Don Buchla, creator of the Modular Electronic Music System, the Electric Music Box and the Music Easel, among other synthesizers, died on September 14 at the age of 79. Buchla was also the designer of the sound system used on Ken Kesey‘s bus “Further.”
Buchla was a West Coast engineer who became associated with the innovative San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s. Trained as a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, Buchla worked on particle accelerators at the Lawrence National Laboratory. But he was also interested in electronic music, initially musique concrete, which he created with a one-track Wollensack tape recorder. After having attended concerts at the center he met founders Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, who were looking for an engineer to build an electronic “music easel” to replace tape as a medium for creating electronic sounds. Working with Subotnick and Sender, Buchla came up with a modular, voltage-controlled system that used touch pads rather than a keyboard. (Sender, trained as a pianist, had wanted a keyboard, but Subotnick argued in favor of the less conventional touch interface, which Buchla favored as well.) The system was finished in late 1964, predating Robert Moog’s synthesizer by a few months.
The Buchla was used to create classic electronic works by Subotnick, Sender and fellow SFTMC member Pauline Oliveros. Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, released by Nonesuch Records in 1967, was performed on a Buchla commissioned by New York University, where Subotnick had a residency after having moved from the West Coast in 1966. Subotnick’s classic electroacoustic work The Double Life of Amphibians, composed in the early 1980s, generated scores on tape (and later computer) by using a system of “ghost electronics” designed by Buchla to Subotnick’s specifications. The live electronics used to perform the piece were Buchla synthesizers. (The Double Life of Amphibians has been newly reissued on the Wergo label and will be reviewed here on Monday.)
Synthtopia has an obituary.