An Interview With DonaldBuchla

An Interview
Donald Buchla
••, think thai elet!lronle terltllo.'"
oglJ oflerll .11 the p6l1l1ibilltfl 01
IIlconlng fJUrMe'vetl lro.. the
nerell.,tll 01 virtHollltfl, lfill"o.t
II/conin.g oUNJe'V#!8 1,..111 tlte
potlMlbllitfJ ollnulIlIl! .lId 1I1f!.....
IlIglul I"ternctlflft lfiith our
llill/rlu.elltll. n
musicians like Wendy Carlos, Keith
Emerson, Tomita, and Jan Hammer.
Buchla, on the other hand, was
himself a practicing musician and
composer. He's a self-proclaimed
avant-gardist and experimentalist,
and his instruments reflect those
He is opposed to the
concept of imitative synthesis to
the point that he doesn't even
like hsving keyboards on his instruments:
his concession is a
metal touch-plate system.
Dnald Buehla ia a classic
it's not surprising to him or
American loner -- a living realianyone
his instruments
zation of the all-too-mythical
have been embraced by artists on
individualist who follows his parthe sonic frontiers, such as Morticular vision despite all the
ton Subotnick, rather than the
obstacles, hardships, derision,
popular Plainstream.
and easy exits that are available
DeterlQined individualislQ can
to him.
Like Lewis and Clark,
becolQe self-righteous smugness
Buckminster Fuller, and Harry
with some artists, and Buchla has
Partch he flies against the winds
been almost willfully obscure in
of convention and sometimes, by
pursuit of his musical purity.
his very effort, changes those
More than one musician has told me
stories about trying to buy a
Donald Buehla makes electronBuchla instrument and actuslly
ic music instruments. And though
being turned down because Buchla
those instruments resemble what we
didn't think their music was seriknow as synthesi2:ers, and work in
ous enough.
much the same way, Buchla insists
Despite being an innovator of
that they are not synthesizers.
electronic music design, Buchla
He sees. each of his devices as
claims to know little about the
part of the larger electronic
actual technology in his creamusic instrument family. "Elections. "I don't care about cirtronic instruments are a family of
cuitry", he asserts. "I design my
instruments", he claims, "just
instruments from the outside in".
like the wind family, the brass
He speaks of music in terms of
family, or members of the string
language, gesture orientation, snd
interactiveness. He doesn't seek
Buchla began designing inthe touch-sensitivity of so many
struments for the electronic famikeyboard synthesists, but rather
ly when he was at the San Francisan almost cybernetic interface
co Tape Muaic Center in 1962. His
the body, mind, and inname and instruments are not as
strument. His own concert perforwidely known aa those of Moog,
mances entail audience interaction
Arp, or Prophet, but among those
with his computers. He relates
who know electronic instruments,
how at one concert he gave flashthe ~ame Buchla is one to reckon
lights to audience members, who
He's generally credited
then aimed them at a screen which
with arriving at the voltage con,triggered the instruments. With
trol modular synthesizer at the··
Buchla conducting and playing his
same time as Robert Moog.
instrument, it created a true
from that point on their parallel
feedback loop between artist sod
paths diverge.
Moog geared his
instruments towards a burgeoning
Buchla is now involved with
popular market that he in fact had
digital technology.
His newest
His instruments were
instruments, the 400 Series, detailored to the expressed needs of
part from hi8 modular de8igns and
contain everything, including 8
touch-plate keyboard and real-time
score editor, in a unit the size
of a medium 8uitcase. (The 406
Hodel has a more traditional
weighted clavier keyboard.) You
can create any waveShape imaginable with this instrument. During
a demonstration he gave me, one
waveshape looked like a coastal
map of Norway and sounded equally
jagged and complex.
After more than 20 years in
the vanguard, Buchla has evolved
an enigmatic personality that
tends to undercut his obvious
enthusiasm for his music and in8truments. His Sahara-dry humor
cuts through many of his often
cryptic answers, at once daring
and provoking further inquiries.
But he was also happy to talk
about his creations and verbalize
the concepts that are embodied in
a Buchla electronic instrument.
As he said, "I'm used to sitting
in my ivory tower and passing
schematics out under the door. I
don't get to talk about them that
much". Here, Donald Buchla talks.
John Diliberto:
When did you
start putting together electronic
componenU and synthesizers?
Donald Buehla: Electronic musical
instruments in about 1961-62.
JD: What were you working with
DB: Instruments of my own invention. They were an outgrowth of
my own personal need and acouatic
JD: So you came to it as a musician.
DB: Yes, as opposed to a technician.
What were the in8truments
that you were working with at the
DB: Well, the studio of the early
60s, the traditional studio, was
equipped with sn array of electronic instrUlllents, none of which
were designed to make music. The
concept of designing electronic
instruments was new at the time.
My firlt instrument was a device
that read the shape of the hand
and interpreted it as a waveshape.
It embodied the philosophy that
the ins trument had to be highly
interactive with the human being
who was playing it. It was a way
of transcending the limitations of
the instruDlents that I was acquainted with, which tended to be
Hewlett-Packard oscillators, Ampex
tellt equipment, borrowed World War
II gunli ..hr_ '1nd ,,"rl>
"I'", eOIlef!rned ,.,lIh 'angaage
a..d Inpat 8trueture ever" hit 08
".ueh a. 1'". wlleerned ,.,Ith
generative .trueiare."
JD: A lot of people feel that thi,:
recent generation of synthesizers
is still very non-interactive.
I'd say that'l generally
What then makea yourl l.nteractive?
DB: I'm concerned with language
and input structure every bit as
much as I'm concerned with generative structure.
JD: How doea that translate into
your electronic designs?
DB: It influencell the man-machine
interface, the way one communicstes with the instrument.
takes place at the tactile level
snd the language level.
It seemll that one of the
benefits of synthesi:/:ers is that
they have lIlade lIlusic more a function of the lIlind and less a function of tactile dexterity, something that has been the tradition
of music for hundred8 of years.
DB: Well you chose the word dexterity, I didn't.
I think that
electronic technology offers us
the possibility of divorcing ourselves from the necessity of virtuosity, without divorcing ourselves from the possibility of
intense and meaningful interaction
with our instrUlllents.
"I ,.,oa'''II't ea.1I a""thlng that
I',;e ballt, II ."nthesner."
When did you first start
designing whst you might call a
I)B: I wouldn't call anything that
I've built a synthesizer. I first
started designing members of the
e:lectronic falllily of instruments
in 1962.
JD: What differentiate8 what you
design frolll a synthesizer?
DB: A synthesizer, according to
?opular usage., is a keyboard inJtrument with the expectation that
when you strike a particular key
that you will get a particular
pitch. I would even extend the
expectation to having a certain
type of oscillator followed by a
filter and a gate, keyed by an
envelope with an expected rise
time, fall time, 8ult8in, and 80
I would expect II certain
imitative aspect to s synthesizer
-- i1llitative to the extent of
copying what we expect f-co'm percussive sounds of the world to
wl'ich we are accustomed.
"'I har,e a/wa.8 beell olft.lde and
I'r,e rhmlelt to I"@"'alnthere. I'r,e
been an e.l:perl",elttallsl "Inre
mil earl. ehlldhood."
JD: Why did you feel a need to go
outside these expectstions?
DB: Because I didn't fee 1 a need
to go inside them. I have always
been outside and I've chosen to
re1llain there. I've been an experimentalist since Illy early
chi ldhood. I've been interested
in avant-garde and experimental
music far more than I've been
interested in, as a COlllposer, more
traditional fo-cm and structure.
Hy instruments have reflected that
"'I gl"@w up IIurpr/8ingl" Igllol"
antol.ehai'l1all going on In other
ptmple'. ",••Ie."
"'...there are hu..dredll 01
thoulland. 01 people interested
In alternatlee modell 01 e..c pre..
JD: Who were some of the people
that you were listening to in your
eady days?
I grew up surprisingly ignorant of what was going on in
other people's music.
I was
ama:/:ed to find, in the early sixties, ·people in San Francisco that
were composing and experimenting
along lines that did not adhere to
the status quo. Since then I've
learned that there are hundreds of
thousands of people interested in
alternative modes of expresaion.
JD: Out8ide technology is still
having an effect on electronic
instrument design.
"'The advent til the nd~ro~o",·
puter hall renllg made It ptltfsl~
hie to "'ake the eleetronlr
medl.", aver" vlahle perl",..
manee ",edl.",."
"'Belt*re the ",ierowmputt!r, we
,.,ere verg limited a. pe,..
~ --------=-------AugusI1983
DB: The advent of the microcomputer has really made it possible to
make the electronic medium a very
viable perforlllance medium. Before
the microcomputer, we were very
I imited as performers. But no........e
have a flexibility that should be
admired by a player of .n instrument.
JD: the touch-plate. are something that is very much a.aodated
with your instruments. Why did
)'ou go to them instead of aome
other triggering device?
