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On Meeting Oskar Sala. Berlin 1997

Oskar Sala playing his Mixtur Trautonium in his studio in Berlin 1997. Photo Ray Lee (I only had a cheap disposable film camera with me. This is a digital photograph of an old colour print)

A bare loudspeaker cone swings pendulum-like across an empty stage, crackling a buzzing with sounds from ‘the Ether’. A solitary Theremin sings in accompaniment.

Thus began Lee and Dawes ‘In the Ether’ a celebration of music made without physical contact between musician and instrument and a show we toured during the mid 1990’s including a trip to Fabrik in Potsdam, on the former East German outskirts of Berlin.

I can’t remember who we met there that told us about Oskar Sala, maybe it was one of the directors of Fabrik, but in any case Oskar Sala was a pioneer of early electronic music, the developer of the Mixtur Trautonium and an electronic composer who used his Trautonium on the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s The Birds among much else. Not only that but he had his studio near Berlin and our contact at Fabrik knew him and was prepared to take myself and Harry to visit him. And so we set off in a battered Trabant to find Oskar.

My abiding memory of Oskar Sala is of a frail, elderly man who was immensely proud of his Trautonium. I don’t remember now whether he spoke in English (as we certainly didn’t have good enough German) or if we were conversing through an interpreter. However, what came across very strongly from our meeting with Oskar was how he spoke of his wish that someone should continue his work with the Mixtur Trautonium and to take on his legacy, promoting and expanding on his pioneering work. He played the Trautonium for us showing off the distinctive features of the instrument with its pedal sub harmonics and, of course, the ability to move between free glissando and play fixed notes with its semi-fixed keyboard arrangement over the two ranks of resistance wire. It truly was a unique and special instrument.

Inspired by his passion for the instrument and his keenly expressed desire to find others to take on his legacy I asked if, as I was a capable keyboard instrumentalist, I could have a go on his Trautonium.

His answer was swift and brief.

“Of course not, you might break it.”

I left his studio and got back into our host’s Trabant thinking that Oskar would probably really struggle to find anyone to continue his work…


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