Ezra Buchla is an accomplished violinist and musician who is creating soundscapes using just his violin and a computer running the supercollider audio programming environment. He is the son of the late Don Buchla who was instrumental in designing the Buchla music system and through his work defined what some people call “West Coast Synthesis”. Ezra is also a founding member of The Mae Shi, an experimental rock band from Los Angeles.
We were surprised and very pleased when - out of the blue - we received an order for the AE Modular Standard Rack 1 from Ezra so we wanted to find out what his thoughts are now that he had some time to play with it.
The following is my transcript (in sense if not word for word) of some written communication and a subsequent Skype interview with Ezra. It is quite long so we’ll release it in two parts.
Please also check out and listen to this piece that Ezra performed with the AE Modular, his Viola and tenor guitar:
How did you find out about AE Modular and, given that you obviously have access to much more expensive gear, why did you choose to buy a system from us?
I saw it mentioned on the `lllllll.co` forum and was intrigued by the overall design, the motivations and some of the specific modules (like the NYLE filter) and the price was low enough to justify satisfying my curiosity. I’m not a big gear head and I mostly work with computers. That’s why I worked alot with the monome.org project mainly on the "norns" machine. But I was curious about the sound producing components especially the oscillators and the NYLE filter. I really love that filter, it’s totally bizarre, the resonance knob goes to self oscillation at 12 o’clock and you can bleed different inputs depending on the output conductance. When I contacted Robert I was impressed with his passion and the way he talks about his system. So I wanted to evaluate it for the analog sound sources because I wanted to hear if they have more character than just a clean sound. And it was just what I expected, really grungy so I’ll probably run my viola and the guitar or voice through it just to give it some character.
Please be honest and let us know what you think about the AE Modular system. Would you use it for one of your performances?
Sure, I used it in a performance back in October, which went great.
The system I have is quite limited because I was mostly interested in checking out the oscillators and filters, and routing audio through it. For example, I have no sequencing capabilities at all! I tend to want to do sort of strange things with musical event generation, which are best realized on a computer. So I have been intending to build my own 5v programmable sequencer interface, but of course haven't had time.
I'm also not a big MIDI user... so at the moment, the system is basically a source of static textures / drones. This is totally fine with me, and I've spent enough time with it to have some ideas about what few things to add to optimize it for that role...
Which improvements would you like to see, which drawbacks do you see?
The main drawback for me is just the fragility of the sockets themselves. But I see this has been addressed in recent revisions. :)
There are a number of oddities and strange behaviors, but I don't actually see this as a drawback per se. Like, a lot of outputs aren't buffered (?) and adding e.g. capacitance to them (like by touching with a finger) can affect other outputs in the circuit in strange ways.
(that's is sort of a guess... honestly, I haven't even engaged with the system in a "technical" mindset at all. I haven't hooked it up to a scope or even looked under the panels. for now, I'm happy to keep it that way :) )
Would you recommend it to other musicians or students of modular synthesis?
Absolutely. Of course this would depend on the person's needs or intentions. To some extent I think it seems actually a little challenging for beginners. For a practicing musician new to synthesizers, road-worthiness is important, limited signal flow is ok, so semi-modular designs make sense.
But if someone is already familiar with synthesis paradigms (and digital systems can easily provide this experience), or wanting to dive in at the "deep end," then I would definitely recommend the AEM system.
Which modules would you like to see most in the AE environment
I could go on of course, ha.
At the AE Modular forum we have now started a fun little series of weekly challenges which are supposed to inspire people to produce and record small pieces with their system. The challenges are also a bit of a puzzle, like produce sound without using an oscillator, or produce ambient spacey, drones. What challenge would you set us?
So these are almost like scores, right? I did a lot of this work as a composition student, like scores for modular or instructions for modular. I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t really care for the prescriptiveness of the challenges, but I can see how it would be helpful for someone who is starting out and wants to sit down every day and do something, but isn't sure how to go about it. It helps to have a goal in mind. Maybe in a pedagogic sense, it seems cool, but it’s not really for me.
The most interesting thing for me is that because the way the AE system is designed, I believe it cuts a lot of corners. I’m guessing there are unbuffered outputs and stuff like this. It has these strange behaviours that deviate from the sort of ideal that someone might have learned in a software environment and that’s a really valuable thing to have. Like if you have never experienced this tactile environment where you are interacting with a real electric circuit and not just a number that’s copied over here when turning this knob.
Maybe that is a challenge that I would set: “Try to find a behaviour that you can’t explain.”
What would your “stranded on a desert island” music setup look like?
I actually don’t have a lot of stuff in my studio. I have this Italian viola from 1850 which is really nice and if that was the only instrument I could take, I would be more than happy. I also have another very modern viola with a carbon fibre body and an electric pickup which I really like. I also have a tenor guitar which I use a lot and a really nice audio interface and some distortion pedals. There’s a Moog Rogue which is really fun. That and the monome stuff of course and a few weird circuits that I’m working on is really most of what I have in my studio. Probably that’s already too much for a deserted island, but it’s not really a lot.
There’s this interview which I really like with Robert Henke, one of the co-founders of Ableton, where someone asked him about plugins and he replied “You know in Ableton or really any DAW you can have as many compressors as you want. You can serialise them, sidechain them, you can do stuff that no one even imagined being able to do in the ‘80s, not even in a million dollar studio. And now on your computer you can have all of this basically for free.” This is a really great antidote to the gear chasing mentality. You know, doing more with less is the essence of art. For instance the early Beatles records were recorded with one dynamic microphone in the middle of the room in mono.
A lot of my favorite music is recorded with pretty minimal means. My favorite artist Alastair Galbraith in New Zealand really does a lot with a violin, a guitar and tape loops and his voice.
So my deserted island setup would probably be just my viola and if I could bring my computer that would be great, too.
When playing a violin, you are able to add expression and emotion to your sound quite naturally and spontaneously via fine tactile input. Modular synths are often controlled without this kind of “touch” however. How do you feel about this? Do you miss certain controller types for modular synths, or is the often rather algorithmic approach to modular music-making a welcome change or even a challenge? In another interview you said that you mostly use software to program sound (was it csound?). Do you think that you can achieve a similar expressiveness in a live situation with program code as with knobs and faders?
I've mostly used supercollider for the last 10-15 years. I personally tend to use electronic sound structures as environments / processes that proceed sort of autonomously, sometimes in response to acoustic signals.
In both analog and digital systems, expressivity and depth of control are totally achievable. the kind of analysis-driven processes that I gravitate towards are much easier to achieve in the digital domain (e.g. with trivial access to frequency-domain / pitch / timbre analysis.) and on the other hand, direct response to gesture is fundamentally an analog thing.
There's a bit of a paradox in control design: you can make a system that is flexible and patchable, and highly responsive - but controlling responsivity takes practice. In an experimental environment it's cool to change up the gesture -> music linkage, but in I dunno, in more "traditional" music forms it actually seems helpful to have a sensitive but constrained set of gestures, and practice intensively with them. (consider the theremin for example.)
But yeah, for myself, real time control is not actually a big concern, since compositionally I tend towards static structures / minimalism in any case.
This is the end of part 1 of this interview.
Please come back for part 2 where we will talk about the current state of the industry around modular synthesizers, appreciating music and Ezra’s main artistic influences.
This is a link to the projects that Ezra participated in:
Ezra also a bandcamp page:
And he is a founding member of The Mae Shi, an experimental rock band from Los Angeles: