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Hugh Le Caine’s Virtuosity in Electronics

Interview with Canadian composer James Montgomery

This telephone interview from March 1982 is one of a series of interviews done by Gayle Young, sometimes with Jim Montgomery collaborating, as part of her research for The Sackbut Blues: Hugh Le Caine, Pioneer in Electronic Music, an essential reference on the Canadian inventor, instrument designer and composer, which she first published in 1989. The following text is a transcript of the original audio of the interview (Audio 1) with only slight revisions in view of its online publication in eContact!

Jim Montgomery began his music studies as a horn player and completed a Bachelor of Music (performance and composition) at the Baldwin Wallace College Conservatory of Music. He has been involved with electroacoustic music since 1970, when he came to the University of Toronto as a Graduate student in composition of Gustav Ciamaga and John Weinzweig. He is a founding member of the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, the world's longest-lived electroacoustic group, and continues to be active with them. As an Arts Administrator he served as Managing Director of the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (1976–83), Administrative Director of New Music Concerts (1984–87) and Artistic Director of the Music Gallery (1988–2005). A past president of the Canadian League of Composers, Jim currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Canadian New Music Network (CNMN) as Secretary. He has also been a lecturer in the Faculty of Education of the University of Toronto, where he designed the course in electronic media.
http://www.canadianelectronicensemble.com

Audio 1 (10:37). Gayle Young interviews Canadian composer James Montgomery about Hugh Le Caine in March 1982.

[Gayle Young] You mentioned to me that Hugh [Le Caine] had talked to you when you were a student at University of Toronto about what you wanted, and I don’t really remember the exact details of what he said.

[James Montgomery] There are three conversations with him that stick in my mind. One of them was a sort of general thing — he came down to the studio, which he did on a fairly regular basis during those years, and he talked about what was going on at that time with the ELMUS labs. And essentially, he asked us what we thought would be interesting to have, in terms of instruments to play with. The thing I remember the most is that the ideas that people came up with weren’t anywhere near as good as the ideas that he had [Laughter], which I think was kind of frustrating to him. Because once they got the Paramus 2[2. A hybrid synth combining digital controls, graphics on screen and analogue generators, developed at the NRC.], that sort of became the main direction for ELMUS. I think basically they just couldn’t think fast enough to project what the demands would be [for electronic music]. I was doing a radio documentary on him, and we’d had a very long interview in the studio. In that situation, of course, you’re really on it. He was a remarkably decent kind of person, in addition to being this wizard with electronic stuff. He had a remarkable sense of self-effacement.

Yes, I noticed that.

Other people who were doing the kind of technological innovations that he was doing — then and now — usually [have] a very healthy ego, not particularly for bad reasons. It usually supports either some kind of compositional or performance career aspirations that go along with it. But he [had to be] dragged into writing music, or performing. You had to practically kick him to get him to do things. He was very self-effacing about [his own] compositions. [Although he was] a fine keyboard player, even getting him just to play was hard. [Laughter] He wouldn’t do it, most of the time.

I remember one time having a three-way conversation with [another composer who] came up with this idea, which was essentially silly. It was sort of a Buck Rogers idea of electronic music composition, and an instrument that would result. In that situation, confronted with silly ideas, he usually made it clear that he considered it so [foolish]. [Laughter] So he could be quite brusque in that respect.

Well, there was a guy at the Council who wanted to take over the computer music programme. Apparently the [sound generator] was very unstable in the upper register pitches and he wanted to extend it to the 25th overtone or something. And he was [repeatedly] playing this overtone way, way, way out of tune and didn’t even notice. And Hugh just cut him off. [Laughter] It didn’t turn out to be too good for Hugh, because this guy turned out to be promoted within the ranks of the NRC. That kind of got him in trouble.

Figure 1. The Electronic Sackbut, developed by Hugh Le Caine in his home lab between 1943–45.

Well, I think that the thing that he had, that most people didn’t have then — and in fact you haven’t seen it until quite recently in what is commercially available in instrument design — is the ability to take what are traditional performance skills and transduce them into an electronic media. He was thinking about using the skills that existed a long time before other people were. I’m speaking about the end of the ’60s and early ’70s, when most everybody was still thinking about developing new performance skills. We used to talk about virtuosity in electronics in those days, and what we meant was people who could turn knobs and twirls switches [Laughter] better than other people could do, which had nothing to do with any kind of traditional performance skill. He was the only one who was really trying to make it “comfortable” in the electronic world.

But I guess he was looking for some way of extending that, if he was asking you for ideas. I can see that if I had been asked that I would have a tremendous problem.

That was the main impression. You had all these people working away and they can’t think anywhere near as fast as this guy does. And he’s asking them for advice! It was kind of sad, in a way.

Sad that he was asking and not relying on his own instincts?

Yeah, but also sad in a global sense, that this was the way things went. You think about really creative people, and a lot of time they’re in a situation where they’re just out in a vacuum by themselves. Nobody else has any idea of what they are talking about.

Yeah, that’s too bad.

It would be a gross exaggeration to say that I knew him well, but [I have the impression that Le Caine did suffer in that way]. It is kind of sad.

Well the last chapter in the book 3[3. This interview was part of Gayle Young’s research for her book on Le Caine, The Sackbut Blues, published in 1989.] is real sad, there is all kinds of sad stuff in there.

You always had the feeling when you are talking with him, when you were dealing with him — and I’m sure you had this, too — that there is all this incredible potential, and all kinds of different directions [that he could have taken]. The ultimate assessment has to be that a lot of it just didn’t get to the field. And he knew that better than anybody else.

Did he give talks at that time, while you were a student? At one point he gave about four seminars a year at McGill and U of T.

No, I was [studying at University of Toronto] later than that. I didn’t get there until ’77. The things that he did with us were very informal. He wasn’t comfortable in that environment anyway, in doing that kind of stuff.

He would have preferred the informal approach.

Yeah.

Did he ever use the computer systems there? Outperform and Piper and things like that? Did he talk about them? Do you know what he thought of them?

Not to my knowledge, no. But you should ask David Jaeger “Remembering Hugh,” also published in this issue of eContact!]] about that.

Ok, because he felt really ambivalent about the direction computer music was going in.

And he was right, because [the Sackbut] was a much better sounding instrument than any existing straight software programme that was [available] then.

Yeah.

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