Long before Kraftwerk and other electronic music pioneers, this beautiful, eerie-sounding instrument was invented in 1929 by Friedrich Trautwein in Berlin at the Musikhochschule's music and radio lab, the Rundfunkversuchstelle. He was later joined and aided by Oskar Sala, the German physicist and composer who went on to develop the invention further. The Trautonium’s sound was at first produced by neon-tube relaxation oscillators, later thyratrons, and transistors, making sawtooth-like waveforms, but it’s the method of playing that makes it most interesting – not with a keyboard, but by pressing a metal plate with resistor wire attached. It can also be a highly expressive instrument by light touch – helping create vibrato, glissando and minute pitch control. The volume is controlled by a foot pedal. It terms of sound, it runs slightly in parallel with the non-touch instrument created by Léon Theremin also in the late 1920s, but the trautonium offers a much greater level of control and variation. Early footage of the instrument doesn’t come up with great sound quality, but it captures and exciting new age in music.
Oskar Sala moved the instrument forward, and here is a clearer, fuller demonstration of his Mixtur-Trautanium in 1986, featuring a whole variety of wonderful, odd noises.
It has become a particularly evocative instrument for film music and sound effects, as this centenary film of Sala’s birth in 2010 reveals:
And here is more of that disturbing aviary-attack sound in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror thriller The Birds:
Another of Sala’s soundtracks is for A Voyage to the Moon (1975) by Manfred Durniok with original Nasa film material, played by Germany’s Peter Pichler, the only regular established soloist, and here accompanied by Jan Kahlert:
The electronic music artist LudoWic has also employed it on this track, Lucid Dream, from the Dream Content:
Have you seen or heard the trautonium elsewhere? Feel free to share other examples in songs or instrumentals, on albums, or other contexts in comments below. You can also get in touch the contact page, and also visit us on social media: Song Bar Twitter, Song Bar Facebook. Song Bar YouTube. and Song Bar Instagram. Please subscribe, follow and share.