Welcome to a memorial web site for Don Buchla, created by his friends and colleagues in memory of his life and extraordinary contributions to the world of musical instruments.
Please click below for memorials, presented in alphabetical order.
If you would like to add a memorial, please contact Roger Linn.
Here is Don's obituary in the New York Times.
Don had the kindness to go from us slowly so that we could gradually absorb the shock of losing him. He was a mentor, an inspiration, a friend, a tennis buddy. He gave me my electronic wings. It was not always an easy relationship, but I held him in such high esteem that his aura, in my eyes, was blinding. Almost 50 years under his electronic spell and still going. The day he passed, I was performing on the 200e in Brooklyn, NY, having taken up the torch once again, after 30 years, of making live music with his instrument.
My favorite thing about Don was his quiet strength and humor…his uniqueness, his refusal to wear matching socks. He had wonderful women in his life to whom I give credit for humanizing him over the years, because when I first met him in 1969, he was rather grumpy…
He fired me after my first day of work. For a cold soldering joint. I refused to leave. I think he understood stubbornness.
I loved the way he did it all, from the road case designs to the module graphics to the poetry of the module names…he was a total designer, because that’s what it took and he never ever stopped manifesting his vision. He had a healthy disrespect for popularity.
I loved that he designed from the outside in…and let musicians like myself have input even though I can barely wire a lamp. The corner of the electronic universe that he occupied was special…and to me it was all about live performance…about respecting the human body that played the instrument, giving visual feedback as to what going on in the moment with all those LED’s, making the instrument portable enough to travel. He molded space with a quad interface and a voltage-controlled reverb….and why is he still the only one doing that?
I loved the way he wrote the manuals, when eventually there were manuals. His use of language was perfectly precise and compact. He was an engineer.
I remember sitting up in the speaker stands he erected at Altamont where the Grateful Dead had brought the Hells Angels as security... and how intensely fast I escaped after seeing the violence from that bird’s eye view.
I remember the truck-stop Mexican bar in Oakland in the late 60’s where he would get huevos rancheros and a dos equis beer. And then go back to work in the mammoth warehouse with gazillions of modules and gongs from Borneo and his eclectic assortment of friends who assembled the circuit boards.
I got a shock one day touching a power supply in the wrong place and he said that was a good lesson to me about electricity.
And now I have the shock of his passing.
I miss him so so much.
Don with Joel working on the Marimba Lumina and celebrating its first response. With the loss of Don Buchla I lost a mentor who defined so much of my career it’s hard to fathom. I’m literally surrounded by his creations: the instruments I play; the instruments we built. My over 20 years working with him was an artistic and financial lifeline that I relied on. There were many who worked for Don over the years, but I believe I was Don's longest tenured “Associate” of "Buchla and Associates.” And though anyone that worked with him closely knows that collaboration with Don was far from easy, it was also rewarding. I think we all benefited. He was one of the most forward thinking inventors of his time, and willing to pursue designs in spite of obstacles and well before thinking about a design's financial rewards or marketability. He built instruments for his friends and expected that with his sophisticated expressive designs, others would find the instruments worthy of buying too. It could be a manic work environment that as both a musician and collaborator, both stressed and inspired me. I’d never trade that experience. I was happy to call him a friend. He is missed.
Don hosting a birthday celebration at his house.How did this association come about? I finally met the legendary figure in 1991 while I was studying at Mills College. He had recently finished the Thunder and was almost done with Lightning I. He was both charming and a bit grumpy. I had a deep respect for and was enamored with his ideas. But well before I met him, the reputation from technicians who were trying to maintain his equipment was of a stubborn curmudgeon. I could deal with that, and as fate would have it, in 1993 I found my first computer music gig as programmer for Don for an exhibit at the Exploratorium. Immediately I was immersed in ideas about how to translate movements and screen representations into sound. The work was on the commercial fringes and the pay was commensurate with that. In fact my invoices for that project turned not into cash, but a Lightning II and a at least a year of rent-free living on the top floor of his house/shop. But I needed a more consistent income, and Don was always pushing me to work on the hardware. He had just been commissioned to redesign the new Oberheim OB-Mx. It turned out that my talents and attention to detail fit Don’s low tolerance for mistakes and I remained his tech for over 20 years and singular PCB designer for 18 of those. With his guidance and an aptitude for PCB layout, we were able to create prototypes for many controller projects. Some projects came to fruition, while others such as “Fireflies”,“Wind”, “Rain”, “ThunderII” never made it to market. Numerous projects just never received enough support to overcome challenges. But the potential for all of those projects was fantastic and it kept me glued to the work. Knowing his physics, Don went headlong and self-funded into schemes that no one had every tried. It was a time of long conversations late at night over wine and Don’s quesidillas, listening to strange CDs and with unexpected visits by electronic music luminaries. You knew Don was happy when by the end of the night he was blissfully howling with the dog and playing crazy piano solos like Cecil Taylor on a bender.