DB: Well, it's a cop-out, a compromise bet\leen the expectations
and demands -- the paychological
demands, at least - of the black
and \lhite keyboard versus the
generality of the sky-blue input
structure. It's easy to adapt to
the eJlpectationa that many of ua
have, and easy to tranacend those
same expectations with a keyboard
oriented in alightly known traditional \laya.
h''''''.M;r aM u;e klltJlr-lI I. rooled
III a gl'eal de.I ollradltio,., nlld
ill NUli.'a,,' 10 l!"a"ge 011 ,.allg
Ieee"'... "
JD: Your basic philosophy aeema
to be derived from a concept of
breaking a\lay fro'll any traditions
that pteceeded you.
DB: I would gues, so, yeah. My
o\ln interelts are in that direction. We're tr.dition bound. We
have Concepti of \lhllt music is,
and \lhat 11 and IoIhat ia not rouaic.
We h,ve virtuosity, that ia performanc:e technique, developed after yeara of atudy .nd centuriea
of tradition. We have in.truments
that have been refined .nd refined, generation after generation. So muaic as .... e kno .... it il
rooted in a great de.l of tradition, and ia resilt.nt to change
on roany levels: the inltrumental,
the performance, .nd the listening
I'm not well-rooted in
any of the traditions .nd I'd like
to inveatigate the sonic experience in a very gener.l w.y.
JD: 00 you think th.t electronics
are a better way of delving into
t'm not that involved with
the intricaciOl)a of .ound •• aOlDe.
1 puraue the inveatigationa of
timbre, but I'm lllore concerned
.... ith the investig.tion of musical
structure. I think that's where
more music liea, than with ....hat we
oight eall the atatic ti.brel.
'tou and Robert Hoog bea.n
instruments have been more orideveloping electronic instrumenu
ented to traditional concepts of
at abollt the same time.
music.l structure and mine to...ards
DB: Yila, \Ie both had our Itarts
non-traditional concepts. At one
.bout the same time. We both used
tillle ...e ...ere considered to be We.t
modular designs also. The idea of
coast versus Ealt coast and in
voltage control was lignificant in
,ome sense there is truth to that
that it allololed us the pouibility
Certainly ten or twenty
of discreetness in realml that
yeaI'I ago lllore eJlperitllent.tion
were other ... ise limited to contook place on the West coast than
Everybody's favorite
the Ealt coast.
osdll/ltor in 1961 was the HewJD: Electronic instrutllenta have
lett-PJlckard becaule it 10' • .1 very
changed since the first Hoog and
stable and predict.ble, and very
...ell cal ibrated. The big 1imita8uchl.a with their big patchbo/lrds
attached to a keyboard.
tion .... s accepted • • • o'llething
ideas have gone into thOle
th.t could never be tran.cended,
nalllely it had /I knob on it ao that
A lot of learning has gone
if you ",anted to go frolll 440 Hz to
do...n in t ...enty years. We've found
770 Hz you had to go through every
that certain kinds of structural
frequency inbet ...een. Conaequentinter.ctionl
can be assullIed. Cerly, to aake a juap in frequency
tain othera c/ln be taken over by
you had to spl ice a and put
the computer that control a the
the piecea together. As ailsple .a
innarda of our instruments, and
that aay seea, it \laa a very funcan be apecified in a ....y that can
d.mental limiUtioa of the daasimake changes in patches instancal studio. Voltage control .1taneous inatead of tedious. The
lo...ed lIs to generate and conceive
discreet changes in pitch, as
cOlllputer has .ade a lot of ch.nges
but it'a only a ItIlall part of it.
opposed to continuous changes. We
The language is the Illajor part of
can then extend that the voltage
it. The operative language behind
control of other parameters.
our in. truaent has taken over a
The concept of the modular
lot of the role of establiahing
design was the original concept of
the synthesizer, that is to aynthesizll the ...hole out of the aum
UT"eni,. lief.' '''e e.:s:citl.g pe81f1of the parts.
And the 1Il0dules
.""/e8 01 elel!Irollic ilUlt.rD·
were ttle partl.
If we needed a
_e.'S: '''e ifUJIa.talleo•• reo
lot of generators ...e would obtain
a lot of 1Il0dules th.t had genera,.appillg olllle N( .llip
tive hlnctions. If ... e wanted to
.elllleell illp.' geMtDre a"d 0.'.
do • l.~t of analysis, ... e ... ould
pDI re8poIIMe. u
obtain modules that did envelope
detecti,:on and perhapa filtering.
the relationship between input
If ...e ... ~nted rhythmic elelllents, \Ie
gelture and instrumental re"'ould ftring together. lot of
sequencers. So the lllodule. alJD:
What do you lIlean \lhen you
lo ... ed ua"to engross ourselves in
apeak of language?
