An Altar to Electronic Music—The History of the Buchla Synthesizer

Two neat-looking wooden boxes about 30 inches by 30 inches, a host of bright lights, jack plugs, connectors, and cables. This is what the Buchla synthesizer looks like at first sight—a piece of equipment left by composer Ernst Krenek.

Ernst Krenek (1969) by Gladys Krenekmica - music austria

"Krenek's Buchla is a big and rare piece of equipment.”

At the Ernst Krenek Forum in Krems, the historic instrument can be viewed by visitors. There are also regular workshops where the instrument is actually played. But what makes the synthesizer so special? And what prompted the composer, at an advanced age, to turn to electronic music and buy one of the first available synthesizers for a great deal of money? It is a case of searching for clues. 

"Krenek's Buchla is a great and rare piece of equipment," enthuses Volkmar Klien. "A piece of musical history." Klien is Professor of Composition, with special focus on electronic music, at the Bruckner University in Linz. He first encountered the synthesizer when he presented one of his own compositions at the Minoritenkirche church in Krems as part of the Donaufestival, an annual festival of music and performance. He stumbled across the imposing equipment when walking through the Krenek Forum on Minoritenplatz. "And there it was all of a sudden, this altar to electronic music," he recalls. 

The very fact the synthesizer was there gave him a double surprise. For one thing, the equipment, now more than 50 years old, was visibly well maintained. And the idea that "someone like Krenek, Mahler's son-in-law and a student of Schreker," whom he had regarded as "bound to the tradition," a strict modernist in other words, had owned a Buchla synthesizer, and one just like this from the first series. "I personally thought he was more conservative than that."

Buchlamica - music austria

And Klien is not alone in this assessment. According to Clemens Zoidl, the archivist at the Krenek Institute, music historians do not really associate Krenek with electronic music. The music history that does mention him in this connection is tinged with conservatism. 

The man composed more than 20 pieces for and with electronic instruments and even added certain terms on the topic of electronic sound production to the musical lexicon, which is particularly noteworthy, since Krenek was always a composer only and never a technician. Later in life, however, he achieved such a high level of competence in this area that he was able to explain sound production at the highest level of technical complexity. "While most electronic musicians could not care less about how exactly a sine wave works, Krenek wanted to understand it, grasp it, and apply his intellect to it at an absolutely granular level," according to Zoidl. 

Krenek also repeatedly referred to the pure tone (with a sinusoidal wave form) as the "atom in terms of what is audible." According to the composer, it was only electronic sound production that made it possible to liberate this atom from its complicated compounds and actually render it audible in its own right. 

When Volkmar Klien came across Krenek's Buchla in 2017, it was still behind glass and therefore not accessible to the public. Klien wanted to change this as soon as possible and along with Antje Müller, the former Director of the Krenek Institute, set about restoring it and making it accessible. He recalls that the repairs were not expensive, since the equipment had been well maintained. Ultimately, it had spent a long time in the dry, warm climate at Krenek's house in Palm Springs.

Buchla (2015) by Ernst Krenek Institutmica - music austria

This was where the avant-garde composer had withdrawn after fleeing from the Nazis following the Third Reich's Anschluss (union) with Austria. Since his opera Jonny Plays (Jonny spielt auf), or even before, Krenek had been seen by the National Socialists as a cultural Bolshevik, and his works had been banned within the German Reich as being degenerate after they came to power in 1933. He found a second home in the USA, in total seclusion at the edge of the desert. But what prompted Krenek, so late in life, to purchase a Buchla synthesizer for a great deal of money? What did he use it for? And what makes Krenek's Buchla special? To answer this, it is a case of recalling the history of the masterpiece that is the Buchla. 

The Buchla synthesizer is named after the electronics pioneer Donald "Don" Buchla, who manufactured his first modular synthesizer in 1963 together with the avant-garde musicians Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick, the founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Centers (SFTMC). Sender and Subotnik were more than just working musicians and composers. They were visionaries too. They had numerous ideas about how they wanted to develop their studio, including from a technical perspective. They wanted to develop a production instrument for electronic music that would make it possible to manage different processes in just one unit. It was also important for them to be able to tackle live performances with this instrument. 

