Charles Cohen Pro/File: Painting with Sound

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Charles Cohen
Photo: Zach Dilgard

Composers of avant-garde electronic music tend to live on the periphery of humanity, as the legendary Gershon Kingsley put it, and few know the sacrifices of choosing that path better than Charles Cohen. Although he's been creating entirely improvised music since 1971 (drawing early inspiration from free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and synthesis pioneer Morton Subotnick), he's rarely mentioned outside of a tightly knit coterie of devoted fans and fellow musicians. But Cohen seems to relish flying under the radar, and like his instrument of choice, a rare vintage Buchla Music Easel, he does so with a built-in sense of daring. (Go to to see a video of him playing it.)

“I heard some music by Subotnick in the late '60s and knew right away those were the sounds I wanted,” Cohen recalls. “Several years later I started acquiring a Buchla 200 system a few modules at a time — some used from third parties, some new from Don [Buchla]. The module components of the Music Easel were within this first, larger system. Around 1976 I decided to move the Easel modules into Don's Easel carrying case to make it more portable. I was getting into jam sessions with all sorts of folks and just couldn't carry a full 200 system around. That's when I discovered the liberating aspect of improvising with ‘limited’ resources.”

Cohen's tireless penchant for live performance has made him a fixture on the underground music scene in New York City, Baltimore, and his native city, Philadelphia. His longest on-and-off collaboration has been with keyboardist Jeff Cain (as the Ghostwriters). But New Yorkers will also know him for his tenure with Straylight, a space-ambient trio that performed regularly at the Knitting Factory in the mid-'90s.

Thriving as he does on the gig circuit, Cohen has rarely found the time for setting up in the studio and recording, but a recent spate of releases documents what many of us have been missing. Planet-Y's Space Station (Public Guilt, 2007) is a live duet with Yanni Papadopoulos on Casio DG-20 guitar synth, and finds Cohen wrenching waves of emotive character out of the Buchla in the space of less than 30 minutes (see Web Clip 1). Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes (Ruby Red, 2007) is another collaboration with drummer Ed Wilcox, tapping moods that are by turns dark, whimsical, and otherworldly (see Web Clip 2). Cohen also appears on the Valerie Project's debut album of the same name (Drag City, 2007), and on the compilation Technicolor Hell, curated by Philadelphia noise artist Dave Smolen for his Malleable imprint.

Although he humbly refers to what he does on the Buchla as “beeps and boops,” Cohen demonstrates an uncanny ear for the right sound at the right time, which is what draws so many to his work. “There's just one audio oscillator on the Music Easel, so it's all about control,” he explains. “Of course, it's also fun to play and sounds fabulous. I've got an effects stable [Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Delay (original), Lexicon LXP-5 and MPX 550, Alesis Ineko, Electrix Repeater, Korg Mini-KP] that I use in varying combinations, mostly for time-domain processing, because the instrument itself is so satisfying on its own with regard to timbre. But the primary experience for me when I'm playing with someone is to listen — then I want to respond quickly, honestly, playfully, and intuitively.”


Home base: Philadelphia

Synth of choice: Buchla Music Easel

Vintage delay unit: Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Delay (original version)