A Nation of Tinkerers: How a Canadian University Shaped Electronic Music in North America
The history of a Toronto basement studio and the unsung pioneers who put it on the world stage.
University of Toronto
Deep beneath the University of Toronto's Edward Johnson Building, past darkened theatres, and people quietly perched on stairwells, through the echoing sonatas emanating from practice rooms, is the school's Electronic Music Studio. The computers that line its walls today pale in comparison to the imposing modular synthesizers that once stood in their place, which have all since been given away to various collectors and museums.
Despite slowed enrollment, the studio (UTEMS for short) is still active, with students harboring dreams of becoming DJs, video game soundtrack composers, and more. There's very little evidence at all that this ordinary-looking room was the first space of its kind in Canada, and a major force in the development of electronic music throughout the world.
When we discuss the history of electronic music, we often bring up names like Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening, and Bob Moog at its centre. Ussachevsky and Leuning developed the first electronic music studio in North America at New York's Columbia University in 1958. Although the significance of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and both men's accomplishments should not be understated, new ideas and technology were being developed well beyond the campus' limits. Moog's engineering contributions are well-documented, but north of the border, there were plenty of less-heralded individuals contributing and developing technology in the mid-twentieth century.
Canadian inventors and composers including Hugh Le Caine, Gustav Ciamaga, and Norma Beecroft were working in the field concurrently, and in some cases, preceding their American and European counterparts. UTEMS was the nucleus for these innovators, but until recently, its history was relegated to academic journals and electroacoustic conferences across the country.
Composer and journalist Norma Beecroft changed that last year, when she compiled an e-book of her own interviews conducted over the years as a producer and freelance commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Entitled Conversations With Post World War II Pioneers of Electronic Music, it serves as a comprehensive oral history of the genre.
UTEMS is a recurring subject in the book, and Beecroft knows firsthand the kind of ingenuity that made it possible. "There was a huge pile of Canadians, amazingly enough, who had been interested in the use of technology in music, almost disproportionate to the population," she tells THUMP. "It comes up in the interview I did with [Canadian computer scientist and composer] Bill Buxton, and I thought his reply was kind of cute: 'maybe we're a nation of tinkerers.'"
Thunder Bay, Ontario is not a city that comes to mind for musical innovation, but it should. Hugh Le Caine, who grew up in northern Ontario in the 1920s, was experimenting with building his own instruments as early as seven years old. That interest eventually led him to develop his own synthesizers; by 1940 he was working on several prototypes.
Le Caine's most significant instrument from this period was called the Sackbut, which he built between 1943–1945, and is widely known as the first synthesizer. By naming the Sackbut after a 15th century French trombone, Le Caine was playfully acknowledging that his invention would be outdated as soon as he'd built it—its exposed wires, three legs, and wooden frame a testament to the prioritization of functionality over aesthetics.
Around the time of the Sackbut's invention, Le Caine had also spent several years working at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa. At first he put his interest in engineering to use by helping to develop radar technologies, but eventually began working on new electronic musical instruments. The NRC saw promise in Le Caine's work and gave him his own lab in 1954 in their Radio and Electrical Engineering Division, with the hopes that his new instruments could be mass-produced. Though his creations never ended up moving past the prototype phase (and his lab was shuttered upon retirement), Le Caine still made sure to patent his ideas, a record of his work that now shows just how far ahead of the curve he was.
Perhaps equally important, it was during this time that he personally outfitted several Canadian universities with their own electronic music studios. In 1957, Le Caine met Arnold Walter, University of Toronto's then director of the Faculty of Music. Walter believed that there was a lack of innovation in the field of music instrumentation and was hugely impressed by Le Caine's work. In an interview from a 1963 episode of CBC TV show The Lively Arts, Walter explained that the development of new instruments was necessary for music to advance since "instruments have changed all throughout the history of civilization, and this change has come to a halt."
Walter not only convinced Le Caine and the NRC to consult in the creation of a studio at the university, but according to its director today, Dennis Patrick, he also got the government to foot the enormous bill. The studio opened its first incarnation in 1959, complete with an oscillator bank (an array of 108 oscillators that could be controlled by touch-sensitive keyboards), Le Caine's own multi-track recorder, and a number of other custom-built pieces, inside a house the university owned (moving to its permanent location inside the Edward Johnson Building in 1962).
For Le Caine, the incentive was obvious. As an inventor and not a classically trained musician, setting up studios like UTEMS was a perfect way to field test his inventions by getting actual musicians and composers to use them. Patrick notes that Le Caine "would write pieces to demonstrate the equipment that he had made" and would title the resulting recordings with names like "Sounds to Forget," though they often had more musical value than originally anticipated. His most well-known piece, "Dripsody," was one such case. Using his multi-track tape loop player and touch sensitive organ, Le Caine took the sound of a single drop of water and copied it at various speeds to produce sounds at different frequencies. Recorded in 1955, "Dripsody" is one of the earliest examples of musique concrete in Canada.
