With so many new products being released each month, it can be difficult to stay focused on what we truly need to express ourselves musically. Sometimes, you have to step back and look—not at what you have, but for what you’re hoping to achieve aesthetically and conceptually.
More and more, I’ve found my way back to my center by looking to the past for inspiration—not for the sake of nostalgia or fashion, but as a way to remind myself of where I came from and how I got to where I am, with the hope of picking up the thread where I left off. It’s a way that we can be true to ourselves.
For me, a good example of this form of re-evaluation can be seen in Dave Rossum’s approach to creating the Morpheus. Rather than repackage his popular z-plane filter design as it appeared in the original synth of the same name, Rossum took advantage of the technological achievements in the intervening years to create a Eurorack module that is far more powerful than its ’90s-era namesake, while remaining easy to use and affordable, considering what it does.
Recently, I was inspired by a face-to-face encounter with the original Buchla system Morton Subotnick used to create his most famous works. While in Washington, DC, last April, I visited the Library of Congress’ Recorded Sound Research Center. After getting my library card (I didn’t know it was that easy!), I introduced myself to the librarians and explained my interests. “Do you know we have Subotnick’s Buchla?” a librarian asked. I immediately made an appointment to see the historic instrument.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Among the library’s reading tables, I carefully unpacked the racks and ancillary parts to see what was included. Within a few short minutes, I was staring at clumps of tangled wiring inside beat-up wooden racks: old-school circuitry, yet innovative for its time. (I’ve posted photos of the instrument at emusician.com.)
But what’s so inspiring about outdated circuitry in ratty old boxes? Without even powering up the system, the aesthetic choices that influenced its design—traceable to the interests of Don Buchla and Subotnick—were clear. As Subotnick explains in this month’s interview, his goal was to design an “instrument to make instruments,” and this dusty old relic was a reminder of early explorations into achieving that ideal.
Moreover, it was transformative to confront such high-order concepts through this ancient artifact, because it not only reminded me of my own interests, but also it demonstrated both how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go in creating musical interfaces that truly translate what we hear in our imagination to what others can perceive.