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Unboxing the Buchla Model 100

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The following is a guest post from Ted Gordon, a PhD student in Music History and Theory at the University of Chicago. Last month Ted visited to study our Buchla System. It was the first time many of the staff had seen the Buchla brought out for a researcher, so we knew photographs and a blog post were in order.

PhD student Ted Gordon standing next to the Buchla Model 100, part of the collections of the Music Division, Library of Congress. December 2015.
PhD student Ted Gordon standing next to the Buchla Model 100, part of the collections of the Music Division, Library of Congress. December 2015.

In the musical instrument collection at the Library of Congress, the Buchla Model 100 is a bit different than the historical woodwinds and strings. Its materials are similar—wood, stainless steel, metal wire; but how those materials are configured to make music, with the help of electricity, is worlds apart. It consists of two large wooden cabinets, each filled with modular racks of electronics; a separate miniature 3-slot rack; and a separate, 12-keyed “Touch Controlled Voltage Source Model 112”. Its front panels, much like those found on contemporaneous computers and control system interfaces, contain knobs, push-buttons, switches, three colors of jacks, and several blinking lights, all embossed with symmetrical signal path diagrams. Its colors—dark cherrywood cabinets, stainless steel panels, black knobs, forest green font, red indicator lights, and red, black, and gray cables—suggest a functional, but refined design philosophy, equally identifiable as high-end laboratory equipment or high-end home stereo electronics.

This enmeshing of technological design and experimental music forms the core of my dissertation project, which examines the techno-scientific ideologies of experimental music in the post-war era. The Buchla Model 100 sits at the nexus of several ideological, aesthetic, and political networks that I think might be surprisingly connected. Donald Buchla, its creator, had worked as a part-time engineer for NASA in addition to becoming a regular in the experimental music community of the Bay Area in the 1960s; his invention, which he named the Model 100, mimics the architecture of aeronautics command-and-control systems. At the same time, this engineering philosophy was being interpolated through the long tradition of Modernism in European and American music: Buchla first developed this machine at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC) for composer Morton Subotnick, who was a colleague of Darius Mihaud (and later Luciano Berio) at Mills College. In addition, this combination of musical Modernism and electrical engineering was enthusiastically taken up by counter-cultural actors such as Ramon Sender, a co-founder of the SFTMC who went on to found the Morningstar Ranch commune, as well as Ken Kesey, who used his own Buchla system in his famous Acid Tests of the mid-60s.

Buchla Model 100. Music Division, Library of Congress.
Buchla Model 100. Music Division, Library of Congress.

Though it has deep roots in the West Coast counterculture of the 1960s, the Buchla Model 100 that sits in the Library of Congress was shipped to and used in New York, where Subotnick had relocated after the SFTMC moved from San Francisco across the bay to Mills College. It resided in his Greenwich Village studio throughout the mid-60s, where he would pursue his concept of “music as a studio art.” It was on this instrument that he composed and performed The Silver Apples of the Moon, widely celebrated as a landmark album in the history of electronic music. And when Subotnick returned to the West Coast to teach at CalArts, it remained in New York, falling into the possession of Michael Czajkowski, an educator and studio assistant who would use it on the folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie’s album Illuminations. Eventually it would end up in Aspen, Colorado, where Czajkowski used it to teach electronic music at the Aspen Music Festival and School, before it was contributed to the Library of Congress as a part of Subotnick’s collection.

So, from NASA aeronautics engineering, to the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to Ken Kesey’s acid tests, to Subotnick’s music studio in New York, the Buchla Model 100 is indeed a “modular” system—in its ideal state, a blank technological canvas for all kinds of desires to come out and play. The opportunity to spend a few hours with it in person revealed many nuances of the human-machine interface that can only come with physical touch. Though it may present itself as a complicated, impenetrable system of wires and knobs, it remains a physical instrument that must be played with the body and the mind—a strong articulation of mid-century Cybernetics philosophy, also popular among Subotnick and Sender. Even though I couldn’t turn it on, at the peril of 50-year-old loose electrical connections, I was able to gain a great understanding of the instrument and how it relates to the improvising composer/performer. I extend my deepest thanks to the Library for allowing me access!

