Tell Me More: A Passion for the Musical Past
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Singer-songwriter Gotye’s best-known song, the Grammy-winning “Somebody That I Used to Know,” is about the pain of being treated as an inconsequential thing of the past. When it comes to music, Gotye, whose real name is Wally De Backer, has great respect for things of the past. Specifically, he has a passion for old electronic instruments, and is determined to show that they matter.
De Backer and instrument designer Mike Buffington recently debuted their Rhythmicon in a performance by the Tufts Electronic Music Ensemble, led by Paul Lehrman, a senior lecturer and director of music engineering. It was the world premiere of a concerto—the Rhythmicana—written specifically for the Rhythmicon back in 1931. In this episode of Tell Me More, De Backer and Buffington spoke about these forgotten instruments and why they should be more than footnotes to music history.
And a bonus episode in which Gotye details his efforts to bring innovative lost musical instruments back to life:
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.
Singer/songwriter Gotye’s best-known song, the Grammy-winning “Somebody That I Used to Know,” is about the pain of being treated as an inconsequential thing of the past. When it comes to music, Gotye, whose real name is Wally De Backer, has great respect for things of the past. Specifically, he has a passion for old electronic instruments, and is determined to show that they matter.
He spent several years searching for and then restoring an Ondioline, an early version of a synthesizer from the 1940s. He’s a fan of the century-old Theremin, a haunting instrument played by waving your hand through an electromagnetic field. His most recent project, with instrument designer Mike Buffington, was building from scratch a Rhythmicon, an electronic drum machine from the 1930s.
De Backer and Buffington recently debuted their Rhythmicon in a performance by the Tufts Electronic Music Ensemble, led by Paul Lehrman, director of music engineering. It was the world premiere of a concerto—the Rhythmicana—written specifically for the Rhythmicon back in 1931.
On the day of the concert, Tufts undergraduate Max Kratzok, a student of Lehrman’s, spoke with De Backer and Buffington about these forgotten instruments and why they should be more than footnotes to music history.
MAX KRATZOK: Wally De Backer and Mike Buffington, thank you guys so much for being here at Tufts. How are you guys doing today?
MIKE BUFFINGTON: Great.
GOTYE (WALLY DE BACKER): Yeah. Doing well.
KRATZOK: Looking forward to the concert later?
BUFFINGTON: A little nervous, but yes.
GOTYE: It’s going to be great. We just went in to the performance hall, and it’s very resonant, but in a really nice, controlled way.
GOTYE: So, it’s going to be exciting to hear what this Rhythmicon and the ensemble sounds like in that space.
KRATZOK: Yeah. I reckon it should be a very unique experience. So, could you guys tell me a little bit more about why the world needed a Rhythmicon, and really at the base level, how it does what it does?
GOTYE: So, the Rhythmicon is arguably the first drum machine in the world. It doesn’t really sound like any other drum machine that’s been invented since. But, arguably the first piece of machinery that allows rhythms to be generated—sort of, I guess physically—directly enacted by a human being’s movements.
So, the principle behind the Rhythmicon was arrived at by Henry Cowell and he expounded the ideas he had pretty extensively in a book he called New Musical Resources—and was then looking for somebody to turn that theory into a practical instrument. He found the most well-regarded and brilliant engineer in New York at the time, the Russian physicist, Léon Theremin. And then, Theremin added his brilliance onto that.
It’s a brilliant concept in the first place. Cowell’s theories, basically, are that there’s this very fundamental connection between rhythm and harmony, that there are these polyrhythmic relationships between rhythm that align with the harmonic series. And so the instrument, the Rhythmicon, allows you to explore those relationships, so you have a fundamental rhythm at a certain pitch. Rhythm two is the next note in the harmonic series; it’s an octave up from that, and it’s twice as many beats. The next note—number 3—is three beats to every one and that’s another fifth up from there. Then, it goes up another harmonic series from there, a fourth up, a third up, and so on.
So, you get this really beautiful relationship you can explore between how harmony and rhythm work. So, it’s also a really cool drum machine. It’s a really different drum machine than any other drum machine—or other machine that has come since. And so, that, to me makes it really interesting.
KRATZOK: And so, it’s got, I noticed, one or two knobs and the keys. What do the keys do and what do the knobs do?
GOTYE: The principle of how it makes sound is really fascinating. You’re effectively listening to light. Light is chopped up by two spinning discs, so it has a keyboard, and when you press the buttons on that keyboard, that sends a beam of light through these discs, but the discs are spinning and they have holes. One of the discs is for pitch and one of the discs is for tempo, and holes are made in those discs to provide different pitches and tempos and as they’re spinning, the light is only allowed to pass through when different holes on those discs align momentarily.
KRATZOK: So, what does the Rhythmicon look like, and how does it work?
BUFFINGTON: The director of today’s proceedings, Paul Lehrman, has a nice way to describe it. He said, “This instrument is the ultimate Steampunk machine.” So, certainly, because the instrument—it has a case over it, but when that case is off, you really get to see this amazing contraption of moving discs and large capacitors and transformers. For people sort of who are into complex pieces of musical machinery, it has a beauty to it.
