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Le Caine, Mirrored Through Memory

Closing the 2014 Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium (TIES) was the Special Session “A Noisome Pestilence: An afternoon of Hugh Le Caine,” which brought together composers and researchers around Le Caine’s instruments. The session was moderated by Gayle Young on Sunday, 17 August 2014, and featured presentations by Kevin Austin, Richard Henninger, David Jaeger, Pauline Oliveros and Paul Pedersen.

Hugh Le Caine, imagine, he would have been 100 at the end of May 2014. During the 2014 Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium, a special afternoon was set aside to bring together a few people who knew him, had met him, or had used his instruments. I met him a couple of times in the period 1969–1973, had one opportunity to work with him very briefly, and used for my own compositions most of the instruments that he had designed and built. 1[1. Notably the 55-minute Piece for Four-Track Tape Recorder Canada Unlimited Number Two (1970–73) — subtitled Sam McGee (more on this piece below).]

In the late 1960s, Montréal was still a provincial centre with the claim to fame of having hosted Expo ’67. The influential centres of electronic music were France, Germany and the United States. While there had been almost 20 years of concerts of electronic music in Paris, New York and West Germany, with a few exceptions, Montreal and Toronto — the only active centres in Canada — together numbered a handful of composers, and few performance / presentation opportunities.

The University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS), built largely around Le Caine’s instruments, had been founded in 1959, and was followed by the creation of the McGill Electronic Music Studio (EMS) in 1964. The McGill “studio” was a room, 10' x 20' (3m x 6m) in an old coach house behind 3500 Redpath Street in the Montreal “golden mile” district, almost at the corner of McGregor Avenue. The nice Victorian house facing the street was the Faculty of Music, which had a total of about 60 undergraduate students in 1964. An unlikely place to find one of the deep roots in the history of electronic music in Canada.

From 1964 to 1968, the EMS was largely a composers’ studio, with István Anhalt as director. István was a European-trained modernist composer who had become interested in the “new” electronic medium in the 1950s. In 1959, he organized one of the first Canadian concerts of electronic music, which included a presentation of Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge and work by Le Caine, most likely including Dripsody.

Anhalt’s connection to Le Caine and the National Research Council ELMUS Lab was decisive in the creation of the EMS in this environment. The studio’s first tape recorders, stereo Ampex 300 and 350 machines, came from the NRC, and Le Caine had modified the 300 to operate not only at 7-1/2 and 15 ips (19 cm and 38 cm/sec), but included a machined belt and pulley system that allowed the instrument to be operated at 3-3/4, 1-7/8 and 15/16 ips. This allowed sounds to be played back over a range of five octaves.

Small items of audio test equipment were supplied, including a Krohn-Hite Variable Band-Pass Filter, 24 dB/octave with BNC connectors, and a vacuum tube Hewlett-Packard sine / pulse wave oscillator — probably from the 1940s. Le Caine also supplied the studio with a ring modulator (complete with noise and distortion), and two envelope generators — a transient AR and a sustained ASR. And a frequency counter, for reasons that become obvious. With the exception of Ampex 440 four-channel machines, technicians and a plate reverb, this was a poor-man’s shrunken down version of the studio in which Stockhausen had composed Kontakte.

Up until the early 1970s, every EMS was a unique environment. There would be “common elements” such as amplifiers, speakers (usually of so-so quality), recorders and basic tape editing equipment, but every studio had to be learned. The patch bay was the centre of connection, and like most studios of this era, there was no mixer. The working procedures in every studio, and for almost every composer, were different, the two most important editing devices being the single-edge razor blade and the ears.

The studio of this design was based on a process of collection, editing, transforming, processing and assembling sounds recorded to tape. While Le Caine started developing instruments as performance devices 2[2. See, for example, the Electronic Sackbut. A short video presenting the instrument can be viewed on the Musée virtuel du Canada / Virtual Museum of Canada’s YouTube channel], the (Canadian) academic world wanted instruments to create and modify sounds that could be stored to fixed media, i.e. magnetic audio tape. An extension of traditional modernist compositional thought and practice.

