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Hugh Le Caine’s Visionary Electronic Music Instrument Designs

Interview with Canadian composer Gustav Ciamaga

Canadian composer, producer and broadcaster Norma Beecroft has compiled 23 transcribed interviews with prominent electroacoustic composers from the 1960s and 1970s in an eBook distributed by the Canadian Music Centre (CMC) in 2015. The book explores a variety of themes, including the rise of technologies including magnetic tape to computer, the establishment of prominent electronic music studios in Europe and North America, and the unique perspectives and motivations of towering figures in 20th-century music, among others. This unique collection features discussions with composers such as Pierre Schaeffer, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Hugh Davies. Beecroft also includes several interviews with Canadian colleagues: Gustav Ciamaga, Bill Buxton, James Montgomery, Barry Truax and Bengt Hambraeus. Beecroft’s well-informed and thoughtful approach to each interview allows the featured composers to elaborate on their own work as well as on the status of electronic music at the time. Conversations with Post World War II Pioneers of Electronic Music is a must-have for music enthusiasts and electronic music practitioners. 1[1. Visit the CMC website for a preview and excerpts of the book, and information on getting your own copy.]

In her interviews with Bill Buxton and Gustav Ciamaga, made in the late 1970s, Beecroft discusses Hugh Le Caine’s visionary electronic music instrument designs, and she has kindly allowed us to republish these interviews in this issue of eContact! celebrating Le Caine. Minor changes have been made in the text transcripts in view of their online publication. These and other interviews from the eBook are also available as a series of podcasts on the CMC website.

Gustav Ciamaga (* 10 April 1930 in London, Ontario; † 11 June 2011 in Toronto) was a senior voice in the field of electroacoustic composition in Canada, as illustrated by his writings and compositions using the resources of the tape studio and the computer. As a music educator on the faculty of the University of Toronto, he served as director of Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS), was chairman of the school’s theory and composition department, and was Dean of the faculty from 1977–1984. An honorary member of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, Ciamaga was a major collaborator with Hugh Le Caine, Canada’s pioneer in electronic music, in the design of instruments for electronic composition. Together they developed devices such as the Serial Sound Structure Generator, and his experiments with this apparatus resulted in a series of Two-Part Inventions. While Ciamaga’s compositions include many non-electronic works, since the mid-1960s his commitment to technological developments is revealed in his many works of that period.

[Norma Beecroft] Gus, first of all let’s talk about your relationship with Hugh Le Caine: when you first came in contact with him and the kind of relationship that you had in a working electronic music sense of the word.

[Gustav Ciamaga] I met Hugh Le Caine before I came to the University of Toronto, I knew him when I was still at the Brandeis University Electronic Music Studio.

Can you pinpoint it in time?

I came to Toronto in 1963, so I probably met Le Caine about 1960–61, somewhere in there. I corresponded with him, to Ottawa, back to Boston again. I met him in Canada on a few visits, but my relationship with him goes back to that time and not necessarily to the Toronto relationship. We were already talking electronic music, thinking about it, working on various aspects of electronic music. Probably very few people know that Hugh did contribute designs to the Brandeis University Studio. 2[2. For more on the professional relationship between Gustav Ciamaga and Hugh Le Caine, and on the history of the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS), see Ned Bouhalassa’s “Interview with Gustav Ciamaga,” published in eContact! 10.2 — Interviews 1.]

No I didn’t know that.

There were various things he did, I don’t remember what they were just now, but it was very natural for me to continue this relationship when I came to Toronto, because I also had a relationship with Myron Schaeffer, who was sort of the director of the Toronto studio and [that formed] a sort of a funny trinity of thinkers on electronic music.

Referring to yourself, Le Caine and Myron Schaeffer.

Yes.

But what, precisely, did Le Caine contribute to Brandeis?

One of the problems, one of the sort of the technical hitches in electronic music through the ’50s and in the early ’60s, was the design of an appropriate voltage-controlled amplifier, so you could create envelope shapes. The designs were very inferior and I had some ideas on this. Le Caine had even better ideas on this and he designed, in the early ’60s, for us at Brandeis, a very special voltage-controlled amplifier, which in turn became sort of a building block of other things that he was working on for Toronto, for McGill and his subsequent research.

Do you personally have any scientific background?

At that point in time I didn’t. I knew more about electronics than I do now, but one was sort of forced to learn this when you’re by yourself, in a situation like the one I was in. You had to find out about electronics and Le Caine was very helpful in this way.

