Profile: The Trautonium – Forgotten Sounds from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds

One of the many things that make 1963 classic The Birds so chilling is the lack of any incidental music or conventional soundtrack. It is perhaps a testament to the faith that Universal Pictures placed in Hitchcock as an auteur that such a move was sanctioned. The prevailing wisdom being that audiences were incapable of responding properly to the emotions present in a scene if not given musical cues. A practice perhaps even more obvious in contemporary Hollywoods’ cliche mill.

Hitchcock, of course, realised that the absence of these fourth-wall reinforcing tropes would serve to imbue a film with a sense of realism and set it apart from anything else made at the time. There are instances of concrete music scattered throughout the Film; Thirty-five minutes in, Tippi Hedron plays Debussy’s Deux arabesques as she and Taylor’s younger sister chat following dinner; and a version of Scottish folk song Wee Cooper O’Fife is sung by the School children of Bodega Bay. The context of both these scenes being childhood, innocence and the inevitable loss thereof.

There is, however, a soundtrack of sorts on The Birds, it is one that the vast majority of viewers will never have been aware of it and represents perhaps one of the first instances of the now common blurring between composition in Film and so-called Sound Design. It takes the form of Electronically generated Bird like screeching layered beneath the incessant chatter of the Films avian menace.

It is present in the tightly focused opening shot and in the horrifying scenes that play out as the true malevolence become apparent. The first of which comes as the schoolchildren sing their whimsical folk song and Hedrin slowly realises the intentions of the gathering Crows; perched as they are on the School play equipment.

The scene that follows is introduced by a pregnant silence and a long shot of the waiting Corvids: the first sound that shatters this and cues the pursuit of the schoolhouse occupants is the familiar beating of wings as the flock takes flight. It is, however, Electronically produced and precedes the actual ascension of the Birds by a fraction of a second. Designed to shock our ears in preparedness for the visual horror to come it also provides a glue between the natural and the synthesised.

The sound of this scene is an ingenious blending of hundreds of crow calls, the screams of the children and cutting irregular electronic textures that are sonically somewhere between the two. It provides an emotional impact that is among Hitchcock’s finest; mirroring perfectly, as it does, the unnatural and unexpected behaviour of the Crows whilst on a purely sonic level causing the audience to shift in there seat.

All of these effects were achieved using one of the worlds first Electronic Musical Instruments and a precursor to the synthesisers of today; the Mixtur Trautonium.

Pre-war Synthesis

The Trautonium was developed around 1929 at the Berlin Musikhochschule Radio lab. It’s Inventor Friedrich Trautwein having combined recent developments in noise producing Vaccum tube oscillators with a unique magnetic strip control system. The resulting instrument being capable of producing a variety of textures, from orchestral like swells to legato pitch slides reminiscent of modern-day electronic music. This tonal variety is partly down to the Trautonium’s use of Triangle and Square waves in its sound generation; noise profiles much more alien sounding than the Sine waves of that other inter-war precursor to the synthesizer, the Ondes Martenot.

Hitchcock had first encountered a Trautonium during a visit to Berlin around the time of its’ creation and was immediately aware of its potential applications in the genre of horror; although it would be over thirty years before this was realised. Due in part to the outbreak of war.

Hitlers desire to promote German innovation in the 1930s encompassed the Trautorium and initially, Trautwein worked alongside a company by the name of Telefunken to produce a commercial model. The resulting
Telefunken Volkstrautonium being a much smaller machine resembling a typewriter or adding machine. The production of these was restricted to just 200, as the production of vacuum tubes became co-opted by the war effort and German brands became unmarketable. Key to the development of this second generation machine, however, was a man who would continue the development of the Trautonium in the decades following the war.

Oskar Sala was a Classical pianist and graduate of the Berlin Conservatory, he also possessed an interest in physics. A unique set of skills in the emerging world of electronic music. Having assisted Trautwein in realising his dream he drafted in old classmate Paul Hindemith and tasked him with creating some music for this new device. On June 20th 1930 the two men Premiered Neue Musik Berlin 1930 at the Berliner Musikhochschule Hall.

Hindemith went on to write works for the Trautonium throughout the ’30s and is the composer most associated with the instrument. A fact that stems not only from his close ties to Sala but also in the fact that as a violinist the legato techniques of the Trautorium would have seemed natural. Further to this Hindemith relied on his own particular system of tonal organization that involved the use of all twelve notes but deployed in a tonal context. Representing something of a bridge between Atonality and conventional harmony it is perfectly suited to the Chromatics of the Trautorium’s control system.

Sala meanwhile combined this work as a soloist for Hindemith with formal studies in Physics; Completing a degree in 1935. He put this new found knowledge to work refining Trautweins design and producing a number of variations and modifications. Until eventually in 1948 he unveiled the machine that would provide Hitchcock with those layers of subtle terror.

The Mixtuer Trautorium employs a number of key features which are now staples of the modern synthesizer; the first being a switch that allowed for the returning of the oscillator. to this he added a noise generator that could modulate the basic triangle and square waves; thereby creating much more chaotic, Atonal sounds. An envelope generator to control the attack and decay of the Volume and several filters that could shape the timbre and create those all-important bird-like tones.

Sala then forged a formidable career as a film composer, using the newly modified instrument to score, among others; the 1957 film Different from you and me, A piece notable for its themes of homosexuality as much as its Electronic soundtrack. And so in this sense, Sala’s work on the Birds was just another gig, albeit in the world of Holywood.

It was at this point however that the Trautorium slipped into obscurity. Sala continued to work on the various remaining models in his possession and gave recitals from time to time. He didn’t, however, record any further works with and crucially never engaged any pupils that might master its esoteric potential.

That was until 1996 when Munich based Composer Peter Pichler approached Sala and persuaded him to impart his lifetime of Knowledge concerning the Trautonium. Pichler spent the next fifteen years mastering the art and in 2002 tasked German company Trautoniks with building a totally new version. It was the year that saw the death of Oscar Sala and left Pichler as the only living exponent of the instrument.

Pichler went on to write Wiedersehen in Trautonien, a tribute to Trautwein, Sala and Hindemith. And has Commissioned further versions of the Tratonium, all based on the original 90-year-old design. This year, however, sees the instrument’s debut outside of Europe, as Pichler performs a number of concerts in Australia; an event nearly a hundred years in the making.

Pichler will be touring Australia in April 2019 and more information can be found here

His Website is also filled with information on the Trautonium and examples of his music


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s