Electronic music is saturating the airwaves more than ever, but did you know the first synthesiser was built in 1929? And the extraordinary Meg Travers recreated it - learn all about the trautonium.
If you were asked, "When was the first synthesiser made?" it would be tempting to think the answer was perhaps in the 1970s. Or even 60s. But actually, the first synthesiser was created in 1929 in Germany. Dr Friedrich Trautwein, an engineer in Berlin, created an analogue synthesiser known as the trautonium. A student of Dr Trautwein named Oskar Sala went on to further develop this large instrument and famously played it in Alfred Hitchcock's horror film The Birds due to its haunting sounds. Meg Travers, a musician, archivist, digital preservation specialist, and PdD student at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, embarked on a journey during her study of electronic music to recreate this ancient synth, and presented it to the world last year with a Ted Talk. Meg is a unique woman in music. She is extremely passionate about early electronic instruments and is on a quest to preserve the world's understanding of ancient, analogue musical artefacts before we forget them altogether because of how fast technology is moving. Meg has degrees in music technology and is also a qualified radio technician. Aside from the trautonium, Meg has built other electronic musical instruments and creates soundscapes using ambient radio noise. She is also the musical director of a group called MotET, an industrial/electronic ensemble. Meg gave Music Love this interview about her musical pathway so far, what it was like to recreate this unique synthesiser, the process of trying to learn how to play it using only old audio and film recordings of the late Oskar Sala performing on it, and how she wishes more women would take a dive into the world of computer engineering.
What does music mean to you?
It’s the one thing I always come back to – first love perhaps?
What has been your musical pathway so far?
Coming from a musical family, I started learning piano at the age of five, then did clarinet and voice at high school. I also started playing in a band in high school – on guitar, vocals and percussion. I started lessons in classical percussion and drum kit after finishing school and joined the WA Youth Orchestra for a while, but was more focused on my bands… I took a long break though from my late 20s, and didn’t really play any instruments for over ten years. However, as I said, I always seem to come back to music, and currently I have a band (MotET) as well as working on pieces for the trautonium.
What led you to building an ancient synthesiser?
My day job is in digital preservation, so it was kind of marrying two of my interests that brought this about. Though the trautonium isn’t digital, I’m really interested in the “electronic era” – from about the 1920s-1970s – where we were using a lot of analogue electronic devices, but before everything became computer based. I’ve had some involvement in amateur radio too, and this also fed my interest in building electronic devices, though my biggest joy in radio is still the amazing sounds (other than voices) that fill our airwaves.
Electronic music is saturating the contemporary music airwaves and has been for a while, but you recreated a synthesiser from 1929. Tell us about the trautonium
It was invented in Germany in the 1920s, initially by a scientist named Freiderich Trautwein, then continued and further developed by Oskar Sala [You can watch Oskar Sala play the trautonium here]. It was predated by the Theremin and the Ondes Martenot, but it took synthesis so much further by allowing the sculpture of the waveforms. Sala in particular did a lot of work in this area, being the first person to make subharmonic synthesis a reality, and developing the idea of ‘formants’ to describe the different voices instruments have, then putting that ability into his Trautonium.
How did you teach yourself how to play it?
I’m still trying to figure out how to play it!! Unfortunately, the only people that Sala taught how to play the instrument have also passed away, so I’m listening to a lot of his recordings and watching videos of him performing. Unfortunately he knew his instrument so well that he didn’t label any of the controls on it, so I’m having to listen closely, and then try to figure out which part of the synthesis engine is producing the sounds I’m hearing.
And it was used in one of Alfred’s Hitchcock’s films, right?
That’s right. The story goes that Hitchcock heard some Trautonium music on the radio while in Germany and insisted that this instrument be used for his movie The Birds. There’s no musical soundtrack to that film, in fact the bird noises were all made on the Trautonium.
Has anyone expressed an interest in recording your trautonium for screen or audio?
Not yet :-) I did a soundtrack for a short film by some of the film students at Edith Cowan University, but confess it didn’t end up including any of the Trautonium sounds. My band composed and performed a live soundtrack for [1922 German expressionist horror film] Nosferatu a few years ago, and I have written and performed a Trautonium part in that.
Do you have any advice that you would you give engineers in electronic music, after learning everything you have about this ancient synthesiser?
Analogue is really fashionable in the last few years, and there’s still a lot that can be done with these huge old instruments. Take your time with them. We’re so used to fairly instant gratification with VST instruments, but these analogue beasts take time to get to know.
What is the most interesting thing you have discovered about synthesisers?
That they were being created in the 1920s! I’m old enough to have owned a new Roland TR606, but I had no idea that their history went back nearly 100 years!
What is your favourite place in Australia?
I’ve lived in inner city Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. These days my home is in the hills of Perth and I love the rural vibe and the quiet - which is usually broken by my crazy instruments or else my dogs and goats - my neighbours are the best! However, I really love the wheatbelt area in Western Australia, which is where my dad’s family is from. It has that big WA sky, and a huge horizon. It’s easy to lose all sense of time and space out there.
Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
My sister Cathie was the first woman (or person) that I knew who worked as a musician, and she showed me that musicians can be anyone. Dr Cat Hope has been my PhD supervisor and all-round inspiration - it’s been great to know a woman who has a career based entirely on her music, and that she’s able to combine Art music as well as noise. Speaking of noise music, I love what Lisa MacKinney is doing with the Taipan Tiger Girls in Melbourne.
What next for you?
I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from my PhD and band in the last 12 months, but planning to get back into it. I’m headed to Germany this year to have a look at the original Trautoniums in the Deutsche Museum in Munich, and start looking through Oskar Sala’s archival material which is also kept there.
Anything else I haven’t asked that you wished I had?
I’m amazed that there is such a small number of young women getting into music technology at the universities, and in performance venues - it’s still such a boys club, but it really shouldn’t be. I’d just like to encourage young women and girls to learn more about computers, learn how to code, how to build networks, how to setup and manage your own servers. It’s not glamorous, but smart is way sexier than glamour any day.
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