Don at the Paul Dresher and Joel Davel duo BAM show in April 2016He talked about a lot of things, but he often talked about designing, and referred to himself primarily as "a designer.” And that was not restricted to musical instruments. But when it was an instrument--and the physics of his idea worked out--then the user interface and the artistic design commanded his attention for hours on end. The process usually ended with the final tweaking of the electronics to deliver complete beautiful and expressive instruments capable of existing on their own without the need for external software or sounds. Whenever possible he even tried to incorporate speakers in the instruments, such as for Thunder II. He even bought a cheap solar panel hoping to demonstrate how the Thunder II or Marimba Lumina could be played on a remote beach. He wanted to democratize the electronic music experience.
Performing with Don also gave me a glimpse of his charm and silliness. Don always had a penchant for light humor and absurdity and though he wasn’t a composer by trade, he created experimental compositions. On an early resume listing his publications from 1962-1965, sandwiched between "Remote Monitoring of Physiological Parameters in Unrestrained Primates" and "A Rangefinding Travel Aid for the Blind” —both which reveal a interest in electronic controllers--he listed a composition: "Cicada Music", for approximately 2500 6-legged performers.
Don pictured below in 2014 wears a camouflage jacket preparing to steal an instrument in his piece “Ein Plein Vol”But as fun-living as Don was, he could also be very harsh on both assistants and vendors. He could be on the phone for what seemed like hours “ripping someone a new one.” Some temporary assistants just left, while others were not told--in no uncertain terms--never to return to the shop. He insisted that while we were trying to craft instruments that we should be as efficient as Henry Ford’s factories; A tough goal in a residential shop with few workers. But he could turn around and be sweet and charming and really appreciative of those who went on the design journey with him. He made me feel like family. I really wanted to see him happily enjoying the realizations of his ideas.
There were some lean years, but along the way, G-wiz labs helped fund the Lightning redesign, Nearfield Inc. funded the Marimba Lumina development, and Moog picked up the “Piano Bar”. But working at Don’s was never easy and I cherished the time away from the shop while sustaining a parallel music career. I strived to work remotely as much as possible by more and more focusing on PCB layout. I also survived Don’s work environment because as a musician, I was afforded the respect he gave all musicians. I rarely agreed to come in earlier than 11am and I could tour for weeks. If there was work nonetheless, he’d inevitably hire someone studying at CNMAT who might last for a few months to cover daily tech for me. But they would be on to better things: “real" jobs, more schooling, or less critical bosses. Don remained true. Not only was always waiting with new opportunities for me, but he came to almost every local gig I had. He rarely missed a show even in his final months. He even hosted a few of my birthday parties.
Don and Joel photographed for a Marima Lumina promo in 1999There are yet untold stories and manic days: some good, some bad, some requiring therapy. With Don gone now, if falls away into the past. Don did not like to revisit the past when it came to instruments. But twilight set in on Don. Late in his career Don was convinced to reissue the 1970’s 200 series modules—something he was reluctant to do—and so the 200e series came into focus. More employees, more demand, more financial gain all came at a time when his health was failing in multiple ways. For someone who was a bit of a control freak, he began to lose control. He saw an end to his career and sold the company. While Don initially remained part of the new company, he ultimately regretted the decision. When he regained his strength, his energy for controllers and disdain for outside direction was at odds with more requests for more 1970’s reissues.