They were looking for an engineer who could implement their ideas and requirements and found this person in Donald Buchla, with his extensive musical and technical expertise. In 1963, they eventually managed to achieve together what they had been working toward for years: an analog, modular synthesizer. The Buchla Series 100.

Baendermica - music austria

The biggest difference from the Moog, which was developed around the same time on the East Coast in New York, is that the Buchla has no keyboard. It is controlled instead via touch-sensitive areas, touch pads, and dials, which makes it really intuitive to use, explains Gammon. The composer and electronic musician has been working with modular synthesizers since the middle of the 1990s. He explains how the instrument was still seen as rather obscure at the time, and that things only changed when Dieter Doepfer picked up on the principle of the modular synthesizer once more and started to produce them again. As early as 1992, Doepfer Musikelektronik GmbH were selling the MAQ16/3 MIDI analog sequencer they had developed with the German band Kraftwerk. This was the guiding principle and recipe for success: Doepfer worked directly with interested musicians when developing the hardware.

In 1996, Doepfer introduced the modular A-100 synthesizer. This was the start of the current success story of the modular synthesizer, which later enjoyed something of a renaissance from the start of the 2000s. Gammon points out that today's market is huge and there is an unbelievable number of modules and a wide variety of ideas, concepts, and qualities. Among the numerous concepts that Gammon has developed and implemented as vehicles for music, mostly in collaboration with festivals and event promoters, is the modular synthesizer ensemble project. This too is a vehicle for getting music across to people, and Gammon is still enjoying success with it today. He came into contact with Krenek's synthesizer even before its restoration, while involved in some initial projects at the Krenek Forum. So he has already worked with the Krenek Buchla a few times and therefore knows the instrument as well as almost anybody.

Ernst Krenek (1969) by Gladys Krenekmica - music austria

Flexible and Individual 

But there is another difference between the Moog and Buchla besides the keyboard: "The Minimoog has five or six components that are joined together in a fixed arrangement. There is an oscillator that feeds into the filter, and then from the filter to the small amplifier. The chain of functions is fixed. With the modular synth, however, you do have the same modules, i.e. an oscillator, a filter, an amplifier, and a number of other modules, but you can combine them how you like." So it is possible, if desired, to go through the amplifier first and only then through the filter. "The resulting sound is completely different," explains Gammon with enthusiasm. "Unbelievably flexible and highly individual." 

The difference compared with today's analog synthesizers (including the synths that Doepfer developed) is worth repeating: Don Buchla made a clear distinction. In his modular synth, audio signals are kept separate from control signals. There is no possible confusion between the two. Audio signals are bipolar, whereas control signals are unipolar, the connectors are different, and different cables are used for them. 

Ernst Krenek (1969) by Gladys Krenekmica - music austria

Die aktuellen Modularsynths (z.B. Eurorack) machen da keinen Unterschied. So kann man bei ihnen z.B. ein Steuersignal in einen Audioeingang hineinführen und vice versa. Gammon: „Ich kann jede Regel missachten und dadurch noch überraschendere Ergebnisse erzielen." Aber auch wenn der historische Buchla-Synth an heutigen Möglichkeiten gemessen vielleicht ein wenig limitiert wirken mag, „für die damalige Zeit war das eine Revolution", ist Gammon überzeugt.

Was macht den Buchla so interessant? "In erster Linie ist es die haptische Komponente", so Gammon. "Man hat auf jeden Parameter Zugriff und kann daher sehr schnell und unmittelbar mit dem Instrument arbeiten." Durch das modulare Prinzip könne man sich ein Instrument so konfigurieren, wie man es für sich selbst gern hat und als gut empfindet.