KRATZOK: When the Rhythmicon was first introduced in the 1930s, one person described the sound as a cross between a grunt and a snort. Someone else said it’s like geese calls. I personally thought that it sounded a bit like falling rain or galloping horses. How would you describe it?
BUFFINGTON: I jokingly call it a fart machine.
GOTYE: I’ve sometimes heard clucking chickens as well. Yesterday, too, I feel like I heard—I don’t know—a lot of images just sort of passing through my brain, hearing it with the ensemble, hearing these kind of conversations musically between it, and depending what range it’s in. Because, you’re right: it can sort of get low and especially, when there’s lots of harmonics in the low register, at the same time, it can be sort of, I don’t know, sort of pulsating low growl—a low grunt. But then, it can also be very high and flitty.
It’s fascinating. I find it fascinating when you just find certain pockets of tempo or pitch combinations, and then it reveals something completely different than when you were just ten BPM [beats per minute] different at a slightly different pitch. I don’t know, it just sort of reveals all these different things at different moments that you don’t expect.
KRATZOK: Yeah. So, as I understand it, it was a bit of serendipity that brought you guys, and the Rhythmicon to us today, here at Tufts. You were corresponding with Paul Lehrman, who teaches a course on electronic music instrumentation, which I’m in, Origins of Electronic Music. And, he told you that he was planning a performance with the Electronic Music Ensemble. What happened next?
GOTYE: Yeah, I was just at a party. Paul couldn’t attend, ’cause he was unwell, but he was being handed around the room as a disembodied head on an iPad, and when we talked, he mentioned this performance coming up, and said he was making a Max MSP version of the Rhythmicon to play back the part from “Rhythmicana,” and I just kind of thought, “I can’t not mention this. We’ve just finished the Rhythmicon here in New York. Maybe you should use that.” And, he sort of paused, and couldn’t quite believe it for a second. So, yeah. It’s just been a beautifully serendipitous moment to be able to come and perform here first with it.
KRATZOK: What you were saying about timing.
GOTYE: I know. I don’t know. I think, yeah. These things just keep happening.
BUFFINGTON: For me, I’ve noticed a flow of Theremin activity. I’ll get an email, and something else will happen. A new discovery, and it—when it rains, it pours.
GOTYE: I find that a lot with the Ondioline work I’ve been doing, ’cause it took a number of years to find the first instrument that my technician, Stephen Masucci and I worked on restoring. It was a number of years to do that project, so probably—about five years of searching to find that first instrument.
Then a number of years of, sort of, waiting impatiently, waiting ’til that project arrived at a functional musical instrument. But, since then, it’s like the world has been directing all these instruments to me, somehow responding to my realization that I should try to bring more of them back. Mainly, it’s Stephen who does all the work, in that case—but this sort of pact we’ve made to try to bring all these instruments back to accessibility and full musical function. I don’t know, it’s almost as if the world’s been directing them to us, so with that, it becomes more possible.
KRATZOK: It seems like there’s been a great resurgence in older electronic music and analog synthesizers, and even vinyl records today. Why do you think that is?
GOTYE: I think it’s very related to what I was saying before, about how surprising it is how subtle—but, to us humans, very clearly perceptible—differences there are when you just change a few components in a medium or in a particular instrument. Those things can be really attractive.
There’s a soulful quality about things that can be revealed. And, it’s sometimes suggested that a certain simulacrum or recreation is the same thing as the original. You just realize that’s not the case when you’re lucky enough to hear those subtle differences. So, you get attached to different things. Some of it is sentimentality, but we’re very sensitive creatures to all sorts of subtle differences of tone and expression.
And so, I think that’s why old ideas sometimes reveal themselves to be very new—maybe, especially because they’re in a new context. It’s like, it brings into very clear relief how different they are than what is now the standard set of sounds, or approaches, workflows, etc. But you don’t have to go digging in too many other directions to find that there are lots of potential ideas that, I think, have very attractive timbre compositional and performance possibilities, that are just very different to that, other people aren’t exploring or have forgotten. And so, I think they really are worth exploring, for that reason.
KRATZOK: You’ve got to look for inspiration wherever you can find it.
KRATZOK: You have a great number of really cool instruments in front of you now. What experiences and how has having these instruments helped to create your current sound, would you say?
GOTYE: It’s a big influence on my new music I’ve been making, yeah. It’s a big part of the whole story. The record I’ve been working on and just personally, it’s been just a lot of fun and really a wonderful blessing to be able to explore these instruments—instruments I’ve heard and loved on other people’s records and I’ve dreamed of playing for a long time, and I’ve just started to realize some of these things. Yeah, just, really fun.
KRATZOK: Just throughout this conversation, it’s just seemed more and more like Jurassic Park, without the velociraptor attacking you at the end. You’re really bringing these back from the dead, and putting them in a place where people can experience them.
