Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A View from the Ivory Cornfields: Ethical Teaching at a Public University After the 2016 Election - Teaching Under Trump Series

As is typical at academic institutions across the nation, there are certain iconic locations on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) that have become de facto public forums for exercises in civic action.  Most weekdays during the academic year, the historic central quadrangle is a riot of conflicting voices. Passers-by are urged by student groups, union organizers, itinerant preachers, and countless sidewalk messages (drawn in a rainbow of chalk colors) to pay heed to any number of causes animating the more than 50,000 students and staff that comprise the social body of this venerable 150-year old institution. A few dozen steps to the northwest of the quad and in front of the Henry Administration building, the extended arms of the beloved “Alma Mater” statue beckon the bustling crowds of the commercial “Campustown” district inward, her twin attendants “Learning” and “Labor” providing an evocative backdrop both for graduation photographs and for frequent public protests seeking to capture the attention of the campus leaders meeting nearby.

However, not every member of the UIUC community feels equally comfortable participating in these activities. In general, students and community activists form the core of the attendees at politically-charged events, as UIUC’s interpretation of a passage in the State of Illinois Constitution stating that “public funds, property or credit shall be used only for public purposes,”[1] and a corresponding section of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act prohibiting university resources for activities connecting to political campaigns cautions faculty and staff to be vigilant in keeping such work separate from their fulfillment of their research, teaching, and service obligations.[2] Though the university Campus Administrative Manual explicitly states that these prescriptions apply only to political campaigning and “certainly are not intended to limit discussion among scholars and others regarding political or campaign issues or candidates,” many untenured faculty and staff nervous about continued employment choose to limit their participation to avoid the appearance of impropriety.[3]

This year, something changed. Donald Trump’s success in the national political arena posed urgent questions regarding the civic obligations of educators and state employees, and academics of all disciplines and levels of seniority at Illinois started grappling with what their jobs mean in this new reality. As scholars and stewards of a public educational project, we are entrusted with shaping the trajectories of the next intellectual generation. Moreover, though the rhetoric of academia emphasizes distance and objectivity, it is impossible to discharge this responsibility apolitically; significance adheres to inaction as well as action.

As I walked toward UIUC’s School of Music the second week of November, every surface of the square surrounding the Alma Mater and her plinth was covered with chalk graffiti. Energy radiated from every surface, as message after message proclaimed "Trump speaks for us," "Lock her up," "POC: I think for myself," and various expressions of white supremacy. A few steps further along, the central quad was similarly decorated with heartfelt chalk slogans, this time broadcasting sentiments such as "Muslim lives matter," "Undocumented students: there are no walls here," "Love trumps hate," and the like. It was my impression that there were roughly equal numbers of slogans in both places, but depending on the location one stood, only one sentiment came through at a time.

Music has historically prided itself on being a discipline that thrives on collaboration and collective agency, and musicology (variously configured) has many roles to play in articulating the ways these group dynamics shape our classrooms as well as our culture. We constantly urge our students to draw connections between what they are doing as players and scholars, model the respectful exchange of ideas in our seminar rooms, and seek to demonstrate how careful thought shapes heightened creativity and self-expression. And certainly we have long reconciled ourselves to the reality that even our most attentive students may use the tools we have given them in ways we did not anticipate or may not approve of. Yet it is not enough to simply hope that these virtues will be self-evident, or self-sustaining away from the supporting lattices of our curricula and degree requirements. The 2016 election revealed an American electorate set on screaming to all hearers that self-interest is better defended through conflict than collaboration.  As Brecht and Weill had the ensemble sing gaily in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (as their city is threatened with destruction), “If someone is doing some trampling, that’ll be me, and if someone is getting trampled, that’ll be you.”[4] Music(ology) needs to share responsibility for demonstrating that this position is neither inevitable nor permanent.

