EMA, Suzanne Ciani, and more pay tribute a man who tried to change the way humans interacted with their instruments.
Photo by Erika M. Anderson aka EMA
Like few instrument designers before or since, Don Buchla wanted to change the way people thought about sound. Starting with his first electronic instrument—the Buchla Series 100—in 1963, the engineer and inventor prioritized possibility over pragmatism. He shunned traditional keyboards and even avoided the term "synthesizers" to describe his creations, instead emphasizing the instruments' power to allow musicians to rethink the way they made music altogether. As contemporary composer and Buchla's close collaborator Morton Subotnick recently told The Guardian, "he invented a whole new paradigm for how you interface with electronics."
This inveterate creativity and passion continued to influence generations of electronic music producers up until his death last week, at the age of 79. In the days following his passing, musicians took to social media to reflect on the loss of a key figure in electronic music. Synth experimenters like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani still use his synthesizers and controllers in their boundary-pushing music. But his curiosity and inventions have left a lasting impact even on musicians who don't use his instruments, incarnating the searching spirit that gave birth to electronic experimentation in the first place. Below, Smith, Ciani, EMA, Chris Carter of Throbbing Gristle and Carter Tutti, and more reflect on what Buchla and his creations meant to them.
1. Suzanne Ciani
Don Buchla is so entwined in my life on all levels—artistically, professionally, and as a dear friend—that it is almost too big a topic for me to express. I met Don in the late sixties and went to work for him just after graduate school at U.C. Berkeley. I was proselytized with his unique vision of electronic music instruments: a traditional keyboard was an "inappropriate interface." I dedicated myself for the next 10 years to manifesting the live performance possibilities of the Buchla 200, using knobs and dials and sliders and patch cords to choreograph the sound. No designer of electronic music instruments has so completely and originally explored the special requirements of modular live performance, and now, after over 30 years, I find myself coming back to this challenge of playing live, now with the 200e.
2. Kaitlyn Aurelia SmithBuchla instruments changed my musical expression. I found the voice I had been looking for in music with Don Buchla's creations. I am continuously in awe with his ability to have designed an interface that is simultaneously so intuitive and impenetrable. Don Buchla contributed imaginativeness, unconventionality, unfamiliarity, innovation, originality and a sense of humor to creating music and sounds. Plus you feel like you are controlling a spaceship when you are playing them!
3. Derek Gedalecia (aka Headboggle)
Don Buchla was a hero to the underdog, a unique inventor, and [a] hero to electronic musicians. I met him a couple of times when I befriended his son Ezra, an amazing and modest musician/inventor in his own right (check his project Gowns and specifically the electronic project Compression of the Chest Cavity Miracle for some genius-level music).
Don rarely performed live and he didn't issue a lot of recordings. But when he did, Don really rallied to the occasion and would come up with something unique and creative. Check out a rare set at SF Electronic Music Festival in 2006. He goes from modular synth to large ensemble avant performance during the same piece.
Don was incredibly modest as is his son Ezra. [Ezra] mentioned at least a decade ago that someone should interview Don about the Trips Festival, NASA, and Altamont. Ezra said his father no longer found the SF Tape Music Center or Moog rivalry worth discussing. I'm hoping that the Buchla documentary in progress covers some of this unique, uncharted ground.
I'll skip past the parts you've already heard about his history to say simply that Don's free-ranging spirit and playful inventions have given us so much. We'll be trying to process it for years to come.
4. Andrew Bernstein
In the closet of my college's electronic music studio, I discovered a set of Buchla Lightning MIDI controllers. They were in disrepair from students misusing them as drumsticks, but learning more about them sparked my imagination and sent me down the alternative-interface rabbit hole. The idea that a musical instrument didn't have to look or act like anything played in the orchestra was a powerful lesson to learn at 18.
Buchla's early instruments were at once products of their time and transcended their context. They cast off the musical past in search of the sonic future. They always struck me as utopian instruments. If we can learn to make music with new means than maybe we can learn to live in new ways. I try to embody that spirit in my music and in my life, and I thank Mr. Buchla for leading the way.
5. Erika M. Anderson (aka EMA)
When I first met Don Buchla, I'm not sure I even knew what a "synthesizer" was. Whatever notion I had of them certainly didn't fit with the multi-paneled blinking machines that stayed awake all night in his old house in Berkeley.
At the time, I was dating his son Ezra and we played together in the band Gowns. Eventually, when Don got sick, we moved into that crumbling Victorian where Don still built his synths with a small team.
That place was full of magical remnants of avant-garde West Coast art and music: a collection of funny hats, racks of obscure electronics, old art blotter acid and peyote in a drawer. It was also full of light and dark energies. Literally only half the house had electricity. The rest was a terrifying jimmy-rig of extension cords and burnt sockets.
And that was Don too. When I first met him, Ezra and I stayed up late and drank wine. He had the steeliest pale blue eyes, was mostly quiet, and had a gaze that showed he didn't suffer fools. That was a side I'm guessing most people saw—the truly don't-give-a-fuck attitude that drove him to keep making his crazy complex machines on his own terms in his own space for most of his entire life.
But there was another side too, where he was kind of a giant goofball, hence the funny hats. We often ate dinner with him and his lovely wife, Nanncik, up in the Berkeley hills. He rarely laughed out loud, but when I finally figured out how to joke and make him smile, it felt like a triumph.
The [picture at the start of the article] was taken in his backyard. In his hand is another one of his "inventions," which was basically a small plastic bulb that you held between your teeth so that a bunch of shiny rainbow ribbons would tickle your nose and fill your vision, all without using your hands. Despite being on the absolute other end of the complexity spectrum from his fabulous synths, it seemed to share a common goal: to break and expand on the established mode of the senses, and to bring joy.
He was a tripper and a synesthete til the end.
RIP and I hope to walk the hills with you again.
6. Chris Carter (of Throbbing Gristle)
To be honest, I've never owned any Buchla gear and, now that I think about it, I've never used any either. It was always way beyond my endlessly struggling finances. Nevertheless, I've kept an eye on Don's colourful career since the 1970s and I've had such admiration for his genius, for what he achieved and how he changed the landscape of electronic music. I know he's never been in the wider public consciousness in the way Moog has (and I'm not dissing Moog), but Don's approach to synthesis and performance always seemed, to me at least, way more interesting and far more experimental and cutting edge than Bob's. What I really liked about Don's approach was his lateral thinking when it came to synthesizers. He certainly wasn't shy to come from left-field and push the envelope ... and then some. What was that oft used quote of his? "When you've got a black and white keyboard, it's hard to play anything but keyboard music." Exactly! Electronic music should push boundaries. Don's modular synthesisers facilitated that for thousands of musicians and his "West Coast" genius undoubtedly inspired hundreds of thousands more.