Wenn es also der Verdienst von Moog war, die aufwendige Technik in ein kompaktes Instrument überzuführen, in den Mini-Moog, mit der Einschränkung, dass die Komponenten, die zur Klangerzeugung wichtig sind, schon fix miteinander verbunden sind, hat man bei Buchlas Geräten „viel mehr Eingriffsmöglichkeiten in die Klanggestaltung." Was Gammon an Kreneks Exemplar überraschte war, dass das Instrument sehr zugänglich ist und sich daher leicht und intuitiv damit arbeiten lasse. „Das ist eine besondere Qualität, die dazu animiert, dass man mit ihm im wahrsten Sinne des Wortes mit dem Instrument spielt."

Ernst Krenek (1927) by Suse Bykmica - music austria

Krenek Discovers Electronic Music

How did Krenek discover his synthesizer? The composer was not in contact with the young avant-garde in San Francisco. He lived much too withdrawn a lifestyle for that. He did not know the nerds who hung around with Don Buchla and Morton Sobotnik or their playground, the San Francisco Tape Music Center, where the Grateful Dead were later to play and the early experiments in minimal music were under way. But all his life, Krenek had been driven to explore many things by an insatiable sense of curiosity. He struck out in many directions and incorporated many styles into his work. Like Igor Strawinski, with whom he corresponded a great deal, Krenek was seen as a kind of chameleon of contemporary music. For example, he composed atonal work at the start of his career, before then discovering Neoclassicism and later Romanticism. He spent the longest time, however, on Arnold Schönberg's 12-tone technique and its successor known as serialism. 

And according to Zoidl, Krenek had a lifelong need to be challenged intellectually, which also applied to the things on which he was working. This need certainly comes across in his extensive biography titled The Breath of Time. Memories of the Modern (Im Atem der Zeit. Erinnerungen an die Moderne). "He wanted to penetrate things, to understand them," explains Zoidl.

In order to understand why Krenek became so enthusiastic about electronic music so late in his life, it is also important to remember his personal situation. Between 1938 and 1950 in the USA, he lived in relative isolation as an immigrant at the edge of the Californian desert, where he picked up on little of what was happening in Europe in terms of contemporary music. 

Once the war was over, he finally traveled back to Europe in 1950 and attended the courses at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse event. This is where he met young composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, who had developed the idea of serialism. "To be able to define every parameter in music by means of a reconstruction"—this was also something that fascinated Krenek and continued to occupy him relentlessly. But at some point serialism presented composers and musicians with a challenge, since they could not simply produce precise timings and precise pitches with conventional instruments played by humans. The idea of an electronic machine taking on this task was more than a little tempting.

Krenek Ortler Gruppemica - music austria

Limitless Irregularity 

The 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence in Germany of the first studios for electronic music at radio stations and universities. The serialists now started to experiment with synths in these studios. At the time, synthesizers still filled entire rooms, and most of this apparatus was actually mainly used for purely technical tasks, rather than for music, points out Gammon. Sine generators, noise generators, ring modulators, mixing desks, oscilloscopes, and, of course, tape machines accounted for most of the equipment. The musical possibilities they offered were limited, and working with them was both laborious and time-intensive. "There was a great deal of enthusiasm, however, and some amazing music was made along with some pioneering work," says Gammon, and this sense of a new departure did not escape Krenek either. 

It is known, in fact, that Krenek had Stockhausen's composition technique explained to him in great detail. Working tirelessly for months, Stockhausen recorded countless electronic sounds on audiotape in the studio in Cologne and then started to work on these. The tapes were cut, and the various sounds were sorted into folders. Based on his composition, these tape sections were then merged or stuck together again, rerecorded, and then recompiled to create a so-called master tape. An early form of sampling, if you like.

In 1955, after he had visited Stockhausen at the broadcaster WDR's studio for electronic music in Cologne, Krenek wrote an article titled New Development in Electronic Music for the magazine Musical America. He revealed his fascination for the new technical and sound possibilities as well as the way Stockhausen composed his pieces with audiotape. "The precision of this machinery is [...] particularly appealing because it allows the user to achieve limitless irregularity. The total mechanical determinacy of the machine helps, therefore, to create a sense of complete freedom."

This is where the technical developments from the middle of the 1960s come into play, since, unlike the equipment with which Stockhausen and Boulez undertook their first musical experiments, the Buchlas and Moogs could simply be placed on a desk. All of a sudden, it was possible to produce artificial sounds in your own home, rather than a huge studio. The sense of complete freedom to which Krenek refers was something he suddenly wanted to emulate within his own four walls. He was clearly taken with the idea. So Krenek really needed to have a device like this at home.

Buchla (1969) by Gladys Krenekmica - music austria

And the great expense associated with a Buchla at the time on account of the equipment and work involved—Zoidl estimates the equivalent value to be around 20,000 euros (roughly 23,500 US dollars) in today's money—was certainly no deterrent. He contacted Don Buchla, and the two entered into correspondence, which was kept and can be seen in the Krenek Forum. Finally, in November 1967, Buchla delivered one of his first synthesizers to Palm Springs in person. Krenek was already 67 at the time. 

The fact Buchla delivered the device in person is unusual, but there is a certain logic when seen from today's perspective. For one thing, the device that Buchla delivered to Krenek was one of the first made with this kind of technology. And this is evident from the fact it still bears the logo of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, as opposed to the usual Buchla corporate plaque that was used later. In other words, the device is from the time before Buchla started serial production. He must have felt honored by such early interest in his invention. And as a music aficionado, Buchla must have known, of course, just how special and famous his customer was.

Buchla nah 2 (2015) by Ernst Krrenek Institutmica - music austria

Understanding and Control 

But how did Krenek work with the Buchla now? What did he use it for? "Krenek was not somebody who composed at the piano," explains Zoidl. "For him, composition was a process that takes place in the head." This is also why he only really left fair copies, but hardly any sketches. When Krenek committed notes to paper, they were already composed in a fixed and final arrangement. He had no real interest in the performative element that would subsequently become so important with synthesizers—in other words, in experimenting or composing live before an audience.

"Uncertainty is one of my favorite spices in performance," said, for example, the composer and electronic pioneer Suzanne Ciani in a lecture dedicated to the Buchla synth for the Red Bull Music Academy on her work with the synthesizer. Krenek categorically rejected this gateway through which electronic music introduces the unpredictable into art. Others might be tempted to play with uncertainty, but not him. 

He was also totally averse to the "ceaseless repetition of individual chord sequences" and the resulting hypnotic effect, which became central to minimal music and later to techno, as he confessed in an article for Die Welt in 1976 titled Has the Avant Garde Really Come to This (Wo ist die Avantgarde bloß hingeraten?). For Krenek, this reduced the musical substance to such a degree that it was no longer possible to describe something as a work of art.

Ernst Krenekmica - music austria

John Cage in particular was one of his bêtes noires. He saw in this "minimal music from which any musical substance has evaporated, in the repeated invitations to engage in meditation, a pseudo-religiosity with pseudomusical pretensions" a hostility toward art that had to be fought against. According to the composer, art should be stripped down and integrated into the everyday life of the "common man". The message is clear. Although Krenek was certainly not in the mainstream, and despite his interest in innovative technologies, his values were also slightly on the conservative side. Art had to be art and remain art. 

The "age of randomness" he referred to in the article mentioned had long been a reality, but he was extremely reluctant to admit it. Zoidl points out that Krenek also experimented on the synthesizer, of course, but only with a view to imagining what something sounded like and how sounds could be used in a certain composition. Once he had a construct in his head, he had to set out the sounds in a fixed arrangement immediately. Krenek ultimately wanted to reproduce music just as he had dreamed it up at home within his own four walls. Krenek's Buchla still had no memory capability at the time, which made it hard to reproduce ideas. Audiotape provided some assistance. He recorded sounds and then played them from audiotape during performances of his pieces. So he basically repeated precisely what Stockhausen had already done before him.

