Meet the Variophone, the Early Soviet Synthesizer that Made Music with a Film Projector (1932)

The ear­ly days of elec­tron­ic instru­ments lacked com­mon­ly accept­ed ideas about what an elec­tron­ic instru­ment was, much less how it should be used. No one asso­ci­at­ed elec­tron­ics with tech­no or new wave or hip hop or pop, giv­en that none of these exist­ed. Every sound made by exper­i­ments in syn­the­sis in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry was by its nature exper­i­men­tal, and most elec­tron­ic instru­ments were one of a kind. It did not even seem obvi­ous that elec­tron­ic instru­ments had to be machines that were pur­pose built for sound.

In 1930, at the very dawn of sound on film, Evge­ny Sholpo invent­ed the Var­io­phone — or “Auto­mat­ed Paper Sound with sound­tracks in both trans­ver­sal and inten­sive form.” It was, in sim­pler terms, a pho­to­elec­tric audio syn­the­siz­er that made use of a film pro­jec­tor and spin­ning card­board discs with sound waves cut into them in var­i­ous pat­terns. When ampli­fied, the device could turn the pat­terns into sounds. It also cre­at­ed “abstract spi­ral ani­ma­tion,” notes Boing Boing. Both “were way ahead of their time.”

If you’re think­ing such a machine might be used to make film sound­tracks, it was. But it was also “a con­tin­u­a­tion of research that Sholpo had been con­duct­ing since the 1910s,” the blog Beyond the Coda writes, “when he was work­ing on per­former­less music.”

Sholpo want­ed a device that would replace musi­cians and allow com­posers to turn com­plex musi­cal ideas into record­ed sounds them­selves. He was aid­ed in the endeav­or by Geor­gy Rim­sky-Kor­sakov (grand­son of Russ­ian com­pos­er Niko­lai Rim­sky-Kor­sakov), who helped him build the pro­to­type at Lenfilm Stu­dios in 1931.

The two pro­duced their first film sound­track for the pro­pa­gan­da film The Year 1905 in Bour­geoisie Satire, in 1931, and then the fol­low­ing year cre­at­ed “a syn­the­sized sound­track for A Sym­pho­ny of Peace and many oth­er sound­tracks for films and car­toons through­out the thir­ties,” notes 120 Years of Elec­tron­ic Music. The Var­io­phone was destroyed dur­ing the Siege of Leningrad, but Sholpo built two more, con­tin­u­ing to record sound­tracks through the for­ties. Unlike the first mono­phon­ic ana­logue syn­the­siz­ers built a cou­ple of decades lat­er, the Var­io­phone could cre­ate and repli­cate poly­phon­ic com­po­si­tions, since tones could be lay­ered atop each oth­er, as in mul­ti­track record­ing.

You can hear sev­er­al exam­ples of the Var­io­phone here, and see it synched to ani­ma­tion — both from its own sound waves and from hand-drawn films like “The Dance of the Crow,” below. What does it sound like? The tones and tim­bres vary some­what among record­ings. There’s clear­ly been some degra­da­tion in qual­i­ty over time, and the tech­nol­o­gy of record­ing sound on film was only in its infan­cy at the time, in any case. But, in cer­tain moments, the Var­io­phone can sound like the ear­ly Moog that Wendy Car­los used to syn­the­size clas­si­cal music and record film scores almost 40 years after Sholpo patent­ed his machine.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How an 18th-Cen­tu­ry Monk Invent­ed the First Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment

Leon Theremin Adver­tis­es the First Com­mer­cial Pro­duc­tion Run of His Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment (1930)

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music, 1800–2015: Free Web Project Cat­a­logues the Theremin, Fairlight & Oth­er Instru­ments That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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