The Electric Heat of Creativity—Remembering Donald Buchla (1937-2016)

Donald Buchla and I remained close for 53 years, although for about 30 years, the friendship was without the virtual electric connection we had in the early days. But he showed me how his new 200e worked and I took it with me to Europe on tour. At the end of the first concert there, for an encore, I looked at the 200e, made a few adjustments, and it was as if it was 1966 in my studio on Bleecker Street.  I was ecstatic; the audience was ecstatic. Since then until his recent death, we shared again, that wonderful electric heat of creativity.

Written By

Morton Subotnick

In 1962-63, in a vacated Elizabethan house on Russian Hill, Ramon Sender and I joined our equipment to make a shared studio; this became The San Francisco Tape Music Center. After the house burned down in 1963-64, we moved to Divisadero Street where we spent days and nights wiring a patch bay console we had got in the AT&T graveyard; we needed to tie all our equipment together. A bit like Dr. Frankenstein, we were putting all kinds of discarded equipment together to create an instrument that would allow for the composer to be a “studio artist.” The device or devices could not have an interface that was associated with any traditional music making, especially not a black and white keyboard.  It would have to have the capacity to control all the musical dimensions as equal partners. We thought, we talked, and we read. Our first imagined system came from what we knew about graphic synthesis.

A bit like Dr. Frankenstein, we were putting all kinds of discarded equipment together to create an instrument that would allow for the composer to be a “studio artist.”

We knew the work of Norman McLaren and were aware of many of the other experiments taking place. Drawing seemed like an intriguing approach to a personalized music maker.

We outlined the following process:

• Create a pattern of holes on a flat round disc
• Spin the disc with a variable speed motor.
• Pass light through the rotating disc.
• Convert the resulting light pattern to sound by placing a photo cell to receive the light pattern passing through the disc.

A pattern could be made for each sound; the size of the pattern would represent amplitude; the shape would result in timbre and the speed of rotation would be some kind of frequency change.

Our soldering skills, starting from zero, quickly grew to modest, but, alas, never to excellent nor even good.  Where and how were we to start?

Instead of continuing our Frankensteinian kludge 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. 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 described what we were after.  The fellow seemed interested and, after waiting several days without another answer to the ad, he was the only one we had. So we gave him a key to the studio and told him to go ahead and see what he could do.  On arriving at the studio the next morning, we were horrified to discover that he had cut a bunch of wires in the back of our newly wired patch-bay. We took back our key and began the tedious task of putting the patch bay back together.

A short time later, another engineer appeared. He seemed quite normal; that is, he appeared to see and hear in appropriate ways.  We presented our idea and, quietly, he 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 flash light, a small loud speaker, and a small amount of circuitry. He turned it on, and it made a nasty sound!!! Amazed and thrilled, we declared, “It Works!” And he dryly responded, “Yeah, but this isn’t the way to do it.”  That was the arrival of Don Buchla!

A handwritten drawing on a piece of graph paper showing the foot pedal, motor, lamp, lens, and audio output for the light synth.

Don Buchla’s original drawing of the Light Synth

After this, Ramon went on to work on upgrading the studio and I immersed myself in the task of understanding what Don was talking about. He introduced me to the world of voltage control. An entirely new vocabulary was suddenly entering my ears.  The only vocabulary I had for musical sounds were a handful of Italian words—piano, forte, crescendo. This new vocabulary consisted of words from outer space—transistors, resistors, capacitors, diodes, and integrated circuits.  Don was “the man who fell to earth.”

I bought the Navy manual on electronics, but, after starting it, realized that I had to take a step back and get some basics and bought the Navy manual on electricity!  The bedtime reading was intense. After a few weeks of the basics of electricity, I plunged into the manual on electronics.  After a bit of scanning and surface exploration, I found myself struggling with that new vocabulary of transistors and diodes. It took a lot of aspirin [for the nightly headaches] and searching, to be able to follow what Don was explaining.  The long nights morphed from struggling with the steepest learning curve I have ever experienced to a dialog between myself and Don in an attempt to conceptualize a new composer’s creative tool. With Don’s help, even with only a rudimentary understanding of electronics, it was possible to see the power of control voltage as shaping the energy of musical gestures.  Traditionally the result of the fingers on the keyboard, the arm energizing the bow that energizes the strings of a violin, the air blown into a flute, could be understood as metaphors for gesturally-shaped control voltages. It was elegant; it appeared to satisfy the characteristics of all musical dimensions; pitch, amplitude, timbre, timing, and—a brand new dimension—spacial positioning.

With Don’s help, even with only a rudimentary understanding of electronics, it was possible to see the power of control voltage as shaping the energy of musical gestures.

The idea, suddenly, and without aspirin, was coming into focus. We 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 looking 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 analogue computer-like music making machine. It was all on paper. We would need $500 dollars for him to make 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 with the entire machine. At the bottom of every module it read, “San Francisco Tape Music Center, Inc.”  I was upset that we were suddenly in “business”; “OK” he said, and the next ones he made were called “Buchla and Associates” and the now historic Buchla 100 was born.

Within a few weeks of the delivery and public unveiling of the 100, I moved to New York and installed a large 100 system.  There I worked (played, really) with it continuously creating Silver Apples of the Moon and The Wild Bull.  My relationship with Don remained constant, but now, over the phone. I kept finding things that we had not considered or just plain got wrong.

He would say, “I just made a new envelope generator with a pulse out at the end of the envelope.”

“Great, how soon can I get it?”

Don: “I have already mailed it to you.”