Additive synthesis is a neat idea. Get lots of individual frequency and amplitude sine tones and create all of the sounds in the world. Or most of them. Or so the theory went. At the end of World War II, as planes were being decommissioned, Le Caine began collecting parts from these planes, especially the oscillators used in wing de-icers, which produced sine tones. In 1957, Le Caine took up this idea again and produced the “sine bank”. McGill had a 24-oscillator version, and the four controls were: on/off; a stepped range switch (from far into sub-audio); a continuously variable fine tuning knob; and a wave shape (sine or sawtooth, as I recall). The best way to tune these was to turn them on when entering the studio and, half an hour later when they had stabilized, using the frequency counter (see above), tune your sound. This is an updated version of how Stockhausen produced much of both Gesang and Kontakte.

As a simple sound source, the instrument was unwieldy. It was a static sculpture. To help overcome this, Le Caine took two approaches — a fixed media approach and a live performance approach. The live performance approach employed a custom-made keyboard (like a piano keyboard) with the output of each oscillator passing through a photo resistor controlled by a variable-area clear triangular shape. This was an adaptation of the optical track used in film. As the key was depressed, more light would pass through the film and more signal would come out from that channel. It was, as Hugh had punned in another context, a touch-sensitive organ.

Figure 1. Hugh Le Caine’s Spectrogram was first built in 1959. Image © Gayle Young. [Click image to enlarge]

It was fun and fast, but the real effort was in tuning the oscillators so that the sine bank sound was interesting. It is to be noted that the thinking was already polyphonic — twenty-four channels of signals being controlled by playing a keyboard. In the patch bay was a normalized 24-in/24-out jack field that was designed to allow for up to 24 sources to be plugged in and then mixed by playing on the keyboard.

But the EMS was still a modernist studio, and something more controlled / controlling was necessary. This was the Spectrogram from 1959 (Fig. 1), a bank of one hundred photocells that would open (turn on) when no light reached them, although only 24 were functional in the McGill EMS. A composer, or a student with an idea, using 10"-wide graphed paper would use India ink to completely blacken a track (2.5 mm wide) or part of a track on the paper. When the paper passed under the light emitted from the 300-watt bulb, where there was light, no signal would pass, where there was darkness, the signal would pass. The analogy to piano roll technology, past and present is clear.

It was a tiresome process to do anything that was going to be controlled in any detailed way. The paper roll could be moved at various speeds, with a 12" (30.5 cm) drawing passing under the light in one to four seconds. That 30 cm of “score” could easily take two hours to draw. The effect was often not dissimilar to waving a piece of paper between the light and the photoresistors, except it was much less efficient. Few people had the time to devote to getting more than a few seconds of the sequenced sine tones. However…

Audio 1 (10:17). István Anhalt — Electronic Composition No. 3 “Birds and Bells” (1960). Composed in the National Research Council’s Electronic Music Lab, run by Hugh Le Caine, and using Le Caine’s own instruments.

As far as I know, the largest composition using the sine bank and the Spectrogram is Anhalt’s 11-minute work, Electronic Composition No. 3 “Birds & Bells”, composed in Ottawa at the NRC in 1960 (Audio 1). Anhalt had obtained spectral analyses of a bell sometime during the 1950s. By today’s standards, they were pretty crude, giving frequency and a sense of the amplitude of each spectral component, however he built sine bank sonorities of enormous complexity, details of which can be found in István Anhalt: Pathways and Memory, edited by Robin Elliott and Gordon Smith. 3[3. Also see James Montgomery and Gayle Young’s “Interview with Hungarian-Canadian composer István Anhalt” for more on his working process in the studio. He also talks in detail about how the Spectrogram worked.] This is at about the same time that Stockhausen was working on Kontakte.