Why did you have to find out about electronics?

I was responsible for designing a studio — I wasn’t inheriting one, I wasn’t coming to one, I had to start from scratch.

This is Brandeis again?

Yes.

There was nothing in existence before you set up that studio there?

No.

Why did they decide to set up a studio, what was the reasoning that there had to be a studio?

The teaching staff at Brandeis was personally affiliated with the Columbia-Princeton group — the Babbitts, Ussachevsky and Luening. They were very frequent visitors to Brandeis, particularly Ussachevsky and Babbitt, and it seemed appropriate to imitate the sister institution at many levels, including electronic music. Again, I don’t think many people realize that the second studio in the United States is probably Brandeis. I think the work in Illinois was never formalized at Yale until after the Brandeis studio. A curious bit of history. Yes, so in 1960 if you sought out information, you went to Babbitt, Ussachevsky and Luening. In Canada, you went to Hugh Le Caine. And I did all of those.

In the early days, as I remember, [we Canadian composers] went to Ussachevsky and Luening.

That’s right.

What was the actual date of the setting up of the studio, or when it actually became operative?

It probably didn’t become truly operative until about ’61–62; it’s very hard to pin down what you mean by an “operative studio”. Certainly the initial planning took place in 1959; some of the equipment was even acquired in 1959.

Was this dream of a Toronto studio something that was initiated by Myron Schaeffer or was it, in your memory, initiated by Dr. Arnold Walter?

Probably both. I think, in that period, Dr. Walter first came in contact with Hugh Le Caine, and Hugh Le Caine probably preached his message of electronic music, and coincidentally Myron Schaeffer took an interest to it. It’s hard to unsort what came first.

How can you explain Hugh Le Caine’s interest in developing machinery for musical purposes?

I think you even have to go further back in time. I mean I keep on referring to that 1959, 1960, but I think if you look at NRC papers and research reports you’ll see that Hugh Le Caine already had an interest in what one might call “electronic music” even in the ’40s. In the very early post-war years, Le Caine was already showing this interest. I think even further back than that Hugh Le Caine was showing primarily an interest in musical instrument design. It didn’t even have to be electronic; he had a version of a player piano which is very unique. I think he had ideas on how other traditional musical instruments could be modified, and the electronic thinking with instruments came second, but there’s no doubt this is a very, very important figure in electronic music internationally.

And I don’t think it’s ever really been properly documented or shown to the rest of the world what an important man this is. He was such a modest person, yet I remember as a young student composer hearing a CBC broadcast in 1951 or ’52 — on Sunday night, I think it was — and Hugh Le Caine was demonstrating the Sackbut. I remember being so startled because somehow or other on that occasion he played a Haydn string quartet on the Sackbut, and to my untrained ears (at that point) it was a very convincing synthesis of a string quartet. I think that the broadcast was then followed by early music from Paris — there was concrete music, it was sort of a feature, a Sunday night programme.

Was he one of the first people to be involved with the Paris developments?

He was certainly aware of what was happening in Paris and some of the instruments he developed in the ’50s owe a little bit to the Paris models; they were modeled on Parisian instruments and taken even further. But the Sackbut itself, in today’s parlance we would call it a synthesizer. And yet the common history of music suggests that the synthesizer is something coming from 1965 in Trumansburg, New York, [although] Hugh Le Caine certainly had a synthesizer in 1952, if not before then. Many of the sort of jargon terms that emerged, like “voltage-controlled this” and “voltage-controlled that”, you can see that Hugh Le Caine holds patents for every one of them with relationship to the Sackbut. So you know, he anticipated that by a good 15, 20 years, easily.

It was interesting, your colleague and friend Gottfried Michael Koenig said to me that he felt that actually electronic music really didn’t begin at the point of time that we thought it did — which was the late ’40s, with the Paris musique concrète developments — but it actually began in the ’20s, because all of those people involved in the electronic music developments literally came out of that particular period.

The whole twentieth century is dotted with experimental musical instruments based on the available technology, in some cases electricity, and consequently it fits an umbrella term: “electronic music”. Again, Le Caine was a walking encyclopaedia on this information. He could describe the instruments that were built and he could conjure up the kinds of sounds they made and he was an extremely important person. He was aware of experimental cinema, the particular techniques developed not only here, but [also] internationally, and in some ways they’re a little bit like electronic music too. They start off with similar approaches.