Back on campus on November 2016, I found myself facing a class of 100 students who were most of the way through a survey of western European music before 1750 CE, telling them that the morning after the election was the first time in a long while that I had felt truly glad that I had given early music serious study. I was glad that I had studied how anonymous people working within top-down authority structures found ways to make their voices heard (though almost certainly misinterpreted), through such means as marginal glosses, tropes, and contrafacta.  I was glad I had the opportunity to read about people like Philippe de Vitry and Martin le Franc, who roughly 100 years apart both saw themselves standing at the edge of a new age, and that as a scholar I had developed the critical ability to see how that perspective proved both right and wrong. As a scholar who has worked on the Roman de Fauvel, I was glad that I had seen people feel like the end of the world was coming, and do amazing things in spite (and occasionally because) of it. And I was glad that I had seen how music defined communities that could transcend other boundaries.

It was not just in my class’ discussion of early music that these exercises in “socially aware musicology” were occurring. Elsewhere in the Music building, a colleague who studies music in Brazil was talking about how during the military dictatorship of the mid-twentieth century, jazz and popular music were shaped both by political authority and by musicians using music to covertly express explosive ideas. After the Society for Ethnomusicology conference, members of the School of Music and the larger campus community came together around the topic of music and protest, discussing what makes a good protest song and singing together in a large classroom with bay windows that face outward onto a busy commercial street. As a result, almost all of us are thinking about how the music we choose to highlight in class speaks to themes of how our nation looks at itself and the world beyond.

What does this mean for public education in the wake of the November election? On its own, not much. It is in the nature of aggregates that every individual component is infinitesimally small when compared to the larger body operating on a different scale. But at the same time, those small actions add up. Our voices are heard by our colleagues and our students, and we can be politically engaged without (as the Illinois statutes warn) “promoting a particular political campaign.” As individuals adding up to a collective, indeed this may be critical to our success in research, teaching, and especially the service of our public university. Our Alma Mater.

Christopher Macklin is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is interested in the scientific and religious framing of music as a corporeal practice, with articles appearing in periodicals such as Plainsong & Medieval Music, Early Music History, and the Journal of the Royal Music Association. He is also a devoted student of Hindustani classical music, studying tabla with Rushi Vakil with the blessings of Pt. Divyang Vakil.

[1] Article VII.1.a.
[2] 5 ILCS 430/ 5-15.
[4] “Wenn einer tritt, da bin ich es, und wird einer getreten, dann bist’s du.“

Monday, February 20, 2017

Music History Pedagogy and the Political Present - Teaching Under Trump Series

[Ed. Note: This is the first of five posts in a series where teacher/scholars reflect on the challenges and opportunities of teaching music after following the election of Donald Trump.]

By Louis Epstein

In the wake of the election, faculty across the country debated whether and how to address election results in their classrooms. Like many, I was torn between two responses. I wanted to carve out time in a packed syllabus for students to reflect and, in some cases, grieve. At the same time, I saw reasons to carry on as planned. After all, talking about the election could be a minefield for teacher and students alike; some students would be happier pursuing course topics as scheduled; keeping calm and teaching music history - myriad facts, critical thinking, and all - now carries new ethical and political significance.

I tried out two different responses to the election. In my early music survey, I didn’t facilitate in-class discussion, but ended class fifteen minutes early and invited students to stay if they wanted to talk. Of 62 students, only 25 or so - those hardest-hit by the election results - took me up on my offer.[1] In my upper-level seminar on music and religion, I asked students to apply lessons from the class to hypothetical Thanksgiving conversations about the election. This wasn’t an open-ended invitation to vent, grieve, or gloat; rather, students had to ground their points in readings - one student pointed to Bruce Holsinger’s writing on Hildegard von Bingen as an example of sacrilegious, “liberal” scholarship - and musical examples. The second approach proved to be the more successful of the two. For one thing, it created an opportunity for students across the political spectrum to contribute. Given the fractured and fractious nature of political discourse today, it seems so much more important to facilitate reasoned discussion between individuals with opposing ideologies.

