Erdenklang Press release- translated by Franz Fuchs
The composer of the soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock's thriller The Birds is dead. Oskar Sala died unexpectedly on February 27th, 2002 in Berlin. The physicist and musician was 91 years old. One of his greatest accomplishments was the development of the "Mixtur-Trautonium," a first-generation electronic musical instrument. Its completely new technique lied between the violin and piano: playing the "Mixtur-Trautonium," one presses a wired string unto a metal bar, whereupon a circuit closes. All sounds are created through discharge voltage [electronic discharges] and notes can be played fluently without fixed half-tone [semitone] steps.
Oskar Sala had been a pupil of Friedrich Trautwein, the inventor of an electronic instrument called the "Trautonium." But physicist Sala had musical gifts too and studied with Paul Hindemith in 1930 at the Berlin conservatory. The technical as well as the musical realm were dear to his heart and influenced him in a particular way. Therefore, Sala could develop further the instrument of his mentor Trautwein, compose pieces for it and perform them with the Berlin Philharmony under Carl Schuricht in 1940. He also played music by Paul Hindemith, exlusively written for the "Trautonium."
After the war, Oskar Sala made a breakthrough with his "Mixtur-Trautonium." For the first time in music history, it was possible to execute sounds which had been known in theory since the Middle Ages but weren't playable on classical instruments. Sala's invention opened the field of "subharmonics," the symmetric counterpart to overtones, so that a thouroughly distinct tuning evolved ("Subharmonics" can't be produced on non-electronic instruments and therefore had remained a theoretic-acoustic edifice). The "Mixtur-Trautonium's" construction within the old valve technique had been a big challenge for Sala. But finally, he presented it to the public in 1952 and would soon receive international licenses for its ingenious circuits. The same year composer Harald Gezmer, who lives today as a 93-year old in Munich, delivered the score to the first "Concert For Mixtur-Trautonium And Grand Orchestra."
Seventy years ago, electronics were still very large-scale. Sala developed a 200-pound "Concert Trautonium", which could be used for traveling. In the forties and fifties, he dedicated himself to film-scoring and helped numerous classics to gain their final musical refinement. There was hardly a German commercial at that time that didn't get its special character from his sound-constructions [A very well known expample is the spot for "HB's little man"].
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock came knocking at Oskar Sala's door. Hitchcock had been unsuccessfully searching for an acoustic environment to his eerie bird scenes. Initially, the great director was sceptical when he heard reports about a man in Berlin who conjured up highly effective sounds from a strange machine. Hitchcock visited Sala and afterwards knew that he had reached his goal. In his eulogy on the occasion of Oskar Sala's 90th birthday, Christoph Stoelzl, Berlin's Senator for Cultural Affairs, called him "the congenial creator of bird screams that could set one's teeth on the edge."
Notable European and American directors gave Sala commissions for film scores and he received many relevant awards (the Oscar being an exception in this regard). Unfortunately, Sala couldn't realize his last dream: he wanted to visit Hitchcock's grave in England and travel to Hollywood.
As a human being, he was distinguished by his willingness to make contact with young people, despite his advanced age. He celebrated his 90th birthday with friends who were almost generally 50 years his junior. Physically, he was in best shape and could outdo younger people in climbing stairs. Until two weeks before he died, it was a daily ritual to walk from his fourth floor apartment to his studio, which was twenty minutes away. There, he continued working. Recently, he had been preparing for a perfomance in Moscow. To the very end, the virtuoso and designer sides of Sala's personality challenged each other.
[Oskar Sala was also an honorary senator of Berlin.] Lately he had been the subject of a book by the Berlin photo-artist Peter Badge, who, in association with the fromer president of the German Museum in Bonn, Dr. Peter Friess, intensively cared for Sala, arranging meetings with younger musicians. Badge traveled with him to Israel and England, where Sala gave so-called "talking concerts" [lectures]. He told his life-story accompanied by recordings of soundtracks and other performances, charming the audience for up to three hours.
The tragedy of his death: Oskar Sala didn't manage to teach anyone to play his instrument. So there was one and only one, who made music with the "Mixtur-Trautonium". The possibly un-approachable delved deep into a sound-technique world at lonely heights. He certainly was aware of his uniqueness, enjoyed it, kept it - and carried it into his grave.
One year ago, Oskar Sala had bequeathed his whole property, the film- and music-rights and the scholarly assets to the German Museum in Munich, which will preserve his lifework and establish an Oskar Sala Foundation. Sala's studio complements the Deutsche Museum's important collection of electronic music.
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