Monday, September 26, 2016

“I have always been outside, and I’ve chosen to remain there" - Don Buchla

Don Buchla, Musical Instrument and Control interface inventor, engineer, and unique visionary passed away this month at the age of 79. 

Don Buchla performing in San Francisco
Photo by Yotsuba&!

The NY Times obituary captures a bit of the flavor of his life and legacy and can be found here: 

I spoke with the man once and had the opportunity to see both he and his instruments and controllers perform in concert. He was drole, irreverent, quiet, and if you paid attention, funny. He eschewed the term "synthesizer" instead preferring to call his inventions "instruments" and even as he went away from traditional keyboard structures and western scale playing he always focused on the whole of an instrument as a vehicle to allow the player to make music. Indeed his most famous instrument was a portable collection of electronic mayhem he called the "Music Easel" which encouraged the user to mix colors of sound and paint something new. 

He wasn't a product of Hippie culture but he certainly contributed and drove it (literally and figuratively, he was behind the scenes in the Merry Pranksters and was on the famous van). He always lived and invented on the outside of what was expected both as a designer and in his business with financial gain being low on his list of priorities. During the beginning years of the analog synth revival he continued to focus on digital instruments that didn't make sound themselves but instead allowed users to play any instrument in a completely new and unique way.  His Marimba Lumina took midi controllers to a new level and created a percussion interface that could play crescendos and drones as well as hits and notes:

Not content to even touch an instrument Buchla invented the Lightening Controller which used space and area itself to create notes and dynamics:

Many people consider his return to designing and manufacturing boutique synthesizer modules as the culmination of his career and indeed his 200e system built upon and pushed his previous sound and interface designs further. I usually refer to modular synthesis as a "Masters Class" in synthesizer playing and if that's true then using a Buchla Modular is the doctorate program. Despite being perhaps the most complex and unusual instruments of their kind, Buchla steadfastly never wrote a manual for anything but the basics of how to turn on his modules instead insisting (and allowing) the user to make their own progress, mistakes, and discover new ways to "play" music in the process. 

My 200e System including DIY bits and bobs...

In his last few years Don Buchla experienced some health issues and sold most of his company and designs to the current Bucha Electronic Music Instruments (BEMI) company. Things did not flow smoothly and despite the initial praise and applauding of his vision one of the first products released was a more or less reproduction of the Music Easel from the 1960s. Despite the demand and interest in this instrument BEMI was plagued with production and quality control issues often taking thousands of dollars per unit in deposits from individual users and failing to deliver a working instrument for months or in some cases years. Don was never interested in repeating the past, only moving forward into the future and eventually something behind the scenes changed and he was fired from the very company that bears his name and sells his designs. A lawsuit he brought against BEMI was settled only a few months before his passing and the future of production and distribution at BEMI, while often promoted as being fine, is in an ongoing questionable state. 

Don Buchla didn't invite chaos but he also didn't impose order unless it was exactly what the user wanted. He opened notes, sound, and dynamics up for anyone curious (perhaps dedicated) enough to seek it out. His inventions - like the man himself some might say - were cranky, odd, occasionally misfired, and uniquely brilliant. Despite any earthly complications his legacy as a pioneer in art, sound, and space is not only secure but still waiting and encouraging us to explore what he left behind. 

Bleep and Bongo on.