Likewise, it seems all the more pressing to teach music history (and teach it well) given the opportunities it provides to connect historical examples to the political present. And the scholarship of teaching and learning supports such efforts. Teachers who relate what students are learning to current events do two things that researchers have shown to be beneficial: they create authentic learning goals (as opposed to performance or grade-oriented goals); and they demonstrate the value of their course to students’ lives outside the classroom. Studies have shown that authentic learning goals and high value course material both generate greater student enthusiasm, engagement, and motivation.[2]

Inspired by the ethical and pedagogical benefits of addressing current events in my classes, I’ve been developing classroom activities and assignments for use in my survey and topics-based courses. Below I offer a selection of these ideas in the hope that one or more might be useful for faculty in various contexts, recognizing that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all teaching strategy. These are designed to engage students from across the political spectrum and all of them require students to use the content and methods likely already being taught to answer the ever important question: how can what we teach and learn in music history help us engage issues faced by society right now?

Activity #1: Students debate the ethical responsibilities of musicians commissioned or invited to perform by someone whose politics, religion, or identity they oppose. This could take place in class or in a paper. Ask students to prepare by researching historical and contemporary figures (Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, The Dixie Chicks, etc.) who have found themselves in similar situations. You might also have them read an article about all the artists who declined invitations to perform at Trump’s inauguration, and about those who accepted but faced controversy.

Activity #2: Students write op-eds or letters to their elected representatives arguing for or against eliminating the NEA, perhaps in the style of this one. Again, they draw on examples from class to support their argument, including precedents for productive and destructive intersections of music patronage and politics: Charlemagne’s efforts to standardize chant; Lully’s monopoly on opera granted by Louis XIV; the WPA’s Federal Music Project; mid-century support for High Modernism by American academic institutions.

Activity #3: In class, link concepts like nationalism, xenophobia, diaspora, and exile to repertory whenever possible. Assign scholarship and repertory that fuels discussion of Otherness in music: exoticism, mimesis, hybridity, diaspora, etc.[3] To turn this into an assignment, ask students to imagine they are legislative staff for the local representative or senator and they’ve been tasked with writing a brief on the impact of restricted immigration on American musical life (or musical developments more broadly). What examples from music history would they draw on to argue for tighter or looser immigration control?

Activity #4: Students create their own pre-inauguration concert program featuring an annotated selection of pieces they’re currently studying. Students might create a “patriotic” or “American” program, an internationalist program, or a resistance-oriented concert program. To prepare students for this assignment, ask them to compare the introduction from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “My President was Black”, which opens with a review of the music at President Obama’s BET-sponsored farewell party, with a review of Trump’s pre-inauguration concert (Emily Yahr's Washington Post review or the more expansive Musicology Now coverage). Reading excerpts from Sheryl Kaskowitz’s God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song or Dana Gorzelany-Mostak’s recent Musicology Now post and posts by others writing for the excellent Trax on the Trail project could inspire energetic in-class discussion about appropriating music for political ends. In addition to the repertory you’re already teaching, you might have them listen to selections from Will Robin’s “No Ban, No Wall” Spotify playlist or Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Rise Up Eyes Up Wise Up” playlist.

Activity #5: Students construct a textbook-esque “history of the present” focusing on intersections of music and politics under Trump from the perspective of a future musicologist looking back. How will the classical music world fare under the new administration? How will “America first” policies translate into sound? What music will be performed at the White House, who will be honored by the Kennedy Center, how will music education change? Students could aspire to a humorous take, along the lines of the below video or they could write in the style of a particular textbook author, or both.[4]
For some of these assignments, imposing an ideological perspective (rather than let students choose) may be useful. Ask students to write or debate from the perspective with which they most disagree, taking a lesson from this study. Or ask students to present both sides of an issue (creating an “American” canon, or restricting musical immigration) before taking a position.[5] And if students resist your efforts to connect music history to current events, take the time to explore the reasons for their resistance. After all, like our society, our classrooms should remain places where reason and historical perspective constitute our most cherished values.

Louis Epstein is Assistant Professor of Music at St. Olaf College. His articles appear in Music & Politics and La Revue de musicologie and he is the 2016 recipient of the AMS Teaching Award for his Musical Geography project ( Louis received his PhD in Historical Musicology from Harvard University, where he received a thorough education on the intersections of music, politics, and activism in seminars led by Anne Shreffler and Sindhu Revuluri.


