The Institute of Musical Phonology is the outcome of the matching between music and the possible new means of analyzing and processing that sound has” – Luciano Berio

After more than fifty years from the birth of analog magnetic bands music recording, on the 17th of September 2008 at the Castello Sforzesco Museum of Music Instruments in Milan, a new space dedicated to
Rai’s Institute of Musical Phonology
was inaugurated, “musical instrument of the XXth Century, extension of human thought”. Such event was made possible thank to International Music festival MITO, in collaboration with the Civic Museum of Musical Instruments, TV Production Centre and Direzione Radio RAI.

RAI Radiophonic Production’s musical consultant and responsible for the Phonology archive, Maddalena Novati, thank to the decisive contribution from Doctor Massimo Ferrario, Director of RAI TV Production Centre (Milan), achieved to transfer all the Studio equipment from Rai Torino to Milan headquarters. This is the very first plan of recovery, storing and refurbishing electrophonic musical instruments.

Maddalena Novati does in fact describe this niche of the Museum as the “XXth Century lute shop”. The idea of conceiving this space as a sole instrument in its whole, is moving: there are so many experiences enclosed in those devices that it is actually still possible to perceive the residual energy that characterized the entire handcraft process of sound-writing. The Milan Institute of Musical Phonology from RAI headquarter in Corso Sempione 27, designed by physician Alfredo Lietti, was created in June 1955 subsequent to Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna’s initiative.

During that year Milan was of the verge of becoming a pivotal point in international electroacoustic music post-war scene, through a new expressive language, synthesis of the concrete and electronic experiences happening in Europe at the Studio für Elektronische Musik (WDR) in Colonia e the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) in Paris. Among the electronic music experimental productions at the Bureau of Phonology, must be cited works as Visage by Luciano Berio, Notturno by Bruno Maderna, Fontana Mix by John Cage and Omaggio ad Emilio Vedova, the only one work being entirely electronic, realized by Luigi Nono.

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“…in the opaque Milan of the ’50s, Berio and Maderna found a hostile, apathetic environment, opening the Phonology Studio. In complete different situation from the newborn Bureau in Colonia, the two masters, built their ideas on the strong basis of their French experiences through a different technical method which was free and imaginative. Creatively, it has been the most relevant experience in the Whole Old continent…” – Giacomo Manzoni

I alway close my eyes and try to jump backwards in time, inside that Studio, imagining the noises, dialogues and sounds coming out the loudspeakers: living and breathing the miracles happening in that far epoch. We now have the possibility to touch by hand what I was always used to see only in photographs and videos, they way many protagonists of that time have lived (eminent musicians like Luigi Nono, Giacomo Manzoni, Aldo Clementi, Henri Pousseur, John Cage).

In fact, in room XXXVI of the Museum of Music instruments, thank to the “casetta”, a glass structure designed by the architect Michele De Lucchi the rear sides of the eight famous weaving machines containing the circuits are opened so that everyone can enjoy entering the heart of those analog technologies with a 360° vision. On the basis of that time’s original pictures and videos , the atmosphere of those years has been re-enacted.

Further informations about sounds that characterized the second half of the past century, are available to the public of devotees and researchers, thank to four informatics sites, a digital library full of photographs, footage, sound examples and scores (cured by the LIM Laboratory of Università Statale di Milano).

The Studio, a technologic patrimony fundamental for the understanding of electroacoustic music writing, during its beginning period has been experienced by the composers as a mean to emancipate from traditional instruments, with its 9 oscillators, the noise generators, different modulators, filters and the Tempophon (a device with rotating heads that allowed to vary the duration of the reproduction of a previously recorded sound, maintaining the original pitch).

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Those were the times of whitecoated technicians, yet one particular person changed this kind of professional type: Marino Zuccheri. Born on the 28th of February 1923, hew was hired by EIAR in 1942; in the following year he left his job because of the war, but was re-hired some years later from the new RAI organization.

