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.
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.
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!