Koenig’s remark: would you agree with him then?

I think that a few years ago if you asked me that question — whether I agreed with Koenig or I had an alternate view — I could probably have answered you straightforwardly. Right now, I’m not sure I know how electronic music fits in the picture. I find talking with people, particularly in a teaching situation, that perhaps we’ve overstressed the sort of uniqueness of electronic music as part of the medium called “music”. I think we’ve perhaps overdone it a bit, so we pursue that along another line: we say that instrumental music has been influenced by electronic music. I believed that three or four years ago, I don’t believe it anymore, I don’t think.

I subscribe to an old view of electronic music: you start with a composer and not a technology.

What would you say the significance is of the developments?

So in a sense, maybe I do agree with Koenig, if you know what I’m getting at. That you just don’t pinpoint a year and say 1948 and say electronic music begins there. I think that you can say that electronic music is the sort of very logical consequence of developing new musical instruments that reflect the technology of the twentieth century.

The tape recorder wasn’t developed as a tool for the composer, if you consider that an instrument.

I don’t think it’s a musical instrument, but it makes a kind of musical composition possible that perhaps was not possible before. Some of the very early tape compositions don’t do much more than what phonograph recorders or disk recorders did before them. The very early pieces of Schaeffer could be done on tape or record, it really wouldn’t make much difference.

If, in essence, you were going to try to evaluate the field of electronic music, how would you evaluate its significance today? I mean, considering the number of phases and the point of development that we’re at (at this moment of time), is it is it important, is it significant?

At this point of time I don’t know. Again, I think it’s probably connected with my fuzzy thinking on “what is a tape recorder”, “what is recording tape”, “what is music”. It’s not going to go away, it’s very important, but I think it’s gotten to the point where we accept it, hence we don’t question its existence or why it came into existence or what it’s going to do. What we’ve become victims of is that we’ve combined an art with a technology, and if we examine one of them, the technology has, built within it, the idea of progress and something getting better and better, and always advancing technically. And so I think that’s one of our pitfalls. We expect that it should get better, or do something significant, because technology constantly does that. At the same time, the other side of the coin, perhaps maybe art has gotten into this too, that it always has to be something different — not necessarily better, but at least different. So it becomes very difficult to answer questions along these lines, predicting futures or evaluating presents. I subscribe to an old view of electronic music, which is that you have to start with a composer and not a technology, and I think you’ve heard me say this many, many times in relationship to a lot of things. I don’t think it matters on the one hand to a composer whether an oboe has a low A-flat or not. The low A-flat is technology: you make the oboe have an extra low note. Yet somehow or other we’ve confused the whole issue of composition in a tape studio and computers with this idea of advancement. The composer has always worked to limitations, and a good composer doesn’t care whether it goes faster, slower, or any other technological term you want to use. Composers have gotten trapped in this syndrome: the newness and the advancement of technology. No one really cares currently whether the oboe has a low A-flat or a G. You tell the composer what it can do and he writes for that limitation.

The fact that you have a new “instrument” doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to write a new music for it.

Similarly, I don’t think that the Cologne studio in 1952 is antiquated. It is a specification which favours the composer. It has so many of this, so many of that — compose. And I feel that way about computers also. Let’s go back to my oboe analogy. Webern wrote for the oboe, and Stockhausen, and Ligeti, and Mozart. They all adapted their style, their creative thinking, to the limitations of the instrument. I think we’ve gotten electronic music all confused with technology and compositional style. I mean it’s coincidental that it emerged in a post-Webern period, and not everybody in 1952 used an electronic music studio to compose in a Webern-like way. The fact that you have a new “instrument” doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to write a new music for it. It’s convenient to do so, but sooner or later in the process of doing it, you’re going to find that the new instrument, whatever it might be, does have limitations. And technology says I will make the instrument better for you, but that’s not going to make the composition any better. This is a very personal opinion.

A few years ago I read a paper called “Whatever Happened to Music I?” In the succession of music computer programmes, the best known early one was Music IV, then came Music V, Music VI, Music VII, Music 360, Music IV BF, and on and on and on. And my contention is that probably Music I was good enough for the composer. It was not good enough for the computer scientist, but if you gave a composer today Music I, he would write very good music with it and you cannot say that that music would be better or inferior than the music he would write for Music 360.