“…I like remembering Marino in his Phonology Studio, master among masters, master of sound among masters of music, because sound for him did not have any secrets, since he practiced in auditoriums working for the Radio together with the most famous directors of that time. He would always recall how he begun working in Phonology by chance, but it is certain that it wasn’t because of chance that he continued during the years, considering he’s been the only holder of the Studio from when it was created (1955) until it closed down (1983). Giovanni Belletti, “Marino Zuccheri in Fonologia”, 2008

He did not have any obligation to give advice, contributions or suggestions, yet musicians would follow his instructions on how to realize musical compositions: a large stake of past century music would had never come to light.

“…All the protagonists of Neue Musik used to pass by there and it is fair to recall that, since many of them were in Milan to study with scholarships and had to present a complete composition at the end of their term, and the period had not been long enough to master all nine oscillators secrets, great Marino Zuccheri would put together an acceptable composition with a couple of moves, thus many of electronic music incunabula are his and not from those authors who signed them.” – Umberto Eco, La Repubblica, 29 ottobre 2008

That has been an amazing adventure for many years, until 1983 to be precise, year of his retirement (Zuccheri then passed away in Milan, 10th of March 2005).

Martino Zuccheri’s demise was a great loss, not only for what he has meant for Contemporary Music, but moreover for what he still could have done: be involved, by RAI, in some important project of tapes cataloging (his own definition) that would have given usfundamental technical, artistic, musical and cultural informations on the chronicle of that adventure (another his own definition) to restore not that much the sound itself (operation that can, when needed, be made by others) but rather of the ideas and technical intuitions that made possible to create that sound: Marino (and his composers) was the only one that could help us!” Giovanni Belletti, “Marino Zuccheri in Fonologia”, 2008

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After the Studio closed down, the equipments were disassembled and exhibited in Venice for a short period, on the occasion of Nuova Atlantide, organized in 1986 by Biennale (with the collaboration of Roberto Doati and Alvise Vidolin) temporary exhibition, and in Milan for I piaceri della città – Iconografia delle sensazioni urbane in 2001, where Il risveglio di una città was displayed through music thank to the homonymous futurist composition by Luigi Russolo and to Ritratto di città, the first electroacoustic composition of the Fifties (voice and tapes by Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna, lyrics by Roberto Levdi) realized in order to convince RAI direction to re-open the Studio.

At the end of the Eighties there still was no awareness of what the phonology studio had meant historically, at the point that all the documentations have been deposited (packed and cataloged) in a storage room at the RAI Museo della Radio in Turin, together with all sorts of disused equipment such as videocameras, recorders, vinyl players, microphones, with no plans to be restored or rebuilt.

Thank to Maddalena Novati’s interest, in 1996 the Studio devices were exposed in Turin’s Music Salon and in 2003 they were brought back to RAI in Milan and located in a room on the fifth floor which is adjacent to the one where originally the Phonology Studio was. On June 20 2008 they were officially introduced inside the Castello Sforzesco.

It hence has been a true pleasure for me to interview Maddalena Novati herself to talk about what the unique experience of the Milan Institute of Musical Phonology was and meant, and to understand what consequences and developments this process of recovery could lead to.

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Matteo Milani: Maddalena Novati, why in your opinion did the Studio become a myth?

Maddalena Novati: In 1955 to own 9 oscillators tuned on different frequencies, making the comparison with single one there was in Colonia, was like having a “whole orchestra” at your disposal, that could generate many sounds simultaneously as in a chord. So you had already a handful, a palette of sounds that killed production times. Ear was the only judge deciding wether a sound some sound was good or not, after several attempts and mistakes, interesting tapes would be recorded and stored and such process would continue until a result was achieved.

Berio would broadcast on radio each new composition from other Bureaus around Europe in order to spread the repertoire. The 11 TV episodes of C’è Musica e Musica (1972) on history and ways of making music, sound fascinating when explained by Luciano. He was a great teacher on the top of being a great composer, a person that could communicate and bring music to large audiences.

