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Don Buchla has died

Electronic instrument designer and Buchla Series inventor dies aged 79

Synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla died on 14 September, announced music historian Mark Vail via Facebook. Buchla, also an instrument designer, is best known for his Buchla Series.

Born in South Gate, California, in 1937, Buchla graduated with a physics degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960. By 1963 he had constructed his first voltage-controlled synthesizer. This original Buchla Music Box, or Series 100 as it was also known, was commissioned by electronic music artists and San Francisco Tape Music Centre members Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick, and consisted of several modules which could be patched together to create different patterns. In the 1970s he developed the Buchla 200 series Electric Music Box and the first digitally controlled analogue synth called the Buchla Series 500. 1972 saw the invention of a portable all-in-one synthesizer called The Music Easel and the first MIDI Buchla as released in the late 1980s. In the 1990s Buchla moved beyond sound generation to MIDI controllers and updated analogue synthesizers.

Susanne Ciani is one of many contemporary electronic musicians and composers to have worked with Buchla’s devices. She recently recalled her work with him in The Wire 391 Invisible Jukebox. “We have a long history. I worked for Don after graduate school. My dream was the Buchla. I devoted my life to the Buchla. That was my world for ten years. And it was hard.

“Eventually I had to stop,” she continues, recalling her tempestuous relationship with the synth. “Because I had... I guess you can call it a nervous breakdown. When the machine broke I was so bereft that it was killing me. The machine I loved wouldn’t work. It was traumatic. I’d send it back to Don, he’d fix it, he’d send it back and it’d be damaged in transit. Then we tried to hire someone in New York to fix it and they couldn’t. I had the head of an engineering society ready to be trained on the thing but Don’s schematics were so personal that, frankly, no one could understand them. The documentation wasn’t recognisable.

“When I lived in New York, Don sent me a Music Easel. He said, ‘Why don’t you buy this?’ But when I received it I thought it was ridiculous. I was playing this big modular thing and here he sent me this tiny thing and I just didn’t want it. I wanted to send it back but I couldn’t. I actually told him, ‘You lied to me. I didn’t know what this was.’ And we ended up having a legal thing. Yikes. Yeah. So, I was never a Music Easel person. But I see it now in the prism of modern electronic life and, you know, Alessandro Cortini does beautiful things on it. Kaitlyn [Aurelia Smith] does beautiful things on it. But it’s not for me. It’s not my DNA. I’m modular.”

Buchla is survived by his wife Anne-Marie Bonnel, his musician son Ezra Buchla, and his two daughters Erin Buchla and Jeannine Serbanich.