Don had his flaws. His pride led to hubris which sometimes led to poor decisions, but it also created a vigorous fighter for both design and his life. Fighting cancer, Don tamed mortality for while, and he outlived anyone’s expectations. He fought every battle to take control of his mortality and his control of his namesake company. But death will meet us all. Knowing he’d been rough on people over the years, Don used to joke that dying would make too many people happy. But his spirit and his passion and his ideas will be missed. He could be a pain in the ass, but above all, Don was a genius designer. I was privileged and fortunate to have known him. Don never paid enough to convince me to give up music performance, but my career owes so much to his generosity. He lives on in his immortal designs, and I hope to continue to express the ideas we shared through them.
I first met Don many many years ago on the Mexican Bus. I’d offered my uncle, Ervin Hafter, who was about to celebrate his 65th birthday, a wine and picnic tour for friends and family aboard one of the two vintage buses that made up the fleet of the renowned Mexican Bus company I’d begun in 1990.
Don sat next to a lovely woman whose smile sparkled with energy. She worked with my Uncle at the University of Calif Berkeley as a researcher in the dept of audio psychology. That was Anne Marie Bonnel. Don, I remember was somewhat quiet with a playfulness in his presence. He seemed absolutely relaxed and happy to be there in that colorful funny space, aboard the bus named LOLA. It’s amusing now, to know that he had a reason to feel comfortable aboard our old bus. In the 60’s, he had wired up Ken Kesey’s Further Bus in the days of the Merry Pranksters with his guerilla sound recording equipment. Apparently when the police would stop the bus, everything was recorded live…. a precursor to the controversial body camera now being negotiated for the police. I know it was exactly 15 years ago, that gathering of wiley professors who enjoyed eachother’s company and good wine in a most unconventional vehicle, The Mexican Bus. Don must have remembered the occassion because out of the blue, his wife who goes by Nannick, called me a month ago to ask if I would be willing to work up at her and Don’s home a few days a week to care for Don. It seems he wandered….. she told me, whatever that meant.
I’d heard for years from my aunt and uncle that Don is literally held together by screws in his back that keep him upright. Once I went up to the home to give him a massage. It must have been that visit that endeared me to him or it was the Mexican Bus… who knows? He seemed to have loved the experience of riding on the bus for the party. In any case here I was lending a watchful eye, cooking a breakfast, helping him where he needed help. His body was so stiff and unresponsive to his intentions. One hand curled in, the legs walked with great difficulty, the feet were in so much pain, and he easily lost his balance and would fall. I would never have had the patience, even a few years ago to be able to be present…. But this year, after learning with the physical decline of my own mother, I have cultivated the patience and compassion to be able to walk with Don. The most interesting was witnessing how Don would slowly approach a kitchen chair or any chair where he intended to sit. He would arrive just short of where he should have, and bend his knees moving excruciatingly slowly towards the intended destination of his now boney butt…. With the smoothness of a Butoh performance, and just before I would jump to catch him he would have found the edge of the chair and adjust himself… it was a hold your breath performance to witness this and restrain myself from helping him. With all those screws holding him together, I was amazed that he managed to get out of the house and out to the car to hoist himself up into my vanagan with just a little help from me to push his haunches up the last inch before he’d find the seat. Donning his dark glasses and letting his hair blow in the wind, he looked very at home in my VW van directing each turn as we made our way down the mountain into Berkeley.
During one of our last afternoons, I was to assemble 3 IKEA chests of drawers for him and his wife. He was in bed most of the time resting and drifting by then, but when I asked him to help me on the project, he got up as he was interested in participating in the process. I laid out all the screws and assundry odd pieces that the IKEA inventors included to assemble press boards into free standing pieces of furniture. I asked Don to hand them to me as needed. He took the instructions and examined them and then took stock of all the pieces. It was extremely important to him that I keep each grouping of pieces together least they roll around and get mixed up. When this happened he would make a high pitched squeal of angst that signaled me to remedy the situation. I finally finished one chest and Don stood there by it, staring, silently pondering. I got a bit exasperated waiting for him and commenced to assembling the heavy boards for another piece of furniture on the other side of the bed. At least 20 had gone by when Don broke his silence and called me out. He’d discovered one error I’d made which to my horror was screwing up the movement of one of the drawers. … He busted me. This man who had trouble making sense and confused time and space, had successfully busted me and I had to figure out how to disassemble the top part which was no easy task as you might know with IKEA type constructions… He was so pleased to have caught my mistake; his lucidity still shining within the parameters of construction and design.