While Le Caine took on the role of instructor at UTEMS (and caretaker, servicing his own instruments), he could not be at the studio all the time. It was under Myron Schaeffer—a musicologist with a familiarity of tape recording, and another so-called "tinkerer"—UTEMS' first director, that the small group of students to first use the studio in 1959 would receive their tutelage.
After two years he produced an amplitude control device called the Hamograph, which had 12 tape loop inputs, and allowed the composer automate amplitude to shift tone and pitch and add echo. "As simple as that might sound to us, that was a big issue in the early days," recalls Patrick. "Even those early Stockhausen pieces have some kind of amplitude modulation, but to automate some of those things was a big deal. People had to work through those things." Schaeffer made a number of recordings using the device, most notably the score for the 1961 Canadian 3D horror film, The Mask/Eyes Of Hell (which coincidentally starred Norma Beecroft's mother, Eleanor).
As director, Schaeffer was also responsible for outfitting the studio with newer equipment. He commissioned the first rack-mount voltage control filter from Bob Moog in 1964, which drew on Le Caine's voltage-control technology developed earlier with the Sackbut. Up until that point, Moog had been having sore luck getting people interested in what he was doing. In Mark Vail's 1993 book Vintage Synthesizers, the inventor detailed a memorable trip to UTEMS, saying Schaeffer was "the first person from the electronic music establishment to give us encouragement."
This acknowledgement from the larger community was the spark he and his partner Herbert Deutch needed. Moog, whose own work was heavily inspired by Le Caine, would go on to be the face of analog synthesizers with his eponymous company, and would be credited for their popularization in the late 60s and early 70s.
Schaeffer's tenure at UTEMS was short-lived however, suffering a fatal heart attack in 1965. Gustav Ciamaga, who joined the faculty in 1963 after establishing an electronic studio with the help of Le Caine at Brandeis University in Massachusetts would take the reins after Schaeffer's passing. That year, Ciamaga developed the PIPER system with Jim Gabura, which was a hybrid system, using an IBM 6120 to store parameter input of two Moog oscillators which let a musician play back and edit what they've done in real-time.
Buxton describes the implications of such a development in his interview with Beecroft, saying "It takes a long time to generate sounds by computer using the traditional digital synthesis techniques, and with Gabura's system, since it took far less computation to control some oscillators, he could generate the control information right away, so you could hear the results of your system."
In an era before microcomputers, such hybrid systems were a revelation. Ciamaga also worked alongside Le Caine to refine some of his designs, including the Sonde, and the Serial Sound Structure Generator, the latter of which was a precursor to today's sequencers.
With his guidance, this period of the 1960s and early 70s proved to be extremely fruitful for the studio, putting Toronto and Canada on the map and opening the floodgates to a wider international community of electronic musicians. Being only the second studio of its kind in North America meant that it was a popular destination for many in the field looking to use and record with its one-of-a-kind instruments, including Pauline Oliveros, John Cage and Tzvi Avni.
Beecroft was one of the first non-students to be able to use the facility due to her reputation as a composer. The fact that the CBC donated some technology to UTEMS at its outset definitely helped her get through the door, but the composer had already made a name for herself, having studied in Europe and recorded her first electronic work "From Dreams of Brass" at the Columbia-Princeton facility in 1964.
Flutist Robert Aitken, who studied with Beecroft's mentor, John Weinzweig, was also attending the university at that time and studying composition and electronic music with Schaeffer. Aitken's composition "Noesis" appears on the Smithsonian Folkways compilation of electronic music recorded at UTEMS, though by its release in 1967, he'd become a member of the faculty. That year his group, the Lyric Arts Trio, would record two of Beecroft's pieces, "Elegy" and "Two Went to Sleep." The pieces were based around Leonard Cohen poems (of the same name) and written for soprano, flute, percussion, and tapes.
In addition to Beecroft and Aitken, the studio continued attracting a great deal of students, with a number of notable composers passing through its ranks including Ann Southam, Bill Buxton, Dennis Patrick, and the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (James Montgomery, David Jaeger, David Grimes and Larry Lake).
Beecroft would continue to use the studio off and on until 1976, at which point she was able to afford her own. Her move is emblematic of the period, as the major shift in the technology via its popularity made it more lightweight and affordable, allowing composers and musicians the freedom to move from using institutional studios to their home or personal studios. This era also signalled a move away from analog technologies in general, in favour of computer music. By the 1990s, most of the original pieces in the studio were carted off, while the idea of building one's own equipment grew all the more daunting when a personal computer could do so much of the heavy lifting on its own.
While it'd be hard to definitively call UTEMS the birthplace of Canadian electronic music, since Le Caine's own history preceded it by decades, the studio's place in that genealogy can not be overstated. More important however is UTEMS existence as part of a counter-narrative to the "great-man" theory of electronic music—that technological advancements were dependent on singular figures like Bob Moog. The studio decentres the story of electronic music in more ways than one: that it was international; that it involved women; and that it grew from the interplay of ideas between students and teachers.
The community of innovators at the centre of this history demonstrates that the growth of electronic music was more a case of "simultaneous invention": the result of a sheer, unfettered curiosity that coalesced, however unlikely, in a room in the basement of the University of Toronto.
Michael Rancic is on Twitter.