On September 14, we lost one of the major pioneers of electronic music: Don Buchla. We asked four of his friends— Suzanne Ciani, Alessandro Cortini, Morton Subotnick, and Bob Ostertag—to share their personal thoughts about him.
L-R: Tom Oberheim, Dave Smith, Roger Linn, Gino Robair, and Don Buchla “Don had the kindness to go from us slowly so that we could gradually absorb the shock of losing him. He was a mentor, an inspiration, a friend, a tennis buddy. He gave me my electronic wings. It was not always an easy relationship, but I held him in such high esteem that his aura, in my eyes, was blinding. Almost 50 years under his electronic spell and still going. The day he passed, I was performing on the 200e in Brooklyn, NY, having taken up the torch once again, after 30 years, of making live music with his instrument.
“My favorite thing about Don was his quiet strength and humor—his uniqueness, his refusal to wear matching socks. He had wonderful women in his life to whom I give credit for humanizing him over the years, because when I first met him in 1969, he was rather grumpy…
“He fired me after my first day of work…for a cold soldering joint. I refused to leave. I think he understood stubbornness.
Buchla and Suzanne Ciani “I loved the way he did it all, from the road-case designs to the module graphics to the poetry of the module names; he was a total designer, because that’s what it took and he never ever stopped manifesting his vision. He had a healthy disrespect for popularity.
“I loved that he designed from the outside in…and let musicians like myself have input even though I can barely wire a lamp. The corner of the electronic universe that he occupied was special…and to me it was all about live performance…about respecting the human body that played the instrument, giving visual feedback as to what going on in the moment with lots of color-coded LEDs, making the instrument portable enough to travel. He molded space with a quad interface and a voltage-controlled reverb…
“I love the depth and complexity and playfulness of his designs for the 200. The Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator was my favorite: a 3-dimensional sequencer that became the control center for my performing, along with the Source of Uncertainty, a philosophical and very useful module.
“I loved the way he wrote the manuals, when eventually there were manuals. His use of language was perfectly precise and compact. He was an engineer.
“I remember sitting up in the speaker stands Don set up at Altamont, where the Hells Angels were hired as security…and how intensely fast I escaped after seeing the violence from that bird’s eye view.
“I remember the truck-stop Mexican bar in Oakland in the late ’60s where he would get huevos rancheros and a Dos Equis beer; and then go back to work in the mammoth warehouse with gazillions of modules, gongs from Borneo, and his eclectic assortment of friends who assembled the circuit boards.
“I got a shock one day touching a power supply in the wrong place and he said that was a good lesson to me about electricity. And now I have the shock of his passing…I miss him so, so much.”
“Don had the ability to show you what it meant to conduct a fearless life, without ever making you feel small or wrong for not doing the same. He just was much more free than anybody else I met in my life; the instruments he built, the way he spoke, how he went on with his daily life. He was a friend and a mentor to me, and I equally learnt from him in person and from his creations, which embodied the majority of his modus operandi, traits, and quirks. In a way, I still chat with him every morning when I turn on the 200, and one module doesn’t quite do what you thought you wanted from it, but somehow you’re still in front of it, listening, hoping this sonic idiosyncrasy stays long enough for you to develop a creative conversation with it that will stay with you forever. That was/is/will forever be Don Buchla to me.”
“Starting in 1962, Ramon Sender and I tried to create a composer’s toolbox for creating music with electronics. A bit like Dr. Frankenstein, we were putting all kinds of discarded equipment together that would allow for the composer to be a ‘studio artist.’ By 1963, instead of continuing our Frankensteinian kludgy approach to hunting and gathering in electronic graveyards, we decided to put an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle to find someone who might be interested in building our device. Our idea for it was a kind of Rube Goldberg light synth. The first person to answer the ad seemed to have some sort of eye dysfunction; his eyes were focusing on two different and constantly changing places at the same time; unaware that the ’60s drug scene had begun, we gave him a shot at it, but it was a disaster!
Don Buchla with (L-R) Alessandro Cortini, Morton Subotnick, and Bob Ostertag. “A short time later, another engineer appeared. (Only two answered our ad!) He appeared to see and hear in appropriate ways so we presented our idea. After listening quietly, he thought for a moment and said, ‘Yeah, I can do it.’ The next day he arrived with a machine; a paper disc attached to a little rotary motor mounted on a board and a couple of batteries, a flashlight, a small loudspeaker and a some circuitry. He turned it on, and it made (nasty) sound! Amazed and thrilled, we declared, “It works!” and he dryly responded, ‘Yeah, but this isn’t the way to do it.’ The arrival of Don Buchla!
“Don and I worked regularly for almost a year: I would describe the functionality I thought was necessary to do something musically and Don would look up, as if at the ceiling or somewhere within himself, return his gaze to me and say, ‘I made a module that does that.’ Was he saying he made it some time ago and had just remembered it, or, had he designed it at that moment? I never knew. And when I would ask him, he would always just smile—that coy half smile of his. But, somehow, within a few days he would bring me a drawing of the new module.
