1932 Rhythmicon

1932 Rhythmicon

Who Commissioned This Instrument?

This rhythmicon was commissioned by Charles E. Ives for Nicolas Slonimsky and Henry Cowell. In January of 1932, Ives wrote to Slonimsky about the Rhythmicon, saying, I sent the remitted check to Mr. Theremin yesterday–and he's started the building. It will be yours and Henry's–I just want to help–and sit under its shadow on a nice day.

Who Owned This Instrument?

This rhythmicon was first owned by Nicolas Slonimsky who later sold it to Joseph Schillinger. Schillinger's widow, Frances, donated it in 1966 to The Smithsonian.

Nicolas Slonimsky spoke of the two rhythmicons, saying, I kept my Rhythmicon for some ten years and then sold it to Schillinger. Cowell's own Rhythmicon went to the New School for Social Research. Neither of the two instruments could be activated for a performance.

Where is Now?

The instrument is in the National Museum of American History at The Smithsonian, in their offsite storage facility. It is not currently in working condition.

What Do We Know About This Instrument?

This instrument was the second rhythmicon built by Lev. The first machine which was larger and less mobile, eventually fell into disrepair years later and was destroyed, with Cowell's permission. In the same letter to Slonimsky, Ives wrote that the second one would be nearer to an instrument, than a machine. There will be a lever that can readily change the tempo with pedals and also the tones etc. These controls are two rheostats which can be seen protruding on the left side of the machine.

This instrument employs a scanning disc and optical sensors, not unlike the Nipkow disc that was used in experimental television receivers at that time.

The Pitch and Tempo Rhythmicon Discs: two flat discs with lots of holes in them.

The pitch wheel (left) and tempo wheel (right) of the Rhythmicon.

Why is it Special?

The Rhythmicon can be considered the world's first drum machine, predating the first commercially produced rhythm machine by almost 30 years. Two pieces were written for the rhythmicon: Rhythmicana (renamed Concerto for Rhythmicon and Orchestra) and the now lost Music for Violin and Rhythmicon.

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