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Reflections on Harald Bode

What would Harald Bode say if here were alive today to find out that these days on home computers as a platform nearly any sound device ever created is included and on-hand for recording. He would probably be amazed and quickly start thinking about improvements and variations he could make to these technologies.

Harald explored early home computers in his later years, already in his seventies, and used this novel “instrument” as a writing, drawing and calculating innovation, and as a musical tool. Furthermore, he created his own sync-box to synchronize his analogue devices with this new digital device.

It’s only a tool. A tool, which you have to be able to master.
Harald Bode, catalysing five decades of electronic sound.

Let’s jump back to the years 1958–60, more than 20 years before microcomputers entered the scene. In his forties at the time, Harald Bode built his Audio System Synthesizer, an instrument that was a platform to do nearly anything that was possible at that time with electronics in sound, including effects and — in the first model — even recording the sounds the instrument produced.

This was not only one of (if not the) first “modular synthesizers”, a meta-instrument that would change and shape the musical landscape, it was also a basic yet complete recording studio in one box — a predecessor of all those universal musical computers on which the various music styles since the late 1980s have been created.

Let’s now jump to the year 1951, which was a turning point in the history of electronic sound, at least for Germany. In the radio program which was to be the kickoff for the Electronic studio in Cologne 1[1. “Klangwelt der Elektronischen Musik” on Cologne’s Westdeutscher Rundfunk, 21 October 1951.], Robert Beyer, one of the founders said:

Wie der Mehrstimmigkeit eine Zeit des alchemistischen Erforschens in den alchemistischen Laboratorien des frühen Mittelalters vorausging, so wird der Verwirklichung der Klangfarbenmusik eine Zeit der Entwicklung in den Laboratorien der modernen Technik vorangehen müssen. 2[2. As the establishment of polyphony was preceded by a period of alchemistic experimentation in the alchemistic laboratories of the early Middle Ages, the realization of Klangfarbenmusik [sound-colour music] will need to be preceded by a period of development in the laboratories of modern technology.]

At this time Harald had already been working actively in his laboratory for more than fifteen years, turning physics into the uncalculable alchemy of sound he considered musically valuable. Harald would continue to run his own alchemical science sound lab until his final days.

How do I know about this? I discovered Harald when I learned — astonished — that electronic instruments that seemed so contemporary to me have now come to an age in which museums are built for their inventors.

And that aroused my curiosity; it seems natural to me that I discovered Harald Bode.

In his story, the stations of the history of electronic sound since the 1930s are lined up like pearls on a string, as is all the debate and conflict about them. Entering the scene in 1936, he was one of a handful of people in that field in Germany, and one of maybe a hundred worldwide.

By the end of his life, he was a solitary man within an industry and a well known figure — if not hero — to some. Or, as his son Peer put it, he was that “seltsame, wunderbare deutsche Kumpel, der all diese Sachen baute.” 3[3. “That odd, wonderful German pal who built all these things.” Peer Bode in “Ein Leben für den Klang [A Lifetime For Sound]” by Caspar Abocab, included in this issue of eContact!]

When Bob Moog built his first synthesizers around 1964, there was a big discussion around whether electronic instruments should be equipped with familiar performance interfaces, such as a keyboard, or not. One position — the one taken by Ussachewsky and others — was that a keyboard would lead the composers to write conventional music. The other position was that an instrument should tie into familiar ways of playing, and that position was the one Harald preferred. He wrote it in a 1940 article about electronic sounds that included a description of his second instrument, the Melodium, a monophonic “melody instrument” with a touch-sensitive keyboard. In contrast, the Theremin, Sphärophon, Trautonium and Hellertion — the best known electronic instruments at that time in Germany — had their own specific performance interfaces.

It’s now upon you to decide what is old, what is new, what changes through the times and what doesn’t change through times.
Harald Bode, video interview with Ralf and Peer Bode in 1972.

He followed this path consequently: the Melochord, Clavioline, Polychord and some of his other inventions were keyboard-based instruments. But in the 1960s, when keyboards became part of the synthesizer story, Harald Bode, in a seemingly paradoxical move, invented those instruments of his that were to be the most widely used and upon which his reputation is principally founded to this day — and their interfaces are rotary knobs and switches. The paradox is only seeming: his devices were more than once avant-garde to the mainstream. His ring bridge modulators were used in a range of studios from Columbia Princeton to Motown, and his frequency shifters are of legendary fame. They are cloned to date by young retro analogue instrument builders, and emulated for computers. Since his lab model Sound System Synthesizer from 1959, and the famed Audio System Synthesizer from 1960, all his devices were instruments to transform existing audio sources into new sound.

For a long time he used a Clavioline as the basic sound in his studio. This handy keyboard instrument was, according to Gordon Reid 4[4. Gordon Reid, “The Story of the Clavioline,” in Sound on Sound (March 2007).], the synthesizer of the 60s and added new sound to rock music. Harald had created several versions of the Clavioline in the early 50s for the Copenhagen / Amsterdam / Düsseldorf-based company Jörgensen, and one of these devices was in his studio. Harald also contributed to the development of the “Selmer” Clavioline, used by the Tornadoes, the Beatles and by many others in the 60s.

Most of his life Harald Bode was unable to fulfill his desire for new unheard sounds, and took bread-and-butter engineering jobs on the side. He loved to explore unknown fields of knowledge. In combination with his love for music this brough him to carry on unremittingly creating the best sounding and most versatile electronic sound devices he could think of. He was aiming for the Klangideal, the ideal sound.

Twice in his lifetime he turned into a historian: in the 1950s, as the era of radio- and university-based electronic studios began, he published an overview of the history of electronic instruments. 5[5. Harald Bode, “Die elektrischen Musikinstrumente,” in an [unknown] electronics periodical, after ca. 1947.] In 1972, Harald’s later historian Thom Rhea wrote his PhD thesis on the history of electronic instrument design. At that time electronic sound had become a familiar element of contemporary music even outside the academic studios. Thirty years and one generation of basic technology later than his first series of articles in that field in Germany, Harald was asked to hold lectures on the “History of Electronic Sound Modification,” which is included in the present publication.

That was in the beginning of the Digital Era, the era of digital audio workstations (DAW), which Harald had anticipated 20 years earlier with his Audio System Synthesizer. So looking back today, I wonder if we are now entering a new era of electronic sound.

However, in looking at Harald Bode’s life and work we are gazing at someone who dedicated his life to the kind of exploratory spirit that is the primary matter of all creative production: curiosity for the not-yet-explored, be it in sight, sound or feeling.

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