It might be hard to believe but one of the most complex synths ever made was created in Russia in the 1940s. The ANS synth employed similar optical technology as was used in printing sound on 35mm film, except instead of a single mono track, the synth generated sound by having sine waves printed onto 5 glass discs, each disc having 144 individual tracks which equates to 720 microtones!
According to wikipedia, “The tracks are arranged vertically from low frequencies at the bottom to high frequencies at the top. The convolved light is then projected onto the back of the synthesizer’s interface. This consists of a glass plate covered in opaque black “mastic” which constitutes a drawing surface upon which the user makes marks by scratching through the mastic, and therefore allowing light to pass through at that point. In front of the glass plate sits a vertical bank of photocells which send signals to band-pass amplifiers, each with dB trim switches. The glass plate can then be scanned left or right in front of the photocell bank in order to transcribe the drawing directly into pitches. In other words, it plays what you draw.”
From the Theremin archive: “The most curious properties of this synthesizer are its graphic method of coding sounds on the operating field, or score and the possibility of hearing the result immediately. For traditional composing, the operating field has a pitch scale similar to a piano keyboard, with a special coder for setting pitch, duration, volume and timbre. To obtain a more precise coding of the pitch, every semitone on the pitch scale can be divided into six parts.”
The ANS was used by Stanislav Kreichi, Alfred Schnittke, Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina and other Soviet composers but Edward Artemiev is one of the most well known exponenets. He was a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, wrote his first composition in 1967 on the ANS and went on to become a prolific film composer, scoring over 100 films, but it was his work on the films of Andrei Tarkovsky that he became the most well known for.
There is a great article about Artmeiecvs collaboration with Tarkovsky on the enigmatically named blog ‘The Whole Goddam Mutha’s Gonna Blow’ (which ceased updates back in 2008) and it is fascinating reading (in fact you must go read the whole article) but I will quote a few parts:
“Practically having no temperation,’ wrote Artemiev, ‘the ANS exceeded most commercial synthesizer of that time (for example, Moog modular synthesisers) by its unlimited polyphony, and possibility of strictly scientific synthesis (knowing spectral composition of the timbre, it could be exactly reproduced on the keyboard of the device).” He has also commented: “A composer, working on the score of the synthesizer, is like a painter; he paints, retouches, erases and deposits code pictures, immediately carrying out an auditory control of the result. The sounds, being completely unusual by their spectra on the glass of the score. The device, which has a memory system, can remember these elaborations, so that to use them later. Having no limitations in the timbres and their changes, the ANS made it possible to use artificial voices and noises of various constructive processes.”
In 1970, he met Tarkovsky, who handed him the script of Solaris. It was to be the start of a curious relationship in which the two men rarely met, but when they did, it was generally at moments of common artistic inspiration of the highest order.
Artemiev: “Interestingly, that in the course of work on Solaris Andrei told me a lot about his vision on the role of the composer in his cinema. In the composer he sought not the author of music, but the organiser of audio space of the film. And what is more, he needed the composer for supporting with music some scenes which emotionally he could not manage or did not manage so far to bring to the audiences using the language of cinema.
And this is where the article gets even more interesting:
It is also interesting to note that in the late ’70s, when Stalker was made – a time, conversely, when post-production sound in Hollywood was becoming increasingly departmcntalizcd and fragmented – Artemiev was eradicating the boundaries between music and sound with his work on this film: many of Stalker’s otherworldly effects, which give the impression of subtly manipulated production sound, were actually created by him on the synthesizer, and therefore serve as both extension and counterpoint to the purely musical ideas.
“Tarkovsky often said to me that, for him, it was more important for the composer to create an overall conceptual idea for all the sound used in a film, rather than to simply write themes or melodies that accompany the images. In Mirror, for example, I had to create orchestral textures which were added to the natural, non-musical elements of the soundtrack, in order to give them a certain spiritual dimension that he wanted. The orchestra’s purpose here was to play the role of “living water” – a term in Russian folklore having to do with spiritual regeneration and renewal – in the entire picture there is only one actual music cue, in the usual sense of that term and even then I used variations on only a single chord- E-minor – with constantly changing instrumentation-and this sequence is ten minutes long!”
Here are two excerpts from Solaris, where you can hear the microtonal ANS at work:
There are a few CDs (& a few very collectable LPs) available of works composed with the ANS. SoundOhm in Italy have a CD (with 3 audition streaming tracks) available called: VVAA Electroacoustic Music (IV) Archive Tapes, Synthesizer ANS 1964-1