Don Buchla

With the death of Don Buchla recently, his iconic synths have been on the minds of many. Our resident archivist rummages through his collection and highlights a selection of records made using Buchla’s quirky set-up

I’ve been using my Buchla system a lot on the record I’m making at the moment, and since Don Buchla died late last year it seemed like a good time to pull out all my Buchla records. To be honest, it’s very difficult to make it sound musical. The bigger the system, the more you get lost. It’s designed so you can set up a patch and walk away from it, and it just does stuff on its own. Nothing equals it for that. It’s all based on additive synthesis, and it can be very complex, but you can get some great sounds out of it.

Pauline Oliveros was a Buchla user, and sadly she also passed away recently. She was the director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, working alongside Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, and they commissioned Buchla to create a synthesiser for them. She recorded ‘Jar Piece’ in 1966, and it was released in 1968 on the album ‘Electronic Essays’, alongside tracks by John Rea and István Anhalt. It’s 15 minutes of Buchla experiments. It was re-released a few years ago as part of a 12-disc retrospective called ’Pauline Oliveros – Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970’ on Important Records. Another Buchla recording of hers is ‘I Of IV’ which features on ‘New Sounds In Electronic Music’ from 1967, which also has Steve Reich and Richard Maxfield on it. Later on, she focussed on her accordion playing, but her early work was all electronic.

Another famous Buchla user is Suzanne Ciani. I actually had her Buchla 200 series machine here in my studio for about 10 years. She lives quite close by in the Bay Area of San Franciso.

She had been recording at Toast Studio, which had been set up by Phil Steir, the drummer of Consolidated in the 1990s. She left her Buchla in the studio and when it closed some years later, Phil called her to pick it up. She didn’t want it and asked if he knew anyone who could use it, so it came to me. I got to know the instrument really well, and Don Buchla once paid a visit to check it out, so I got to hang out with him for a day. He was really interested in my EMS Synthi 100, because its creator, Peter Zinovieff, was pursuing similar ideas to Buchla in creating tools for experimental music.

I haven’t seen Suzanne for a few years, but she came over quite often and we became quite friendly. She’s quite fashionable again now. Finders Keepers did a record with her, and she’s been playing with Alessandro Cortini of Nine Inch Nails – he’s a Buchla freak. All her records from the 1970s and into the 1980s were made with the Buchla. In fact, she had two systems, and in the late 1970s she shipped them both to a studio in New York where she was going to record. Only one of them arrived, the other one disappeared.

In the late 90s some of the units from the second system turned up for sale. They had her name scratched on the backplates. She tracked them down and it turned out that an engineer in the studio had stolen them. It was a lot of money, but she’s a really, really nice person and was very cool about it.

The Swedish Electronic Music Studio in Stockholm used to have a really big Buchla system, and there was also a large one at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, so Ussachevsky and people like that used it. Buchla’s synths are unique, and were never widely adopted by bands – Kraftwerk never used one, for example – though that’s changing now, and more people are getting into Buchlas. I’d recommend exploring them.

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