Don was very much a rebel, defying convention at every turn. It’s so nice to see the innovative ideas he developed 50 years ago being embraced by so many young electronic musicians. Even in his last days, he still loved to laugh. I’ll miss him.
I first met Don in 1976 or 1977. Bob Beede, who taught electronic music at Cabrillo College took me along when he went to pick up some modules. When Bob and I arrived at Buchla World Headquarters on Arch St, in Berkeley, no one was around so we waited in the front hall. Eventually someone came out, and asked what we needed. It turns out that this was Lynx, who had programmed the Buchla 300 music language, Patch IV. Lynx had seemingly never met a real Patch IV user before, so he was picking Bob’s brain about what he liked or didn’t like about it. Don Buchla arrived a few minutes into this, and said in that quiet, slightly over-precise, manner of his, “I’ll thank you not to talk to my programmer.” Lynx skittered away, and Bob and I were suitably chagrinned. I had no idea that this was the start of a relationship that would span some forty years. Some random memories:
A birthday party for Don in his later yearsI was an “Associate,” a few times over the decades, but mostly what I remember is one year when I was spending a lot of time in the basement lair on Curtis St. There would be afternoon-into-evening-into-night, free-flowing conversations masquerading as design sessions. Design sessions for things that never saw the light of day, but it was time well spent, at least on my part. This sort of morphed into me actually working for Buchla & Associates for a little while, but that didn’t last long. I thought that I was much better off having Don as a friend than an employer. Somewhere in here that was the short-lived “Thunder Quartet,” which consisted of Don, the late David Wessel, Keith McMillen, and me, all playing Thunder.
One NAMM show, when Thunder was brand new, I was doing Thunder demos on the floor. This was great fun, people really didn’t know what to make of Thunder, and I guess I didn’t make a very good case for it, as people seemed just as baffled after sitting through a demo. One of the things I played during the demo was “Smoke on the Water.” I thought this was hilarious, and Don at least found it somewhat amusing. At any rate Electronic Musician was still a big deal then, and they threw a big party every year. I usually managed to score an invite, but this year, I had been so busy leading up to NAMM that I had no invite. When the show closed on the night of the party, Don said, “Come on, Associate.” and we proceeded to walk over to the party. I wondered how we would get in, but Don said he always went, and he never had an invite. True to form, other people were being asked for their invitation, but Don just walked in, carrying me in his wake.
I was delighted when Don announced the 200e. I hadn’t seen him in a couple years, and I suddenly knew why. It’s sort of funny, Don’s ideas on synthesis were resisted by the market at large when the ideas were fresh in the 60s and 70s. With the recent “modular renaissance,” there is a huge wave of Buchla-inspired designs, and some straight-up clones. Ideas that were considered outré in the 70s, today seem just advanced.
My "there-is-no-god-son” Beau, went to college at UC Davis. In an electronic music class he was taking, when the subject of Don Buchla came up, Beau told the teacher that Don had been to his house. The teacher didn’t believe him, because everyone knows that Don is a mad genius, who eats small children. Only part of this is true. I don’t understand how Don managed to maintain his reputation as some sort of scary monster, seemingly with no effort on his part. Sure, he could be prickly at times, but in general he was kind, fun loving, and always interesting. He was supportive of me when I started Eardrill, making 200 series comparable modules. A huge influence and inspiration. I’m very lucky that I got to know him.
I first learned about Don's work years ago when I was an MA/MST student at CCRMA. It was Max Mathews, one of my professors, together with Bill Verplank, who mentioned his Buchla Lightning work while I was working on an instrument called “Laser Harp". Later on after graduating, Don was one of the people who inspired me to start my company Percussa. Don was such a nice guy, I remember meeting him several times during the breakfast club meetings in Berkeley. He often sat there quietly, sipping his coffee, occasionally smiling and mostly listening to what people were saying. On one of those occasions he got himself a sandwich and insisted I eat part of it, which is just one of the many small indications of what a kind man he was. I feel privileged for the brief contact I had with this extraordinary man.