1. I teach at St. Olaf College, a liberal arts institution of approximately 3,000 undergraduates and 280 faculty located in Northfield, Minnesota. The majority of students hail from the Midwest and Washington state with rising numbers from California, Texas, and Florida. 30% of the student body identifies as Lutheran (St. Olaf was founded by Norwegian Lutheran immigrants and is currently affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and 18% self-identify as students of color. Normally the hardest thing about teaching at St. Olaf is getting students to disagree with each other; I’ve found the task to be much easier when I’m getting students to relate music history to current events.
2. Barron, K., and J. Harackiewicz, “Achievement goals and optimal motivation: Testing multiple goal models.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (2001), 706-722. For a general overview of the literature on motivation, value, and student learning, see Susan Ambrose et al, How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 66-90.
3. Consider assigning Brinkmann and Wolff’s Driven into Paradise or Edward Said’s Orientalism (and, in a graduate seminar, this excellent roundtable on Said in JRMA featuring contributions by Brigid Cohen, Sindhumathi Revuluri, Martin Stokes, Rachel Beckles Wilson, Kofi Agawu, and James Currie).
4. I found this video in Michael Scott Cuthbert’s MIT Open Courseware materials.
5. If you find it difficult to do this yourself, if you have concerns about false equivalencies, or if you worry that relating music history to current events might impinge on the impartiality you usually bring to your teaching, consider the point made by Benjamin Justice and Jason Stanley in an article in Social Education 80(1): teaching is never neutral and cannot aspire to neutrality in an educational system that prepares students to become citizens in a society aspiring to democratic principles (40). It is therefore our responsibility to do the difficult work of connecting our course content to our students’ lives, to problematize false equivalences, and to be transparent about our inability to remain fully impartial as teachers.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Teaching Under Trump Series

By Louis Epstein
Image via CUIndependent
This set of posts was inspired by a series of Facebook-facilitated conversations among musicologists following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The contentious conversations circled around a difficult question: what (if any) musicological response was appropriate given the poisonous political discourse and pressing policy challenges of the post-election environment? Proposals for conferences, collected volumes, and direct political action joined calls for more civically and politically engaged teaching. Following those calls, the editors of Musicology Now invited five teachers to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of teaching under Trump.

While the five posts in this series differ substantially, they also resound with shared concerns: how to teach empathy without falling prey to false equivalency; how to educate whole students to become citizen-musicians; how to present content and arguments that we might detest or fear; how our personal responsibilities as teachers have shifted in the post-election context, and how they have remained constant. We hope that the blend of practical pedagogical advice and philosophical reflection in this series stimulates continued conversation around the needs - both changing and constant - of students and teachers in our time.

If you’re interested in seeing or contributing more ideas for connecting what we’re already teaching to current events, please visit this editable Google doc. All ideas collected here will eventually be archived at the AMS Pedagogy Study Group’s website,

