ElectroniumsDefinition: An electronium is a synthesizer that acts suspiciously like it’s broken. -from the glossary of the operators manual for “Special Ed’ the first Electronium produced by the Modern Implement Company
The above definition is only slightly tongue in cheek. But because I did not coin the term I feel obliged to provide a bit of non-facetious information too.
To the best of my knowledge the term ‘electronium’ was coined by Raymond Scott. Maestro Scott is a fascinating character in the history of electronic instruments and music. If you are not well acquainted with his work I urge you to learn about him.
I find it easier to define ‘electronium’ by what it is not, than what it is. Primarily, an electronium is an electronic instrument that is not designed to maximize the player’s access to every aspect of the timbre (or pitch or rhythm) of the sounds it produces. This is a marked contrast to the design goal of a modular synthesizer . An important design goal of modular synthesizers was to give the player consistent access to as many attributes of the sound as possible.
The modular synthesizer
In the early days of modular synthesizer design, many of the players sought a means by which they could assemble imitations of complex acoustic timbres from a large collection of electronic elements; literally to synthesize a sound., and hence the name. This rather narrow goal was never prominent among those I consider to be the virtuosi of electronic music but it was sufficiently prevalent to inspire decades of unwarranted paranoid backlash from musicians unions. (check out the denigration suffered by Bebe & Louis Barron for their groundbreaking soundtrack compositions for the movie ‘Forbidden Planet’) More enlightened electronic musicians realized that the most exciting capability of a synthesizer was it’s ability to produce new timbres with all the subtlety and complexity of acoustic instrument timbres, but not by imitation. One technical approach to putting the maximum number of tools into the players hands is to create a wide variety of modules with as much flexibility as possible. This is like giving a kid every size, shape, and color of Lego imaginable because that allows him the tools to build whatever he wants. This is a fertile and laudable approach pioneered most famously by Dr. Robert Moog. It is closely related to engineering in that it is founded on hierarchical, reductionist , internally consistent principles. Lots of simple elements can be combined recursively into very complex larger assemblages. This approach has produced a vast body of sublime music.
But there’s another approach too.
Rather than maximize the variety and precision of simple elemental tools available to the player. One could create a large complex irreducible device that behaves in a fixed, but complex , even unpredictable, way. This prefabricated complexity forces the player to confront the instrument more than control it. In the right hands, this approach can yield sublime results too.
This is the essential zeitgeist of an ‘electronium’.
Many musicians have taken issue with my adherence to the value of the electronium-approach. They have called it: deliberately obtuse, trite (because it’s merely weird for weird’s sake), or gratuitiously bizarre.
I beg to differ with an illustrative assertion:
Stringed acoustic instruments are more electronium than synthesizer.
I have played bass and ‘cello most of my life.
On a bass, if you need to play a C#3 (138.59hz) you have to do a fairly complex combination of a fully and ‘half’-fingered touches to create this high-register note. If you had a modular synthesizer at your disposal you would simple turn a knob to the right.
‘Cellists have to use a huge array of ‘tricks’, like harmonics ,and damping to cajole the ‘cello into producing the music they want. Many times it seems that the ‘cello is conspiring to thwart your intentions at every turn, and sustaining the struggle is what forges virtuosity. Anyone who has learned to play an instrument from scratch will tell you that the instrument clearly has a mind and a character of it’s own. It was clearly not designed to produce the widest range of timbres possible. In fact, very often, it usually seems like it was designed not to produce any timbre at all!
So I define an electronium as an electronic instrument that, by design, imposes a distinct and particular character on the music it produces. Much the same as a guitar imposes it’s guitar-ness on the music it produces.
I’m a bit uncomfortable with saying that I design my electroniums. Certainly design is part of the process and I frequently spend weeks simulating and prototyping circuit ideas. But saying that I design these instruments omits the substantial role of improvisation in the process. Special Ed was almost completely improvised. When I started building him I didn’t even realize that I was going to make an instrument. The Viaggio di Marconi was conceived by setting some of the favorite vintage knobs from my knob-drawer on an emptied wooden chocolate box that came with a reproduction of a renaissance world map inked on it, just because it thought it looked cool. The Exalted Birds was conceived around the theme of heresy . This developed out of my surprise at the realization that arbitrary dogma (and thus, heresy) is every bit as prevalent in electronic engineering as it is in religions. (I am seminary educated.)
So, here in the instrument pages you will find the whole motley, goofy, rogues gallery of musical miscreants that I’ve built. That description is a bit of a tongue-twister so I’ve decided to call them: