Being a weird old electronic analog instrument that uses touch capacity as an input method the Buchla Music Easel is known to have the occasional grounding issues. I knew this before I got it and in the US mine seemed considerably less glitchy than other people’s. The tell tale sign of growing trouble is when you touch one key and it starts playing several, almost arpeggiating between them at times. When I moved to Tokyo the weirdness began right away. One thing to note is that Japan 100V with 2 prong plugs and the US is 120V with 3 prong plugs so some translation issues are to be expected. Unfortunately the most common suggestion to solve music easel grounding issues is to use a little adapter and turn the 3 prongs into 2. Since I’m in Japan and that’s a given, no dice. The next option is to connected it to the metal on another piece of grounded equipment via the ground jack on the side, but again since all the stuff here is similarly ground, that also made no difference for me. I finally found something g that worked though. I got a really long banana cable and attached one end to the ground port on the easel and tucked the other end into my waist and with the metal top making skin contact. This worked immediately. I guess adding myself to the circuit really helps when touching those contact pads. This was important for me because the new piece I’m working on right now needs to be slooooow and being able to key in the note changes and tempo is interesting.
I remarked earlier today that there was something magical feeling about turning off the lights, putting on headphones and just watching the synths do their thing. It feels like a mad scientist’s wonderland, an LED powered fortress of solitude. Watching the blinking and pulsing this morning was thinking about where this whole series was headed and about where I’d expected it to lead and how the way things play out is always different than you expect, and the people that can enjoy that journey are very different at the core than those who get stressed when plans don’t play out to the letter. I like a little bit of chaos and a little bit of unknown. I know a general direction but not an exact path. My friend Joi Ito says “compasses over maps” and I think that is a good mantra both in life and with these unwieldy yet elegant instruments. Have an idea where you want to go but let the path find its own way to get there. Here my Buchla Music Easel and my Make Noise Shared System are playing beautifully together but aren’t synced in anyway. I’m going to pull a 20-30 minute track out of this patch sometime this weekend I hope, I haven’t had the chance though I’ve been noodling on it for days. I’m trying to decide if it needs or would benefit from tape loops of Tokyo sounds, kind of making it an ode to my first 6 months of living here. Guess we’ll find out when we get to that bridge…
I spent a lot of today thinking about a composition and how I wanted it to work, and when I finally had a few minutes to play with knobs and cables I just couldn’t get it there. I got close, and ended up somewhere that wasn’t at all bad, but wasn’t the thing I had in my head going into it. The Buchla Music Easel does that I lot l find, it gives you some thing, just not what you’d necessarily expected. Speaking of expectations there is another tweakable thing that I always think to explore but just never have. The 3 CV outs from the keyboard module correspond to the 3 CV ins above them, but they don’t have to. They can be rerouted and hijacked in any number of ways. Send the sequencer CV to the pressure CVIN and simulate keystrokes maybe? Turn a pulse into a gate? So many options.
Most of what I’ve been talking about and thinking about is the CV and sliders but I he entire other half of the Buchla Music Easel is a touch plate keyboard. Not being a keyboard player myself I’ve been hesitant to dive in too much to this module, defaulting to the cables and knobs I’m more comfortable with, and honestly I still have so much to learn with that focusing on it not a problem. But this half of the instrument is not just an afterthought. Currently, I use it for changing octaves (or presets) of one or the oscillators and almost nothing else so I know I’m barely scratching the surface of what it’s capable of. The touch plates themselves are quite expressive and I’ve seen people do amazing things with it, but again with the sleepy drones that I tend to do a lot of the keyboarding or arpeggios don’t immediately fit in my brain when I’m thinking of compositions. I think the most natural thing I could start exploring would be the pressure CV out which I could use to trigger an envelope, maybe the more contact I have the longer the sustain would be, with fixed attack and decays. That sounds interesting in fact. I think I’ll try to figure out how to do it.
