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Hugh Le Caine

In Context, 2004

Hugh Le Caine (1914–1977) was a Canadian scientist and inventor of instruments for electronic music. In 1945, he set up a studio in his home where he designed electronic musical instruments such as the Sackbut, a sophisticated monophonic performance instrument now recognized to have been the first voltage-controlled synthesizer. He later developed voltage-control systems for a wide variety of studio applications. In 1954, he began to work full-time in his lab on new musical instruments at Ottawa’s National Research Council, building over 22 in the next 20 years. Le Caine’s lab at NRC almost single-handedly equipped electronic music studios at University of Toronto (opened in 1959) and at McGill University in Montreal (opened in 1964).

Perhaps the most important aspect of Le Caine’s designs for his instruments was the “playability” that he took care to build into them. His ideal was to enable nuance-filled expressive performance. Touch sensitivity was an essential ingredient in this, and was used in keyboards, mixers and other components, applied mechanically, electronically and through light sensitivity. Le Caine’s designs were so advanced in this respect that some of the features that he developed found their way into commercial designs only in the late 1980s.

Throughout his years as a designer, Le Caine composed a number of short pieces and studies that were intended to explore and demonstrate the possibilities of the new instruments. His 1955 composition Dripsody (Audio 1) 1[1. Programme note and bio available on], based on the sound of a single drop of water, must still rank as the most-played example of musique concrète. In his studies and demonstrations we see the same imagination and originality that is evident in the instruments themselves. His comment of 1966 sums up his approach: “What a composer of electronic music needs most is not an understanding of the apparatus, but a new understanding of sound.”

Audio 1 (1:31). Hugh Le Caine — Dripsody: An Etude For Variable Speed Recorder [mono version] (1955).

It has been thirty years since I decided that I wanted to write music, and concurrently discovered the music of the twentieth century. By the fall of 1974 I had gone back to school, realizing that my study of Classical piano and traditional theory did not provide me with the tools I needed to write music that I found interesting. It was at York University in Toronto that I attended my first contemporary music concert, and the excitement I experienced then in discovering new possibilities has continued to sustain me.

My fellow students and I shared an optimism and confidence that this music, new as it was to us, would soon become the language of our culture, sought after by filmmakers, playwrights and radio and TV programmers. After graduation and a few years of playing concerts, and organizing and promoting concerts by other musicians, it became clear that public interest was not developing as expected. The listening public was still where I had been prior to 1974, when the harmonies of Debussy were the most challenging sounds I had listened to. How could we reach across this gap of almost one hundred years and invite listeners to the music of the present?

In my own concerts I learned to address listeners directly, describing why I had chosen to build microtonal instruments and demonstrating the pitch combinations I’d chosen for each piece. People responded warmly, in particular those outside the main urban centres, who had never heard new music before. This gave me hope that unfamiliar music could be genuinely enjoyed by so-called ordinary listeners, particularly if its musical and historical context were described in an engaging manner. This kind of thinking was in the air in those days and led to the founding of several publications about new directions in the arts. In 1978 Musicworks magazine began publication. (I was to become its editor ten years later).

In 1978, along with Larry Lake and Jim Montgomery of the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, I applied to the Explorations Programme of the Canada Council for the Arts for funds to find out what instruments Hugh Le Caine had invented, how many versions were made of each and when they were built. Hugh Le Caine had died in 1977 and there were concerns about the long-term survival of his instruments. Le Caine had been an important source of advice for those in charge of studio maintenance and we knew that his instruments were in studios at McGill University in Montreal and the University of Toronto, and that some were at Queen’s in Kingston, Ontario, but we knew very little else. Our intention was to make a list of instruments with photos and descriptions, to help ensure their preservation. I wrote a series of newsletters over the next few years and sent them out free to all Canadian music libraries and anyone else who was interested. 2[2. The Hugh Le Caine Project Newsletter , issues 1–10, June 1979 to April 1984. ISSN # 1229-6659.]

That could have been the end of the research, but it turned out to be the beginning. As I interviewed people who had worked with Le Caine, a story unfolded of passion, commitment, failure and tragedy. There were incidents described about which people did not want names to go on record. I was asked several times to turn off my tape recorder if I wanted to hear what really happened. I was then informed of conversations that took place and policies that had been implemented at high levels of administration. The researchers who worked with Hugh Le Caine were deeply committed to him. Even people who knew him only briefly had fascinating stories to tell of his eccentricities, his insights, his inventiveness, his humour.

Looking back, I begin to understand how I moved from composing, performing and writing articles about ideas familiar to me into researching information for a book on someone I had never met. Hugh Le Caine died the same year I finished music school. I had studied electronic music, but Le Caine’s contributions were not mentioned. The studio at York was equipped with Putney and Arp synthesizers and reel-to-reel tape recorders, and we encountered the impressive example of David Rosenboom building his own bio-feedback instruments. Outside of the University of Toronto and McGill studios, Le Caine’s instruments were inaccessible, and awareness of his ideas was apparently limited as well. My own knowledge of his work was based entirely on a chapter in a textbook by Jon Appleton on electronic music.