Ernst Krenek (1969) by Gladys Krenekmica - music austria

Audiotape As the Work

Most pieces for which Krenek used a synthesizer, as a look at the catalog of his works would confirm, are a combination of conventional instruments interspersed with audiotape containing synth sounds. No improvisation, but strictly composition throughout. The 1971 work Organastro, for example, combines organ and electronic audiotape. The fixed sounds were created with the Buchla. To put it in layman's terms, the organ sounds rather strange due to the sprinkling of electronic effects. The two different influences bounce off each other. The result is an interesting kind of interplay. In Double-winged Band (Doppelt beflügelten Band) from 1969/70, the electronic sounds are used to communicate a mood of unease and impending catastrophe, as correctly pointed out by Marie-Therese Rudolph in her highly recommended radio show for Ö1 (Zeitton). 

In many other pieces with electronic components, Krenek adopted an even more extreme approach. With these, he recorded all the instruments on audiotape. The live performance simply involved playing the audiotape before the audience. But many of Krenek's compositions were not intended for live performance at all. The well-known 1950s work Spiritus Intelligentiae (1955/1956), for example, is almost impossible to reproduce.

Buchlamica - music austria

Another piece, the San Fernando Sequence, was long thought to be lost. Or at least this is what the catalog of works used to show, and still does. Zoidl suspects this is a mistake, however. The musicologist creating the catalog of works had simply failed to make a distinction between a missing score and the loss of the actual work. In many instances, there was no score in any case. The audiotape was the work. The audiotape is the work. 

Electronic Campfire 

In 2017, when Klien came across the synthesizer in Krems, he explains "how clear it was to everyone with any serious involvement in electronic music that this thing was something special in every respect," including to his students. These were allowed to experiment on the synthesizer for a whole year in 2017/18 and were totally thrilled at the prospect. Klien describes how the Buchla was set up in a separate small room at the university, a bit like an altar. 

At around the same time, Krenek's Buchla was also put on show in its freshly restored condition at the Ars Electronica Center. Klien admits that today's devices are much smaller, more flexible, and cheaper. But he waxes lyrical about this Buchla, likening it to a kind of analog electronic campfire. "The basic idea defined everything that is still in use today." The sequencer can memorize 16 steps, which is no coincidence. "This has had a big impact on pop, techno, and everything in music that came after." If you look at the Buchla, you see the effect that technology has on music.

Ernst Krenek - Palm Springs (1981)mica - music austria

In an age "where software can do almost everything," an old, analog synthesizer calls for a different approach, according to Klien. It is nothing like working with a laptop. "It literally shines at you." And in terms of its specific limitations, a Buchla is much more like a musical instrument than a piece of software. Maybe this is also why the Buchla continues to enjoy increasing popularity. 

Even though the Moog is much better known and commercially successful, the Buchla appears to be enjoying a revival. And even today's electronic musicians such as Caitlyn Aurelia Smith are keen on a sound that the musician James Rushford describes as a "very vintage sound" after working closely with the instrument during his AIR (Artist in Residence) scholarship in Krems. On Rudolf's radio program, he talks about how he quickly rejected the idea of making the old warhorse sound more modern than it was made to be and was happy to let it sound just like itself: "very woody and percussive." In addition, these same limitations forced him to reflect on music in a very elementary way.

Buchlamica - music austria

But the elementary can bring people together. Gammon sees his appearances with the modular synthesizer ensemble—which also take place or are offered at the Krenek Forum on a regular basis—as social acoustic events and regards the ensemble itself as a social acoustic project. In other words, the appearances are about much more than just getting people to take an interest in electronic sound production. He feels this would lack ambition. It is more a case of encouraging pupils, students, and adults, regardless of the target group, to work together and come up with a piece as part of this ensemble. "No previous knowledge is required. The workshops are open to all. It is a case of listening and responding to each other. The idea of a joint enterprise comes to the fore." Simple social skills are suddenly required, the kind people sometimes take for granted. It is essential to show consideration to each other. 

"Just imagine," says Gammon, "you have never made any music before in your life, and suddenly you're on stage with 12 others and performing on a Buchla. Together. These are unforgettable moments."

Credits: Story

Author: Markus Deisenberger

Images: Ernst Krenek Institut

Ernst Krenek Institut
Werkverzeichnis von Ernst Krenek

Gammon - official website
Buchla - official website

Volkmar Klien
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Music, Makers & Machines
A brief history of electronic music
View theme
Google apps