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Come for the Stradivarius, Stay for the Buchla 100 Modular Synthesizer

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The Buchla 100 Modular Synthesizer. Photo by Pat Padua.

Earlier this week the Library announced this year’s inductees into the National Recording Registry. Among the inductees is Morton Subotnick’s “Silver Apples of the Moon,” a piece composed on one of the unlikely treasures of the Music Division’s instrument collection.

The following is a guest post by Steve Antosca,  a composer living and working in the Washington, DC area. He is Artistic Director of VERGE ensemble, modern music ensemble in residence at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and Artistic Director of the National Gallery of Art New Music Ensemble. His website is:

Several years ago, over coffee in his Greenwich Village home, Morton Subotnick and I discussed the documents, scores, sketches and electronic equipment he has accumulated over more than forty years of his historic career. At the time, Mort was contemplating what he would do with these materials.  Several options were available to him, and I suggested an additional one: donate it to the Music Division at the Library of Congress.

I have a close working relationship with Stephen Soderberg, Senior Specialist for Contemporary Music, and discussed with him the possibilities and details for arranging to have Mort’s materials donated to the Library. Materials to be donated included scores, sketchbooks, software materials, and Ghost hardware, as well as three categories of compositions: straight electronic compositions, the Ghost pieces, and multi-media works.

A significant outcome of this documentation was to be a series of interviews that Mort and I recorded at the Library of Congress studios in 2008. As we sketched the ideas for these interviews, we decided a noteworthy part of this discussion would center around re-creating and demonstrating the patches used in composing Mort’s seminal early electronic works “Silver Apples of the Moon [just named to the National Recording Registry] and “The Wild Bull.” These works were created using two Buchla 100 Modular Systems that Don Buchla built to Mort’s specifications in the mid-60s.

Photo by Pat Padua

The Buchlas were taken out of storage in Aspen, Colorado, and were shipped Eastward. When they arrived in the Music Division, Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford and I unpacked them with great anticipation and care. With trepidation and an eye on the ancient power supplies, I powered-up the pair. While there was no smoke coming from the back of the boxes, all was not immediately well. Through a bit of phone guidance from Mort, I was able to get both boxes running, but it was apparent that the 8-step and 16-step sequential voltage sources (sequencers) were not all firing properly.

Mort suggested having Tom Beyer at NYU, who maintains a Buchla there, examine the boxes, as well as replace a few missing lights on the sequencers. So I traveled to NYU where Tom patched the Buchlas. Mort and I returned the next day to the Library and began the first of the two series of interviews on his work in the late 50s and 60s in San Francisco with the Tape Music Center and in New York.

What’s in store for the future of the Buchlas includes a series of lecture/discussions by Subotnick with demonstrations on the Buchlas, which will be turned into podcasts and later a book with supplemental materials. In preparation for these events, several Buchla modules have been extracted from the original cases and sent to the Cantos Music Foundation in Calgary for cleaning and to be made road worthy. Mort is traveling in Europe with these in the summer of 2010.

Comments (7)

  1. I am restoring these systems. cool article!

  2. Nice! Pity you can’t install 60 working ones around DC.

  3. How wonderful to see that these historic instruments will be properly preserved for posterity!

  4. Thanks for the comments! Jerry is of course referring to the artist Luke Jerram’s installation “Play me I’m Yours,” in which he installed 60 pianos in public places around NYC. For more information on that project see

  5. dear mort: tour usa please.

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