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Archives of Dispute

Patrick Nickleson
Minimalism has a long tradition of disputes between authors. Branden Joseph first noted this trend in his book on Tony Conrad, singling out in particular those between Conrad and La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, Reich and Philip Glass, and Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham.[1] When I proposed looking further into these disputes for my doctoral research, professors warned against falling into gossip and hearsay, or worse, arbitrating decades-old interpersonal feuds. I thus clarified my questions: Why does minimalism in particular feature so many authorship disputes? Why is it that these composers’ critiques of traditional authorship so often paradoxically fell into disputes over authorship?
Investigating these interauthorial relationships has frequently led me into archives, where the interplay of public and private has been central to both the disputes and my research into them. This is particularly true of Conrad and Young. Young has long made proprietary claims on the archive of tape recordings of the Theatre of Eternal Music, a drone ensemble in which he and Conrad performed together alongside John Cale, Marian Zazeela, and others. In contrast, Conrad understood their music as the “death and abjuration of the composer” through the refusal of that “military” dispatch, the score.[2] Instead, Conrad favoured democratic composition under a shared collective name. Many of the rehearsals were thus “written” to magnetic tape for posterity, instead of staff paper, and held in Young’s loft with the assumption that they were collective property.
In 1987 Young approached Conrad and Cale, asking them to sign forms allowing the release of his (Young’s) music. They refused, and Conrad began a protracted dispute with Young—not necessarily over the propriety of those tapes, but over the claim that the drones recorded on them could have a single author. Conrad’s tactics always aimed towards publicizing their music, which Young has shrouded in mystery. Conrad first picketed a series of Buffalo concerts by Young in 1990 to bring the dispute to public attention, rather than keeping it hidden in lawyers’ letters [3]; he then reconstructed and released the music under the name Early Minimalism (Table of the Elements, 1997), and supported the commercial release of a fugitive copy of one of the original tapes as Day of Niagara (Table of the Elements, 2000). A flurry of “open letters” followed the release, including Young criticizing the release; an apology from the composer Arnold Dreyblatt, who had made the copy; and another from Conrad reaffirming his position.
Recognizing the dispute as a battle over propriety and publicity, I’ve been struck by the difficulty of properly citing and reproducing relevant documents. Working interauthorially, rather than on one or the other composer, it becomes quite clear that the defenses of authorship—legal, historiographical, discursive—are formulated to keep existing authors authorized, while limiting the possibility of someone from outside proclaiming a fundamental wrong in the structures and privileges of that authorship. The benefit of considering a dispute like that between Young and Conrad is that, unlike the multi-million dollar legal disputes over authorship that end up in court (recently, think Robin Thicke or Led Zeppelin), this one plays out entirely on a theoretical plane. Theory here should not be read as meaning abstract, immaterial, or irrelevant; rather, it’s simply that binding, judicial proclamations of right and wrong will never play a part.
Nevertheless, the limits of private and public have had practical impacts on my archival work and writing about the dispute. When I found a series of small cards in a folder of correspondence between Young and Steve Reich, I experienced the shock of immediately recognizing something I had never seen before. The cards—printed copies of Marian Zazeela’s calligraphy, somewhere between concert poster and printed invitation—outlined the date, location, performers, and title of several concerts from 1964 through 1966. While they did not provide new information about the concerts in question, they had never been published or even mentioned in print before, and I felt that the egalitarian, calligraphic presentation of the names of all four performers, with no clear designation of composer, was in itself notable. I subsequently found several of the cards in scans of correspondence with Young in other archives, but since all of them had come from folders of correspondence, I needed Young’s permission to publish them. Anyone who has read the introduction to Jeremy Grimshaw’s book on Young will not be surprised that I had little hope of getting that permission, especially given that my research further complicates the historiographical understanding of authorship in the Theatre of Eternal Music.[4]
Having already accepted that I could not include images of the cards in my dissertation, last month several came to me in that most social of archives: Facebook. Jeff Hunt of Table of the Elements posted a series of the cards (which he considers public programs), which were found in Conrad’s papers during research for Tyler Hubby’s recent documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present.
Hashtagged #ownthearchive, Hunt’s post put the issue into relief for me. The dispute between Young and Conrad, perhaps like many others, exists in a sphere in which control over what can be “public” or common is held by a party with the strongest prerogative to maintain the closure of that commons. Like Conrad, Hunt and Hubby have spent years publicizing the terms of the dispute, always polemically standing on the side of publication of raw materials: of “owning”—that is, polemically insisting upon the non-proprietary nature of the materials in—Young’s very closed archive. When drawn from Conrad’s archive, the exact same documents have a very different status as public programs, entirely available for circulation. When pursuing dissemination, though, the ethical research imperative to recognize them as private correspondence strongly overpowers any claim that they might be recognized as public. From my perspective, neither Young’s claim that they are private correspondence, nor Conrad’s that they are public programs, is absolutely correct here; sadly, a court injunction on the ontological status of the documents seems highly unlikely.
In a climate of “alternative facts,” several questions become pertinent: Is there a scholarly duty to make relevant primary documents public? Further, does the archival decision to class what Conrad considered a “public program” as, following Young’s conception, “correspondence” bar that document from public commentary and circulation? I of course respect the responsibility of librarians and archivists to those who deposit materials with them; but where does the line fall between respect for well-founded institutional regulations and what would, in other domains, be called simple censorship? Should that line be redrawn when someone like Hunt makes the same documents publically available? That is, are these cards—now that they are available online—still material that cannot be reproduced according to the categorization of the archives where I first saw them? Or do they officially make the ontological-classificatory leap from “correspondence” to “program”? All of this does not even begin to raise the most important problem: if permission is required from anyone, should it not be Marian Zazeela, whose calligraphic design on the cards is the only thing that can be considered intellectual property?
Musical authorship, and the subsequent understanding of authority generally, can be read not only in the materials of an archive, but simply in a composer’s personal relationship to concepts of public and private, access and secrecy. Since Conrad’s death in April 2016, it is more likely than ever that this dispute will never reach any conclusive resolution. Twenty years earlier, at the height of the feud, Conrad famously told an interviewer “La Monte Young wants me to die without hearing my music.” As a researcher engaged with these secret documents—and perhaps this applies to any musicologist working with or on living musicians—it feels pertinent not to forget the perspective an individual has on the documents of their actions: is public scrutiny a liability or an asset?