“With every meeting a new module would arrive, and eventually he designed an entire analog music-making machine. It was all on paper. We would need $500 dollars for him to build it. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, we finally were able to pay for the parts. Don never built a prototype; he just arrived one day in 1964 with the entire machine—the now-historic Buchla 100 was born.”
Buchla modular 100 Series synthesizer “I first encountered a Buchla synthesizer at the Oberlin Conservatory in the 1970s. In a way, I could say that encounter reset the course of my entire musical life. The Oberlin studio also had an [EMS] Putney synth and a very large modular Moog. None of us students cared about the Moog. It sat untouched. The Buchla was where it was at.
“Over the years, the pop-quiz version of the difference between a Moog and a Buchla got reduced to the idea of a keyboard: The Moog had one, the Buchla did not. But there was so much more to it than that. Moog essentially built an electronic pipe organ, with knobs instead of stops. Don built a cybernetic instrument, in which the human musician was invited to intervene in automated processes in a very open-ended and creative way.
“It sounds like hyperbole to say that Don’s instrument marked something fundamentally new in the history of music, but it is close to true. (To tell the whole story, we would have to include Bebe and Luis Barron, and Raymond Scott.)
“Karlheinz Stockhausen, in his characteristically pompous way, used to talk of his dream of a music of ‘total serialism,’ in which the same serial processes would be applied to pitch, time, dynamics, and timbre. Don Buchla built a device that made the realization of exactly this idea fun and intuitive.
“Don’s instruments were not cheap, but far out of reach for an undergrad. So I built a Serge synthesizer, a build-it-yourself synth designed by Serge Tcherepnin to be the “poor person’s Buchla.” I dropped out of Oberlin and took my new Serge on tour with Anthony Braxton, and then settled in New York City playing my Serge in the downtown music scene of the 1970s.
“Fast forward a decade-and-a-half and I arrived at my new home in San Francisco around the time Don released his Lightning wands, a sort of Wii controller for music, years before Nintendo came up with it. I went to buy one, and meet my hero and inspiration.
“The man I found was like no one I had ever met. He hardly spoke. You could ask him the most convoluted questions and get one-word answers. Gruff, I think, is the correct word. I came away from the encounter thinking this was a guy who could make you feel intellectually inferior simply by stating the time of day. Thus began a close friendship of many years with one of the most unusual people I have ever known.
“Once you got to know him, you learned that, what initially came across as Don’s gruff exterior, was simply the exterior reflection of the way his mind worked. A big part of Don’s genius was his unique economy of thought. It didn’t matter if you were talking about circuit design, history, music, personal relationships, or anything else. His thought process was free of clutter.
“Once you got that, Don became the most delightful friend anyone could have. He was interested in everything, and always with a unique spin. You could have the most wide-ranging conversations with him. I remember wonderful dinners with Don, his wife Anne-Marie Bonnel, and friends. Don would say one word to everyone else’s two hundred, yet be a full participant in the conversation.
“I think of Don as being exceptionally funny. I am not sure many others share that assessment. How can you be funny when you speak so little? Well, when you really thought about his one-word answers, and worked your way backwards through Don’s thought process, it would dawn on you how acutely aware he was of the humor in the situation— any situation. Don’s humor wasn’t all laid out for you, or served up like desert. He never told a joke. He didn’t really care if you even got it. But it was there for you if you wanted it. And when your reply indicated that you had found the same humor he had found, his eyes would twinkle and he would crack a wry smile.
“His humor was like the ideas in his instrument. Take, for example, the ‘manual’ for the Buchla 200e—an extremely sophisticated and complex system. The complete manual, including complete descriptions of every possible module you could order, plus caveats about ‘not taking it into your hot tub,’ totals 65 pages. (By comparison, the manual for Apple Logic Pro weighs in at 1,342 pages.) He does, however, tell you how to turn the synthesizer on, adding that, ‘A bunch of LEDs should light up, indicating success in this portion of the endeavor.’ Beyond that, there is absolutely no instruction as to how you might use the instrument. That was for you to figure out. Don’s point wasn’t to make it hard, but rather not to preclude any possibilities.
“Some of my students struggle with that. ‘In order to figure this out you would need a degree in electrical engineering,’ one complained to me. ‘Not true,’ I replied. The truth is quite the opposite. All you need to learn to use a Buchla is curiosity and a lot of time with no distractions. Not really the norm in the age of applications with built-in mouse-over help bots.
“Who else in the world had a high-level security clearance from NASA while giving away 10,000 hits of LSD at the Trips Festival of which he as a co-organizer? He was a close friend yet I am sure there are layers and layers, stories and stories of which I am unaware. I just learned today of his work as a teenage smoke-jumper. There are many obituaries out there now to Google, but I am absolutely certain none really has a complete picture.”