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As the first electronic music studios in Canada were being conceived, their directors didn’t consult a catalogue and order commercially produced instruments and gear — they headed to Ottawa to meet Hugh Le Caine, whose pioneering electronic instrument designs played an important role in the formation of early generations of electronic music composers in Canada.

Although certainly mentioned in the history books, Le Caine’s name does not stand out like the Moogs, Buchlas, Serges or Yamahas in the history and industry of electronic music instruments. His creations were never commercially produced, essentially remaining prototypes, and the majority of people today working in the field know of them only through word of mouth, books and articles, or perhaps through a visit to Ottawa’s Science and Technology Museum, where many of his creations are now housed. 1[1. See Gayle Young, “Hugh Le Caine: In Context, 2004” in eContact! 6.3 — Questions en électroacoustique / Issues in Electroacoustics (2003–04), for more details on his personal and professional life.]

His life and career straddle a number of important events and changes in the Western world. Born the year World War I broke out, he grew up in the electro-mechanical era. He completed his studies and began working at the National Research Council (NRC) in the early years of World War II, developing the Sackbut, widely considered to be the first synthesizer, in the mid-1940s. Using a single sound source, a drop of water, in 1955 he composed Dripsody using (and showing off!) his Multi-track, the first version of an instrument that would soon become the centrepiece of electronic music studios (EMS) founded at the University of Toronto (1959) and at McGill University (Montréal, 1964). Until the mid-1960s only a handful of people would pass through — or rather, be given access to — these studios, but around 1966 this changed, and the studios quickly became more accessible, with small classes instead of individual students now using the studios.

The exponentially growing student body — the Quiet Revolution and the creation of CÉGEPs being decisive factors for this growth in Québec — was only one facet of the revolutionary changes in society that emerged out of the late 1960s, but it is indeed a key factor in the development of the broader history of electronic music and electroacoustic practices. At McGill, for example, Kevin Austin recalls that “in 1965 the Faculty of Music had 80 students, 50 of whom were first year,” and that in 1970 “something on the order of 300–400” students were studying there — the tail end of the first crop of university-educated baby boomers. The “direct descendants” of Le Caine were to become the teachers and studio directors that educated this new generation of students in Toronto and, to an extent, in Montréal, and initiated those interested into the rapidly evolving world of electronic music. But they were also amongst the people who founded cornerstone institutions in Canadian electroacoustic and contemporary music history, such as the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, New Music Concerts, MetaMusic, the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, Two New Hours…

The arrival of the Moog synthesizer, the Buchla and many other developments in the years around 1970 were outgrowths of fundamental shifts in thinking about what the studio represented, how it was be used (and by whom) and what was to be produced there. In the early 1970s, the widespread availability of new voltage-controlled apparatuses 2[2. Although Le Caine had developed some voltage-controlled devices as early as the 1940s, these were never a primary area of his research.] signalled the new direction EMS productions were taking, and Le Caine’s instruments, despite having been designed with performance in mind, no longer occupied the primary position of the studios in which they were found.

Soon thereafter, digital technologies for electronic music, which for various reasons Le Caine was not comfortable with, became more widely adopted. At the same time, he felt that rather than the control of the instruments, it was the understanding of sound, psychoacoustics, that now needed to be addressed. But before he could begin to explore this avenue, in 1974, upon learning his project was to be terminated upon his retirement, he resigned from the NRC. 3[3. The situation is of course too complex to be addressed here. The reader is encouraged to consult Gayle Young’s The Sackbut Blues for a more extensive discussion of this period in Le Caine’s life and work.] The instruments became increasingly difficult to service three years later, following the death of their principal technician: the inventor himself.

In this collection of texts — celebrations of the centenary of Hugh Le Caine and interviews with his colleagues  — we explore the history of electronic music in Canada in the era of Hugh Le Caine. His legacy is perhaps best understood not so much as being the instruments he created and left behind — as is the case with other figures in electronic music history — as it is the calibre and breadth of his critical thinking, his inquisitive nature, frankness and honesty, that many of his colleagues, students and friends have inherited.

Through personal anecdotes about the man/scientist/inventor/composer, commentaries about working in an EMS in the 1960s and 1970s, and interviews with people who worked directly with him, even founded these early studios, we hope to give an idea of the “quiet legacy” of this Hugh Le Caine, considered to be the “grandfather of electronic music” in Canada.

“Say what you want and I will build it for you.”

