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1922 __ « Production - Reproduction »
László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946)
Comment : In his 1922 “De Stijl” article “Production - Reproduction”, [László Moholy-Nagy] expressed a desire, already quite common among technologists in the 1880s, to read and write sound throught the graphic figures inscribed into a wax record by a phonograph needle. [...] He later attempted to realize this idea using the visible lines of recorded sound that run along the edge of optical sound film. IN “The Sound of ABC”, one attempt in a genre of “drawn sound films” in the European avant-garde during that time, graphic figures such as letters, lines, and profiles were scratched onto the sound track and then played back through the projector. He was known to ask people, “I wonder how your nose will sound ?”. A film in which drawn sound was employed, along with other techniques of manipulating sound, was “Romance Sentimentale” (1930), certainly the first sound film made “by” Russians, if not “in” Russia. (Douglas Kahn)Manifesting a focus more reminiscent of Rilke thanWittgenstein, Moholy-Nagy proposes that one undertake a scientific examination of the tiny inscriptions in the grooves of the phonograph in order to learn exactly what graphic forms corresponded to which acoustic phenomena. Through magnification, he suggests, one could discover the general formal logic that governed the relation of the acoustic to the graphematic, master it, and then be able to produce marks that, once reduced to the appropriate size and inscribed onto the record surface, would literally be acoustic writing. [...] Liberating the gramophone from the mere “photographic” re-production of prior sounds, this “groove-script alphabet”.as Moholy-Nagy called it a year later in an essay entitled “New Form in Music: Potentialities of the Phonograph”.would make the gramophone into “an overall instrument . . . which supersedes all instruments used so far,” allowing one to employ the technology as a means to write sound directly, enabling composers to eliminate the intermediary of the performance by “writing” their compositions as sounding scripts, and making it possible for sound artists to express and transmit any language or sound, including previously unheard acoustic forms and works. In the mid-1920s Moholy-Nagy’s challenge was taken up and further articulated by the music critic Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt in a series of polemical interventions in numerous journals ranging from Der Auftakt to Modern Music. Enlisting the gramophone in the project of a musical Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), Stuckenschmidt mobilized Moholy-Nagy’s arguments (both implicitly and explicitly) for debates in musical composition, interpretation, and performance, including the highly provocative claim that by means of works written specifically for the new technologies, the composer could eliminate the subjective dimensions invariably introduced both through the irreducibly ambiguous character of musical notation and the vicissitudes of “live” performance. Insisting that, thanks to machines such as the gramophone, “the role of the interpretor is a thing of the past,” Stuckenschmidt’s philo-gramophonic articles elicited vicious and often Luddite responses. Happily, however, there was also another dimension to the reception of his polemics.one that responded to his important claim that “the essential significance of these machines [phonographs and gramophones] lies in the possibility of writing for them in an authentic fashion.” Continuing what was by then almost a tradition of pieces composed expressly for new acoustic technologies.such as Ferruccio Busoni’s 1908 sketch “Für die [sic] Pianola” or Igor Stravinsky’s “Etude pour Pianola” of 1917 (whose 1921 premiere in London took place in the player piano company’s own “Æolian Hall”).the 1920s had witnessed a proliferation of works written for “musical machines” (as they were called at the time). These experiments were most often premiered at new music festivals such as the Donaueschingen Musiktage whose 1926 program featured works for Welte-Mignon pianola rolls composed by Paul Hindemith, Ernst Toch, and Gerhart Münch. Although Stuckenschmidt claimed as early as 1925 that “I myself carried out fundamental experiments with the gramophone at the same time that George Antheil was doing so in Paris,” the earliest documented public performance of gramophone-specific music was not until 1930 at the Musikfest Neue Musik held at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, where Ernst Toch presented a gramophonic montage of his four-part “Fuge aus der Geographie” and Paul Hindemith premiered his oft-invoked but only recently rediscovered experiments in “grammophonplatten-eigene Stücke” (pieces specifically for gramophone records). While one cannot ignore the very real possibility that various gramophone-specific sound experiments, of which there are few or no remaining traces, might have been undertaken in marginal venues, laboratories, and nonperformance contexts in the later 1920s, the extended interval between Stuckenschmidt’s 1925 rearticulation