Published Sep 15, 2013Donald Buchla is one of the last great musical inventors. Spurred on by composer Morton Subotnick of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, Buchla developed his first control voltage synthesizer in 1963, around the same time as Robert Moog. However, Buchla is like the Nicola Tesla to Moog's Thomas Edison: where Moog tried to put synthesizers in every home, Buchla was more interested in experimentalism. As such, Moog hooked up a keyboard to his synths and made them more affordable, where Buchla went the route of unusual touch pads and controllers, while retaining every soldered connection of handmade quality.
In this rare public performance, the 76-year-old Buchla showed that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Sitting at the console of the Buchla 200e, he first performed a 16-minute audio/visual piece with the aid of a woman on a modified Yamaha piano, which appeared to be an organized improv. The visuals started with a dripping faucet, which multiplied and turned to streams, then footage of waterfalls, clouds, seagulls, and a section of assorted bird still shots zooming out to reveal themselves as photographic mosaics. As the visuals evolved, Buchla glided his fingers across his geometric Passive Frame touch interface, manifesting chaotic electronic emanations both ghostly and visceral, while the pianist provided flourishes, each performer evoking sounds and feelings that could be representative of the images in the video, to someone on DMT anyway.
After this, a dozen or so people joined Buchla onstage. A young boy handed out slide whistles and comically oversized mirror shades, which Buchla himself put on, though there was also violin, melodica, and Keith Wecker (V. Vecker) on sax. This mock ensemble proceeded to improvise over the sound of a frying pan full of popcorn, popping on a hot plate on a mic stand center stage. It was wacky shit, no doubt. This guy still has a sense of humour.
All told, the performance lasted about 23 minutes. After this, they showed a couple of video messages from composers Subotnick and Suzanne Ciani, who congratulated Buchla on the 50th anniversary of his first creation, followed by a Q&A period in which he was rather awkwardly questioned about his creative motivations, the Trips Festival of 1965 (when Owsley Stanley apparently spiked the ice cream with acid), the time Harry Partch locked him in his studio for a couple days to tune his microtonal instruments, and his interest level in dance music of the past 30 years (very low). Sure, there could have been information and performance, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend time with the master. Buchla has a history of reclusiveness, so being able to coax him onto a plane and getting him out at all was a huge feather in this festival's cap.