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[October, 2011: Rhythmicon pages archived, no longer updated or maintained.]

The Rhythmicon The Rhythmicon: Definition/Background

Built in 1931 by Leon Theremin for American composer Henry Cowell, the rhythmicon generated rhythmic beats according to the intervals of the harmonic series. For every one beat of the fundamental, the second harmonic beat twice, the third three times, the fourth four times, and so on, through the 16th harmonic. The performer could sound any combination of the harmonics by means of a 17 key keyboard. (The 17th key sounded a syncopating beat in the middle of the measure.) As long as the key was depressed, the harmonic sounded. The performer could change the tempo and the pitch of the fundamental, and therefore of all the harmonics, with levers and a rheostat. On a second improved model, the performer operated the pitch and tempo with foot pedals.

The rhythmicon used an "electric eye" to create the rhythmic patterns, an engineering solution that was proposed by Cowell. Each key had a corresponding cog wheel that rotated while the key was depressed. As the wheel rotated it interrupted a beam of light focused on photoreceptors (the "electric eyes"), which divided the beam into impules corresponding to the beat pattern of the harmonic, thus triggering the sound. Theremin built two machines. After losing interest in the device, Cowell lent the original one to the Psychology Department at Stanford University. It was discarded in 1938 by which time it had ceased to function. The second machine was commissioned by Charles Ives for Nicolas Slonimsky. After using it for a while, and even writing a composition for it, Slonimsky eventually sold it to Joseph Schillinger who had known Theremin since the early 1920s and had a life long interest in technology and music. Schillinger's widow donated the device to the Smithsonian Institution in 1966. A third machine was built in Russia after Theremin returned the Soviet Union in the late 1930s.

(Coincidentally in 1932, William Miessner developed a "rhythm sounding" device which he also called the rhythmicon. The apparatus used disks to generate conventional rhythms. While interesting in its own right, it has nothing to do with Theremin's machine or Cowell's theories.)

In the course of research for an article published in Organized Sound, Margaret Schedel recorded the rhythmicon housed in the Smithsonian. The sound is surprisingly percussive, almost drum-like. The pitch is unclear in the recording she sent me and she, too, remarked on this fact. The samples have been used in John P. Young's work, "Ars Algorhythmica," a piece for didgeridoo and electronics performed at the SEAMUS 2005 conference in Muncie, Indiana.

As early as 1915, Cowell had discussed with Russell Varian the concept of a mechanical device that could play the complicated rhythms Cowell was exploring at the time. In particular, two string quartets, the Quartet Romantic and the Quartet Euphometric, employed his method of converting chords into rhythms. The rhythms that resulted from this process -- 6 beats against 5, 7 against 3, 10 against 4, etc. -- were so complex that Cowell devised differently shaped note heads to represent the rhythms (triangles for "third" notes, square for "fifth" notes, diamond for "seventh" notes, etc.). In notes for the quartets written in 1964, Cowell states, "...the meters for the most part were necessarily so complex that they were obviously unperformable by any known human agency, and I thought of them as purely fanciful." Both Quartets, however, have been recorded since the composer's death.

Unfortunately, the rhythmicon did not have the melodic flexibility Cowell desired. In his notes for the quartets he wrote, "But since there was no way of giving melodic freedom by varying the note lengths in a single part, and no method of accenting, these early quartets still could not be played on it." Instead, Cowell composed works for the machine: Rhythmicana, later renamed Concerto for Rhythmicon and Orchestra, and Music for Violin and Rhythmicon. He also wrote several solo works which he played when demonstrating the instrument. After demonstration concerts in New York on January 19, 1932 and San Francisco on May 15, 1932 (A Paris concert scheduled for February was canceled), Cowell lost interest in the Rhythmicon and composed no further works for it.

Rhythmicana remained unperformed at Cowell's death in 1965. Leland Smith, an American composer then at Stanford University, became interested in the piece and in the rhythmicon in 1970. He was able to locate the score and proceeded to realize the rhythmicon part using his SCORE notation program on a DEC PDP10 computer. Each harmonic was assigned to a separate instrument. Tempo was assigned as a relative value based on the TEMPO feature of SCORE, which stored the absolute tempo. The pitch of each of the harmonic instruments was similarly a multiple of an otherwise silent instrument that stored the value of the fundamental pitch. This approach -- a separate instrument for each harmonic -- was chosen, Smith writes, "...since most of the time only a few of the rhythms are used at once, it was more economical, from the point of view of computer time, to set up an ‘orchestra’ wherein each instrument played a single rhythm." Rhythmicana was premiered by the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sandor Salgo, on December 3, 1971. In 2007 at MaxFest, held at Stanford in honor of his 80th birthday, Max Mathews performed live a new version of the rhythmicon part of Rhythmicana using his Radio Baton and Conductor program. Mathews created his own timbres for the part using a set of tunable resonant filters. A click was fed into the filter bank which emitted a decaying tone at the appropriate pitch for the given beat.

In 1995, the English guitarist and composer John Came, in collaboration with Nick Cope, released a CD called Rhythmicon: Systems/Atmospherics. Cope used a computer to transform the rhythmic data of John Came's compositions, which were "...played...into a simulacrum of the Rhythmicon," into notes. The rhythmic and melodic strands were then entered into a "...music notating/playing computer" for the final results, which are both pleasing and exciting but unrelated rhythmically or tonally to the actual rhythmicon.

Came's effort seems related to apocryphal legends about the rhythmicon that have sprung up on the Internet, usually centered around some variation of an amusing and totally unsubstantiated list of "Facts about the Rhythmicon." How an English pop musician, Nick Cope, came into possession of a rhythmicon is given below, based on several web sites. None of this is documented.

<apocrypha>In the late 1950s, British producer Joe Meek came across a rhythmicon in a pawn shop in New York, even though there is absolutely no basis in fact for either of the two rhythmicons built by Theremin ending up in New York. After Joe Meek or someone else restored it to working order, this rhythmicon was used for sound effects in several movies: The Rains of Ranchipur, Battle Beneath the Earth, Powell and Pressburgers, They're a Weird Mob, Dr. Strangelove, and the TV series Torchy, the Battery Boy. Further, this machine was reportedly used on the following recordings: Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown by Arthur Brown, Robot by the Tornadoes, and Rubicon by Tangerine Dream. After Meek's death, the rhythmicon landed in a studio in London where, in 1992, Nick Cope of the electronic music group Pnin, found it. Cope was able to put the machine in working order and when John Came was hired to play guitar for Pnin, the idea for Came's CD was born. Go figure.</apocrypha>

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