Avant-garde and the source of uncertainty


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Not sure how many times one has thought of investing in a real modular machine park, and in particular one by Don Buchla. It doesn’t matter how many standard synthesizer you light up in the dark, the comparison with a full blown Buchla glowing and playing a self-generating patch in the dark will go unmatched. Many things has been said about modular synthesizers in general and about Buchla’s in particular, but what really made us dive into this story is a recent video featuring none other then the synth maestro and synth collector Vince Clarke. Although a notorious synth collector Vince has no or very little insight into the world of Buchla so in this interview he discusses in depth with Buchla master Reed Hays and shows of the massive capabilities of his Buchla set up, that he has been working on for the past 20 years.

Don Buchla was a legendary instrument maker whose inventions were part of the greatest musical transformation of the 20th century.  His pioneering work laid the basis for what electronic music was to become by creating a unique analog synthesizer which completely changed the way people think about, compose, and perform music.  The list of musicians and composers who have used the Buchla range from avant-garde composer Morton Subotnick to Nine Inch Nails, with plenty more along the way.  Don continued inventing since the arrival of the Buchla, and his other instruments combine an idiosyncratic sound with a sense of wonder and theatrical magic.

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There are many fascinating facts revealed in the video with Reed Hays, as for one that Don did not start off from the conventional angel when building his machines, he rather took a scientist’s approach to modular synthesizers using the analog computer as a means of approaching music – setting up a number of math equations. The sequencer was also a new way of dealing with music production that Buchla initiated. The source of uncertainty is key just as much as the use of graphic equalizers as filters, quite the opposite the approach of Moog.

Reed Hays recently released a new album together with Caroline Schutz on Vince’s label Very Records, and as one can imagine Buchla & Singing is just that – vocals and nothing but a vintage synth. The album was conceived by Reed using only a Buchla modular system, interwoven with the pure, angelic vocals of Caroline Schutz from the bands Folksongs For The Afterlife and The Inner Banks. With songs celebrating the humble electron and the equally under-appreciated washing machine, ‘Buchla & Singing’ takes in shimmering, spacey synth pop, tales of road-trips, quirky bedtime stories, and pieces grounded in austere classical minimalism.

Their first album together sees the pair delivering tracks like ‘Singularity (We Bond)’ and ‘Electrons’, whose electronic structures and lyrics fizz with scientific discovery. “I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, which is where they put German rocket scientists after World War II to work on the space programme,” Hays explains. “When I was growing up there in the 1970s and 80s, there was nothing there but scientists and engineers. Space and science were just what I grew up with, so they’re natural things for me to write about. I like those early OMD songs that sounded like love songs but were actually about science. Our stuff is pretty obviously just about washing machines and electrons!”

Going back to Don Buchla, his early experiments with sound followed musique concrète principles of tape splicing, but in 1963 he was approached by Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, founders of the influential San Francisco Tape Center, to build an instrument made up of separate components (or modules) that could individually alter the characteristics of sounds generated by oscillators. The revolutionary element of this first Buchla 100 series was a 16-stage sequencer, which represented the first opportunity to control the movement of electronic music without recording tones to tape and splicing them to achieve the desired rhythmic effect. Subotnick continued to be an influential force in Buchla’s work; his seminal Silver Apples Of The Moon album was created in 1967 on a Buchla unit which would be passed on to psychedelic folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie for use on her album Illuminations. Through the ‘60s and ‘70s his synthesiser designs developed, with the iconic Buchla 200 series Electric Music Box in 1970 followed up by the digitally-controlled analogue Series 500. One of the most iconic of all his designs was the Music Easel, released in 1972 as a compact, portable version of the more cumbersome systems that had come before.

Morton Subotnick has stated in an interview: “We stopped working together after the 200. The 200 had everything possible in it and it was great, and then he went on to these other things I really wasn’t interested in. We stayed close but I already had what I needed, but when he went back and did the 200e, he called me and he said, ‘I’d like to send one to you.’ I said, ‘I’m not sure.’ He didn’t articulate what it was – it was the 200 a million times better, and I’ve been using it ever since. We didn’t collaborate on it, he just did it, but it’s kind of poignant, because it connected us in a very direct way toward the end. Whenever we got together we could actually sit down and make patches and talk about them. He used them differently but I was interested in what he was doing suddenly, and he was certainly interested in what I was doing with it. It was a lovely coming back at the end.”

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The immediacy and intuitive nature of the touch sensitive Buchla were also the elements that first intrigued the classically trained composer, Suzanne Ciani. Working a day job in Don Buchla’s workshop and a regular face at the San Francisco Tape Center, Ciani is largely responsible for bringing the sounds of modular synths in general to popular culture. The 80’s were packed with her video game and advertising campaign sound designs, like the notorious sound of the Coca Cola bottle being opened and poured. For Ciani, the Buchla was an instrument like no other. She often left it running for months at a time to compose sounds and predicted that households of the future would each have their own Buchla.

