A timeless synth played by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Alessandro Cortini, and Wendy Carlos.
Introduced by Bay Area synthesizer innovator Don Buchla’s company in 1973, the Buchla Music Easel was a game-changing instrument the size of a briefcase but created music that weighed a ton.
Upon its introduction, it allowed for a portability that untethered electronic music creation from the laboratories and college campuses and allowed it to roam in the wild. As long as you had access to an electrical outlet you could grab it by the handle, tote it into your chosen environment, open the case, plug it in and start experimenting — like a landscape painter with her easel, palette and canvas.
This excerpt from Easel’s marketing literature of the time outlines the machine’s capabilities:
The Music Easel contains many of the elements commonly used to generate and process sound: a keyboard, sequencer, pulser, preamplifier, envelope detector and balanced modulator; oscillators, gates, envelope generators and filters; facilities for mixing, monitoring and reverberating. Many of these elements possess an unusual degree of sophistication. The keyboard is solid state, with touch sensitive, chromatically organized keys, accurate and reproducible pressure output, tactile feedback, octave shifting, and voltage controlled portamento. A complex oscillator, developed through computer aided simulation studies, is a rich source of complex audio spectra. featuring voltage control of pitch, timbre and waveform, this oscillator provides the Music Easel with a timbral range unapproached by other musical instruments.
The original instruments are incredibly rare, but a few years ago Buchla introduced a new version, opening the door for a fuller exploration of the instrument’s potential.
A more eloquent way than ad copy to understand the Easel’s potential is to hear it in action, and a few weeks ago during the most recent Israeli violence against Palestine, the French film composer and experimental musician Yann Tiersen set up his Buchla near his home on Ushant Island off the west coast of France. There, kneeling as if in prayer, he composed a lovely meditation on Palestine.
Best known for his score to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Amelie, much of Tiersen’s meditative work is driven by piano and electronics. His vibe is the same on the Buchla.
Here’s a Buchla Music Easel improvisation by Glendale-based composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith:
Below, Alessandro Cortini, best known for his work with Trent Reznor, improvises on an Easel and other gear (while sporting a Mount Analog tee).
Want to see a master in action? Here’s Buchla expert Suzanne Ciani composing on a number of Buchla devices.