by Drew Martin
Earlier today, in a little more than an hour and a half, I got caught up on four decades of electronic music and the history of the modular synthesizer by watching the documentary I Dream of Wires. As a story of differing East Coast vs West Coast approaches to a topic, this is as good as it gets.
The modular synthesizer was born in the sixties on both sides of the United States, and was quickly divided between the East Coast Philosophy and the West Coast Philosophy. The East Coast synthesizer, developed by Bob Moog uses a traditional keyboard, which appealed to the music industry because it was familiar, stabile, and could play Western scale notes.
The West Coast synthesizer, developed by Don Buchla, was keyboardless and sought to redefine how music was approached and performed. It was based on metric loops in sequence, potentially forever. This experimental approach to music had a broader social context because "nonconformism and music go together" and it sought to avoid "the rules and suits and ties of the East coast." But those rules "listened to the client base of professional musicians and was ultimately able to deliver a relatively reliable product to the marketplace."
This next passage is acoustically over my head, but it sounds great...and maybe that's because the early Buchla has a red panel that was allegedly dipped in LSD so the person using it could lick it to get some inspiration:
With an East Coast Philosophy system you find rich waveforms, like saw, square, pulse, noise - harmonic rich waveforms to start with and then a big fat four pole filter to get rid of harmonics and sweep the resonance around to create the temporal shifts, to make the sounds more interesting.
In a Buchla you find oscillators that have waveshapers, but very simple filters after them. In most patches in a West Coast synthesizer, there isn't even really filtering going on. If you want to create the harmonic interest in the sound, you have to use the waveshaper. You have a sine wave that's been folded over on top of itself a bunch of times to create something really dense. It's like a completely different way at looking at synthesis. It's not subtractive synthesis in the traditional sense. There's a certain sound quality it gets that is totally unique, and it's just not possible to do it on any other system.
The documentary is about the success of the Moog system over the Buchla system, the abandonment of the modular synthesizers due to the introduction/competition of smaller, lighter, cheaper synthesizers with presets, and then the eventual return of these analog electronic systems through Acid House music and continuation in this era of "an explosion of ideas."
The return of the modular synthesizer is met with great optimism as one of the interviewed subjects explains...
I think as human beings we have a lot more fun than we'd like to acknowledge. It is fun. It's fun to make cities, automobiles, musical instruments, and huge sound systems. And we do a lot of things just for the pure pleasure of it. When generations listen to previous generations' manifestions, they want to get involved too. They want to dance with it, use it. And I think every generation ought be be absolutely ruthless about stealing the best of everything from previous generations. It's their duty, they have to do it.