On 18 July, Google Doodle is honouring composer Oskar Sala, a pioneer of electronic music and inventor of the unique instrument called the “Mixture-Trautonium”.

Sala’s life was forever changed when, as a university student, he discovered electronic music. In the 1950s, he went on to invent his own instrument, the Mixture-Trautonium.

Oskar Sala’s new instrument opened up a new field in music, that of subharmonics.

The mixture-trautonium creates a variety of sounds – from a one-man orchestra to ominous noises – and was used to create the non-musical score of horror classic Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, The Birds.

Sala, Oskar - Komponist, D/ am Mixtut-Trautonium
Photo by Bernd Thiele/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Today’s Google Doodle honours electronic music pioneer Oskar Sala

Born in Greiz, Germany, in 1910 into a musical family – his mother was a singer and his father a doctor and music enthusiast – Oskar Sala’s first instruments were the piano and organ. At the age of 14, he began writing his own compositions and performing classical piano concerts.

In 1929, when Sala was 19, he attended the Berlin Conservatory, where he studied composition. It was during this time that he discovered electronic music while participating in the experiments of electronica pioneer Dr Trautwein.

Sala became fascinated with an instrument invented by his mentor, the Trautonium, and made it his mission to master it. By 1931, he had toured Germany with the Trautonium and began giving solo performances with the bizarre instrument in an effort to introduce it to the public.

He also performed musical pieces written especially for a solo trautonium alongside string quartets and orchestras.

Sala, Oskar - Komponist, D/ am Trautonium
Photo by Charlotte Willot/ullstein bild via Getty Images

As the Nazi party rose to power in 1930s Germany, Sala’s career was in danger. The party’s repressive censorship apparatus was not a fan of the experimental – and Sala’s work on the Trautonium was nothing if not experimental.

Luckily, however, Dr Trautwein and his mentee were allowed to continue their research after successfully appealing propaganda minister Joseph Goebbles.

What is the instrument Oskar Sala invented?

As Sala’s dedication to electronic music evolved, he went on to study physics at the University of Berlin in order to better understand how his beloved instrument worked. After his studies, he helped invent a number of instruments, including the Volkstrautonium, the Radio-Trautonium and the portable Konzerttrautonium.

In 1948, Oskar Sala invented the instrument he is best known for – the Mixture-Trautonium – the culmination of his work thus far. The instrument was so named for its ability to produce a mixture of different sounds and noises – both musical and not.

The Trautonium and Mixture-Trautonium are considered to be the predecessors of the modern-day synthesiser.

Oskar Sala debuted his new instrument to the public in 1952 and went on to record numerous albums and film scores with it. Probably his best-known contribution to pop culture is the sound-effects score he created for Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1963.

Before his death in 2002, Sala passed on his knowledge of the Mixture-Trautonium to musician Peter Pichler, ensuring the complex instrument will be carried forward by a new generation. Currently, Sala’s instrument is in the possession of the Berlin Museum for Contemporary Technology.

What does the Mixture-Trautonium sound like?

With the Mixture-Trautonium, a new field of music opened up – subharmonics. Characterised by their dissonant and often unsettling quality, subharmonics are a symmetrical counterpart to overtones.

While overtones can be produced naturally with musical instruments, subharmonics require unusual techniques, like those of Oskar Sala’s Mixture-Trautonium. This gives the instrument its unusual timbre and extreme range.

The Mixture-Trautonium can sound like a synthesiser, a one-man orchestra or like random noises, including slamming doors and bird sounds. The result is an atmospheric and sometimes-disjointed soundscape perfect for injecting tension into film scores.

You can listen to Sala’s novel instrument on the sound-effects score of Hitchcock’s The Birds, or to a number of concert recordings available online.

Sala’s Trautonium helped make Hitchcock’s The Birds a classic

Sala was the only musician to master the complex instrument and he was well aware of its potential. The Mixture-Trautonium has been described as “an electronic instrument of kaleidoscopic and practically limitless tonal possibilities” capable of “[blowing] out speakers, [traumatising] cats and [arousing] the landlord.”

Beginning in the 1940s, Sala created numerous film scores and in 1958 founded his own studio at Mars Film GmbH Berlin. There using his new instrument Oskar Sala produced the scores for Veit Harlan’s Different From You And Me (1957), Rolf Thiele’s Rosemary (1959), and Fritz Lang’s Das Indische Grabmal (1959).

In 1963, he created the non-musical score of Hitchcock’s The Birds, a tense and surreal soundscape that helped establish the movie as a cult classic.

Sala received many awards for his work and was even honorary Senator of Berlin for a time, but he was never awarded an Oscar. He passed away in 2002, at the age of 91, at his home in Berlin.

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