of Moholy’s 1922 proposal and the known instances of its subsequent realization might nevertheless be quite telling. In fact, it matters little whether Hindemith and Toch’s 1930 gramophonic compositions were, as a contemporary critic called them, the very first of their kind. What is significant is that while both explored the new sonic possibilities offered by the overlapping of multiple recordings and “live” music, as well as the variations in speed, pitch and timbre that could be achieved only by the creative “misuse” of the gramophone, neither of their compositions nor any of the other “gramophonic” works of that period, to my knowledge, actually intervened at the level of the “groove-script alphabet.” Despite published journalistic accounts describing early groove-script experiments by Moholy-Nagy and Antheil, Moholy-Nagy himself confirms that although he had been able to get both Stuckenschmidt and Antheil interested in exploring this possibility in the mid-1920s and although the director of the Vox Corporation, a certain Jatho, had agreed to allow them to use their laboratories, “in the end my suggestions were never fully worked out in detail.” According to Moholy-Nagy, this was due to various institutional circumstances: Antheil, he explains, moved to Paris where he worked on player pianos for Pleyel, and Moholy himself had to devote his attentions to his new job at the Weimar Bauhaus. The reasons might also have been more technical in nature, as suggested by Hindemith’s own rather skeptical remarks on the pragmatics of groove-script composing published only a few years prior to his proto-turntablist appearance in Berlin: “The attempts to manually etch musical events onto gramophone or phonograph records have so far remained unsuccessful. At present we have come so far as to be able to depict very simple relations such as specific vowels in conjunction with specific pitches. But it is a very long way from here to the generation of even plain musical works. I don’t think that it will ever be possible to make this mode of inscription useful for musical practice.” As it turns out, Hindemith was both right and wrong: as he predicted, the gramophone would never prove amenable to the realization of a proper groove-script alphabet; yet, contrary to his prognosis, something very akin to the possibility envisioned by Moholy-Nagy was in fact being worked out at almost exactly the same time as the Hindemith-Toch experiments, albeit in a somewhat different medium.the synchronized sound film. Always the pragmatist, Moholy-Nagy immediately recognized in the new optical film sound processes being adopted in the late 1920s a means to effectively realize his long-standing groove-script vision. Here the technical difficulties posed by the miniature scale of the groove-script inscriptions were eliminated by a graphic transcription of sound that was visible to the human eye. In an essay entitled “Problems of the Modern Film” published in various versions and languages between 1928 and 1932, Moholy-Nagy laid down his gauntlet in typically polemical fashion, challenging filmmakers to take up the task that had so far generally eluded (or been ignored by) composers: Contemporary “musicians” have so far not even attempted to develop the potential resources of the gramophone record, not to mention the wireless or ether-waves. . . . The sound film ought to enrich the sphere of our aural experience by giving us entirely unknown sound values, just as the silent film has already begun to enrich our vision. Calling for a “a true opto-acoustic synthesis in the sound film” Moholy-Nagy predicted the emergence of the “abstract sound film” (which would be complemented by the parallel genres of the “documentary” and the “montage” sound film) and suggested that experimentation be undertaken with the soundtrack in isolation from the image track. That is, Moholy-Nagy recognized optical film-sound technology as an important innovation in sound recording as such, not least because this new form of acoustic inscription seemed to make possible what had always been so frustratingly elusive in the gramophonic realm: access to sound as trace. Besides investigations of “acoustic realism” (i.e., recorded extant sounds), he insisted on the importance of “experiments in the use of sound units which are not produced by any extraneous agency, but are traced directly on to the sound track and then translated into actual sound in the process of projection. (E.g., the tri-ergon system uses parallel lines of a varying brightness, the alphabet of which must be previously mastered.) . . . It will not be possible to develop the creative possibilities of the talking film to the full until the acoustic alphabet of sound writing will have been mastered. Or, in other words, until we can write acoustic sequences on the sound track without having to record any real sound. Once this is achieved the sound-film composer will be able to create music from a counterpoint of unheard or even nonexistent sound values, merely by means of opto-acoustic notation.” Moholy’s unambiguous recognition that the new optical sound techniques presented an alternative means to achieve in practice what he had