Don Buchla: A Personal Remembrance

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Back in 2010, Electronic Musician magazine asked me to set up a roundtable discussion about trends in music controllers and synthesizers with several pioneers in the field of instrument design—Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, Roger Linn, David Wessel, Max Mathews, and Don Buchla. I had already chaired a panel discussion at the 125th AES Convention in 2008 with Smith, Oberheim, and Linn called “The Evolution of Electronic Instrument Interfaces: Past, Present, Future,” but now I would have the opportunity to explore the subject further with three additional innovators at the table.

At the time, these men would meet on a weekly basis for coffee and socializing near the U.C. Berkeley campus. Originally referring to themselves as the Dead Presidents Society (a reference to American currency, because most of the men having coffee had lost plenty of it during their careers, and in some cases the use of their names as business entities), they had by this time adopted the name The Breakfast Club. It was both intimidating and thrilling to be a fly on the wall at this klatch, but they were inviting and I relaxed once the conversation began.

As I wrote of that meeting later, "All six of these men have had a significant influence on our field, and it would’ve been easy to just let them tell war stories about the Golden Age of Electronic Music. However, my interest was in hearing what they had to say about the future—about issues that have yet to be addressed, despite the huge technological advances they have witnessed. And it didn’t surprise me that each of them had strong feelings about the subject, with, at times, wildly contrasting opinions."

The reason I bring this up is because, in both meetings—the AES panel and the roundtable—Don Buchla was invited but didn't take part in the general discussion. At AES, in fact, he chose to sit in the audience during the panel, then came over and chatted with me afterwards.

Similarly, in the context of the Breakfast Club, he remained silent throughout the group discussion but, after it concluded, bent my ear for almost an hour, expressing his thoughts about the various topics that came up earlier.

Looking back on these and other meetings with Don, I see them metaphorically in terms of his career as a musical instrument designer. His life's work doesn't just stand out from the crowd, it purposefully stands at the other side of the room. He had strong opinions about the potential of electronic instruments among many other topics, and he explored them on his own, for the most part; in his own way and on his own schedule.

As the owner of a business, he seemed to ignore the quarterly calendar cycle that corporations are slaves to. Rather, as an artisan, craftsman, theorist, and inventor, he worked on what he felt was important, or interesting, or what needed to get done, sometimes in the service of his own musical works. (When visiting his workshop to pick up the 200e system for review, I spied a couple of modules I hadn't seen before. "Oh, those are for a piece I'm working on" was all he would say about them.)

And like his instruments in general, Don wasn't a crowd pleaser, so to speak. You always interacted with him on his terms, when he wanted. If you asked him questions in a casual context, you might get 1-word answers…if you were lucky. But when he did have something to say to you, you knew it: He'd run so many concepts by you that you didn't notice the hours passing by. The couple of times I had a recording device handy to capture his thoughts, I felt lucky, because it would be difficult to remember everything he said due to the richness of the subjects.

So to honor the memory of a man who was as brilliant as he was enigmatic, and to give you an idea of what it was like to talk with him, here is an excerpt of my interview with Don after the Breakfast Club's group discussion.

"I’ve developed a great number of controllers and control techniques. The breakdown is that the ones that are accepted, and used, and developed further are those that are most closely linked to the thought. It’s amazingly illustrated [by this story]: I work a lot with bionics, usually with amputees. I was impressed by what a woman said to me just three days ago. She no longer has to think about picking something up. She no longer has to think about a movement. She just moves—that is the word she used. She just moves her arm when it happens. She doesn’t think about it up front.

"If you plan an instrument, you don’t want to think about it. The things that contribute to thinking about it and then playing are, 1. latency, obviously, and 2. non-familiarity with the process and the outcome of the process.

'The gesture has to be spatially relevant. The percussionist is a good example. I don’t agree with David [Wessel]’s observations. I think the percussionist is the last person that’s going to embrace technology, primarily because of latency, and because of the usefulness of tapping a thing, like a table, and hearing the sound immediately come from the table. You don’t hear it come from a speaker up there. You hear it come from the table. And it sounds like a table, and its decay time is natural. We learn about those things since birth—how things should sound in nature. And we can create new sounds, but nevertheless, they obey the old laws. They sound, now, when we touch. It goes, now. It doesn’t go 10ms later.

"You see jazz groups fall apart on a stage that is too wide, because the pianist can’t hear the drums, or because there is too much latency there. They can’t play in time. It’s essential to music. (Much music, not all music.) But we have that immediacy and that’s what I think makes a successful controller. It preserves the immediacy that we’re familiar with, and we’ve grown up with."

Listen to Buchla talk about Leon Theremin's Bay Area visit during NAMM's Oral History project

Read Don Buchla's 1982 interview in Keyboard magazine: The Horizons of Instrument Design