Todd Barton

music, composition, buchla synthesis

8 — Don Buchla: Musical Genius

don-buchla                                       Don Buchla: Musical Genius    1937-2016

“Our goal was to create an instrument for performance. One with a vocabulary that was varied, accessible, and not presumptive. We weren’t particularly interestedin imitating any extant instruments, either functionally or acoustically. We did want the potential for expressive, real-time performer-instrument interaction.”  Don Buchla, Easel Manual, 1974

Don Buchla’s love of music and engineering is legend. Countless engineers, designers, scientists, and synthesizer builders have spoken of Don’s design genius.

I, as a composer/performer, would like to offer my perspective on Don’s musical genius. It seems to me that he has imbued his instruments with musicality. The deeper I delve into his modules the more an innate sense of this musicality arises. By musicality I mean the elegant, evocative, gestural and dynamic way his circuits shape, sculpt and massage sound. It is “musical” in the largest sense of the word, a frame so big that it can hold all styles of music past, present and future. In Don’s own words:

I try to design in such a way that things are pretty wide open in a modular system. I don’t expect any compositional style.

How can a circuit be “musical”? As a composer I want an instrument that gives me single, fingertip control over many sonic parameters. Not unlike the continuous variable fingertip control a violinist has over the many parameters of his or her instrument.

A violin, for instance, has a high factorial of interactive parameters: the vibrating string, the vibrating wood of the body and bridge, the sympathetic vibrations of the other strings, finger position, finger pressure, bow positions (anywhere from the frog and bridge to the fingerboard), bow articulations (at least 20-30 named articulation techniques: pizzicato, tremolo, sul tasto, senza vibrato, glissando etc.), bow pressure, et al. Violinists take years, maybe decades, to learn and perfect their skills to be able to spontaneously make performance decisions to express their musical message to themselves and an audience.

The hallmark of a Buchla module is a huge factorial of interactive parameters that can shape, sculpt and massage a single note (or “string” if you will). For example, the 291e Triple Morphing Filter has no less than 43 interactive parameters (that is 43 factorial which = 60415263063373835637355132068513997507264512000000000 possible combinations). This rivals an acoustical instrument. And, to truly utilize its expressive power can take years to master. Oh, and did I mention that the 291e is not only a set of 3 filters it can also serve as 3 VCOs, 3 VCAs and an eight-stage sequencer x3.

This freedom of choice and organic interaction of parameters that Don Buchla has offered the composer is, to my mind, a stroke of musical genius.

The simplest example of a Buchla “musical” gesture would be the combined functions of the Low Pass Gate found on the Music Easel. A single fingertip slider control affects 3 parameters: the depth of attack, volume and filtering. It is deceivingly simple, the patch needing only one patch cord and one shorting bar.

In the above example I smoothly swept from low to high position. If I stopped the slider along the way each position would reveal an interactive constellation of musical parameters to be further explored. I submit that: it is Don’s musicianship that comes to play in designing a circuit whose interactive energy curves blend and respond in a musical way.

To do the same on a Standard Model synth (as defined in my Buchla Blog Musings) it would take three hands and many more patch cords to continuously vary the attack, volume and filter parameters rather than a single slider.

Sidebar: one could argue that you could just gang things together in the Standard Model and have it all controlled by a ribbon controller or a Rene or Pressure Points etc. However, such a patch would be much more complex (even more patch cords) and not as elegant and gesturally subtle.

Of course the most flexible continuous controller in the Buchla paradigm is the 222e:


(For more information on the 222e explore these links:  222e as JoystickLive Exploration)

Another “musical” aspect of Buchla modules, or as Allan Strange called them, instruments, is the assumption that the user will take the time to explore and discover how the instrument unfolds and responds to his or her musical strategies and techniques.

Like a store-bought trumpet or violin the Buchla instrument doesn’t come with an in-depth user’s guide. If you never played a trumpet or violin your first challenge would be to make a sound! This would entail learning to get your lips to vibrate properly in the mouthpiece of the trumpet, or your arm, wrist and hand to work the bow in coordination with the violin strings. It takes much trial & error, patience & frustration just to get even a marginal sound. A Buchla instrument, in my experience, is no different: it takes weeks, months and years to learn the basics and then harness the potential for musical expression. And, like a great violin or trumpet the rewards are endless. It is a process of self-discovery.

One final thought on the musicality of Don’s circuits: even his random circuits seem to produce a kind of music almost on their own. To me they seem to breathe with and “phrase” sounds.  Here are a few self-generating examples using the Buchla Source of Uncertainty:

If you are interested in the structure of this patch go to Building the Krell Patch.

Though I have made an analogy between acoustic instruments and Buchla analog instruments that is all it is, an analogy. By no means do I equate the two.

The violin developed out of specific historic styles of music. The Buchla modules developed out of a quest to create a musical instrument designed to explore a music not yet heard! As Morton Subotnick has remarked, “I (Morton) was looking for this thing that was different from anything we ever had before that would be creating a new music . . . Don created something that never existed before . . . it was magic.”

And, to my way of thinking, it was and is . . . musical and genius.

p.s. and clearly Morton Subotnick discovered that musicality of modules early on and showed us a whole new universe of sounds and music.

for more on Buchla instruments:

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