Berio developed an intense activity as a teacher in United States and Europe, offering courses of composition in Tanglewood (1960 and ’62), in Dartington Summer School (1961 and ’62) in Mills College in California (1962 and ’63) in Darmstadt, Colonia, Harvard University and, from 1965 to ’72, in Juilliard School of Music in New York. From 1974 to ’79 he collaborated with IRCAM in Paris. Berio’s “Un ricordo al futuro – Lezioni americane” published by Einaudi is a beautiful book, with the lectures on aesthetics he gave in the US.

Matteo Milani: And when Phonology’s decadence period began, instead?

Maddalena Novati: After the Sixties, at the beginning of the Seventies, radio is not anymore the core of research (not being an experimental mean anymore). Computers come up and research centers move elsewhere: large calculators are owned by universities and the musician is depending on physics and science departments. The computing machines had to be functioning day and night and only when physicists would leave their workplace, musicians could take their place during nights for performing calculations for their compositions.

The radio was not anymore involved about all of this as the broadcasting media did not yet make use of computers and the respective courses were different, Without updating anymore its equipments and without a technological update, the Phonology Study.was less and less attended by composers. Moreover the defection of some big names (Berio moved to the IRCAM of Paris, Luigi Nono to Fribourg, Maderna passed away prematurely in 1973) had an influence on an inevitable decline

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It’s again Maddalena Novati telling us that today the archives (original master copies) of Phonology hold 391 audio tapes of ¼ inches with one or two tracks and one inch tapes with one or two tracks as well as one inch tapes with four tracks, plus 232 digital copies from acquisitions (copies of works coming from other studios, centers for electronic music, recording or concerts or plays of the main authors and interpreters who frequented the Studio during its activity years). Since 1995 the custody of tapes continues to be her primary objective as well as their cataloguing and digitalization in cooperation with Casa Ricordi ( the oldest and most important Italian editor), together with the central Nastroteca of RAI and Mirage laboratory of Gorizia University.

No real decay of the tapes has occurred thanks to the good quality of the material supports from BASF that were selected instead of other brands like Scotch or Agfa. Survival of the audio documents is possible only by separating them from their physical support and periodically transferring them to new supports. The second digital transfer at 96 khz/24 bit is currently ongoing at the Centro di Produzione TV and Produzione Radiofonia of Rai Milano, in cooperation with Mirage laboratory


As to the restoration, the most common task is elimination of noise of the analogic tapes and, according to the tape conditions and the specific nature of the music, there are other interventions to be decided on a case by case basis. As a start, one has to perform an initial search for detecting the possible existence of other copies of the same music as it would then be possible to exploit the best parts from each copy and with suitable techniques improve the efficacy of the cleaning work.

In many works of electronic music the original tape contains scratches and joints glued with adhesive tape whose glue loses in few years its adhesive properties. Therefore it often happens that one has to paste various pieces of tape before copying it on a new support. On some tapes it happens that there are some detached magnetic fragments, on some others, parts of material or protective film might have melted and hence deposit on the sound head blocking the progress of the tape.

On top of these mechanical problems there might occur electromagnetic problems or problems due to the type of equalization used in the recording step and the fact that the oldest tapes could support a proportionally lesser quantity of magnetization.

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As I already had the chance of evidencing it, very often the production of electronic music is not linked to a specific instrument like the traditional one but rather to a whole of equipments commonly termed as system. Hence the conservation of a single element of a system does not give a full testimony of the operating mode of a musician in a given period. Without doubt the most efficacious solution is that of reconstructing a lab where one can reproduce all the phases of the production process of a musical work. In Cologne for instance they reconstructed and brought back to function a lab for electronic music in the same configuration of the fifties.

In a similar way they are operating at the Aja museum as to the study of Sonology Institute of Utrecht University in the sixties. In Paris at the Parc de la Villette they are setting up a large section dedicated to the musical electrophonic instruments up to the experiences of computer music in real time of the eighties [Vidolin A., “Conservazione e restauro dei beni musicali elettronici”, in Le fonti musicali in Italia – Studi e Ricerche, CIDIM, year 6, pp. 151-168, 1992].