Don Buchla, 79, electronic music maverick
NEW YORK — Don Buchla, a pioneer and maverick of electronic music who had a lifelong fascination with the ways that humans, technology, and sounds interact, died Sept. 14 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 79.
His death was confirmed by his son, Ezra, who said the cause was complications from cancer.
Mr. Buchla was an instrument builder, musician, and composer. He conceived his instruments, including a voltage-controlled modular synthesizer, as tools for creating previously unheard sounds and gave them names like the Music Easel, Thunder, or simply the Buchla Box.
His inventions were prized for the flexibility and richness of the sounds they produced and the possibilities they suggested. Mr. Buchla disliked the term “synthesizer,” which suggested to him a synthetic imitation of existing sounds. He was best known for the many devices he designed for his own company, Buchla & Associates.
At least one sound from a Buchla instrument has been heard worldwide: the “pop and pour” sound created by the composer Suzanne Ciani and used in countless Coca-Cola advertisements.
In the 1960s, Mr. Buchla’s instruments represented what became known as the West Coast philosophy of electronic music: more experimental and less commercial, breaking away from tradition and virtuosity.
“I always figured that if I made something that was too popular, that was I doing something wrong and had best move on,” Mr. Buchla told the authors of “Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer” (2002). “And I’ve always enjoyed being on the edge.”
In the early 1960s, the better-known Robert Moog, who died in 2005, and Mr. Buchla arrived independently at the idea of a voltage-controlled modular synthesizer: an instrument assembled from various modules that controlled one another’s voltages to generate and shape sounds. Voltages could control pitch, volume, attack, timbre, speed, and other parameters, interacting in complex ways.
Mr. Buchla began designing his first instrument in 1963, but it was not completed until 1965. The first Moog prototype was unveiled in 1964.
On the East Coast, Moog built synthesizers that could be played from a keyboard, a configuration that working musicians found familiar and practical. Mr. Buchla, in San Francisco, wanted instruments that were not necessarily tied to Western scales or existing keyboard techniques. To encourage unconventional thinking, his early instruments deliberately omitted a keyboard.
Donald F. Buchla was born in South Gate, Calif., and grew up in that state and in New Jersey. He studied piano and discovered a knack for electronics, building radio sets. He studied astronomy, music, and physiology at the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated as a physics major in 1959.
Mr. Buchla grew interested in musique concrète, an experimental technique using recording tape to manipulate sounds, and worked at the San Francisco Tape Music Center as both a composer and a technician. In 1965, with $500 from a Rockefeller Foundation grant made to the Tape Music Center, the composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender commissioned Mr. Buchla to build his first voltage-controlled instrument, the original Buchla Box.
It included a module that would transform both avant-garde and popular music. Called a sequencer, it vastly expanded the concept and functionality of a tape loop by generating and repeating a chosen series of voltages, enabling it to control a recurring melody, a rhythm track, or other musical elements. It would become an essential tool of electronic dance music.
Subotnick used a Buchla Series 100 Modular Electronic Music System to create “Silver Apples of the Moon,” a 1968 album commissioned by Nonesuch Records. The composer Vladimir Ussachevsky ordered three for the studios of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (now the Computer Music Center at Columbia University). That order led Mr. Buchla to start his instrument factory, Buchla and Associates, in a Berkeley storefront so small that the instruments were often assembled out on the sidewalk.