My residency was to help me develop the Buchla Lightning II Midi Conducting Rods, a legendary early infra-red sensor instrument http://www.buchla.com/lightning/index.html , along with LiSa, into a viable perfoming tool, in particular for live improvisation. This period of residency was very valuable for me as a chance to disappear into the dark hole of studio 2 and concentrate in the software aspects: something I have great resistance to in my normal life. And also to exchange ideas with the STEIM team and to get on hand support for LiSa when I needed it. Most of my time was spent experimenting with programming the Buchla and LiSa to find ways that makes some kind of intuitive sense to me and give me a variety of controls derived from gestures necessary to make an instrument capable of complex and varied improvisations.
I need an instrument that can be very precisely controlled that I can use to interact with other musicians, for example Grutronic http://www.myspace.com/grutronicmusic: shown here playing with Mr. Evan Parker.
But I also want an instrument that surprises me, that remains interesting and doesn’t lead me to the same sounds every time I use it
What I developed so far is not quite the minimal wholly wireless system I was invisaging after the orientation period a year ago. I imagined having no table in front of me and just standing there with the buchla wands, but this would involve a heck of a lot of hardware modification and would maybe leave me wired up like a xmas tree. At the moment I am free of any wiring at all: I just have two sticks to wave about in the air and it feels very free and liberating – so it seems a shame to spoil that. At least at this point I really don’t want to get into building or hacking hardware, I think there would be too many issues with power supplits transmitters etc and besides, I have enough problems keeping these old buchla’s working as it is without drilling big holes in them. What I have now for performing now is practical and it works pretty well. It combines the Buchla, faderfox controller also using an Akai MPC and a couple of Korg Kaoss pads: sometimes augmented with a kalimba, nord modular, my cute custom analog suitcase synth:
and a cracklebox for example. Also Moog, Eventide and Vesta Kaza processors if I can carry them. Its all pretty visceral and body based and I can have the computer screen closed when performing which is important: as watching people who are 100% visually involved with their screens onstage is definitely not my idea of fun. At the moment I’m using mostly analogue modular sounds sampled to hard disc: ultimately I’d like to combine this with live sampling too.
Performing with the Buchla at the STEIM organised concert on May 30th was a little bit premature but it also put a pressure on me to develop something very quickly which in the end was quite mad and funny and i think worked out pretty well. I have performed with the Buchla many times but never along with LiSa, or with any other computer progam for that matter. My Faderfox controller was kind enough to die on me the next morning, rather than 2 minutes before the gig: which, from my experience, is normally when things decide to breakâ€¦
The residency has also left me with an overview of a how I would go about constructing a live sampling patch and how I could use that to interact with other musicians. Also discussions with Frank and Taku generated some new ideas about working with a sequencer in conjunction with the Lightning, the Faderfox and LiSa: early experiments were surprisingly hard to control. I also think it could be worth my exploring Junxion and the Nintendo wii controller. Junxion could me a much more elegant solution to the mess of midi mapping I have to do. The wii can probably not replace all of the Buchla’s functions but it could certainly augment them and maybe replace one of the wands. One weakness of the Buchla is that it has very few button encoders. Despite my appeals to Mr Buchla to add a bunch of switches to the forthcoming and long, long overdue Lightning III, he told me he won’t add much significant to the existing Lightning II functionality.
In the end of course its more than a bunch of hardware and software, its an instrument and I’ll need to test out the programming and practise with it in different contexts over the coming months: all this programming stuff is fine, but its all ideas really – what might seem useful locked away in a studio and what is really useful onstage with other musicians are often not the same. So I still have to get to grips with performing on this thing, and developing the mixture of control and abandon that I would like to achieve, which really isn’t that easy. I think I will never try to play Charlie Parker tunes on it.
I don’t actually know of anyone who has ever really mastered the Buchla Lightning. There is hardly any documentation or recordings. In fact the only person I have ever heard playing it is me – which is refreshing and also unnerving. When I first found came across it I felt like it was magic and somehow made especially for me. That feeling hasn’t left me yet. Its taken me years to get to point where I feel I know what it is for and am comfortable performing with it, but I am beginning to put the pieces together. I’m sure there is a lot of work still ahead but I am happy to got this far. I hope I can go back to STEIM to carry on this work in the near future.
Apart from the odd phone conversation with Mr Buchla I have felt strangely alone and in outer space when working with it and concieving of what it could do and what I want to do. But for some reason I have taken on this challenge: to the point that it now feels like it is becoming my main performing instrument. It has been very helpful to go to STEIM and feel that what I am doing with the buchla is relatively normal – I can honestly say its the only place I know where i feel that way.
Here’s a quite funny little clip from a Berlin Salon Bruit gig with Caretakers made a few days after the residency:
Thanks go to the UK Arts Council of Great Britain for financial support for this project.