A red glow shows a maze of twisted wires. Lights from 291 buttons blink on - then off. Salvatore Martirano hovers over the silver panel, his fingers lightly touching tiny knobs, bringing the ear-splitting noise to a crescendo or fading to the sound of water dripping from a rain gutter.
Martirano, professor of music at the University of Illinois, controls the ominous electronic music with the finesse of a symphony orchestra conductor.
The machine, a hybrid digital-analogue musical-compositional instrument, is the offspring of an era of electronic vibrations of which SAL-MAR (dubbed after its inventor) was the first of its kind.
Martirano, the true father of the synthesizer, is putting his beloved son up for sale. Between $18,000 and $20,000 was spent from his personal savings and salary in putting the machine together.
He said he was tired of his toy, which uses less electricity than a light bulb. "Most composers do a piece and then another and the first one fades in interest, said Martirano, now on commission to compose an orchestration for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.
Although the technology in SAL-MAR is now obsolete, when first conceived in 1969 and completed in 1972 as a University of Illinois project, the synthesizer was electronically unique.
SAL-MAR bypasses mass storage input-output which was inefficient, costly and inhibitive of real-time response. Most digital, computer-produced sound does not produce real-time, meaning the sound is not produced at the time the note is played.
Computers must be programmed so it takes an hour of computer time for one minute of music, Martirano said. "This makes a difference as far as performer feedback is concerned," he explained.
With 24 strategically placed speakers around the den where SAL-MAR is located, the machine can produce sound traffic, throwing high-pitched buzzing across the room from one speaker to the other.
"SAL-MAR is doing what a conductor surrounded by 90 players is doing. There are thousands of possible combinations that are predetermined," Martirano said. There are a finite number of combinations, but too many for him to count.
One note can be played at a time by using manual programming. Sequences are obtained by automatic programming.
"The concept is that the performer can change his distance from actual control over the event. You play a piano note, those notes come out. SAL-MAR eliminates this one-to-one control. The performer is not making the sound," Martirano said.
Sequences may be repeated but the performer would have to touch each button at exactly the same second to obtain the same sounds.
Martirano, who performs in campus towns throughout the United Sates, said SAL-MAR eliminates rehearsal. It also takes only two weeks to learn to operate it while a piano may take 10 to 12 years, he said.
Martirano stresses that SAL-MAR is more a composition tool than an instrument. "It's not an entity in itself. One may compose and then take the idea. But it eliminates the paper and pencil," he said.
Despite its demise as an electronic wonder, SAL-MAR still marks the beginnig of composition sythesizers, reflecting that Martirano calls the interaction between humans and electronics.