Innova 120

The Art of the Virtual Rhythmicon

With Sonic Circuits XI


Works made mostly using the online instrumentcreated by Nick Didkovsky for <> after an idea by HenryCowell and Leon Theremin


1. Janek Schaefer      AllBombing is Terrorism*      12:00

2. Annie Gosfield         ASideways Glance from an Electric Eye* 7:35

3. Philip Blackburn     Henryand Mimi at the Y          4:34

4. Jeff Feddersen        ThisTime I Want Them All*     5:48

5. Matthew Burtner     Spectralfor 0*    4:42

6. Matthew Burtner     Spectralfor 60*  4:27

7. Viv Corringham       Eggcup,Teapot, Rhythmicon*           6:15

8. Mark Eden                CremationScience°     5:33

9. Robert Normandeau     Chorus°                    13:57




    TheRhythmicon was a musical keyboard instrument built in 1931 by Leon Theremin atthe request of composer/theorist Henry Cowell. Each key of the Rhythmiconplayed a repeated tone, proportional in pitch and rhythm to the overtone series(the second key played twice as high and twice as fast as the first key. Thethird key played three times higher and repeated three times faster then thefirst key, etc.)

    TheVirtual Rhythmicon was commissioned in 2003 by American Public Media for itsPeabody-Award-winning Web- and radio series American Mavericks<>.  Theonline version extends the functionality of Cowell’s design and uses digitaltechnology rather than rotating optical discs.  Users can compose their own works and post them online here:


    Forthis CD the Sonic Circuits festival commissioned several composers to makeworks in which the instrument features prominently.  These works are complemented by two others chosen for theFestival’s final year of presentations. Thanks to the Jerome Foundation for their support of these commissionsand of the Sonic Circuits Festival over the years.



    TheVirtual Rhythmicon was designed and programmed in Java Music SpecificationLanguage and JSyn by Nick Didkovsky, email:

    Nickwould like to thank Preston Wright for the invitation to work on this project,and Phil Burk for the many insightful discussions, supporting software, and ofcourse JSyn. Nick would also like to thank the following beta testers whohelped with bug reports and creative suggestions: David Birchfield, PhilipBlackburn, Phil Burk, James Forrest, Kevin Norton, Chris Pepper, LarryPolansky, John Roulat, and Peter Selmayr.

    TheSchaeffer, Burtner,  Fedderson,Corringham and Gosfield works were commissioned for Sonic Circuits with fundsprovided by the Jerome Foundation.

Janek Schaefer

     Allbombing is terrorismis one of the most peaceful tracks I have made... the opposite of war.  I made it using the Rhythmicon routedinto five loop/pitch pedals that I have been collecting for a few years, myfavourite DOD DFX94.  I call thisinstrument ‘The Lexicon’ as it’s basically a variation of the Rhythmicontechnique.  I’ve been waiting toplug them all together for a long time.”

     JanekSchaefer was bornin England to Polish and Canadian parents in 1970.  While studying architecture at the Royal College of Art [RCAannual prize], he recorded the fragmented noises of a sound activateddictaphone travelling overnight through the Post Office.  That work, titled Recorded Delivery [1995] was made for the ‘SelfStorage’ exhibition [Time Out critics' choice] with one time postman Brian Enoand Artangel.  Since then themultiple aspects of sound became his focus, resulting in many releases,installations, soundtracks for exhibitions, and concerts using hisself-built/invented record players with electroacoustic collage.  The ‘Tri-phonic Turntable’ [1997] islisted in the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘World’s Most Versatile RecordPlayer’.  He has performed,lectured and exhibited widely throughout Europe [Sonar, Tate Modern, ICA],USA/Canada, [The Walker, XI, Mutek, Princeton], Japan, and Australia [SydneyOpera House].