Having a limited number of sine tones available, the spectrum had to be recorded on many individual tapes. Anhalt’s sine tone banks would need to be played back at the same time. From 1955 to about 1967 Le Caine had been designing and working out the problems of how to make tape playback a real-time, but reproducible activity. This came to fruition in the Special Purpose Tape Recorder. Not a recorder at all, but a multi-tape playback instrument. It was quickly renamed the “Multi-track”. The original version, the one used for Birds and Bells, would play six independent ¼" tapes at one time. The instrument found in the McGill EMS was the greatly expanded 1964 version.

The McGill instrument came somewhat at the end of an era. The conception and design was wonderful, but the technology was problematic for users. It was necessary to devote oneself to the preparation of the individual tapes, with exact synchronizations (!), and the planning of how signals were to be routed through its 20 outputs, manual level controls, and a keyboard that included microtonal intonation possibilities, with chromatic speed change — in real time — of three octaves.

The half-horsepower DC stepping motor was extremely responsive to keyboard controls. Le Caine had also produced a “split capstan” so that it was possible to play two sets of tapes at the same time, at different speeds. I spent hours and days trying to coax useable materials from it. But it had a signal-to-noise ratio of about 35 dB — on good days. The playback heads were so far from the playback amplifiers, and the technology was such that FET transistors had to be epoxied directly onto the playback heads. And head alignment couldn’t really be done.

Most of the knobs were mystifying. Le Caine’s instruments appeared to most as flight control panels in a jet plane.

One of the few composers I met who quite enjoyed the fun of “making all those funny noises” was Richard Hunt, who composed an interesting “exploration of the instrument” kind of piece, Acoustic Viola, in about 1971. He carefully recorded gritches and noises on his viola, segmented, edited and created loops of these for the Multi, and spent hours recording the output, later to be remixed up to the 4-channel recorder.

An interesting touch in the Multi-track was Le Caine’s subtle introduction of a spring reverb. No one had money to buy a reverb for a studio. It turned out that not many people used the Multi-track, but almost all of the time it was for the reverb.

Le Caine and the NRC also provided McGill with a number of other tools and instruments. There is the 6-channel “octave equalizer” (shades of the poor man’s Kontakte again). It could be used as six channels of EQ, or the EQs could be cascaded so that up to all six EQs could be applied to a single signal. The design was well known, but the implementation allowed for filter slopes of up to about 70 dB/octave. The centre frequencies, however, were fixed. An expensive proposition in its day, and a commercial 4-band, 4-channel parametric EQ was only five years away.

This thread of the German electronic music tradition and its modernist “metric” approach to sound, and Le Caine’s desire to produce high quality instruments of great complexity and flexibility on a shoestring budget, all came together in my life in the spring of 1967.

It was McGill’s Open House. Anhalt wanted to show off the EMS. He asked me to play his Electronic Composition Number Three (as it was then known) in an auditorium, from about 11 in the morning until late afternoon. The room was darkened. About half a dozen people stuck their heads in the door, listened to the weird noises and escaped quickly. By the second time of playing the piece, I had died and went seriously to heaven. My experience was synesthetic. Who were these people who could make such wonderful sounds? I had to find out.

It was September 1969. I was in my fifth year of a four-year BMus. The previous summer, Anhalt had taught a summer course in Electronic Music to a class of three or four. Electronic music was strange. Weird. The people who made it were stranger. In my first class there were seven of us. A very large class. Most of the knobs were mystifying. Le Caine’s instruments appeared to most as flight control panels in a jet plane. 4[4. For a more detailed look at Le Caine’s instruments, see Gayle Young’s indispensible reference, The Sackbut Blues: Hugh Le Caine, Pioneer in Electronic Music.]

Simply getting sounds onto tape and doing basic processing was a long, slow, tedious, aggravating, time-consuming, laborious process. Three minutes of recording using the microphone that Le Caine had sent from the NRC was followed by three hours of cutting and splicing to end up with 13 seconds of what sounded like an ashtray being dropped into a metal garbage can. <Ug!>

Slowly, fundamentals were learned. Envelopes, using Le Caine’s envelope generators, ring modulation (Le Caine again), filtering, tape speed change (thank you Hugh), additive synthesis (the sine bank), sequencing sine tones <yuk!> and progressively moving to the Ampex multi-track tape recorders.

