The Openness, Exploration, and Expanding Consciousness of West Coast Synthesis
Wandering analog synths eventually you’ll come across a style of synthesis described as West Coast synthesis. It can be a bit wackier and unpredictable compared to East Coast synthesis. Two companies that represent either style are Buchla on the West Coast, and Moog on the East Coast. I’d come across Moog synthesizers before, but never Buchlas, and it’s that weirdness that intrigues me. What might be creatively possible with this different sort of interface to music?
I found out about Buchla synths through the music of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani. Smith describes the experience first playing a Buchla synth to Vogue when a neighbor lent her a Buchla 100 to play:
It was when I finally decided to give up on music when I felt this openness and this freedom to play without any expectation… I would wake up and play music and create a patch, then I’d ride over to one of the farms and work a little bit, ride the horse back, change the patch, and it was just so much fun. It was pure exploration. It’s definitely my favorite memory that I have in my life.
The instrument itself cultivated a feeling of openness and exploration (also the environment on the farm probably helped too). To create without expectation, to be able to experiment and try out new things is a beautiful space to be in. This was intentional in the design itself:
Mr. Buchla, in San Francisco, wanted instruments that were not necessarily tied to Western scales or existing keyboard techniques. To encourage unconventional thinking, his early instruments deliberately omitted a keyboard.“A keyboard is dictatorial,” he said. “When you’ve got a black-and-white keyboard, it’s hard to play anything but keyboard music.”
The approach may have been influenced by the wider cultural context when the synth was created:
Buchla was working amidst a prevalent counter-culture bent on experimenting with expanded consciousness and alternative lifestyles. The non-traditional, otherworldly sounds that his machines produced could be seen as an extension and reflection of this culture.
Buchla developed the synthesizers right in Berkeley. I’m in East Bay, so there’s some intrigue for me in connecting to the place and history where these synths were created. Almost as if in learning about these synths, I learn more about where I am.
If you look up Buchla’s they’re not easy to find, and if you do find one they’re pricey. The most affordable way to play with this style of synthesis outside of a screen is the Volca Modular by KORG, so that’s the route I’ve gone. (If you know of other synths, please let me know!)
I connected the synth to a delay in Ableton, inspired by Caterina Barbieri’s use of Ableton effects with her modular setup:
I use Ableton to further process the signal coming out from my modular. When I started playing around I didn’t have the money to buy modules for audio processing so I was using Ableton for delay, reverb, filter and EQ. Then I got so fond of certain specific Ableton’s effects that I cannot help but keep using them. I am especially a long-time fan of Ableton’s ping pong delay, reverb and saturator!
The delay produces layers of sound, bringing a fullness to the synth*. And all those layers lulled me into a wonderful synth vortex. I gradually adjusted the synth parameters, and listened along as the shifts echoed from the delay. I varied the dynamics of the touch strip, tapping it quickly, sustaining a few notes, repeating a few patterns. How does it feel? Intuitively there’s that sense of where to go: What if I try this? What will happen from this shift? And the outcome arrives in echoes and layers. Playing the instrument combines that exploration of sound possibilities with this checking in on how I’m responding to it. Seeing what’s possible, and seeing what resonates. I recorded the session, you can listen to it here:
*Note: The light clicking is an artifact from this particular delay setting. I kind of liked it, so I kept going with it.