Let us say, that the composer is limited by his knowledge of what the machine is able to do. The machine itself could probably develop by having input from the composer, would you not say?

I don’t know, Norma. Did very many composers complain because a certain instrument…? Yeah, I guess they did, they preferred a lower note on the baritone saxophone, or something like that.

Why are they today trying to extend the possibilities and capabilities of all the existing instruments then?

I don’t know. I’m not. I don’t mind the way they exist. I think a lot of that has to do with another artistic trend or movement, and that is, the renewal — if he ever disappeared — of the virtuoso. Composers always sought out virtuosi, and this is just another something that he asks of the virtuoso, not only play very demanding music in a traditional way, but also in another way. But are you trying to relate this to electronic music and sound?

I think what I am really trying to ask you, do you agree that if the field develops at all, that there needs to be a further collaboration between the scientist and the musician?

I think if the field develops at all, it’ll be through a new type of person — he or she might already exist — who is both a technologist and a composer, and can make a significant contribution. I’ve known very few technologists who really understood art, the way a composer’s mind works. I’ve known very few composers who can make a contribution to technology. If you have someone like that, yes, they could extend development of instruments, both electronic and non-electronic. But again, Norma, I wonder (I’m going back to my personal view), is this really important? There is a whole tradition of composition that extends for thousands of years in which composers hadn’t the remotest idea of the engineering that went into their musical instrument, the one they were writing for. All of a sudden in the 1960s, we say you’ve got to know about these things. Who says so? I can imagine a composer writing for the various types of electronic music instruments — again, I don’t have a better word for it — without having the vaguest idea of why they work the way they do. There are very, very few composers right now who truly understand the musical acoustics of the normal instruments they write for, but this doesn’t deter them from writing well for those instruments. I guess that’s probably another sort of corner of this argument I was making before. It certainly doesn’t hurt to know how those instruments work, but I don’t think it is a necessary prerequisite to becoming a good electronic composer. Enough years have gone by that both you and I know that not every electronic composer has the same technical knowledge, and the ones that do have the superior technical knowledge aren’t necessarily the best electronic composers, either.

Are we in a period of assessment of the whole field at the moment?

Some of us obviously are. I’m sure that all of us have been assessing from the first day we touched a tape recorder or a computer. We’ve been assessing potentials, what it means to us, what it means to the music world at large, to the artist, to the listener. I’m sure that it’s preoccupied some of our thinking anyway. I think that there has been enough popularization of it that people take it for granted. Certainly the sort of modified use of electronics in the pop music scene would indicate that the world at large has accepted quite a bit of it. Norma, you and I have probably been part of half of contemporary electronic music history. We have done a lot of questioning and evaluating, and some days we play devil’s advocate, and some days we don’t. It depends on the situation. I think it’s significant that we both still like traditional instruments and would continue to write for them. We’d be a lot poorer if we didn’t have traditional musical instruments. Similarly, we’d be poorer for not having electronic music. The whole thing has been absorbed. The lines, the boundaries are very fuzzy from every standpoint: artistic, technological, sociological. It’s very difficult to talk about electronic music in 1978 as if it were something very special. I’m not sure this is going to revolutionize musical history. I think that it is important in the path of music history but there are surprisingly few musical instruments that we accept that come from our own century, when you think about it. All of that work was done before this century, ninety percent of it. There have been improvements in the 20th century, but somehow we view the output for these instruments side by side, it doesn’t matter what century they came from. We don’t say that a piece written for a contemporary flute is better than one written in the 19th century, even though the contemporary flute has better technology going for it. This is the kind of thing I guess I’ve been talking about, Norma, that’s my kind of view of what I am working with, and I will accept the limitations as they’re presented to me. If someone improves the technology, fine, I will go with it as a composer. I might not find that particular change necessary, but I’ll go with it.

That’s one point of view.

It certainly is!

A very specific point of view. We talked a little bit about the Toronto studio. What part in the development of the studio did Hugh Le Caine contribute specifically?

I guess the most important instrument that he designed — it wasn’t specifically for the Toronto studio — was the Multi-track Tape Recorder. 3[3. Kevin Austin describes the instrument in a little more detail in his contribution to the issue of eContact!, “Le Caine, Mirrored Through Memory.”]