In the class, two people left in the first three weeks. My dear friend the nun lasted three weeks, but couldn’t remember to close the head gate on the tape recorder and got no sound, or hit the wrong button on the Ampex 440 and spooled 30 feet of tape onto the floor, all aflutter. Most of the class wanted to “compose”, and slowly worked their way through fundamental exercises, never quite understanding the “what” or the “why” of the process.

This was Montréal in 1969. There were no textbooks. There were half a dozen recordings, and there was a new wave about to hit. In December of 1969, McGill’s Moog system arrived. Le Caine’s instruments might have been fun, but Silver Apples of the Moon heralded a new era in what the studio, and electronic music in general, could be about.

In my second year, from time to time I would bring interested friends into the studio to witness the sonic magic. They looked at Le Caine’s Multi-track, asked about the sine bank and Spectrogram and then headed to the “back room”, a large closet where the Moog breathed fire like the young dragon. They wanted to explore, make noises, invent new musics, find out what 14 kHz and 45 Hz sounded like. They wanted to modulate, and envelopolate, and filterate, and distorterate. They had no time and little interest in razor blades and measuring the frequency of sine tones on a sine bank.

And where’s the mixer? There wasn’t one, and wouldn’t be one for a few years.

Figure 2. Bruce Pennycook working in the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studios (UTEMS) ca. 1975. In front of him is the Serial Structure Sound Generator (SSSG), built by Hugh Le Caine. [Click image to enlarge]

Anhalt moved to Queen’s University where the Music Building now shares the Le Caine name. Paul Pedersen continued to work on technologizing the Faculty of Music, alcides lanza joined the studio and Le Caine’s instruments were moved into the “main” studio, but it was the Moog studio where the fun was happening — Moog, mixer and new musics. Shortly after, the third studio has a Synclavier. Le Caine’s Multi-track went back to Ottawa — to a museum.

In 1970, the Serial Sound Structure Generator (SSSG), a three-rack behemoth (Fig. 2), turned up at the Redpath Street coach house. Le Caine would arrive to demonstrate it on the following Saturday morning, but there was mild/wild panic. It wouldn’t work! Hugh, a big man quietly lumbered into the outer house. Greetings and warm welcomes all around, but… “Er, Hugh, there is something wrong. It won’t run.” Not missing a beat he replied, “Did you turn it on?” That’s how dry his humour was.

It was in the spring of 1970 that I was asked to accompany the SSSG to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for an arts day presentation. Anhalt asked me to prepare 20 or 25 examples that could be played back, since the programming of this complex 13-step sequencer was quite time-consuming. It was a mechano-electronic take on total serialization. Interesting I thought, but… I had started taking Fortran-like computer programming in 1969 and the SSSG was not an instrument of the future. It could produce a range of sounds, and steps, and baker’s dozen patterns, but Buchla and Serge were already extending voltage control, and the SAL-MAR construction had brought live-interactive computers to the studio and concert hall in a vast multi-channel configurations.

Hugh Le Caine was a big man. He was extremely soft spoken and spoke with an Ontario twang that can be found on his recordings. He listened and took an interest in everything. Nothing, and no one was too small for his time. In Ottawa I watched as he listened to the strange concoctions I had created, somewhat amazed at the variety. It was (of course) Anhalt who had jogged me out of trying to totally serialize stuff, and he simply said to me, “Have at it.” The SSSG had uses and ways far beyond what it seemed to have been designed for.

His soft-spoken ways were not to everyone’s liking in the occasional classes he was invited to give. Much of the time between his longish, slightly slow, beautifully eloquent phrases, were rather large windows of silence. The sentences filled with small gems, the paragraphs filled with pearls; sadly, most of them far too far advanced for the students he was speaking to.