Patrick Nickleson is a doctoral candidate in musicology at the University of Toronto, where his dissertation research examines the authorial politics of minimalism, drawing extensively on the historiographic theory of Jacques Rancière. His article on transcription in minimalism is forthcoming in Twentieth Century Music

[1] Branden Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (New York: Verso, 2008): 35-6. [2] Tony Conrad, Early Minimalism: Volume 1 (Table of the Elements CD As-33, 1997). [3] [4] Jeremy Grimshaw, Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Don’t Call it a Synthesizer: Remembering Donald Buchla’s Modular Electronic Music System

By Ted Gordon

Don Buchla (1937-2016) was an instrument designer, musician, and engineer who developed his first musical instruments at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the mid-1960s. He was also an active engineer in the Bay Area, working on various projects for the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (“Rad Lab”), NASA, and the California School for the Blind. Buchla’s designs, whether measuring the brainwave activity of space-bound chimpanzees, giving spatial sonic feedback to people with disabilities, or providing musicians with centralized and standardized control interfaces for electronic music, all had one thing in common: they sought new ways to expand the body’s capacities for control, creativity, and play.

[Buchla, Donald F. 1970. “Optical range measuring apparatus.” US3497301 A, filed November 8, 1966, and issued February 24, 1970.]

Buchla graduated with a BA in physics from Berkeley in 1959, and was quickly put to work by NASA on projects for what he called “biometric telemetry”[1]: measuring the biological processes of animals and turning those measurements into usable electronic signals that could be communicated across different instruments. He was also involved in the Bay Area’s burgeoning arts community and actively experimented with musique concrète. It was these musical experiments that led him to take the bus across the Bay Bridge to the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC), which had recently settled into 321 Divisadero St, an old labor hall it shared with (radio station) KPFA and Ann Halprin’s Dancers’ Workshop.

What Buchla didn’t know was that at the SFTMC, composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender were searching for a new engineer to make what Subotnick has described as a “composer’s blackbox.”[2] This “blackbox” would be a single instrument that could standardize, miniaturize, and streamline the command and control of the TMC’s motley assortment of technological devices, culled from the worlds of military surplus, radio, and what engineer William Maginnis remembers as the “UC Berkeley Department of Physics and Cosmic Rays.”[3] After reading Helmholtz’ 1863 “On the Sensations of Tone” and the Navy Manuals of Electricity and Electronics, Subotnick and Sender had come up with a primitive design that used a punched paper disc and a photoresistor to “program” the control of various instruments. Buchla quickly countered that he had a better idea: create a modular, expandable instrument that could standardize, replicate, and control all of the various functions of the electronic studio. And with a $500 line item from the SFTMC’s Rockefeller Foundation Grant for “expansion of the studio console”[4], Buchla built and delivered his “Modular Electronic Music System” to the Tape Music Center.

The “Buchla Box”, as it was known around the studio, differed radically from most other contemporaneous electronic musical instruments. Many have commented that it was one of the first “voltage-controlled” instruments in America, but voltage control technology was not, in fact, new; Harold Bode had described its use for electronic musical instruments in 1961[5], and voltage control was a standard design feature in many other applications of electronics. Similarly, by 1964 there were several other “all-in-one” systems like Peter Ketoff’s “Syn-Ket” and Moog’s Modular Synthesizer. But Buchla’s Box was different not in degree from these earlier systems, but rather in kind, because it was not an instrument intended to “synthesize” sounds. Rather, like Buchla’s designs for NASA or for the blind, his Modular Electronic Music System was instead an instrument designed to plug its human users into a cybernetic circuit of expanded control: not only of sound-generating oscillators, but also tape transports, signal routing, reverb tanks, and even lights. The Buchla Box was built, module by module, not only to address the demands of its users at the SFTMC, but also to realize Buchla’s own innovative ideas of what could be possible by expanding the reach of the human mind and body with electronics.