But there were other things along the line. A lot of the designs weren’t necessarily major pieces of equipment. They were corners of things that could be used. When we were talking earlier, I said that he did work on voltage-controlled amplifiers and filters and oscillators and things like that. Certainly many of the corners of the Toronto studio were based on Le Caine designs. But in addition to the Multi-track Tape Recorder, I guess the next sort of large instrument he created especially for us was the Serial Structure Generator 4[4. Although the official name of the instrument was the Serial Sound Structure Generator, the majority of composers who have worked with it usually refer to it as the Serial Structure Generator. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Le Caine’s instruments were from the start designed as tools for composers to work with sound, and therefore the “Sound” part of its name is taken for granted. See the Hugh Le Caine website, designed by Gayle Young, for more information on the Serial Sound Structure Generator and other Le Caine instruments.], and then there are other things like the Sonde. In synthesizer jargon, the Serial Structure Generator was a sequencer, but even more important, it was a polyphonic sequencer. Most of the synthesizers, for a long period of time, were monophonic instruments, and in Hugh’s conception, it could be polyphonic, and [each of the voices] could interact with one another in very special ways. Today, probably one would do this with a computer, but at that point in time, that seemed to be a solution.

And what was that point of time, do you remember?

I think the initial work on [the Serial Structure Generator] started about ’65, ’66, and probably ended in the early ’70s.

What is your opinion about the whole development of synthesizers and their use?

They are tool to the composer. For some people they are a singular tool. For me, they are just one aspect of electronic music that happens to be a way of getting sounds out and onto tape; or not even onto tape, but live. But I don’t see anything wrong with a piece that uses old-fashioned tape techniques and synthesizers and computers simultaneously. You know this, Norma — It depends on the composer. I find it very easy to talk about significant pieces produced in tape studios; I find it very difficult to talk about significant pieces produced on a synthesizer. The household name, the Moog Synthesizer, is best known for transcriptions of Bach and Monteverdi and Mussorgsky. And yet some of the other house brand synthesizers, there have been good pieces done on them; in particular the work that Subotnik did on the Buchla Synthesizer I think is significant. Subotnik would be a good composer on anybody’s synthesizer; that happens to be the one he chose.

Let’s go beyond the Toronto studio. The Montréal studio was set up following Toronto.

I believe that’s true. They’re pretty close in time. Hugh Le Caine was very active in advising and contributing to the McGill studio. I think the way Hugh worked went something like this: Hugh would have an idea, a very general idea of a way of creating music with electronic devices. He would try it out on you and solicit feedback. Once he got enough feedback, he would then go to the drawing board and then he had this uncanny knack of coming back to you, having anticipated all the things you would have asked for anyway — he was always five steps ahead of you. So he would work on many of these projects simultaneously. So if he was getting ideas from me, he was working on the Serial Structure Generator and simultaneously he might have been cooking up something with Anhalt at McGill. 5[5. See James Montgomery and Gayle Young’s interview with István Anhalt, “Being Allowed to Make “Mistakes” While Composing Electronic Music With Hugh Le Caine’s Instruments,” also in this issue of eContact!, for some fascinating and engaging perspectives on the growth of electronic music in Canada, as well as on his work with Le Caine at the NRC and their subsequent collaboration after Anhalt founded the McGill Electronic Music Studio.] So, it wasn’t a matter of how much time he spent with anybody, he was very generous with his time with anybody who sought his advice and help.

Gus, there is something that interests me. I begin to feel that in this country we have a great abundance of people who are involved in the electronic music field in one way or the other, perhaps disproportionate to the population of the country, if you compare it to the United States. I am rather interested in this as a phenomenon.

It’s a curious one. Side tracking a bit, I think it’s very interesting that some of the computer music development at the Utrecht studio was done by two Canadians. This still sort of intrigues me. But certainly, you know, when you have a group of people in Canada meeting to discuss computers, it’s an incredible think tank, to think that a country of this size can produce so many knowledgeable people all at once. I can’t explain it. You’re right, it is sort of disproportionate.

[NB] Again. The whys?

[GC] I think perhaps, at least in the computer sense, the scholar, the student, the composer, or whatever you want to call him within the university… You know, every university, whether it’s in the United States, or in France, or wherever, it does have a computer, but for some reason, those people who’ve been interested in music have, in Canada at least, had some access to it, or at least access to people who would help them, if not the computer itself. But again, you have to remember that scattered throughout Canadian universities are some of the best computer scientists in the world. So that may have something to do with it.

Thank you, Gus.

You’re very welcome, Norma.

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