Annie Gosfield

    Workingon the Virtual Rhythmicon was both addictive and challenging.  It was only after I finished the piecethat I discovered that my Airport card was defective.  I wound up writing a piece that developed slowly, becausethe on-line Rhythmicon could not react quickly to my key commands, which in theend reinforced my fondness for the unpredictable qualities of brokeninstruments.  The piece shiftsbetween pure overtones and detuned sounds generated from sustained sawtooth andtriangle waves, inspired in part by a review that compared the originalRhythmicon to a reed organ.  Isnuck in some recordings of cellist Joan Jeanrenaud’s harmonic sweeps,introducing a human element that mingles with the machine.  The title, A Sideways Glance from anElectric Eye refers to thephotoelectric cell used in the original Rhythmicon.  Thanks Joan, Philip, Nick, and Henry.

    Hailedas “a star of the downtown scene” by the New Yorker, Annie Gosfield divides her time between composing for others andperforming on piano and sampler with her own ensemble. She uses traditionalnotation, improvisation, and extended techniques to create a sound world thateliminates the boundaries between music and noise.   In addition to writing chamber music, she has composeda site-specific work for a factory in Germany, collaborated on installations,composed music for dance, and created a video for an imaginary orchestra ofdestroyed instruments.   Shehas released three CD’s on the Tzadik label, and her work has been performed atWarsaw Autumn, the Bang on a Can Marathon, Wien Modern, Spoleto Festival,Company Week, the Venice Biennale, the Festival of Radical Jewish Culture andthe Next Wave Festival.


Philip Blackburn

    Inthe 1920s Santa Barbara composer Mildred Couper (“Mimi”) followed up on CharlesIves’s use of two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart by writing a series ofpieces for that medium.  (Duringthat period she was also known as the Fairy Godmother of Harry Partch’sChromatic Organ, later to become his Chromelodeon.)  She had the misfortune to present one of her major works, Xanadu, (innova 589) with herself andMalcolm Thurburn at the pianos in the very same New Music Society Concert thatHenry Cowell and Leon Theremin unveiled their Rhythmicon.  Henry and Mimi at the Y is a tribute to that event on May15, 1932 at the San Francisco YWCA (a brand new Oriental-inspired building,suitable to the evening’s Chinoiserie). Perhaps this is what could be heard in the locker room during theafternoon rehearsal going on nearby.

    PhilipBlackburn was bornin Cambridge, England, and studied there as a Choral Scholar at Clare College.He earned his Ph.D. in Composition from the University of Iowa where he studiedwith Kenneth Gaburo and began work on publishing the Harry Partch archives.Blackburn’s book, Enclosure Three, won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.  He has been the Senior Program Director for the AmericanComposers Forum since 1991 and continues to compose, build sound-sculptures,perform, and write about things like Partch, Vietnamese music, and the use ofsound in public art.  He runs theinnova record label and the Sonic Circuits International Festival of Music andArt.  He received a 2003 BushArtist Fellowship to begin building a sound park in Belize and is currentlycreating music for the traveling science museum exhibit, Wild Music.


Jeff Feddersen

   Mycomposition is inspired by Cowell’s 1925 piece, The Banshee, where spectral, ethereal soundswere created by essentially hacking the piano - by opening it and manipulatingits inner workings.  I wasinterested in the ways in which the Virtual Rhythmicon could be pushed to turnrhythms into timbres, and pushed further still until glitches and breakssurfaced in the sound.  Aside fromCowell’s voice, all sounds in the composition were created this way.

   Ihad interested myself a great deal in the playing of different rhythms at thesame time... I composed wildly and feverishly... six to the measure counted infive...eight, nine in the bass and seven in the middle and six on top... and soon every measure changes... and this all sounds very quiet and serene until youtry to play it... in other words I was inventing a new musical sound...sometimes people were disappointed in the results of this; they said “didn’tanybody ever tell you that you select tones for a chord, you don’t just use allthe tones at once for a chord, you select them.”  I often do select tones — I often do — but thistime I want them all.