I would call him and say, “Could you make a module that would allow me to convert my voice into a control voltage?”

Long pause. No doubt he was looking at the ceiling.

“I have made that.”

A week later one of the first envelope followers arrived and, in addition to knobs, I could use my voice and finger pressure to control all the dimensions of music.

The Buchla 200

The Buchla 200

Within a few years of back and forth additions to the 100, he went on to make, what many of us consider to be the Stradivarius of analog machines, the Buchla 200.

Many of us consider the Buchla 200 to be the Stradivarius of analog machines.

Don had an unusual genius in the creation of interfaces. In adapting our hands to a rectangular piano keyboard, it takes the first several years to master the art of using the thumb. It made sense as the evolution of music and musical instruments morphed together through time.  But, with the explosion of electronic technology in the second half of the 20th century, we no longer needed to be bound to music or the instruments of those traditions; yet the piano keyboard was brought forward and became the instrument for the new technology.  As McLuhan said, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”  Don’s answer to a new interface for a new music was Thunder, his ergonomic interface.

A photo of Buchla's Thunder interface

Buchla’s Thunder

It went on and on, but for me, the three most revolutionary interfaces were: Thunder; Lightning, a baton that could be waved in the air producing a “joy stick” X, Y array of voltages; and his “Kinesthetic Multi-Dimensional Input Port Module with Motion Sensing Rings” that produced X, Y, Z control voltages.

For me, the three most revolutionary Buchla interfaces were Thunder, Lightning, and the Kinesthetic Multi-Dimensional Input Port Module with Motion Sensing Rings.

After a lifetime of designing and building, Don went back to his masterpiece of the 1970s to create the 200e. He had been eager for me to have the 200e but I resisted.  In 2010, my opera Jacob’s Room was going to get its premiere in Austria.  The sponsors wanted me to make a short European tour of solo performances with the video artist, Lillevan, who had done the live video for the opera, but from the late ’80s, I had made a transition to computers and stopped performing in public. So I decided to give the 200e a spin and flew out to spend a few days with Don as he showed me how it worked and I picked the modules I thought I could use.

I took it with me to Europe to tour with Lillevan and made a patch in the hotel the first night I arrived.  With no real time to work with the 200, I had decided to work mostly with sound files on my Mac using Ableton but maybe still use the 200e in some way.  Our first concert was at the Modern Art Museum in Liechtenstein. I did the whole performance with only the Mac, but at the end of the concert, the audience kept cheering, “How about an encore?” Lillevan said. “An encore?! I had never done an encore, what could it be?”  I looked at the 200e, made a few adjustments to the patch and said, “Let’s do it.”  It was as if it was 1966 in my studio on Bleecker Street.  I turned and knobs even repatched as I played.  I was ecstatic; the audience was ecstatic.

Don and I had remained close for 53 years, although for about 30 years, the friendship was without the virtual electric connection we had in the early days.  But since that performance in Liechtenstein until his recent death, we shared again that wonderful electric heat of creativity.

A group of six musicians playing very bizarre looking instruments.

Don’s “popcorn” performance at the 1980 Festival of the Bourges International Institute of Electroacoustic Music.

Ramon and I had brought Don home from the hospital after his cancer treatment and I began to fly out regularly to be with him and his wife Nannick Bonnel. He was determined to live as fully as he could for as long as he could.  Early in his recovery when he was home from the hospital but still not able to walk, I remember calling him from the airport to tell him that I was on my way up to see him in their hilltop house in Berkeley.  My greeting was, as always, the idiotic “How are you doing?”

“Great!” he said, “I just got back from a walk.”

“A walk?” I said in true amazement, “My God! I would have trouble walking on that incredibly steep hill. Where did you walk?”

“Oh,” he answered proudly, “I walked from the bedroom to the kitchen; it didn’t take so long!”

We both laughed.

Over the next several years, with a lot of help from Nannick, he got himself around. Every time I performed in the Bay Area, I stayed with them and he came to performances.  He also did his own performances from time to time and traveled up until the last few years.

Donald Buchla (left) and Morton Subotnick at NAMM.

The picture above is at the NAMM show when he was signing on to a company that would be selling his equipment.  He continued to create complex imaginative modules, the last one being the “Polyphonic Rhythm Generator”; a set of interconnected rings of sequenced pulses which was his homage to the great North Indian Tala tradition! He just kept going.

Toward the end he began using a walker. When I came out to visit, he wanted to go to the Berkeley Museum. It was a very rainy few days, but he walked, one tiny slow step at a time, to their car. Nannick got his wheel chair into the rear while I helped him into the car. I tried to help him, but he waved me off fiercely as he pulled himself slowly from the walker into the front seat.  We went to the museum and I wheeled him from painting to painting; bringing him as close as possible to every painting so that he could see it.

After that, we decided to go to a movie! Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. It was at a theatre in Berkeley on the 2nd floor without an elevator.  While Nannick found a place to park the car, Don and I walked up those stairs, one painful step after another.  In the theater we had to go up again to get a seat. He sat forward staring at the screen, trying to comprehend and see. After we began the painful steps down.

I saw him again a few months later; Joan was able to make the trip with me. Don was clearly deteriorating rapidly. He wanted to go out to a restaurant where we could see the sunset over San Francisco.  We went, even more painfully, wheelchair to walker, step by step.

He finally gave into the big sleep.  Rest well, my dear friend!

Morton Subotnick and Donald Buchla

One of the last photos of Morton Subotnick and Donald Buchla together.