Of Moths and Modulation
Our Arts Correspondent takes a look at the history of a much-loved local institution
Hastings and St Leonards based lovers of analogue electronic music will by now need no introduction to the marvellous Ore Synthesizer Club, whose outstanding multi-media show based on the 1969 Moon Landings played to a packed house at the Printworks on Thursday 18th July. But I wonder how many people are familiar with the original Ore Synthesizer Club, founded by a Swiss lepidopterist in 1903?
Dr Ludwig Stronzel, born just outside Freiburg in 1878, visited Fairlight in the early 1900s hoping to catch a glimpse of an extremely rare, almost legendary, moth called the Devil’s Eyelid.
Records do not show whether he was successful in his quest, but we do know that on one of his expeditions he was transfixed by the humming sound of overhead telegraph wires, only recently installed in the Hastings area. He was later to describe this experience as an ‘electro-acoustical epiphany.’
He was immediately struck by the possibility of using electricity to generate musical sounds, such that he abandoned his distinguished career as a moth botherer, and settled in Ore to pursue his vision of ‘sounds synthesized from electrical sources.’
He founded the Ore Synthesizer Club in June 1903. Membership was small but passionate. The Club’s stated aim was ‘to be prepared for the coming of the Synthesizer.’
Sadly, Stronzel’s obsessive research and experimentation over the next four decades yielded but little fruit. His journals make for painful reading: 1907, ‘no success;’ 1911, ‘again no success;’ 1913, ‘still no success;’ November 1919, ‘limited success;’ again, in 1921, ‘no success.’ (Note the careful avoidance of the word ‘failure.’)
But his efforts did attract the attention of another pioneering Hastings resident, John Logie Baird. The two men met in 1924 to mutual bafflement. Stronzel could not understand Baird’s interest in visual images rather than sound, and Baird had little patience with the intense manner of ‘that peculiar little Austrian [sic].’
Due to the Second World War, the activities of the OSC were severely curtailed during the 40s and 50s. The final blow for Stronzel came in 1963 with the invention by Robert Moog of the first commercially available synthesizer.
Stronzel could not accept that he had been pipped (literally) to the post in his life’s goal. He declined an invitation to New York to see Moog’s creation in action, and, in despair, disbanded the Ore Synthesizer Club. In his last years, he was plagued by hallucinations of moths performing ‘unearthly sounds’ on the Moog synthesizer.
In April 1965, in an irony almost too exquisite to believe, Stronzel met his end, electrocuted while attempting to retrieve a crumpet from a toaster with a butter knife.
Reconstructions have established that the toaster would have produced the interval of a perfect fifth in Bb major. Whether this was of any consolation to Stronzel in his final moments, we will never know.
His work was not entirely in vain. His former fellow OSC members went on to join OVASA, the Ore Village Aeronautical and Space Administration, taking with them some of Stronzel’s circuit designs.
Some of these circuits were incorporated into the communications system of the Seagull, the space rocket that made the first manned trip to the Moon in 1969.
It was a fitting tribute to a man who had no interest in space exploration whatsoever, but whose chequered career began by raising his eyes to the sky – perhaps even in the direction of the Moon? Who can say.
And in 2017, the Ore Synthesizer Club rode again, revived by Alun Allen, Hector Braithwaite, Nigel Nouveaux and Arturo Bax, taking the OSC’s investigations into electronic sound forward into a new century. The OSC’s annual performances have become an eagerly-awaited highlight of the musical calendar, and their latest show at the Printworks was another triumph of wit and invention.
Dr Ludwig Stronzel – wherever you are, we salute you.
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