I don’t have this Buchla Music Easel aux expansion card (which is why you are getting this sweet screenshot) but I like the idea of it. I’ve mentioned already that one of the lures to the Easel is it’s limited options which force creativity and lead you into unexpected places. I find that limitation to be equal parts thrilling and frustrating. Thrilling because if you know me then you know my pull towards simplicity anywhere I can find it, and frustrating because sometimes I really just want it to do something and can’t figure out or can’t see the method to make it happen. This aux card adds and extra oscillator which is the thing I find myself wanting more than anything. It does other things too, but that’s what I’m most interested in. I’ve never seen one in person and BEMI isn’t selling them directly anymore and their list of distributors who sell them doesn’t seem to have anyone with them in stock, ever. Maybe with the purchase of BEMI by Buchla Music that just happened they will be available again. I think it’s a great idea and the perfect aesthetic match is a nice touch too.
(Here’s Todd Barton’s video manual for the card)
I’m not sure if it’s clear what is going on in this photo, but I’ll try to explain. I’ve never really understood polarity inversion with cv, I mean I get that it goes from + to – but in my experiments to date I hadn’t really seen much effect. Then it clicked. So what I’m doing here (and you can hear some of this in the video I posted on Instagram earlier) is starting off with an envelope with a very slow attack hitting the mod oscillator on the Buchla Music Easel, then I’m separately running the envelope through the inverter and then applying it to the complex oscillator. The result is that the mod osc has a slow attack but then decays quickly, and the complex osc has a faster attack but decays much slower. I’m driving this with a pulse from my eurorack system so that it’s clocked similarly, and then adding reverb on the end which is creating some lush and beautiful spacey atmospheric soundscapes. I’m really liking where this is heading and feel like an album is beginning to develop. I need to make some tape loops to layer in and then we’ll see what’s what.
I’ve always felt more comfortable with some creative limitations. Give me every option in the world and I get lost in trying to decide what is best, but give me only a few and I dive right in. It’s easier for me to think about what I’m making when I don’t have to spend time worrying about how I’m making it. This is freeing, but it’s also frustrating at times, and it bounces between the two regularly. With the Buchla Musice Easel I find myself loving what it does while simultaneously wishing it did a little more, or that I had just that one more option to do that one thing I can’t figure out how to do, and then finding a way to do it and being really excited, and then feeling like maybe I’m just doing the same thing each time. I have to push myself to try something new, to go a different direction – while still going the direction I enjoy. I know how to do a lot of things with it that I’m not really interested in, and I want to understand how to do more of the things I’m really enjoying with it. Forcing myself to spend so much time with it this month is helping with that, rewiring my brain a bit.
Alessandro Cortini wrote this about his Forse series:
“All pieces were written and performed live on a Buchla Music Easel, in the span of one month. I found that the limited array of modules that the instrument offers sparked my creativity. Most pieces consist of a repeating chord progression, where the real change happens at a spectral/dynamic level, as opposed to the harmonic/chordal one. I believe that the former are just as effective as the latter, in the sense that the sonic presentation (distortion , filtering, wave shaping, etc) are just as expressive as a chord change or chord type, and often reinforce said chord progressions.”
I love the Forse series and his explanation, and it makes me wish I’d learned more about music theory growing up so I wouldn’t feel like I’m playing so much catch up in my 40’s. And while I can’t imagine coming up with 3 double albums of incredible material in just a month, like he did – I do hope I walk away from this with something to show for it.
If it feels like I missed a day that’s because I missed a day. Basically I decided I needed to move a few things in my synth closet and ended up staying up all night ripping everything apart and it was a serious disaster. Anyway, it’s all coming back together now. The new arrangement puts a few pieces closer that are possible bridges between systems. Of course there is the audio in into the Buchla Music Easel which I’ve never used but often thought about using. Having it closer to some of my other stuff makes that more possible, and of course the CVGT1 Eurorack module which I’ve under utilized since getting ahold of, it’s now right there between the two and I can definitely see using it more often.
That said, the whole point of this month long project was to dig into the Easel more, so I kind of took a few steps backwards by doing all this other work but it’s good to scratch creative itches every once and a while and I finally recorded something tonight which I haven’t done since moving to Tokyo so I’d say that’s a success right there. Tomorrow I’m back into the Buchla.