initially conceived in terms of the groove script alphabet also might explain why, by the later 1920s, he was no longer pursuing his original gramophonic approach: film simply seemed to offer a better way to explore more or less the same issues. As it turns out, Moholy-Nagy did not have to wait long for this challenge to be taken up and met successfully. Indeed, in an illustrated lecture “on the invention which signifies the revolutionizing of the sound film in its entirety” that he presented in various schools and lecture halls in Germany in 1932, Moholy-Nagy announced, with unambiguous excitement, that his earlier notion of the groove-script.now called “sound-script”.had already become a reality. Revisiting the history of his own writings on the possibilities of synthetic sound from the happy perspective of the visionary whose long-doubted speculations had at long last been proven right, Moholy-Nagy writes (in the published version of that lecture): “Sound-script makes possible acoustic phenomena which conjure up out of nothing audible music without the previous play of any musical instrument. We are in a position today to be able to play written sounds, music written by hand, without involving an orchestra, by the use of the apparatus of the sound film. It is a great pleasure for me to be able to report on this acoustical phenomenon; inasmuch as I had already explained it in articles and lectures ten years ago, although I was not fortunate enough to be able to experiment with it then, I am very happy today to witness the successful realization of those of my suggestions previously labeled absurd. At the time, my starting point was that phonograph recordings could be made on the basis of an “etched alphabet.” These recordings, without any sound having previously been played and captured by them, are inscribed exclusively on the basis of the imaginative world of the composer and would have been played only subsequently. A few years later I extended my phonograph experiments to include radio, sound film and television [sic]. And today, thanks to the excellent work of Rudolph Pfenninger, these ideas have been successfully applied to the medium of sound film. In Pfenninger’s sound-script, the theoretical prerequisites and the practical processes achieved perfection.”. (Thomas Levin)
Original excerpt : « An extension of [the phonograph] for productive purposes could be achieved as follows : the grooves are incised by human agency into the wax plate, without any external mechanical means, which then produce sound effects. [...] The primary condition for such work is laboratory experiments : precise examination of the knids of grooves (as regards length, width, depth, etc.) brought about by the different sounds; examintation of the man-made grooves; and finally mechanical-technical experiments for perfecting the groove-manuscript score. (or perhaps the mechanical reduction of large groovescript records). »
Source : Kahn, Douglas (2004), “Art and Sound”, In “Hearing History: a reader”, Edited by Mark Michael Smith, University of Georgia Press, pp. 36-48; Abridged from "Introduction: Histories of Sound Once Removed", in Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (Eds), "Wireless Imagination : Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde", Cambridge, Mass : The MIT Press, 1992, pp. 1-29.
Source : Moholy-Nagy, Sibyl (1950), “ Moholy-Nagy: Experiment in Totality”, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1950, p. 68, p. 97.
Source : Levin, Thomas Y. (2002), ““Tones from out of Nowhere”: Rudolph Pfenninger and the Archaeology of Synthetic Sound”, Grey Room 12, Summer 2003, Grey Room, Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp. 32–79.; “’Töne aus dem Nichts’. Rudolf Pfenninger und die Archäologie des synthetischen Tons”, In Friedrich Kittler, Thomas Macho and Sigrid Weigel, Eds., “Zwischen Rauschen und Offenbarung: Zur Kultur- und Medien-geschichte der Stimme”, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2002, pp. 313-355.
Source : Moholy-Nagy, László (1923),“New Form in Music: Potentialities of the Phonograph”, in Krisztina. Passuth, Moholy-Nagy, London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.
Source : Moholy-Nagy, László (1933),“New Film Experiments”, in Passuth, Moholy-Nagy, p. 322; first published as László Moholy-Nagy, “Új film-kísérletek,” Korunk 8, no. 3 (1933), pp. 231–237.
Source : László Moholy-Nagy, “Az új film problémái” (1928–1930), Korunk 5, no. 10, 1930, 712–719; In French as “Problèmes du nouveau film,” Cahiers d’art 8, nos. 6–7, 1932, pp. 277-280. In English as “Problems of the Modern Film,” New Cinema, #1, 1934, reprinted in Telehor (Brno) 2, nos. 1–2, 1936, and Passuth, Moholy-Nagy, 314.
Source : Hindemith, Paul (1927), “Zur mechanischen Musik,” Die Musikantengilde 5, nos. 6–7, 1927, p. 156.
Urls : http://www2.arnes.si/~lstefa/Novice/Arhiv%20novic/Arhiv%202007_2008/Sociologija%20glasbe%202007-2008/DRAWING%20THE%20LINE%20MUSIC%20NOISE%20AND%20PHONOGRAPHY.pdf (last visited ) http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/LevinPfen.pdf (last visited ) http://www.umatic.nl/tonewheels_historical.html (last visited )

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