The Subharchord · Das Subharchord




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Published on Feb 15, 2015

The Subharchord
An encompassing musical portrait of a long-forgotten and fascinating instrument
(Manfred Miersch - new subharmonic mixtures)

Das Subharchord
Ein umfassendes musikalisches Portrait des lange Zeit vergessenen faszinierenden Instrumentes
(Manfred Miersch - Neue subharmonische Mixturen)


In 1950s Germany, in the wake of musique concrète, the first fully electronic compositions were written. During this period many countries established electronic music studios to discover and explore these new worlds of sound. In Germany, new music was composed and experiments conducted on electronic equipment that often came originally from the physics lab or radio. However, development in the East and the West differed considerably. The political division of Germany after World War II led to the foundation of two politically independent states in 1949, geographically neighbours yet entirely separate: the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the east and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the west. In the years that followed, each state defined its own cultural policy. One result was that young artists and musicians, who saw themselves as the avant-garde, were valued and tolerated differently in the two states. In the West, from the outset it was easier for musicians to remain independent and to experiment relatively unhampered. For example, at the famous WDR (West German Broadcasting Corporation) studio of electronic music.

This revolutionary development in music, together with the utilisation of new electronic sources of sound, was followed with great interest in East Berlin. Like the rest of the country, the city of Berlin was divided politically into East and West. In the competitive struggle between the two systems, the GDR did not merely want to be part of international developments, it wanted to take the lead. Thus, around 1960, technical experts at the “Labor für Akustisch-Musikalische Grenzprobleme” (laboratory for problems at the acoustics/music interface) began with the construction of a sound-generating device, which would be a compact sound lab and centrepiece of an electronic music studio; furthermore, it would be unrivalled and unsurpassed. The East German composers would have an instrument at their disposal that was superior to all comparable inventions in the studios of the Western world. The machine’s concept was based on the mixing of so-called subharmonic sounds. In this respect its model was the trautonium, a German invention from the 1930s.

Do you know Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds? The bird noises were produced synthetically on an electronic instrument, a mixturtrautonium — a further development of the trautonium. The mixturtrautonium is a special case in the fascinating history of electronic music instruments for it uses the afore mentioned subharmonic mixtures to generate sound. It appeared that the fascinating worlds of sound produced by mixing subharmonics would be forever dominated by the only existing instrument, the mixturtrautonium, and its constructor and player, Oskar Sala. Nobody else had ever mastered or played Sala’s instrument, and when he died some years ago, it seemed that the sound world of subharmonics was lost.

In the course of extensive research on the history of electronic music instruments, in 2000 Manfred Miersch, a Berlin artist and musician, made a truly remarkable discovery: the trautonium is not the only instrument of its kind; another exists that produces subharmonic sounds — the “subharchord”.
Miersch succeeded in tracking down and unearthing long-forgotten instruments, thus saving the subharchord from destruction. With his publication of a four-part series in the German magazine Keyboards in 2003 and construction of a website, Miersch introduced the subharchord to a wide audience — an instrument that formerly was not found in any encyclopaedia or lexicon. Fortunately, as a result of Miersch’s activities two of the surviving instruments have now been restored.

On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of Manfred Miersch´s research, a CD was produced: "Das Subharchord - The Subharchord (new subharmonic mixtures)".
With the exception of a small vinyl EP which appeared in 2004, "Manfred Miersch - Subharmonic Mixtures with the Subharchord", the CD is appearing as the first sound carrier to feature an encompassing acoustic portrait of the subharchord to be released since 1964. All sounds are presented from the subharchord II/III, the most advanced model, here played by Manfred Miersch, the "rediscoverer of the subharchord"*, on the subharchord in the collection of the German Museum of Technology in Berlin. (*quote from the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel)

The CD is registered in the index of the International Documentation of Electroacoustic Music (EMDoku).

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