Figure 3. MetaMusic ca. 1973 performing Kevin Austin’s Piece for Four-Track Tape Recorder Canada Unlimited Number Two — subtitled Sam McGee, composed and performed using Hugh Le Caine’s instruments. On the left, the inventor himself. Hugh Le Caine had worked for 25 years with almost no one recognizing what he was working on, or of the value of electronic music. And here were a bunch of maybe 8–10 young people — who simply couldn’t get enough of these “weird noises” — crawling over mics and modulators, synths and guitar pedals, making noises through eight channels of loudspeakers. [Click image to enlarge]

My personal interest in the studio had been twofold: compositional and highly technical. Everything I did was compositional and I wanted to know how every single instrument in the studio functioned. The studio technician would lend me the schematics, and when I got stuck, he would teach me enough electronics to move on. Listening to Hugh was always enlightening. Sometimes the unpacking of what he said took days or weeks. On occasion much longer. I once asked him about the octave filter bank. His reply, distilled by my memory, was: “It’s all only amplitude.” I knew he had said something very important. I just didn’t know what it was. No one else in the class seemed to notice.

Here, in the twilight of his mechano-electrical instruments was a simple four-word answer that fundamentally changed my way of thinking about sound, and especially, sound from loudspeakers. It was the completion of the circle from listening to Anhalt for five hours. 5[5. The significance of this is fundamental. In the early 1950s, the German school of electronic music, Eimert, Meyer-Eppler et al., placed great importance on the physical nature of sound, acoustics and sonic analysis. The technology was starting to highlight the connection between time-variant pressure, either as sound waves (acoustics) or time-variant voltages (electronics), and the fact that the eardrum has only one position of displacement at any moment, yet the mind integrates and segregates sounds as if frequency and spectrum existed. Psychoacoustics is the basis of hearing.]

By 1971 I had two lives in electronic music. In the studio I was working on my master’s thesis, what was to become a 55-minute, 4-channel composition that started with great dependence on Le Caine’s instruments, and in a period of two years moved me to leave fixed media composition for some ten years. I had found live electronic improvisation. I liked Le Caine’s instruments and concepts; they had significantly contributed to my “formation”, partly because of my long-term relationship with Anhalt. One day I said to alcides lanza: “I want to form a live electronics ensemble. Can I use the studio?” I did not expect a positive response. He said “Yes.” 6[6. See alcides lanza’s discussion of “Hugh Le Caine and the McGill EMS” in this issue of eContact!]

Two years later I presented Piece for Four-track Tape Recorder Canada Unlimited Number Two — subtitled Sam McGee, a 55-minute piece for 4-channel tape and the live electronic improvisation ensemble, MetaMusic (Audio 2). Le Caine was invited to be one of the two external examiners, the second being Otto Joachim. The setup was a jumble of electronics, mics, toys, the Moog, a Synthi, electric guitar with tape delay, and more (Fig. 3). Le Caine came by during the set up and looked. It was the last time I would see Hugh.

Audio 2 (60:32). Kevin Austin — Piece for Four-Track Tape Recorder Canada Unlimited Number Two — subtitled Sam McGee (1970–73). Produced in the McGill University Electronic Music Studio using Le Caine instruments and live electronics.

In four brief years, Montréal had gone from having six graduate students in the one electronic music course stuck away in a small room to having 8-channel in double surround, live electronics with 4-channel tape, and somewhere around 75 to 100 students studying / playing / breathing this new art.

For many of these students, the first piece of “electronic music” they had heard in class was Le Caine’s Dripsody. They stood on his shoulders.

And one last Le Caine anecdote. In 1990 when the Concordia University Oscar Peterson Concert Hall was opened, the first piece played (although not listed in the programme) was Dripsody, used to demonstrate the hall’s magnificent acoustics. Professor Mark Corwin presented an outstanding 8-channel spatialization.

And now the last Le Caine anecdote. In 2009, at the end of the final, 27th season of ÉuCuE (Electroacoustiques université Concordia university Electroacoustics) events, the last piece played on the last concert, in the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, was Dripsody.

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