How could it happen, I wondered, that here in Canada, a person of such stature, who had published his designs in internationally known publications, who had equipped the second electronic music studio in North America with his own inventions, was virtually unknown? 3[3. The first studio had been at Columbia-Princeton in New York in 1953; the University of Toronto’s studio opened in 1959.]

Remaining optimistic, in spite of the evident scarcity of information, I decided to research further, intending to turn over my results to a professional writer, who would then prepare a book about Hugh Le Caine. But no such writer ever materialized, and after I interviewed Robert Aitken, who composed with Le Caine’s instruments as a student at the University of Toronto, he suggested that I should write the book myself. Bob made two main points. First, it should be written by a composer who could discuss the musical motivations. I think he was certainly right about that. Second, it would be easy to write a book: you simply read a chapter of a book written by your favourite author before you sit down to write, and all the stylistic questions are resolved with no effort — you unconsciously emulate your model writer. I took a pass on that method and instead I gradually learned the skills of writing over a period of years in the mid-1980s.

I applied again to the Explorations Programme at Canada Council, on my own this time, for funds to write the book on Le Caine, and was again awarded funding. Explorations, now discontinued, allowed applicants to step out of their established areas of experience and expertise into new areas — a composer/performer such as myself could apply to write about the recent history of Canadian music.

My intention in writing the book was to provide context, to let readers know the cultural, musical, political and historical contexts in which Le Caine worked. Listeners could then place current musical activity in the context of the accomplishments of Le Caine and the composers, scientists and technical experts with whom he worked.

To accomplish this I decided to retain the voices of the people I interviewed, and of Le Caine’s writing and correspondence. My task would be to create a sequential account that somehow linked these voices and set them in context, reflecting the multi-dimensional world of the inventor, and presenting Le Caine’s many simultaneous activities: in atomic physics, music, motorcycles and gardening.

When the book was submitted to the University of Toronto Press for consideration it was rejected because there were too many quotations in it, a criticism I found both highly amusing and rather insulting. By including all those voices I apparently had broken one of the guidelines of serious academic writing. This incident highlights an apparent contradiction: the book was academic in many ways, primarily in the amount of research involved, but it was nonetheless intended as a telling of Le Caine’s story for interested readers from any background: students, musicians, historians and listeners. There was an element of Canadian cultural nationalism as well, in my attempt to portray the early years of the distinctive and highly creative atmosphere that has nourished Canadian composers of electroacoustic music. The results of this are evident in the high international profiles of Canadian composers in this field today.

On a more subtle level, the book was emphatically not about my own perspectives and conclusions, or my own thoughts on the importance of Le Caine, or an attempt to create from his story an original idea of my own, which I could then defend. In this aspect the book was fundamentally not an academic work. Although I was not affiliated with a university, I did have the support and advice of many people who had known Le Caine and worked with his instruments. I am immensely grateful to everyone who read the manuscript, pointing out errors and inconsistencies. I must add that I also had wonderful editors, and in the end a very supportive publisher, The National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, which now holds most of Le Caine’s instruments in its collection.

Cover of Gayle Young, The Sackbut Blues: Hugh Le Caine, Pioneer in Electronic Music (1989). [Click image to enlarge]

My writing style in the end was as direct and clear as possible. In attempting to address what I at first saw as stylistic problems, I made an interesting discovery. In every case where I tried to rectify what appeared to be an awkward turn of phrase the problem turned out to be directly related to content — an idea was missing in the logical sequence. I discovered that as long as the text was logical it read smoothly.

After the Explorations funds ran out I worked for a few years without any funding, then in the last two years I was awarded funds by the Sir Ernest MacMillan Foundation and the Canadian Secretary of State. By 1986 I had finished the first draft of the book and was writing the appendixes and footnotes, still without a computer, using scissors and tape for the copy and paste functions.

I believed that if people knew about Hugh Le Caine’s Dripsody, for example, and the multi-track tape playback system on which it was created, they would be more excited to hear new pieces using combinations of pre-recorded sounds. I believed that if people knew about the recent past — the music I did not hear until I went to music school — they would become excited about all forms of new musical creation and exploration. I did not realize until several years later that it had also been my intention to influence cultural listening habits. With that realization came another: they haven’t really changed much, cultural change is a slow process. Perhaps it is too early to know if the book on Le Caine will have any influence.

