For those who do not know, Don Buchla died on Wednesday September 14, 2016. He is of course one of the simultaneous co-inventors of the modern synthesizer. He was a beloved figure in the modular synth and experimental music community.
Buchla’s synthesizers were the instrument of choice for many women I have personally admired as composers and artists, specifically Suzanne Cianni and Laurie Spiegel. Laurie in fact divulged some of her experiences with Don Buchla and Suzanne Cianni in New York in the early 1970s.
People really do not grasp how often the people who do play modular electronic instruments often know their makers on some level, either personally, or through correspondence. These experiences and interactions often touch people closely who play these instruments. Don knew many musicians in his life because he was an active experimental musician himself, and he developed friendships that lasted a lifetime. He will be deeply missed by his friends and family.
I have written about synthesizers extensively at this point, but I think it is time to bring up electronic music itself. While electronic dance music has exploded in popularity, I think when one approaches electronic instruments they should not feel limited to making such music. The beauty of electronic music is the fact it can be expansive in scope, it has unlimited potential. One can approach synthesis as a way to make music one loves, or to expound the boundaries of what is considered music.
Electronic music has modern classicists like Wendy Carlos and Suzanne Ciani, it also has deep roots in the Avant Garde. In fact much of early Avant Garde music was produced with electronic instruments and techniques. The technological innovation of these instruments was coming out of participants in the avant-garde community. Some of these instruments were solely created by and used by composers, Daphne Oram’s Oramics synthesizer being a prime example. Others, like Don Buchla’s modular synthesizer found a wider commercial market. The intent of both the instrument maker and those playing the instruments was to push the boundaries of music with these new concepts, and to create unique sounds and experiences.
Electronic music works within the bounds of existing and potential technology for sound. This can be as simple as a tape player, or as complex as an artificial intelligence. The reality is there really is no right way to make electronic music, and no wrong way. There may be a right way or wrong way to operate equipment, but that is all. Electronic music does not have to follow the constraints of notes, rhythm, and melody. Musique Concrete, noise, and drone are all legitimate forms of musical expression, in electronic music. As such synthesizers can take on many forms, and the instruments themselves can become as abstract and strange as the music. Music is nothing more than intentionally presented sound, how that music is intentionally presented is only limited by invention and imagination. What the listener gets out of these sounds comes from our pattern matching biases as a species. which is by in large, subjective.
What an electronic musician does is use technology to present that sound of intent. This can be to evoke a response, such as fear or agitation, or to make a person dance by presenting a structured melody and rhythm. While traditional musical knowledge can help in that presentation, so does learning how to use the underlying technology and it’s limits.
My Own Musical Philosophy and Approach
For the past few years I have had an electronic music project myself called PraxisCat, here is a sampling.
I should note, I composed much of this album on a unique modular/semi-modular instrument made for me by Peter Blasser of Ciat-Lonbarde called a Dousk. My interest in modular synthesizers largely stems from having instruments that match both my workflow and philosophy, the dousk is one of the primary instruments I play these days.
My own music is not notational, it is more sculptural, organic, or mechanical. It is laid out in a forest of patch cords, or waves on my computer screen, and the effects I use to refine my sound. The goal is not to even have a clear structure around the music I present. I embrace the more chaotic and unpredictable elements of music to present a mood, feeling, or even a sense of place.
I have a very good understanding of my instruments and how they work and can sound, this is especially true with my synthesizers. I have also been playing musical instruments for years, and took years to develop the music I make now. I have a pure obsession about learning about synthesis and sound design, and have very clear concepts of the type of music I wish to make. While I do take on some aspects of musique concrete, ambient, and radiophonics,but I am not limiting myself to that history, or those constraints. While I bring chaos into my compositions, that does not mean I do not interlace it with melodies, and more rythmic elements to bring a sense of order or beauty.
I am an avant-garde composer and musician, and I compose and perform with musical happenstance, sequences, and noise. The point is to present the beauty in the seemingly random, or just as often, to make weird and interesting music.
The documentary on Suzanne Ciani reached it’s kickstarter fundraising goal. This is great news, Ciani was one of the earliest adopters of modular synthesizers. She is also one of the most prolific synthesists in the film industry ever. In addition to being a composer, her ability to sound design is in fact legendary. She is most associated with her beautiful compositions using an early Buchla modular synthesizer system. Like Laurie Spiegel, she worked closely at one point with Max Matthews.
The one depressing thing that does not get mentioned with the fundraiser, is there were likely more women involved with the music technology and modular synthesizer community back when Ciani started then there are today. The community was much smaller back then, but there were a number of high profile women composing and recording with synthesizers between the 1960s-1980s. There actually seems to be fewer women playing modular synthesizers, even though they are more widely available. While people like a Ciani who laid the groundwork for modern synthesists, in some ways it feels like things have not improved much in terms of women’s involvement.
My hope is this documentary further raises the profile of the early women synthesists, and maybe encourages a few to pick up a patch cord.