Features & Columns

Electronica Trailblazer Don Buchla Leaves Legacy of Sound

Don Buchla, the legendary modular synthesizer pioneer, passed away
last week at the age of 79
Don Buchla had a reputation as a contrarian troublemaker keen on pushing buttons beyond just his music. Photo courtesy of Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments

Don Buchla, the legendary modular synthesizer pioneer, passed away last week at the age of 79. Anyone currently playing a synthesizer, tweaking electronics for sound generation or making any sort of modern-day electronic keyboard music has Buchla to thank, at least partly.

While Bob Moog was the first one to officially release a modular synthesizer as a commercial product, Buchla was probably the first one to envision modules with the intention of assembling them together into a live performance instrument.

As an engineer and a musician, Buchla was a daring, ornery innovator with a keen sense of what avant-garde musicians, composers and performers might want. His modular electronic music systems forever changed the way sound is created and controlled. He also built the PA rig used on Ken Kesey's Merry Prankster bus.

I never knew Buchla personally, but we were at the same party or dinner table a few times in the '90s. My music professor at San Jose State, Allen Strange, wrote the first electronic music textbook and knew Buchla for decades. They were both members of the Electric Weasel Ensemble during the '70s. The first music class I ever took at SJSU featured Allen showing us how an old Buchla system worked, using patch cords to connect oscillators, ring modulators, filters and other devices. That Buchla machine was a behemoth of an instrument, seemingly always in states of disrepair, yet it was a great intro to the guts of how commercial synthesizers worked.

As a lowly undergrad, this felt like receiving holy transmissions. The lineage of sound and noise and musical outlaw invention was being passed down, via Buchla and Allen, straight to us. The rest of the students were barely technologically literate enough to use a word processor, so those of us patching oscillators to bandpass filters using banana plugs and creating sonic rackets that shook the doors of the studio soon became the outcasts of the whole building.

On another front, this was right as Buchla was releasing his original Lightning and Thunder alternative MIDI controllers—again, ideas way ahead of their time. This was also right at the beginning of the era when dance music people first began to culturally appropriate the term "electronic music" and co-opt it into something entirely different. But that's a different story.

Above all else, in those classes, Allen emphasized that Buchla was a contrarian troublemaker who went against the grain, a radical innovator who wasn't cut from the same cloth as "those East Coast guys." He didn't build circuits just to put knobs and keyboards on them. He was interested in non-Western tunings and musical performance interfaces that didn't yet exist. Right now, in 2016, we're probably only a few years away from augmented reality-based musical interfaces. Once that finally happens, those technologies might likewise be traced back to ideas Buchla innovated. Possibly.

My most hysterical memory of Buchla occurred in 1992, when the SJSU music department hosted the International Computer Music Conference. I rotated between sound crew, stagehand and various gofer duties. We put on two concerts a day in Morris Dailey Auditorium and almost a week's worth of tech for 100 different compositions that required different microphone arrangements, computer equipment configurations, homemade electronics, cabling, adapters and other scenarios for 16 hours a day. It probably took a year off my life.

One performance piece featured Buchla along with a few friends, and for some ridiculous reason they needed a 5-pin DIN extension cable 20 feet long. We didn't have one. Don handed me a 20-dollar bill and asked me, the student stagehand, to go to a store and find the right cable. I acted happy to oblige and scurried down to the Radio Shack on First Street—just north of where Billy Berk's is now—but they didn't have the cable. I was out of luck. So I went back to the gig, mission unaccomplished, and returned the 20 bucks. Ever since then, my memories of that Radio Shack are inseparable from Don Buchla.

Now, both are no longer with us, yet both were institutions that left a serious mark on downtown San Jose.