Comments (14)

  1. What fun! OK, so the composers were serious. I always liked the geeky idea of creating music with a machine. I didn’t know LC had this kind of thing. Just another one of those surprising hidden treasures! Good luck with the dissertation, Ted.

  2. OK Great. Let’s hear it!

  3. Ideally this should be on display in the American History Museum in their music room, this is a major piece of music history. This was one of the first music synthesizer system ever created simultaneously as the Moog Modular System (Moog, Oram, and Buchla simultaneously invented the modern synthesizer).

    It is an absolute outrage that the Smithsonian American History Museum music room displays classical European instruments, which were not even made in America, but fails to display the Buchla System 100 and Moog Modular System, both of which revolutionized music. Especially since the Buchla is in possession of the Library of Congress, and easily loaned to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian American History Museums Music Room is an absolute embarrassment right now, and the Buchla System 100 absolutely belongs there featured prominently. The fact it’s been languishing in a box is problematic to say the least.

    European instruments should not be on display in an American History museum, but this piece absolutely should be there. It was probably one of the most important American musical inventions, as it spawned both entirely new musical styles, but also entire industries.

    This blog post highlighting this historic instrument is great, though, people should have more awareness of this instrument and it’s contribution to music technology and music.

    • Thanks for your comments, Christine. We are fortunate to house and care for the Buchla System at the Library of Congress so that researchers like Ted (as well as generations of future researchers) can access and study it up close. Anyone with a research interest can request access to the Buchla by sending an email request via Ask A Librarian and giving us at least two weeks’ notice.

  4. If the item is used for research, it would be nice to see the instrument taken care of and in working condition. In its current non-functional condition its more of a display item. I think it is fortunate that it is in a museum and anyone can access it. I think its unfortunate that it is not operational.

  5. Another place it could be displayed is the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ. They already display a lot of electronic gear (including Moog and an Oberheim SEM 8-Voice), the Buchla would be right at home there.

  6. if you can’t turn it on you might as well just have a model.

    Look to the National Music Centre in Calgay Alberta Canada, they will show you how to care for these one of a kind systems.

  7. I agree with other readers, the LOC’s archiving of this as an artifact is about as good as a model of it – and as effective. While very interesting and relevant as an artifact, 90% of the magic of this machine is in it’s sound! It would be best to display it in a more musically sympathetic environment, like the MIM, or the NMC, or another place where it can be played. While the LOC’s intentions are good, this revolutionary piece of American music history should be heard, not just seen.

  8. I worked on components of this system in 2010 for Morton Subotnick. Its a very early model from around 1967 or 1968. I have worked on several vintage Buchla systems including the prototype at Mills College and systems from universities across the USA. i can help with any questions you may have.

  9. Doesn’t the NMC have one already?

  10. That’s the system I learned synthesis on with Michael Czajkowski in Aspen! We had many wonderful evenings filled with the sonic surprises that 100 series produced! So glad it has a good home!

  11. This was the specific instrument on which I first did electronic music, initially in Mort Subotnick’s Bleeker Street studio then at Mike Czajkowski’s NYU Composers Workshop and also at the Aspen Music Festival where I also taught electronic music on it. It’s wonderful to see that this particular instrument showing up online. Thank you for posting this!

  12. We not only have a working 100 we also have a 200e at EMS here in Stockholm. It’s a shame that the LOC not only have the shell of a legendary system but that they boast about it like being in possession of a rusting box is something to be proud of. At least have the instrument serviced so that composers can continue to expand the instrument’s vocabulary. Composers from all over the world visit Stockholm to work on the Buchla systems at EMS.Shame, LOC, shame.

  13. Jair-Rôhm, clearly the LOC and EMS have different mandates. I applaud the LOC for preserving this very historical instrument in their collection. It should be left unmolested for future study and appreciation. If people are looking to use old Buchlas there are many in public and private collections which are available for use.

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