Virtually anyone who was in contact with Hugh Le Caine praises the fact that he regularly solicited feedback from users: “What do you want? What would you like to have and how would you like it to work?” Perhaps the most important example of this symbiotic engineer-user relationship was “Hugh Le Caine’s Polyphonic Synthesizer,” a voltage-controlled unit built in 1970 at the request of Paul Pedersen, who had expressed concerns about the limitations of working with monophonic synthesizers on the market at the time, such as the Moog.

Le Caine’s approachable nature extended to the personal level as well, as Pauline Oliveros recalls: “What do you need and what do you want to know?” While she was “Composing with Hugh Le Caine’s Special Purpose Tape Recorder at UTEMS in 1966,” she found that his kindness and the generosity he showed in sharing his knowledge created “a very welcome atmosphere to be in.” However, James Montgomery, interviewed by Gayle Young, suggested that “Hugh Le Caine’s Virtuosity in Electronics” meant that some users couldn’t keep up to him, that “the ideas that people came up with weren’t anywhere near as good as the ideas that [Hugh] had.” It was not uncommon that Le Caine’s response to the feedback he received was to improve on the ideas and return with a new machine, or a new version of a machine, that even addressed developments or needs in electronic music that the users hadn’t foreseen.

The close relationship between “Hugh Le Caine and the McGill EMS” has to do in part with the regular visits he made to the studio to demonstrate and service various pieces of his machinery, from its founding by István Anhalt in 1964 into the mid-1970s. As alcides lanza explains, the studio was initially equipped almost entirely with apparatuses donated by Le Caine from ELMUS, the Electronic Music Laboratory he led at the NRC. The University of Toronto EMS also had such a relationship with the instrument inventor and designer, and Le Caine’s name is therefore inseparably linked to the founding and early history of the first two university-based electronic music studios in Canada.

UTEMS and Le Caine’s Instruments in the 1960s

Through their recollections and anecdotes, composers who passed through UTEMS help us build an image of what it was like to work in an electronic music studio in the 1960s. In the earliest days of the Toronto studio, there was no defined curriculum, so the first students given access had to teach themselves to some extent how to work in this relatively new medium. Along with fellow student Paul Pedersen, Robert Aitken was given the task of cataloguing tape loops used on the Multi-track. Composing on Hugh Le Caine’s instruments in UTEMS ca. 1962 then became an exercise in “Learning How to Listen” that turned out to be one of his most important learning experiences. The studio matured throughout the 60s and when its Director Gustav Ciamaga gave a summer class in electronic music in 1966, some students travelled great distances to attend it — Pauline Oliveros from San Francisco, Ivan Tcherepnin from Cambridge and R. Murray Schafer from Vancouver, for example.

Norma Beecroft had produced her first tape piece at Columbia-Princeton two years prior to that class — although her interest in electronic music went back as far as 1956 — and by 1977 had produced seven major works involving tape, synth and/or live electronics. “Remembering Hugh Le Caine,” Beecroft tells us that in 1967 she was composing her second tape piece in UTEMS’ Studio C and enlisted Aitken to provide flute sounds for the tape part and to play the flute part in the premiere; their professional collaboration would continue as they founded New Music Concerts four years later. That same year, Richard Henninger was among the grad students working in Studio A and in 1968 he was appointed to the Faculty of Music and given access to Studio C. His experiences “Composing with Hugh Le Caine’s Fabulous Inventions in the University of Toronto’s Studio C, circa 1969” led to the creation of a large work that was, in effect, “a grand tour” of the diverse sounds and performative potentialities afforded by Le Caine’s inventions.

Le Caine’s presence at the Toronto studios was common: “Hugh made a point of making himself available to the students. He wanted to know what he could do to help us work more effectively in the studio to create electronic music.” David Jaeger, in “Remembering Hugh,” recalls that it was “the power of his mind, his imagination, his technical ability and his ability to create” that astounded him and others. This mixture of technical and creative talent inspired Jaeger, and many others over the years, in their exploration of the medium of electronic music.

