Sala and the Mixturtrautonium take flight

“We certainly would be doing an injustice to The Birds if we failed to mention the sound track. There’s no music, of course, but the bird sounds are worked out like a real musical score.”

– François Truffaut

In this quote from a published interview with Alfred Hitchcock,[19] the French film director François Truffaut is referring in particular to the array of bird cries and sounds of wings flapping that constitute the novel soundtrack of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Astoundingly, these sounds did not originate from actual birds. Instead, they were electronically synthesized by Sala using the Mixturtrautonium.

The plot of the film revolves around the young socialite, Melanie Daniels, who travels to Bodega Bay in pursuit of Mitch Brenner whom she has taken an interest in after their chance encounter at a pet shop in San Francisco. Strangely, at Bodega Bay, she and the locals experience a series of unexplainable, violent bird attacks. Melanie and the Brenner family narrowly escape death, following the climactic assault of various birds on their house and finally, the ambush of birds on Melanie alone in the attic. In a time when microphone technology was still in its infancy, recording a host of birds would have been either impossible logistically, or would have been of such subpar quality that the dramatic effect would have been severely compromised. Indeed, the montage of avian noises in The Birds would have been inconceivable without the Mixturtratutonium’s remarkable timbre synthesizing capacities, especially during the pre-synthesizer era.

Sala and the Mixturtrautonium were brought to Hitchcock’s attention by the American Remigius Oswalt (Remi) Gassmann. Gassmann studied composition with Hindemith for six years at the Academy, where he became acquainted with Sala. In 1959, Gassmann re-established contact with Sala and proposed a collaboration for a ballet with electronic music. The resulting ballet, Paean, choreographed by Tatjana Gsovsky, premiered in Berlin in 1960. The score was adapted for a new work by the New York City Ballet: Electronics, choreographed by George Balanchine, premiered in New York in 1961.

Remi Gassmann: Electronics – Music to the Ballet.
Featured in Remi Gassmann / Oskar Sala: Electronics / Five Improvisations on Magnetic Tape.
Originally LP, Westminster, 1961.

Gassmann was well connected. Saul Bass, who had designed the title sequence for Hitchcock’s films Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho, tipped Gassmann off that Hitchcock was searching for a sonic solution for his latest film: ordinary, everyday cries of crows and gulls would not suffice, he needed shrieks that would terrify the audience.

“We have at our disposal, through electronic generation, what has aptly been called ‘the totality of the acoustical’. Familiar sounds – from common noise to music and esoteric effects – as well as an almost limitless supply of completely unfamiliar sounds, can now be electronically produced, controlled and utilized for film purposes.”[20]

– Remi Gassmann pitching the Mixturtrautonium’s potential to Alfred Hitchcock in a letter dated April 18, 1962.

In May 1962, Sala was provisionally tasked with providing the sound effects in the climactic attack of the birds on the Brenners’ house and Melanie’s near fatal encounter with the birds in the attic – a trial Sala passed, as Hitchcock later entrusted him with the bird sounds for the entire film. In a well-publicized visit to Sala’s studio in Berlin, both Hitchcock and his long-time music collaborator Bernard Herrmann were apparently so pleased with Sala’s results that they left for their Christmas vacation in St. Moritz earlier than planned.[21]

[19] François Truffaut et al., Hitchcock. A Definitive Study, New York et al. 1967, p. 223.

[20] Gassmann’s letter to Hitchcock, 18 April 1962. Remi Gassmann Papers, University of California, Irvine Libraries, quoted in Richard Allen, ‘The Sound of The Birds’, in: Partners in Suspense. Critical Essays on Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Rawle and K. J. Donnelly (eds.), Manchester 2017, pp. 113–134, here p. 114.

[21] This is one of Sala’s favourite anecdotes. See for example, Oskar Sala, ‘My Fascinating Instrument’, in: Neue Musiktechnologie. Vorträge und Berichte vom KlangArt-Kongress 1991 an der Universität Osnabrück, Fachbereich Erziehungs- und Kulturwissenschaften, Bernd Enders und Stefan Hanheide (eds.), Mainz et al. 1993, pp. 75–93, here p. 88.

Citation: Julin Lee, ‘Subharmonic Fantasias: The Legacy of Oskar Sala and the Mixturtrautonium’, in: Materiality of Musical Instruments. A Virtual Exhibition.

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