   JeffFeddersen is anartist, musician, and engineer interested in new musical instruments andsustainable energy.  His currentwork-in-progress, EarthSpeaker, is a solar-powered acoustic installation forfree103point9’s Wave Farm in Acra, New York, developed under an artist’sresidency at Eyebeam Atelier and with support from the Brooklyn eco-technologydesign hub Habana Outpost.  He hasdeveloped several new means of musical expression, including robotic sonic sculptures,real-time composition software, multi-modal digital input devices, andamplified acoustic instruments such as the Silverfish and Double HarmonicsGuitar. Venues where he has exhibited or performed his work include the LincolnCenter, the Chelsea Art Museum, the Soho Apple Store, UC Irvine’s Beall MediaArts Center, and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.  He has taught electronics, sustainableenergy, and digital audio at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program,where he was also a Resident Researcher, and recently finished a stint with theNASA flight hardware developer Honeybee Robotics.

   Thanksto the following for permission to reproduce the excerpts of Cowell’s recordedvoice: Charles Amirkhanian of Other Minds

<>, Richard Teitelbaum of the HenryCowell Estate, and WBAI, the radio program’s originator.


Matthew Burtner

    TheSpectral for npieces are machine lullabies for people I love.  I composed Spectral for 60 and Spectral for 0 for my parents’ 60th birthday andfor my son’s birth respectively. Both pieces utilize mathematically-organized sine tones and chaoticallyassembled colored noise materials. The pieces partake of both pure order and pure disorder, employingcomputer-generated procedures and sounds. By situating the music at these two extremes, I create a musical void inbetween, a place of repose for the imagination of the listener.

    Sinewave spectral-rhythmic materials generated by the Cowell/Theremin/DidkovskyRhythmicon, combine with the noise-chaotic materials generated by my ownalgorithmic noise generator, nWinds.  Spectralfor 0 utilizessmall sets of phased tempo ratios that reference a sub-audible frequency,evoking an impossible zero frequency at zero rhythm.  At the same time, the high interlocked chirping phase setssearch for infinity through micro-rhythmic division.  This texture is formed of three groups of ten voices, eachvoice offset by 1/100 pulse, and the three groups in a macro tempo ratio of9:10:11.

    Spectralfor 60 utilizes apolyrhythmic system derived from whole number  divisors of 60: 1:2:3:4:5:6:10:12:15:20:30:60.  The corresponding pitch of these 12voices is a multiple of the fundamental frequency (in this case 89Hz or101.2Hz), and this multiplier is equal to its relative tempo.  Thus the pitch of “1” equals 1 timesthe fundamental, “2” equals two times the fundamental, “3”, three, and soon.  “60” is then 60 times higherthan the original pitch and 60 times faster.

    Thework of Alaskan composer, saxophonist and sound artist, Matthew Burtner explores environmental systems(ecoacoustics), technological embodiment, and extended polyrhythmic andnoise-based musical systems.  Hisinstrumental and computer music is widely played and he performs regularly withthe metasaxophone, an augmented computer instrument of his own creation.  He teaches composition and computertechnologies at the University of Virginia where he is Associate Director ofthe VCCM Computer Music Center.  Hehas two other releases on the innova label.

Viv Corringham

    “Iplayed with tempo and frequency on the Virtual Rhythmicon and used everydayobjects as resonators for my voice.”

    VivCorringham is aBritish musician and sound artist based in Minnesota who has workedinternationally since the early 1980s. Articles about her have appeared in Organized Sound (UK), Musicworks(Canada), and Soundworks (Ireland). She received an MA Sonic Art with Distinction from Middlesex University,England, and has had awards from the English and Irish Arts Councils, JazzServices, Millennium Funding, London Arts Board, Creative Partnerships andAwards For All.  She is a 2006McKnight Composer Fellow through the American Composers Forum.  Her works have been heard in Britain onthe BBC, Resonance FM Radio and Channel 4 TV, and in the US on WFMU, WMSE andMPR stations.