As Ciani puts it: “The fascination in academic music at the time was the idea of complexity. You had to be complex or you wouldn’t be worth your salt as a composer. But with the machine, complexity was easy. That whole concept went out the window, so I could return to simplicity. Because I was in love with this machine, I was very patient. People would ask me what it was, and nobody understood it. So I wanted to develop a technique for it the same way people have a technique for playing the violin. You know, Don Buchla viewed it as a performance instrument, and I believed him. So I wanted to perform it. And that was really challenging. I try to base my playing now on what I did in the ’70s but I’m finding that new machines are more limited in terms of what I used to be able to do.”

She continues explaining why: “Well the filters have been redesigned so they don’t sound the same. They don’t have the same response in terms of what I try to do. It’s little things, like being able to expand and shrink an envelope. And the heart of the system—the arbitrary function generator—goes in a circle now instead of left to right. I used to be able to flip switches on the fly during a performance and that’s a lot harder now. It’s an open architecture so you bring your own approach. And the things I developed as techniques weren’t set in stone. Don never knew about them; he never used them. Don and I play a lot of tennis now, so I’ll tell him how I’m having trouble with the stability of the machine when I do this or that. And he’s like, ‘Well, just don’t do that. Change your music. Just make noise.’ So I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll just make noise like all the other guys.’

To understand more on how Don went about designing his modular machines, he refrained from using the term synthesizers since it has come to be synonymous with electronic keyboard instrument, we can revisit an interview with Don from 1982:
What was the first electronic musical instrument you designed?
My first instrument was based on the idea of analyzing the shape of the hand, in order to translate that shape into the equivalent waveshape. By moving your hand, you could change the waveshape, and thus the timbre, of the sound. The first instrument used a motor-driven scanning wheel, which extracted information about the position of the hand along two axes, the horizontal axis relating to time and the vertical to amplitude, essentially. So if you held your hand with the fingers parted and parallel to one another perpendicular to the time axis, you would get a square wave with five times the fundamental frequency. If you slanted your hand, you would smear the rise time of the wave so that the harmonic content became less, and if you put your fingers together you would extract more of the fundamental. As you moved your hand around, you could change the timbre in very rapid and responsive ways. This instrument had the disadvantage that you didn’t have access to a variety of pitches, but at that time the usual way of dealing with pitches in classical electronic tape studios was to record a lot of segments at different pitches and splice them together. Later we built a unit that used a cathode ray scanner, which was much more responsive.

How did your design concepts develop from there?
Oh, we got into sequencers and voltage-controlled oscillators. It didn’t take us long to arrive at the concept of voltage-controlling all of the parameters that could possibly be regarded as significant musical variables, including such things as voltage-controlled reverb and voltage-controlled degree of randomness. It did take us a few years to find truly general ways of dealing with the voltages that did the controlling. That turned out to be the bigger problem.

What do you mean by ‘truly general ways’?
Most of the current electronic musical instruments that you’ll see have fairly limited methods of generating and routing control voltage shapes. Sequencers generally output only series of discrete voltages. Envelope generators are often limited to creating shapes that can be described by such terms as attack, initial decay, sustain level, and final decay. Low-frequency oscillators offer only a few waveshapes, and they operate within a narrow frequency range. And these are the only three control voltage generators that one would expect to find in the so-called traditional synthesizer. In other words, the designers of these instruments make very stringent assumptions about what shapes are aesthetically acceptable in the way of, say, envelopes.

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FURTHER READING

Donald “Don” Buchla (April 17, 1937 – September 14, 2016) was an American pioneer in the field of sound synthesizers, releasing his first units shortly after Robert Moog‘s first synthesizers. However, his instrument was arguably designed before Moog’s

Don Buchla is widely regarded as one of the foremost pioneers in electronic musical instrument design. A quick Google search confirms his industry status: It’s impossible to find his name without it being preceeded by “synthesis pioneer” or “legendary” or some other superlative that confirms his place in MI history. His reputation as a true innovator of synthesizers and unique performance controllers is honored and revered by fellow engineers, musicians, artists, composers, and academia.

Buchla received a degree in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960. He constructed his first voltage-controlled synthesizer in 1963, and since then has produced a variety of conceptually and technically innovative instruments, each one advancing the state-of-the-art in electronic instrument design.

Buchla has consulted for multiple instrument manufacturers, including CBS, Kimball Piano, Zeta Music, Yamaha International, Gibson Guitars, and E-Mu Systems. He has served as technical director of California Institute of the Arts, technical director of the Electric Symphony, and co-director of the Artists’ Research Collective. He holds several patents in the fields of optics and musical instruments. Don has received grants from the Veterans Administration (guidance devices for the blind), the Guggenheim Foundation (music languages), and the National Endowment for the Arts (composition). In 2002 he was honored with the prestigious SEAMUS Lifetime Achievement Award “in recognition of his pioneering achievements and lifetime contribution to the art and craft of electro-acoustic music.”

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