different kinda of biues, depenD8: I like to regard an instruding on what we ... ere interelted
consisting of three major
in. If ... e ...anted ...e could emphapartl: an input structure that we
size the structure, or the density
contact physically, lin output
or processing capabilities venus
structure that generates the
the generative cap.bilities. It
sound, and a connection between
allo ...eq us interconnection at a
the two. The electronic falllily of
very important level, th.t i, the
instruments offers UI the I imiatructtiral level .II oppoaed to
tation, if we approach it tradisyltelllS that callie along shortly
tionally, and the freedolll if we
thereafter that made .11 kinda of
approach it in a ne ... way, of total
assumptions like the sawtooth
independence between input and
should precede the filter, ,hould
precede the envelope generator or " _ output. And in f.ct the necessity
of 'o...! .... y of generating a con... hatevllr. I don't even know how
nection between the t ...o. L.nguage
the typic. 1 aynthesizer has come
becolllea an illlporUnt aspect in the
electronic family of instruments,
JD: Ho... would you coapare your it h.d played no part ... ith
work to Moog's?
all traditional acoustic instruDB:
It's like coap.ring applea to
ments. The relationship between
oranges. Both of UI .re lIaking
input .nd output is fixed with
viable additiona to the ..uaical
traditional inatrulllents; it's toinstrument fa .. ily. I 'uppose hia
tally tlexible with electronic
instruments. It waa eatablished
by the aetting of knoba and routins of the patch corda in the
electronic instruaent of the 60s.
But in the electronic inatruments
of the 80s it ia eatablished by
human intelligence vorking throush
aophisticated electronics.
Therein lies the exciting posaibilitiea of electronic instrumenta: the instantaneous re.appins of the relationahip between
input gesture and output response.
We've only begun to investigate
this because of our own ignorance
and our dedication to tradition,
in that we continue to build electronic instruments with linear
sdditive input structurea, assuaptive connective atructures and
iaitative output atructurea.
JD: You talk about gesture orientation and interaction with the
instrwaent, yet touch-platea hardly aeem to give muaieians the
touch-aenaitivity that a lot of
them vant.
Thoae aame 18uaiciana are the
onea vho go into the storea and
say "I'm the keyboard player from
auch and aueh sroup and I'd like
to aee what you have in the way of
'synthesizers'." And the rock and
roll ayntheaizer expert ahowa all
the black and wbite keyboards and
aure enough, they're all springloaded keyboards with switches on
the other end. They're all organ
keyboarda and they're all adaptationa of aOlllething that waa developed to throw ha.mera at atrinsa.
It'a a really crude problem and
not too sraceful an answer.
That'a what theae guya have demanded, that'a what the .arketers
have picked up on, and that's all
we've got down there in ayntheaizer-Iand. These aallle suys tbat
are complaining that their $6,000
instrument doesn't make every
aound that they vant, that it
won't imitate anything, finally
,tart to realize that it really
will .ake any sound. But it won't
i.itate the muaical atructure of
the thing that they had in their
.inda that it would do. The rea.on that it won't do that is that
it only has a finite number of
pitchea and they're all designated
as pitchea. There'a no interaction between them.
It'. all a
very aimple linear-additive syatem
"I didn't e/a/", to Molr-e tlte pro"
Ie",. I'", i"st Itere to el.e/4ate
that doesn't lend it.elf to alternative musical StrUCture.. Did I
evade your question?
JD: Yes you did.
DB: 1 didn't clai. to solve the
problelll. I'. ju.t here to elucidate it.
JD: la it: a problem that you want
to .olve?
What I try to do ia
persuade aa many people as pouible that are in a position of
influencing our mu.ical heritage
and instrument de.ign, to look on
tbe pouibilitiea of the electronic family as a legitimate family
of musical instruments and not as
an imitation or a bastard or a
apace warl. We ahould have the
I,r.,. 4."
lle ••
•••• pe.ple . . ".__'6k tlt.t
.re I • • ".,,1l1•••,I.n.e.el••
• •r • • •'eallterlt••e ••4 i .
Olf tlte
"."./6I1ltiea 01 lite elee/
1_.11• •• a leglti• •/e ,.",11. 01
..../e.1 i""tr...elfls... "
a"lIt! variety of approache. in tbe
electronic faCllily as any other
family. Ji.t.. .hould stop compet.ini;
=~~ ~h~hP~~~~l~c'nid. ·bai:..n~
t ~
c r a ~ .i.lng toward ...
tat-1l'jlproache. and IllUSlc-at""t.
ao.ething that reflect. the
true pouibilitiea of the techno108)' at hand, a. well as the lIIu.ic
and creativity behind thelll.
""We .IIo.ld tile 1I11".,! "arle/••I.pproaelle" i" lite electro.le 1_.11• •• 'I• • oilier
I• •II•• ~'