Hugh Le Caine and the McGill EMS
The centenary of the birth of Hugh Le Caine was celebrated in a special event presented by the Music Gallery and the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto on 30 May 2014. Hosted by Le Caine specialist Gayle Young, “100 Years of Hugh Le Caine” was held at the Music Gallery and featured presentations by several guest speakers on this Canadian inventor and instrument builder, as well as a concert programme around Le Caine’s artistic creations. In this issue of eContact! we are pleased to publish presentations given by Robert Aitken, Norma Beecroft, alcides lanza and Pauline Oliveros at the event.
Hugh Le Caine was an inventor of genius. With interests based in music and technology, he developed units to produce electronic sounds, to process and transform them, and to assemble them without resorting to splicing tapes — the prevalent technical approach of the times (1960s and 1970s). His vision also brought him to design the Special Purpose Tape Recorder (later renamed the Multi-track), which was a very early sample playback machine.
The Electronic Music Studio (EMS) was founded at the Faculty of Music at McGill University in 1964 under the initiative of Professor István Anhalt. 1[1. In 2003, the EMS was renamed the Digital Composition Studio (DCS), under the direction of Sean Ferguson.] At the time, it was practically impossible to buy commercial electronic machinery, so the EMS was very fortunate that it was built from the start utilizing available Le Caine machinery.
Among the units that Le Caine sent to McGill at the time were:
- Oscillator Bank (1957–59). This unit, built in 1961, consisted of 24 wave generators (sine, square, pulse and sawtooth waves) that could be controlled by a touch-sensitive keyboard.
- Tone Mixture Generator (1965). This very special unit consisted of 13 sine tone generators, each equipped with pitch and amplitude controls, and able to produce complex clusters and glissandi over a two-octave range.
- Multi-track (1955–67). The first model of this machine, known as the Special Purpose Tape Recorder (1957), had six mono tape recorder heads. Since a tape loop or a complete reel of tape could be read by each head, the user could control a mix of six different recorded sound sources. The unit at McGill (1964 model) had 10 stereo heads, hence a potential for 20 different channels of recorded information. A keyboard controller was attached to the unit, but solely for speed variation control.
- Serial Sound Structure Generator (1967). The SSSG was based on the “serial switch” concept used in early automatic telephone switchboards. Separate modules stored sequences applied to four musical aspects of sound events: duration, pitch, envelope and timbre. All sequences were stored and coordinated by “Timers”, also designed by Le Caine.
- Polyphonic Synthesizer (1970). The Poly, or Pauli, was a polyphonic analogue synthesizer, each key having a dedicated VCO, with independently variable frequency and waveshape.
There were also units like the Filter Bank, a set of octave filters arranged in banks of six, named as A, B, C, etc.), and a voltage-controlled filter with hi-pass and low-pass options.
Sequences were run by Le Caine’s Timers, with 13 selector push buttons and looping settings. Using the units in series allowed composers to have up to 39 notes under control, for pitch or amplitude, etc.
Another innovative device was the Spectrogram, a unit that could produce sound by “reading” drawings on graph paper. These drawings acted as “on” or “off” switches activating many of the Le Caine units available in the same room.
I have always felt privileged in having had many opportunities to interact with Hugh Le Caine. We first met around 1968 in Toronto during an electronic music conference. I was living in New York then, working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. My former teacher and mentor, Vladimir Ussachevsky told me, “You must go to Toronto to this conference. And you must meet Hugh Le Caine.” We met and visited the UTEMS studio (University of Toronto EMS). Later on we met again in Montréal, particularly when he came — as a visiting professor — to enlighten us on the use of his latest creation, the Polyphonic Synthesizer. We teachers and students referred to it as “the Poly,” short for polyphonic, or “the Pauli,” referring to Paul Pedersen, at whose suggestion Le Caine had created the machine (1970). 2[2. See Paul Pederson’s article on “Hugh Le Caine’s Polyphonic Synthesizer” in this issue of eContact!] Le Caine did not talk too much; he was more expressive in moving his hands, cables and connectors than he was in talking. He did two presentations on the use of the Poly, during which we all had our notebooks and pens ready — his inventions came with no “Users Manual”. Le Caine proceeded to say “Hmmm… hmmm… hmmm… hmmm,” while he moved around cables, connecting the different operations on the face of the machine: ring modulation, several oscillators, mixing, control of envelopes, etc. Well, not much for oral expression, but we managed to come out of the proceedings with some notions as to what was possible to do with the Poly.
During the 1970s, I taught the use of the Le Caine units at the McGill EMS. I also used the reverb units encased within the Multi-track. Easy. The EMS not having any other good echo chamber at the time, those stereo reverb units (spring reverb of high quality) in the Multi-track were of much interest to me. Another one of my favourites was the Tone Mixture Generator. What a pleasure it was to be able to dial up a “chord” of electronic square or sine waves using up to thirteen different oscillators, with all controllable via a rotating crank to effect transpositions or continuous glissandi. Nothing similar to that had ever existed in the world of analogue machines. During the last year of his life, he had begun to work in the area of digital synthesis, using a first-generation Apple desktop computer.
After Le Caine passed away in 1977, it became difficult to service the machinery he had created. Units had to go to Ottawa for repairs, and the world of vacuum tubes and early telephone connectors was quickly disappearing. The EMS was evolving, and after we acquired the Moog Synthesizer, the studios began extensive use of voltage-controlled technology, followed by MIDI and eventually entering the digital world of today. As a result of that, when the Hugh Le Caine Project came about 3[3. In 1978, the members of the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (Toronto) set up the Hugh Le Caine Project to publicize the achievements of this pioneer of electroacoustic music.], it was agreed to donate all the Le Caine machines at the McGill EMS to the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa. That is the place where the machines are kept, and at times one or two units are part of current exhibits. At my initiative a few student trips were made to the Museum to visit the collection, with the machines shown in a large warehouse. Those trips had students from all our electronic music and composition classes, plus students and professors from Concordia University and from Université de Montreal. Our last visit, ca. 1990, was filmed; the complete session (ca. 120 min.) can be watched at the Museum. 4[4. An excerpt of this visit, with the author presenting Le Caine’s Multi-track, can be viewed on colegiocompositores’ YouTube channel.]
But on several occasions we have honoured Le Caine’s work at the Schulich School of Music by recording his music, as we did on the double-CD McGill Electronic Music Studio 35th Anniversary (McGill Records, MR2001), and through special concerts, such as the one at Tanna Schulich Hall on 15 November 2009, marking the 50th anniversary of the first electronic music concert held in Canada. 5[5. These concerts rendered homage to all the EMS Directors from 1964 until 2002. On the programme were works by Le Caine, István Anhalt, Paul Pedersen, Bengt Hambraeus and alcides lanza.]