Mark Eden

    CremationScience deals withthe dehumanizing aspect of information filtered through mass media.  This philosophy finds its inspirationin the work of Andy Warhol, where Marilyn Monroe is as much a commodity as  Campbell’s Soup. The piece’s absurditystems from Franz Kafka’s dark comedic vision, while its structure owes a greatdeal to radio theater.

    MarkEden teaches in theMass Communications department at St. Cloud State University. His pieces arecomposed of small pre-recorded samples manipulated through the Pro Tools soundengineering program.

    Thiswork is dedicated to Chris Mann.


Robert Normandeau

Chorus (2002)

To the victims of September 11th, 2001

Ouverture (Overture); Judaēsme (Judaism);Christianisme (Christianity); Islam (Islam); Confrontation (War); Douleur(Pain); Paix (Peace).


    Chorus. Latin word for choir. Sing inchorus, to voice one’s agreement. To chorus.

    Themusic is inspired by the subject of the theater play Nathan le Sage by G. E. Lessing written in 1779which demonstrated the tolerance ideal of that century. The theater play(staged by Denis Marleau in Avignon, France, in 1997) is based on the ThreeRings parable whichdescribes a man who is about to die and has to make a difficult choice: whoamong his three sons will get the ring inherits from a long familytradition.  In order not to have tomake this choice, the father decides to make three rings out of the first,proof of his love for his sons. «If it is not given to the mankind totheoretically know which religion is the true one, everyone has the practicalpossibility, by his disinterested action in favor of the others, to prove thevalue of his faith and his aptitude to contribute to the happiness of humanity».

    Thesound material used in the work represents the typical sonorities of the threemonotheist religions: the shofar for Judaism, the church bells for Christianityand the Islamic call to prayer.  Tothese sounds are added the treated voices of two actors, Gregory Hlady and ÉvelyneRompré, used in the music of the theater play Antigone by Sophocles (staged by BrigitteHaentjens in 2002 at ThéČtre du Trident, Québec City).

    Chorus was commissioned by Réseaux withthe financial help of the Canada Council for the Arts. The piece was awardedthe First Prize at the International Competition of Sacred Music in Freibourg(Switzerland) where it was premiered on July 13th, 2002.  Chorus was also selected by the 2nd MétamorphosesInternational Competition (Brussels, Belgium) and was recorded on the 2002edition compact disc of the competition. It is also recorded on the DVD Puzzles (empreintes DIGITALes IMED 0575).

© 2002 Normandeau (SOCAN)

Work published by YMX Média (SOCAN)

    RobertNormandeau: March11, 1955 in Québec City (Canada). MMus (1988) and DMus (1992) in Composition from Université de Montréal.  Founding member of the CanadianElectroacoustic Community. Founding member of Réseaux (1991), a concert society.  Prize-winner of the Bourges, Fribourg,Luigi-Russolo, Musica Nova, Noroit-Léonce Petitot, Phonurgia-Nova, Stockholmand Ars Electronica (Golden Nica in 1996) international competitions. His workfigures on many compact discs among them there are six solo discs: Lieux inouēs,Tangram, Figures, Clair de terre and the DVD Puzzles, published by empreintesDIGITALes and Sonars published by Rephlex (England).  He was awarded two Opus Prizes from the Conseil québécois dela musique in 1999: «Composer of the Year» and «Record of the year incontemporary music» (Figures on empreintes DIGITALes label).  He was awarded the Masque 2001 forMalina and the Masque 2005 for La cloche de verre, the best music composed for atheater play, given by the Académie québécoise du théČtre.  He has been Professor ofElectroacoustic Composition at Université de Montréal since 1999.

    Hiswork Le Renard et la Rose appears on Sonic Circuits V (innova 114)


CremationScience and Chorus were curated selections from theSonic Circuits XI Festival of Electronic Music and Art (


Coverphoto: Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976): “Hands of Henry Cowell with parts of hisRhythmicon” (ca. 1931). Gelatin silver print. © Imogen Cunningham Trust, Allrights reserved.


InnovaDirector, design: Philip Blackburn

Operations:Chris Campbell

Innovais supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation.