Donald Buchla, Synthesizer Visionary with a Countercultural Spirit, Dies at 79

The inventor and artist indelibly influenced Bay Area experimental music.


Donald Buchla, modular synthesizer visionary who indelibly influenced Bay Area experimental music, died at home in Berkeley on September 14 of complications related to cancer, confirmed his son Ezra. He was 79.

A maverick artist, Buchla brought a countercultural spirit to his work with sound and light. He envisioned synthesis as a means to conjure unheard sounds — in fact he disliked the term “synthesizer” because it brings to mind the replication of extant noises — and built modules and controllers intended as expressive live performance instruments.

To that end, Buchla developed interfaces responsive to tactile and spatial commands, and, discarding the usual engineering terminology of oscillators and filters, coined phrases for them such as “Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator” and “Source of Uncertainty.”

He pioneered sequencing, enabling performers to loop voltage series into melody or rhythm, and resisted the tendency to outfit synthesizers with piano-like keyboards in the style of other engineers. “Our goal was to create an instrument for performance,” he wrote in the manual for one model. “One with a vocabulary that was unpresumptive, varied, and accessible.”

Buchla and Robert Moog are credited with independently pioneering voltage-control synthesizers in the early Sixties. The chronology is debated, but Moog said before his death in 2005 that Buchla predated him.

Moog’s synthesizers, which accommodated keyboards, found more commercial success, partly due to the enormous popularity of Wendy Carlos’ 1968 album Switched-On Bach (which inspired many more records featuring synthesizer arrangements of the classical canon).

In contrast, key Buchla collaborator Morton Subotnick said in 2014 of Switched-On Bach, “I could never see the point in playing old music on a new invention.” The first commercial release to feature Buchla’s synthesizer was Subotnick’s 1967 album Silver Apples of the Moon, a gorgeous, dynamic mélange of electronic tones that still sounds bold and inspired today.

Most Americans in the Seventies unwittingly heard the Buchla after Suzanne Ciani — the Grammy-award winning artist who famously demonstrated the synthesizer on the David Letterman Show in 1980 — used it to create Coca-Cola’s “pop and pour” sound logo.

Just this month, Ciani and a younger Buchla enthusiast, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith released a consummate collaborative album, Sunergy. Like Subotnick’s recordings, Sunergy revels in Buchla synthesizers’ uncanny ability to articulate a sort of sonic abstract expressionism.

Subotnick and Ramon Sender co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1961 and, two years later, they commissioned Buchla to create his first synthesizer. The Tape Music Center — a community organization that prized autonomy, inner-disciplinary experimentation, and public access — nurtured composers such as Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. It was folded into Mills College in 1966 and morphed into the world-renowned Center for Contemporary Music, a longtime catalyst for local experimental music.

Buchla, who was born in South Gate in 1937, graduated from UC Berkeley with a physics degree in 1959. He built devices for the blind — including an instrument that translated distance into pitch — plus part of the Grateful Dead’s infamous sound system. His involvement in the 1966 Trips Festival snared mention in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and he kept the company of Merry Pranksters and Hells Angels.

Through Buchla and Associates, the inventor began selling the 100 series Modular Electronic Music System commercially in 1966 and, three years later, sold it to CBS Musical Instruments, which quickly discontinued production. The 200 series Electric Music Box emerged in 1970, followed by a digitally controlled analog synthesizer and a more compact unit, the Music Easel. He later designed MIDI controllers and, amid an ongoing resurgence of interest in analog synthesizers, started a reissue line in the Aughts.

But as Buchla’s health worsened, he lost grip of his company. Audio Supermarket, an Australian company, bought Buchla and Associates in 2012, rebranded as Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments, and hired its namesake as chief technology officer. According to a lawsuit Buchla filed last year, the company fired him without good cause and delivered only a quarter of the agreed-upon purchase price of $440,000, among other alleged breaches of contract. Further, it stated that Buchla’s 2014 stroke stemmed from stress related to the defendants’ “bad-faith conduct.” The suit was resolved confidentially this year.