KinoKultura: Issue 24 (2009)

Designed Sound in the USSR

By Nikolai Izvolov (Moscow)

utsUntil the appearance of the talkies, filmmakers remained largely unconcerned with the theory of sound in film. When sound film did appear, analytical works quickly followed suit. Four people account for the most significant contributions to the invention and development of “designed sound”: Arsenii Avraamov (composer and musical theoretician, inventor of the 48-tone universal musical system known as the Welttonsystem or U.T.S), Evgenii Sholpo (engineer and inventor who developed a device for the artificial performance of music), Boris Iankovskii (acoustics engineer) and Nikolai Voinov (animation cameraman).

October 1929: the date of birth of an idea is recorded with remarkable unanimity in all the memoirs, even those of Boris Iankovskii, who was not present. No one claimed authorship of the idea, possibly because the first person to mention it casually in conversation was the animation director Mikhail Tsekhanovskii:

We were sitting in the studio, the three of us – me, E. A. Sholpo, whom I had invited to be my assistant, and artist-animator M. M. Tsekhanovskii (the maker of the first Soviet sound animation film, The Postal Service [Pochta], based on the work of Samuil Marshak). With immense interest we were using a magnifying glass to examine the very first, fresh print of the soundtrack, still moist, which had just arrived from the lab. Tsekhanovskii enthused about the beauty of the ornamental wave-form traced on the film. He fantasized: “Interesting, if you were to trace an Egyptian or ancient Greek design on the soundtrack – would we hear some hitherto unknown archaic music?”
Sholpo and I brought his fantasy back down to earth. As the ornament itself is strongly periodical in form, depending on its shape, we would hear only single tones of one timbre or another. Whether they would be “Greek” or “Egyptian” is hard to say, but there would certainly be nothing resembling a melody... (Arsenii Avraamov, “Synthetic Sound”, 1938)

drawnsoundBut these words nonetheless meant the birth of an idea: the idea of writing pre-designed phonograms directly onto a film soundtrack. The idea opened up remarkable new opportunities and was taken to heart by all the participants in the discussion. Avraamov was the only one whose focus of interest was not technology. He was attracted by the prospect of studying the fundamentals of the process by which visually represented forms are transformed into the sound of music and voices. Among those fundamentals were the basic Euclidean forms: squares, triangles and circles, from which all visual forms are constructed, including the optical phonograms on film material. He was perfectly content with the technology offered by the animation stand and the technique of stop-motion animation of a pattern drawn in advance. Arsenii Avraamov became the first to create drawn sound in the summer of 1930. In autumn of the same year he demonstrated the results of his experiments at a conference on sound in Moscow.

Each of the three remaining creators of 'drawn sound' invented his own original device. Evgenii Sholpo called his the variophone. This device enabled the cinematic capture of sound on moving film material. Templates for the sounds were prepared in the form of disks with various patterns cut into them. Depending on the number of cuts and their configuration, they could result in single sounds, or chords. A ray of light penetrating the cuts in the rotating disks was reflected onto the film material using prisms. The film moved continuously (not spasmodically, as is usual in film cameras). The disk could rotate at different rates relative to the film material, thus producing various tempos.

drawnsoundInterestingly, at the same time, a mechanical television technology was being developed: the Nipkov disk, which recorded and reproduced an image using a spiral pattern of holes. At this time, Avraamov proposed another idea related to the reception of a television signal. If it was possible to transform an optical signal into sound, then the opposite must also be true: one can turn a sound signal into a visual representation. This was the subject of his article “Synthofilm and Metamorphon”. The metamorphon was never built, but from Evgenii Sholpo’s variophone, we have inherited the idea of a rotating disk with openings through which light penetrated.

Boris Iankovskii's device was called the vibroexponator. It was devoted to the creation of sound of varying timbres, as this aspect had been largely overlooked in the inventions of the others (including Sholpo and Voinov). Iankovskii was a professional acoustic engineer, and his work is particularly interesting and significant. He worked for two years in Avraamov’s laboratory (1930-1932), during which time a great deal of research was conducted that proved essential for the graphic representation of sound. In 1932, the researchers earnestly announced that they were preparing to synthesize the sounds of human speech. Avraamov wrote that all consonant sounds could be conveyed through four types of graphic representations, and that vowel sounds could be conveyed by only two. But the ‘homunculus’ Avraamov (as he was known to colleagues) was not fated to be heard.

drawnsoundNikolai Voinov (who also began his experiments with Avraamov), created a device which traced a unique kind of ‘paper combs’, which served as standard templates for fragments of future phonograms. His method was based on the traditional technique of paper cut-out animation. This was a practical method, which reduced to a minimum the rich set of possibilities represented by ‘drawn sound’. In the credits of the film Thief (Vor, 1934), Voinov’s method is even credited as ‘paper sound’, though obviously this type of templates could have been made of any number of other materials. Voinov was not inclined to theorize and left no publications, in contrast to the other inventors. But his four finished cinematic works with designed sound have been fully preserved.

Unfortunately, most of the work of the inventors of designed sound has not survived. Avraamov kept his experimental equipment and documents at home, where they were accidentally destroyed. Boris Iankovskii's work never progressed beyond the laboratory, and was never mass-produced, existing only in the form of a few individual examples. Fate was kinder to the experiments of Nikolai Voinov. Several films were released, causing multiple prints to be made. Four of his works are preserved in Russian State Film Archive. More of Evgenii Sholpo’s archive has been preserved intact than any of the others: dozens of reels, among them fragments of the work of other inventors.

Nikolai Izvolov

Nikolai Izvolov© 2009

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Updated: 27 Mar 09