Synthesizing a legacy

A two-night festival celebrates and remembers Don Buchla at Gray Area, Sat/22 and Sun/23.

Packed weekend of memorial concerts celebrates electronic instrument inventor and music pioneer Don Buchla.

One of the last times that Naut Humon saw Don Buchla was at a festival they both attended. Now Humon has helped plan a festival for Buchla himself.

Don Buchla, who died this past September, was one of the singular early figures in the birth of what we’ve long since come to call the music synthesizer. His Series 100 arrived in 1963, shortly before the debut of Robert Moog’s namesake creation. From NASA to advertising, experimental music to pop, Buchla’s influence as an inventor is widespread and deep-rooted. He would have celebrated his 80th birthday this week.

This weekend, April 22 and 23, dozens of musicians will play in Buchla’s honor at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts on Mission Street. There will be legendary peers, like Suzanne Ciani and Morton Subotnik, and representatives of subsequent generations, such as Alessandro Cortini, Jessica Rylan, and Keith Fulleron Whitman. Also on the bill is Buchla’s son, Ezra, who will have tape work performed; he participated in the Gray Area shows’ planning as well, as did a number of others, with support from the Gray Area staff.

Speaking at his desk in the Dogpatch office of the studio Obscura Digital, Humon described how the event, the Don Buchla Memorial Concerts, came together. There was a gathering in Berkeley of Buchla’s friends and family a couple weeks after his death. Humon himself couldn’t attend because due to responsibilities on another Gray Area event, last fall’s Recombinant Festival, and in his absence the idea arose to do a show. An email thread led to phone calls, which eventually led to this festival. What came to be is “a memorial marathon to Don, and his world, and his philosophy,” as Humon put it.

“He was a pioneer of electronic music, of intentional inventions,” said Humom, who first met Buchla in 1971 as a Cal Arts student. Humon dances around the word “synthesizer” during the conversation. “Don himself was a little ambivalent about the term,” he said, recounting Buchla’s many celebrated inventions and their colorful names, like the Music Easel, and such touch-enabled interfaces as the Touché and the Thunder.

“We’re inviting people not just from Don’s circle,” said Humon “but also those who were inspired by Don.” In addition to the live performances, there will be panel discussions, among the speakers such electronic-music visionaries as Roger Linn and Dave Smith. One of the panels will be moderated by Geeta Dayal, author of a book on Another Green World, the Brian Eno album.

Musical invention, both hardware and software, is an inevitable thread running through the scheduled events. Among the performers is Peter Blasser, creator of the unique Ciat-Lonbarde line of instruments, along with others who have made their own equipment, including Jessica Rylan and Laetitia Sonami. There will also be tape work presented by individuals who can’t make the show, including Sarah Davachi, Carl Stone, and Zeena Parkins — as well as work by Buchla himself, along with other Bay Area figures who died in recent years, notably Pauline Oliveros, Bill Maginnis, and Warner Jepson.

Sonami, best known for her sensor-laden Lady’s Glove, spoke from France via Skype in advance of traveling to San Francisco to participate in the Buchla event. Much as Humon first met Buchla as his student in the early 1970s at Cal Arts, Sonami first met Ezra, Buchla’s son, when he was her student at the same university.

She received a request from Humon, Sonami said, about her or composer Éliane Radigue, or both, participating in the events. “I had a piece that Éliane composed with and for me for a new instrument that I had built,” said Sonami. “It seemed to fit the spirit of the festival. Someone had told Éliane many years ago that Don felt her music was the closest to the spirit and expression of electronic music, in terms of bringing together all principals and all ideas.”

Sonami’s new instrument, the Spring Spyre, is the result of a long development process. “It uses neural networks,” she said, “to analyze the audio signal from three pickups that are on a wheel. All the synthesis is happening in real time.”

Somami says one thing that distinguished Buchla was his emphasis on the creative use of his tools: “How do we perform? How do we take full advantage of the sounds, and how can we control them? He was also thinking of how we use the body, so it’s not just the sound that’s opening a different language, but how we access those sounds is also a different language.”

Asked to connect her inventions to Buchla’s, Sonami was hesitant. “I couldn’t compare myself to Don at all,” Sonami said, “because he is so much more beyond anything I could have done.” She does recognize a kinship, though, in regard to a strong underlying curiosity: “What kind of new sounds can we make, what kind of new sonic landscape? It’s kind of like an adventure: Instead of replicating what we know, how can we go into an unknown sonic space?”

Sat/22 and Sun/23
Various times, $10-$33
Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, SF
Tickets and more info here