Electronic Music History(ies)

In “Le Caine, Mirrored Through Memory,” Kevin Austin gives a broad portrait of the situation of the handful of electronic music practitioners based in Canada through the 1960s: “Up until the early 1970s, every EMS was a unique environment.” And while commonalities existed, notably in terms of the Le Caine equipment furnishing the studios in Montréal, Toronto and, later, Kingston, “every studio had to be learned.” Austin is not alone in emphasizing the important changes that would occur in the composer-studio-designer relationship during the early 1970s. The generalized internationalization of both the “influential centres of electronic music” around the world as well as electronic music instrument production occurred in unison with major shifts in artistic practices and interests; these would forever change the landscape of not only electronic music practices, but also the role of the studio itself. The changes are far too numerous to address in one article, let alone an entire publication, but an idea of the rapid complexification of the milieu can be gleaned just by comparing the activities of the close “relations” of any important figure in electronic music. To this end, your Editor, jef chippewa, has compiled “An Artistic Genealogy of Hugh Le Caine 1939–1989,” showing the impact the inventor-composer and his “immediate successors” had on the early generations of electronic music in Canada.

Jumping forward a few decades, in their video documentary, “‘MODULO’, A Musical Documentary and Tribute to Hugh Le Caine,” Travis Boisvenue and Ryan Paul Gibson take a quick look at the modern world of analogue modular synth designers and performers before looking back at the inventions of Le Caine. During a visit to the Canada Science and Technology Museum 4[4. Originally named the National Museum of Science and Technology], where many of them are stored, Mike McGrath (Muff Wiggler) mentions that we are today familiar with music made using purely electronic means, but emphasizes the importance of recognizing Le Caine as one of the early inventors who built the machines that would make such practices possible.


We are extremely fortunate to be able to include in this issue extensive interviews with two people who worked directly with Hugh Le Caine on the formation and development of Canada’s first two major electronic music studios. Their first-hand accounts provide an exceptional documentation of a unique time in electronic music history. István Anhalt had contact with Le Caine beginning in 1957 and founded the McGill EMS in 1964. In an interview by James Montgomery and Gayle Young, he gives fantastic descriptions of how he used the various Le Caine machines to compose several electronic works from 1959 — while a “Visiting “Scientist” at the NRC — into the 1970s. He also describes, in “Being Allowed to Make ‘Mistakes’ While Composing Electronic Music With Hugh Le Caine’s Instruments,” the steps that were necessary to gain experience in the nascent field of electronic music before the Toronto and McGill studios were opened in Canada.

Gustav Ciamaga took over the direction of the University of Toronto EMS in 1965, following Myron Schaeffer’s death, and oversaw not only the transition of the studio into a more accessible format but also its maturity into a world-class studio that attracted students from across Canada and the USA. Interviewed by Norma Beecroft he discusses “Hugh Le Caine’s Visionary Electronic Music Instrument Designs,” which were constantly evolving to meet the immediate needs — and anticipate the future needs — of their users. But they also engage in discussions around what actually constitutes “technology” and the possible confusion between technology and compositional style.

In another of Beecroft’s many interviews with international electroacoustic composers who were active in the 1960s and 1970s, she talks with Bill Buxton, whose research reflects an interest in “Privileging the Human Aspect of Electronic and Computer Music Systems.” He believes there to be “an idiomatic form of writing for technology,” but nevertheless feels it is important to reflect on the role of the machine when designing systems in the service of electronic musicians. Like Le Caine, Buxton’s goal has always been to improve upon the capacity of existing technologies, to find solutions to the things in technology he is dissatisfied with.

Whereas Buxton feels that Hugh Le Caine’s work did not become more widely recognized has to do with the fact that he worked for and ultimately answered to a government institution, Gayle Young feels — as do others — that his situation could have been different if there had been a musician with which to associate his instruments, as was the case with the Moog Synthesizer and Wendy Carlos. The mandate of the NRC was, however, to design new instruments, not to mass-produce existing ones. In an interview Ryan Paul Gibson made with her while preparing the documentary MODULO, mentioned above, she summarizes some of the points made in her preeminent biography on Hugh Le Caine, The Sackbut Blues.

I am greatly indebted to Gayle Young and Kevin Austin not only for their contributions, but also, especially, for their assistance, comments and clarifications, which provided invaluable help in mounting this issue and building the narrative. They, along with Nadene Thériault-Copeland and Darren Copeland from New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA), and the Canadian Music Centre’s Matthew Fava, were also instrumental in the organization of the two events at which the main corpus of this issue was initially presented: “100 Years of Hugh Le Caine” (CMC/Music Gallery, 30 May 2014) and the Special Session at the 2014 Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium, “A Noisome Pestilence — An Afternoon of Hugh Le Caine” (CEC/NAISA/CMC, 17 August 2014).

We hope you enjoy reading these entries on Canada’s “grandfather” of electronic music and encourage you to check out his compositions on, the CEC’s online Jukebox for electroacoustic practices.

jef chippewa
21 January 2016

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