Conference Proceedings: “Electronic Musical Instruments in Museum Collections”

30.04.2021Conference Proceedings: “Electronic Musical Instruments in Museum Collections”

The international conference on electronic musical instruments in museum collections took place in May 2019. In the soon-to-be-published volume of proceedings, the focus is on collection-related issues and problems in the highly diverse field of electronic musical instruments. For the first time, different approaches to key tasks of restoration and curation are examined and solutions are discussed with the aim of better integrating this recent line of musical instrument development into museum collections.

By Benedikt Brilmayer

Detail of a mixtur trautonium after Oskar Sala
Detail of the Mixtur trautonium after Oskar Sala (cat. no. 5834), built by professors of the Fachhochschule der Deutschen Telekom on the model of Sala's own instrument. © Photo: Anne-Katrin Breitenborn

The special exhibition “Good Vibrations. A History of Electronic Musical Instruments,” which was held in 2017 and drew widespread notice, made use of selected objects to highlight the complex interconnections between technological developments and electronic musical instruments. The great many highly diverse sound generators shown at this exhibition illuminated a topic that raises pressing questions regarding just how to incorporate such objects into museum collections.

In public collections, electronic musical instruments are usually a peripheral phenomenon, with the focus being placed on handcrafted historical instruments. They are equally seldom shown in museums with a technological focus and, if they are, they are rarely presented in the context of music history. Nevertheless, they have had an enormous influence on music since their emergence in the twentieth century. In May 2019, the Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Museum of Musical Instruments) of the Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (State Institute for Music Research, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) organized an international conference that addressed this subject.

The focus was on the handling of these instruments in collections and the resulting challenges and problems that arise with these special types of sound generator.

Detail of a Heliophon
Detail of a Heliophon (Kat.-Nr. 5286) by Bruno Helberger built after 1940. © Photo: Anne-Katrin Breitenborn
Synthesizer
The EMS VCS 3 synthesizer (cat. no. 5242) which gained great fame under the nickname "Putney". © Photo: schnepp renou

The participants discussed a variety of perspectives on these types of instrument. New approaches and new interpretations of concepts such as “instrument” and “virtuosity” were explored both from a theoretical point of view and with reference to practical examples.

The introductory presentations concentrated on the core tasks of collections, namely, documentation and preservation or, depending on the condition of the instrument, restoration. These two aspects are closely connected with one another, and the unusual materials and structural complexity of the instruments represent a significant problem in this regard. Creating appropriate documentation for these instruments and restoring them requires detailed knowledge of the objects in question, and their complexity and diversity pose an enormous challenge in this respect.

There has thus far been little experience to draw upon in this field, and the material characteristics of the objects, such as the highly complex metal processing in microchips, or the use of gas-filled triodes, indicate quite clearly the problems of restoration. Meanwhile, time is pressing: the objects that are already in collections need to be documented quickly, before component materials reach the end of their brief service lives and the instruments suffer irreparable damage.

Against this backdrop, there was discussion of the interactive sound installation The Idea of David Tudor’s Rainforest by Ronald Kuivila. Can this work of art be restored and made accessible to the public again? Or should any restoration processes be preceded by thorough documentation of aspects such as the reproducibility of original software elements and electronic components?

Other talks at the conference dealt with the issue of presenting electronic instruments that are not solely a part of music-related collections. There is a clear focus here on early objects, which use correspondingly simple technology. It is seldom the characteristic musical attributes that are stressed in this context, but rather the technological ideas. For the most part, just a few catchwords are addressed to aspects of originality and thus the original sound, and little effort is made to set the objects in the context of a history of electronic musical instruments, or music history in general. On the other hand, the whole question of performing electronic compositions and the potential of digital replications of instruments as software applications leads into the topic of historically informed performance.

The emulation of these instruments in a performance situation will not be able to definitively resolve questions of the authenticity of an interpretation, but if appropriate caution is exercised, this may be considered a step closer to an attempted resolution. And this brings us full circle, back to the interpretation of the terms “instrument,” the “playing” of it, and any potential “virtuosity.”

 Children try out a sound station at the museum.
The interactive sound installation "The Idea of Tudor's Rainforest" (cat. no. 5751), by Ronald Kuivila in action. The hanging objects are equipped with loudspeakers. The sounds can be activated and varied via a graphics tablet. © Photo: Anne-Katrin Breitenborn

„Electronic Musical Instruments in Museum Collections“

The volume of conference proceedings is being edited by the Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung (State Institute for Music Research) and published by Schott in the “Klang & Begriff” (Sound & Idea) series as well as in an English translation.

In consideration of the novelty of this topic for museum collections, all of the discussions that followed the presentations have been documented in a summarized form and will be published in the volume of conference proceedings, which will also appear in an English translation. The final discussion made clear the urgent need for action with regard to this type of instrument in collections and museums, as well as the complexity of the challenge.

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