The early history of electronic music is not often written about, and as a result many are unaware of the early electronic experiments of composers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer, or electronic instruments like the electromechanical piano invented in 1867. But even the most knowledgeable might be surprised to hear that the first electronic instrument, known as the Denis D’or or “Golden Dionysus”, was invented around 1748 by 18th century Czech theologian and electronic research pioneer Václav Prokop Diviš. Though there are so surviving drawings or replicas of the instrument, some detailed reports describe the instrument and how it was purported to work:
This instrument was 5 feet long and 3 feet wide, with 790 strings . However, the suspension and the tautening of the numerous metal strings were much more elaborate. The ingenious mechanism, which had been worked out by Diviš with painstaking mathematical accuracy was such that the Denis d’or could imitate the sounds of a whole variety of other instruments, including chordophones such as harpsichords, harps and lutes, and even wind instruments.
Historians believe that Diviš’ instrument utilized electricity or magnetism, as well as the tension of the strings, to alter the sound of strings once struck by a mallet, similar to a modified piano, but reports are unclear as to the actual electrical mechanisms used in the instrument. Some reports even suggest that the instrument came with a built-in practical joke.
An untimely anti joke was that the player of the instrument could receive an electric shock whenever the inventor wanted.
Because of the lack of concrete information, it’s hard to be certain that the Denis D’or was in fact the first “electronic instrument”, because it’s unclear the extent to which sound was generated or modified using electricity. However the reports do certainly confirm people’s interest in electronic sound as early as the first half of the 18th century. It certainly seems fitting that people have been experimenting with electronic sound for as long as they have been experimenting with electricity. We found out about the Denis D’or through PulseRadio, who wrote up a piece about a 2009 mix, titled The Grandfather Paradox: A Journey Through 50 Years of Minimalistic Music, from Henrik Schwarz, AME, and Dixon.
The compilation itself is masterful, beautifully woven together through flawlessly selected tracks that build and release tension perfectly. But what makes the mix really stand out is the idea behind it, which sees the trio reaching back to the grandfathers of electronic music, combining them with ’90s minimal pioneers like Robert Hood, Dan Bell, and Plastikman. Unsurprisingly, the results are incredible.
You can listen to the mix below for an education in early electronic music:
Get a taste for the sound of Henrik Schwarz, who will be playing #MakeItNew during this year’s Together Festival. For more information on the festival or to get your own Together pass, head to the Together website.