Acclaimed composer-performer Joseph Martin Waters, whose “trans-classical” ensemble Swarmius serves up a singular multicultural, multi-genre musical mix-up, had a special understanding of the late electronic music pioneer Don Buchla.
“He invented brilliant and original electronic interfaces and synthesizers that explored new ways for electronic music performers to attain the subtlety and richness of expression possible with traditional instruments,” says Waters, himself an electronic music composer, and professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University.
“Think for a moment how difficult it is to play the violin,” continues Waters. “There are many jokes about the horrible noises emerging from beginning musicians torturing their instruments and their parents! But the slow mastery of the wild little beast transforms the violin over many years eventually into a powerful artistic weapon in the hands of a magician, one able to pull and twist emotions like salt water taffy.”
In addition to composing, Buchla, who died Sept. 14 at 79, manufactured and mastered his own instruments, including a random voltage-controlled modular synthesizer that he called Source of Uncertainty. His goal was to create new sounds out of his devices, these also including the Music Easel (he named a quintet of Music Easel players the Electric Weasel Ensemble), Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator, and the Buchla Box.
“People of the Amazon believed their instruments to be supernatural creatures,” notes Waters. “Those are the kinds of electronic music instruments Buchla aimed for. They were rare and hand-built, and prized by those who could get their hands on them. I was fortunate to have access to one called Thunder about 15 years ago for a few months: It was a midi interface essentially, but quite unique in that it required you to put your palms on the surface–which looked like something out of the hieroglyphics in an Egyptian pyramid, or maybe Mayan Stone carvings–and it reacted to the pressure points from various fingers and various points of the hand. It was very cool!”
Waters returns to New York with Swarmius this Friday for a show at the Cutting Room, opening for Frank Zappa alumni Ike Willis and Don Preston and their current undertaking Project/Object: The Music Of Frank Zappa featuring Willis and Preston. The Zappa-influenced Waters’ Swarmius, in a quintet configuration (conductor/programmer Waters, saxophonists Todd Rewoldt and Michael Couper, pianist Geoffrey Burleson and keyboardist/vocalist Toni James) likened by the founder to “a kind of extreme sports for music,” will perform new material from its forthcoming album Swarmius III—Trans-Classical–likely in the mold of previous Swarmius recordings combining syncopated Afro-American rhythms of rock, jazz, hip hop and salsa fused with classical and layered with complex polyrhythmic textures.