German inventor/composer Oskar Sala is best known for his role in developing the Trautonium: one of the earliest electronic instruments and a contemporary of the French Ondes Martenot and Russian theremin. While the Trautonium would eventually be viewed as a relic of electronic music's past, the instrument's tonal quality and expressive capabilities remain sadly unparalleled in the technology that followed. Nearly 70 years after its creation, its legacy seemed highly uncertain, as Sala was the only one capable of playing it.
Born in Berlin in 1910, Oskar Sala was introduced to the Trautonium in 1929. That year, while studying under composer Paul Hindemith, Sala attended a demonstration of the instrument given by its inventor, Friedrich Trautwein. The student soon began working alongside Trautwein, undergoing a crash course in electronics to develop the prototype into an acceptable model. The new instrument was unveiled at a christening performance of Hindemith's "Trio Pieces for Three Trautonia" at the music academy in Berlin. Resembling a simultaneously archaic/futuristic version of the piano, the Trautonium replaces keys with two wires that run the length of the keyboard. These wires, hovering above metal rails, are what the musician plays, altering the subsequent tones via a multitude of dials and switches. The initial, overwhelming success of the instrument is rather surprising given the political environment of the time. Nazi Germany had begun the ethnic and cultural cleansing that would drive many artists (including Hindemith) out of the country. Not only did Sala's Trautonium escape being squelched, the government actually provided funding for additional models including the Radio Trautonium (showcased across German airwaves on a weekly program), the Volks-Trautonium (a failed attempt at a household model), and the portable Concert-Trautonium, which Sala took on tour.
Following the Second World War, with Trautwein having all but relinquished control of the instrument, Sala developed the Mixture-Trautonium, a revised model which gave the musician the ability to produce musical undertones. The 1950s found Sala busy composing, producing works for television ads and feature films, and performing with fellow Hindemith student Harald Genzmer on the new model. Yet Sala's general failure to collaborate with his electronic music contemporaries probably contributed to his relative obscurity. He did, however, receive his 15 minutes of fame. In 1961, unsatisfied with the effects sound technicians turned up for his film The Birds, director Alfred Hitchcock enlisted Sala's help. Pleased with the results, Hitchcock turned over the film's score (a non-musical construction) to the composer. In the electronic boom that followed in the 1970s, the Trautonium attracted attention from Krautrock acts Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk. In 1987 Sala was honored with the Filmband in Gold for his soundtrack work.
As the century drew to a close, Sala (approaching his 90th birthday) spent his days diligently practicing, composing, and experimenting on the Mixture-Trautonium from a studio near his home. A staggering 600-plus reels of tape are said to exist in the composer's personal vault. In the late 1990s, Germany's Fax label issued two collections of Sala performances: My Fascinating Instrument (1995) and Subharmonic Mixtures (1997). ~ Nathan Bush