’t have these automatic [envelope] — controls. (Bode [unknown])
Due to its unorthodox design, the Melodium was not suitable for mass production; it found public acceptance through its rental for film scores, stage plays and on German radio. It enjoyed a considerable vogue with German film score composers. The brief career of the Melodium ended in 1941 due to the war; eventually Bode had to cannibalize the instrument due to the scarcity of electronic components.
Those components were used, in 1947, to make the successor of the Melodium, the Melochord. The Melochord eventually found its place in no less exalted a locale than the Cologne Electronic Music Studio (generally recognized as the first such studio). Bode’s first Melochord anticipated yet another contemporary development — the split keyboard. This model had a five-octave keyboard whose top three octaves could be assigned to one tone generator while the lower two octaves activated another. Individual octave control of each generator made it possible to cross voices. The hands might be several octaves apart physically on the keyboard, but the tone generators could be tuned to sound in the same octave. Or a key on the upper keyboard might produce a tone lower than that same note depressed on the lower keyboard. Left hand plays treble — right plays bass! In most aspects the Melochord was a stereo Melodium, even to the use of two expression pedals.
Bode played the Melochord regularly on Munich radio from 1948 to 1951. His performances stimulated interest on the part of other radio stations and academic institutions. Of particular importance was the acquisition of a Melochord by Werner Meyer-Eppler of the University of Bonn. Meyer-Eppler was, by Bode’s description, “.... really one of the movers” who instigated the development of the Cologne Studio. It is interesting to note the evolution of the enveloping features: Meyer-Eppler’s Melochord had both touch sensitivity and electronic envelope generators.
In 1953 Bode was commissioned by Fritz Enkel to build a special Melochord for the Cologne Studio. This instrument had two 37-note manuals. A particularly interesting feature was its so-called “step-by-step” filter that could be tuned from a keyboard. In fact, pitch could be played using one manual, and tone colour could be controlled using the other. If pitch were held constant and tone colour altered, the so-called Klangfarbenmusik music of timbres could be produced. Or one could glissando on the tone colour manual and move the centre frequency of the filter up and down to approximate the typical (and now obnoxious!) “wow” sound of the voltage-controlled filter of the modern synthesizer.
But Bode anticipated the modern synthesizer in a more fundamental way — by use of a modular design. Bode designed the Cologne Melochord to maximize performer / composer access to the sound-generating and modifying elements in the system; it was an “open system.” As Bode pointed out:
These examples could be multiplied indefinitely owing to the many possible combinations of the different feed paths and the diversity of the externally connected auxiliary devices (reverb, ring modulator, etc.). However… the possibilities are by no means exhausted in directly performed creations. By clever application of indirect methods, e.g. signal storing, particularly the magnetic tape technique, new possibilities of creating music may be discovered. (Bode 1954/56)
In an interesting footnote, those who specified the Cologne Melochord omitted touch sensitivity in the keyboards. The instrument had electronic envelope generators to shape sound perhaps more efficiently… but less sensitively? The implication seems to be that performance values find little use in the studio. Is a performance into a tape recorder any less than before an audience? Does studio technique supersede performance nuance? Or could it more rightly magnify that nuance? The marriage of reverence for performance nuance and the power of the studio would nullify the impasse in which electronic music finds itself.
Bode, Harald. “The Melochord of the Cologne Studio for Electronic Music.” Technical Trans. (TT-607) of “Das Melochord des Studios für elektronische Musik im Funkhaus Köln,” in Technische Hausmitteilungen des Nordwestdeutschen Rundfunks 6/1–2, Sonderheft über elektronische Musik (1954). Ottawa: National Research Council of Canada, 1956.
Bode, Harald. Personal interview. [Date unknown].
Meyer-Eppler, Werner.”The Terminology of Electronic Music.” Technical Trans. (TT-602) of “Zur Terminologie der elektronischen Musik,” in Technische Hausmitteilungen des Nordwestdeutschen Rundfunks 6/1–2, Sonderheft über elektronische Musik (1954). Ottawa: National Research Council of Canada, 1956.