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The Arts

Switched on Bode

Harald Bode, an Estey Organ Company engineer and executive, pioneered electronic music technology

BRATTLEBORO—The terms “Vermont” and “experimental music” aren’t often found in the same sentence.

For the last hundred years, the state’s three most popular musical exports have arguably been Rudy Vallee, Phish, and Grace Potter.

In Windham County, Putney’s Yellow Barn and the Marlboro Music Festival are world-famous to classical and chamber music lovers.

And, with our rural, agricultural milieu, one could be excused for imagining every musician here plays acoustic guitar or banjo, or moonlights in a contra-dance band.

But Vermont, and especially Brattleboro, deserve a place on the experimental electronic music map: the pinpoint goes to the row of slate buildings on Birge Street that formerly housed the Estey Organ Factory, and within it, the workshop of Harald Bode.

Although not as much of a household name as Robert Moog, Bode deserves credit for his revolutionary invention that brought music to entirely new realms, and he performed crucial aspects of his work in Brattleboro.

John Levin, composer and half of the local experimental electronic music duo Tweak (with Charlie Schneeweis, former Landmark College electronic music instructor), says he discovered Brattleboro’s relevance in the avant garde music world when he was visiting the Estey Organ museum in the early-2000s.

“There’s a minimal exhibit on the wall with a picture of Harald Bode and his circuit designs, with the caption ‘Harald Bode lived here.’ I thought to myself: ‘How is that possible?’ In the history of electronic music design, he’s legendary!” Levin said of the electronic music pioneer and inventor, born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1909.

Levin said Bode “came up with these mythical inventions in the 1920s and 1930s,” many of which influenced modern music, both experimental and conventional.

As cultural anthropologist Caspar Abocab writes in Reflections On Harald Bode, “His ring bridge modulators were used in a range of studios from Columbia Princeton to Motown, and his frequency shifters are of legendary fame.”

Ron Schneiderman, Brattleboro musician and owner of the Blueberry Honey record label, puts Bode in the perspective of history: “Post-World War II, Germans were recasting German popular music to bring it back to the people. His [inventions] fit in with that to create simple musical patterns. It was used to revolutionize people out of an oppressive mindset.”

Although Bode developed many of these useful, innovative instruments while he was living abroad, the invention he completed in Brattleboro is what so radically changed music.

In 1954, Bode moved to Brattleboro with his wife and two children to take the position of vice president and director of research and development at the Estey Organ Corporation.

“Estey was one hundred years of innovation. Estey was smart enough to hire people like Bode. They hired the best engineers of the day and gave them money and departments to work on their ideas. Estey represented a paradigm shift in music,” says Guilford ethnomusicologist Dennis Waring, who wrote a book about the organ factory’s beginnings and its influence on popular culture: Manufacturing the Muse: Estey Organs and Consumer Culture in Victorian America.

Estey’s intention in hiring Bode was for him and his team of engineers to develop “a cost-effective, mass-produced electronic organ targeted for the American mass market,” writes Rebekkah Palov in her article “Harald Bode — A Short Biography.”

Bode “had in mind to build an instrument which would produce musical sounds completely out of electronics,” says Abocab in Wie ist der Klang? [How is the sound?]: An Historical Overview Of Harald Bode’s Instruments. He and his department came up with the state-of-the-art Estey Electronic Organ Models S and AS1, shortly before the company went out of business.

But, the Estey electronic organ was not the creation that should have earned Bode a place in the pantheon of avant garde music-makers.

In 1958, Bode decreased his workload with Estey to part-time status so he could develop his own Bode Electronics Company.

He tinkered in the basement workshop of the Brattleboro home he shared with his family, and finalized plans for an instrument musicians now refer to as a modular, or analog, synthesizer. At the time, Bode called it The Audio System Synthesizer.

“The System” had a conventional tape deck, tape loop reverberation, and plug-in modules, and it was “the first patchable modular system with control voltage capability,” says Palov.

Unlike most other synthesizers, before and after The System, Bode’s invention omitted the keyboard (such as one would find on a piano or organ). Instead, The System could be fed any sound source as the input.

“[M]ore than 20 years before microcomputers entered the scene... Harald Bode built his Audio System Synthesizer, an instrument that was a platform to do nearly anything that was possible at that time with electronics in sound, including... recording the sounds the instrument produced,” Abocab writes in Reflections On Harald Bode.

By creating a device with sound-on-sound recording, or multi-tracking, Bode “designed and built an instrument that included everything needed for electronic sound production,” Abocab adds, noting it all was “in one box,” and it even had “a handle to carry it to recording studios.”

In October 1960, Bode presented The Audio System Synthesizer at the Audio Engineering Society convention, where musicians and inventors in the electroacoustic field gathered.

One of the attendees was Robert Moog.

Palov reports: “The young Bob Moog took Harald’s concept to heart and from it designed his own renowned Moog Synthesizers.”

The Moog synthesizer took off in the classical, experimental, and popular music realms — it hit all three markers with Wendy Carlos’s influential 1968 album Switched-On Bach, which hit the Top 10 Billboard charts, and stayed in the Top 40 for seventeen weeks.

While Switched-On Bach brought modular synths from academics to the public’s attention, it wasn’t just for novelty or pop music,” Waring says, adding, “with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University’s Experimental Music Department, modular synths were used as a serious composing mechanism using advanced levels of composition.”

“Bode and Robert Moog were part of the old guard avant garde of electronic music,” says Waring, noting, “Moog got the credit, but Bode drifted off.” Waring adds, “If Estey had continued and not run out of money, they would have given Moog a run for his money. Bode was a genius.”

Waring believes Bode’s analog synth “was a paradigm shift in the music-making industry. It was the first time we were capable of making new sounds never heard before since the invention of the saxophone. We had a whole new instrument.”

Bode’s invention is important “because you can take a synth and have no musical training, and really make something happen. At the same time in history that we were learning to break down sound waves through the development of the synthesizer, we were learning to split atoms,” says Schneiderman.

Schneiderman traces a direct line between Bode’s modular synth, and programs like Garage Band — both enable professional and amateur musicians to record music at home, using one accessible, affordable machine.

When asked if Bode received short-shrift from Moog, and the world, for coming up with the modular synth, Levin reports: “From talking to Peer Bode, Harald’s son, and [friend and business associate] George Steinmeyer, it seems like he was an open, curious, generous soul, and the purpose behind his instrument design was that, not to be famous.”

Levin says “Bode made his stuff in Brattleboro,” adding, “In the 1970s, we made stuff here in the United States. Now electronics don’t have a place. Where’s the sense of place in Apple? The Foxconn factory in Shenzhen [China]? But in Bode’s basement atelier, you can touch it and see it."

“For me, I love the idea that I live and make sound in the town where Harald Bode, one of the heroes of electronic music design, made one of the first viable analog synths. That’s so cool,” says Levin, adding he likes the idea “that we walked the same sidewalks.”

Levin strongly believes “wherever Harald Bode’s house is, in the basement there should be a little brass plaque with the words: ‘This is where the analog synth came from.’”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #292 (Wednesday, February 11, 2015). This story appeared on page C1.

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