GOTYE: Yeah. I really hope to expand that aspect of it in the future. Some of it, I guess, is aligned with the creative commons idea of them, as broadly as possible to allow access and sharing of not just physical objects, but ideas and for new work to be made possible. But, you need spaces and philosophies to align for a community and a culture to build up around that. So, I hope that can develop.
KRATZOK: You’re both obviously very passionate about these instruments and making sure that they don’t just bite the dust. What is it about them that really draws you to bring them back and keep them alive?
GOTYE: I think it’s important to save parts of history like this, because they offer possibilities that we may not see again with the relentless march of progress and technology, which of course, in its own way offers, as it always has, having a lot of positive possibilities, but almost inevitably, maybe a lot of dark sides as well. This idea of forgotten futures is what attracts me—that idea that, just because something is forgotten or perhaps seemed to be a failure doesn’t mean that it can’t offer something really interesting and exciting now. Partly because it’s in a different context and that context is so different than the one that it was originally created in.
So, I feel that very strongly that, with instruments like the Rhythmicon and the Ondioline, they offer musical possibilities and, I guess, possibilities for human expression that aren’t possible in some of the new digital instruments and virtual environments, in which you can make electronic music. To me, that’s important because you can make a greater richness of sound, of composing possibilities, and hence, of human experience.
BUFFINGTON: I think Wally summed that up beautifully. I think, for me personally, my fascination with Theremin—it’s interesting to get inside his head. But there are people who are attempting to make replica Theremins. I made a replica of the 1929 Theremin and I had very limited information at the time. Now I have quite a lot more. I have extensively documented every detail of the cabinet and with the intent at some point to make that available. For me, it’s allowing these instruments to stay alive, if they are still alive, or to be able to bring them back.
GOTYE: It relates to community, I think. It’s because, I think the spirit with which Mike and I approach these projects is one of wanting to share as openly as possible. That doesn’t mean that there mightn’t be things that you sell at some point to cover costs or to make other projects possible. But, generally, I think the spirit is one of creative commons, that is, the culture is richer when the greatest possible access to all possible things are out there.
We’re living in a time, when there’s a lot of exciting things happen, but they often get co-opted by large corporations. And sometimes, inspiring ideas in an open-access infrastructure remain through that, but often not. It’s happened very quickly with the Internet. From what might seem like extreme hippie-like techno Utopian dreams a few decades ago, you quickly have a very banal landscape that’s just directed towards a very deadening rationalization of culture, which usually relates to money. A lot of things just aren’t very rich in terms of potential human experience of life—all the things that give us joy and wonder in life.
So I’d say, for me broadly, without trying to take too big a step on it, for me, it’s just a spirit of sharing and community and trying to create some wonder in the world, that often feels a little deadened by a sort of hyper-rationalization that technology and progress is taking us on.
KRATZOK: And, I think that is what really is the draw on these analog instruments, because digital is great, but there is—whether or not it’s the sound itself or just what we associate with it—there is a bit of a sterile, kind of controlled aspect.
GOTYE: There can be. Yeah.
KRATZOK: You describe the Rhythmicon as an early drum machine, but it really is a very alien sound compared to anything that you’ve really—anyone’s really heard nowadays. You could even say—they say that it’s a face that only a mother could love—maybe it’s a sound that only a mother could love. But you two seem to love it very much and so, what have you found you can do to sort of make it a bit more accessible to maybe a more pop-oriented audience?
GOTYE: There is a complexity, as you say—a sort of alien quality to it that could turn a lot of people off. So, I’m a huge fan of pop music, so I suppose one of the challenges I’ve set for myself with the original music I’m making with instruments like this—very specifically, the Rhythmicon—is, “How can I make this in a way that feels really interesting and exciting and kind of accessible?” And I think about my favorite museum. This place in L.A. called the Museum of Jurassic Technology. If you’re ever in L.A., a place I highly recommend to visit. It’s just a wondrous experience.
BUFFINGTON: Yeah. I’ve been, and I love it.
GOTYE: They have this beautiful way of, kind of, describing a philosophy that guides them in their very unusual but intoxicatingly strange curation of just many different ideas and objects, and that is to guide the beginner along a chain of flowers, as it were. So, I feel like maybe my calling with the Rhythmicon is to try to do that in pieces of music.
KRATZOK: Mike Buffington, Wally De Backer—also known as Gotye—thank you both very much for being here and good luck with your performance tonight.
BUFFINGTON: Thank you very much.
GOTYE: Thank you.
HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. If you are interested in a deeper dive into the Ondioline or the Theremin, or finding out how old German turntables and a French movie projector from the 1900s morph into a Rhythmicon, check out our bonus episode, released with this episode.
Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at email@example.com. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller, who also edited this episode. The introduction was written by Julie Flaherty. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to Amanda Rowley and Paul Lehrman. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.
Learn more about Tufts' Summer Session 2019 course on the origins of electronic music, including the available sessions for enrollment.