[The first Buchla Modular Electronic Music System, still operational at Mills College. Maggi Payne. Photo by the author, August 2016. Thanks to Maggi Payne.]

Examining Buchla’s original modules gives some insight into his unique take on electronic music, and the contingencies that produced the peculiarities of each module. A musician might look at Buchla’s Box and apprehend a familiar design: a large cabinet with dials, switches, and blinking lights, attached by wires to a separate box that appears to be a “keyboard”. Yet this “keyboard”—or as Buchla named it, the “Model 114 Touch Controlled Voltage Source”—had ten identical touch-capacitive keypads, evenly spaced in a horizontal line. When touched by human skin, each keypad produced an individual timing pulse signal, a variable control voltage signal, a “pressure”-based signal, and a variable “decay” time. This module was expressly built because Sender and Subotnick had acquired a tape-based answering machine device with ten separate tape transports from an unscrupulous insurance agent in a warehouse fire—but they had no practical way to use it[6]. Buchla solved this problem: each key of the TCVS could control each tape transport’s start/stop, playback speed, amplitude, and one other variable to be determined by the user. The fact that many humans have ten fingers to match its ten keys was an added bonus.

It was this constant dance between contingencies, affordances, and innovation that helped Buchla develop instruments for new ways of improvising, composing, and performing music as an “intermedia” art. Though his systems were purchased and installed in many academic institutions, Buchla’s designs travelled much farther afield from the world of composer music. They provided spatial panning control for David Tudor’s sound installations in the mid-1960s, powered a signal mixing system for dozens of telephone headsets and loudspeakers on Ken Kesey’s further bus, and formed part of the PA systems for the the 1966 Trips Festival and for Owlsley “Bear” Stanley of the Grateful Dead. Buchla’s Modular Electronic Music System was a flexible instrument for controlling and playing with sound as signal, routed and modified in a complex, non-linear circuit between human and instrument.

[Ken Kesey’s “Buchla Box”, c/o National Music Centre. Note that this system contains no sound-generating modules, but rather consists of a reverb unit, a microphone pre-amp, a mixer, and a speaker routing system]

These same systems gave composers like Pauline Oliveros unprecedented control over her own complex systems, helping her to develop and control her “Expanded Instrument System” at Mills College in 1967. As Donna Haraway has argued, “taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means […] embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts.”[7] Buchla’s instrumental systems confront their users with new possibilities for hands, eyes, ears, and mind, promoting a lasting ethos of experimentation that—like Buchla’s modules—is surprising, expandable, and serendipitous.  

Ted Gordon is a PhD Candidate in the History and Theory of Music at the University of Chicago. His dissertation, titled “Bay Area Experimentalism: Music & Technology in the Long 1960s”, follows musicians through the worlds of experimental and institutional music, systems theory, and spirituality. He is an active improvising musician in the Chicago area.

[1] Interview with Donald Buchla, Berkeley, CA. February 5, 2016.
[2] “Interview with Morton Subotnick.” Curtis Roads and Morton Subotnick. Computer Music Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 9-18 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: .
[3] Pinch, T. J, and Frank Trocco Analog Days the Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 37
[4] “Proposal: Tape Music Center at Mills College.” May 20, 1965. Rockefeller Foundation Archive Center, 200R: San Francisco Tape Music Center; RG 1.2; Series 200; Box 413
[5] Bode, Harold. “A New Tool for the Exploration of Unknown Electronic Music Instrument Performances.” Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Vol 9, Issue 4, October 1961, pp. 264-269.
[6] Bernstein, David W. The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, p 166
[7] Haraway, Donna. “Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York; Routledge, 1991, p. 181.