A related question arises: To what degree did Le Caine’s instruments influence creative musical culture? His instruments were intended to provide musicians and composers with more control with which they could then expand musical language, expand musical possibilities. They would expand even the language of the pop song, as the instruments available to them allowed. The directions of those possibilities were often inherent in the designs of the instruments. In this context it becomes clear that the most important aspects of Le Caine’s instruments were the musical intentions that underlay his designs. Here the line separating instrument design from composition begins to blur. His innovations with voltage control were merely incidental to the musical conceptions of his designs. Continuity and fluid control were fundamentally compositional issues. The concepts of musical creation, the dreams of what music can be, were what led him to his designs. These were articulated in his published articles, but can be perceived more directly in his letters. At the National Research Council, in Ottawa, where Le Caine worked on new instruments for twenty years, I was allowed to read his entire correspondence file, consisting of huge stacks of bound carbon copies of his letters. There were also photographs to refer to. And the men Le Caine had worked with there spoke with me at length, and provided me with lists of names of people I should talk to, many of whom were retired by then, and still living in Ottawa.

Later in my research I was invited to continue my investigations in the basement studio of Hugh Le Caine’s home. This was a very private place, where nobody went while Le Caine lived, not even his wife. There on the floor I found a cardboard box filled with five-inch reels of tape — no individual boxes, tangled leader everywhere, cryptic wax pencil lettering on the plastic reels. Once I found these recordings, everything fell into place. The research moved to a new level, as the anecdotes and explanations cohered around the sound. I found recordings of the 1946 Sackbut synthesizer, transferred to tape from a homemade acetate disc. I found recordings of Le Caine’s physics buddies trying out the instruments, jamming with each other, playing standard tunes of the day. I found Le Caine’s narrated demonstration of the Sackbut, which had been unheard since the 1950s. I found the recording of an experiment I had read about in a personal letter, where the oscillators of the touch-sensitive organ were coupled so that they automatically sought simple whole-number frequency relationships with one another: the organ would automatically play in just intonation in any key. And I listened as the instrument collapsed into a giant square wave while trying to accommodate simple dissonances. I found recordings I still can’t figure out, of voice sounds treated somehow — an attempt at voice synthesis perhaps, or a test of some mysterious method of altering formant frequencies. You can tell there is a real voice involved, because you can hear the person trying to catch their breath at the end.

I also found evidence of the acutely detailed hearing that Le Caine must have possessed. He could analyze what was happening on his Sackbut, live, on the fly. Nobody else could do that, I concluded, based on the recordings of the physics buddies, but also on imagining trying to play it myself. Le Caine could remain simultaneously aware of many different aspects of the sound, and control them all physically, using spring-mounted wooden levers and charged discs of metal. One hand controlled the selection of notes on the keyboard, as well as the horizontal pressure (pitch fluctuation), the vertical pressure (attack and envelope) and a glide strip behind the keyboard for glissandi. The other hand operated five separate controls, one each for the three longest fingers, and two for the thumb, which navigated a fluid mix of waveform change and formant alteration. I imagine that the fourth finger must have been the anchor, resting for stability on the plywood surface of the instrument.

It is stunning to imagine the levels of simultaneous awareness that must have been at work while Le Caine was playing. It would be unbelievable, except that he made those recordings. The same is true of his tape pieces, devised with immense ingenuity applied to minimal resources. I am left wanting to hear more, but Le Caine’s examples were all very short. He called them “demonstrations”, not compositions, and after the studio opened in Toronto in 1959 he almost stopped making them.

Audio 2 (2:08). Hugh Le Caine — A Noisome Pestilence (1958).

Hugh Le Caine’s personality was as complex as his thinking. A bizarre, self-deprecating, broad sense of humour, full of puns, is evident in many of his recordings, in his titles — A Noisome Pestilence, for example (Audio 2) 4[4. Programme note and bio available on] and in his writing. He wrote that he named his Sackbut after an obsolete instrument in order to provide a degree of immunity from criticism — that is, he meant to draw attention to the fact that the instrument was already obsolete by 1954. But did not say why it was obsolete. Was it the use of vacuum tubes? He never mentioned in any source I have seen that the name refers also to the instrument’s ability to produce long controlled glissandi, something the historical sackbut, a precursor of the trombone, could also do, as could the Theremin. Was this a multi-layered joke on the entire project of electronic music?

Audio 3 (4:38). Hugh Le Caine — The Burning Deck [original version, with words] (1958).

Le Caine could also be facetious, and he described his 1958 demonstration The Burning Deck (Audio 3) 5[5. Programme note and bio available on] as a parody of the already prevalent cliché of reverberation in electronic music. Perhaps some unfortunate person had recently asked him about a reverb unit. Or maybe Le Caine was actually fascinated by reverb and embarrassed to admit it. The expertise evident in his parody might suggest this. Was the facetiousness directed against himself?

Parallel to his sense of humour, and in some ways contradicting it, was Le Caine’s intensely emotional nature. Composer Josef Tal, describing his visit to Le Caine’s lab in 1959, recalls that at first Le Caine refused to show his Multi-track playback system at all, then became very emotional when Tal, after finally seeing it, expressed enthusiasm about the instrument. Le Caine, usually very shy, would sometimes show up at late night parties and play a keyboard instrument for hours. One story tells of him appearing anonymously at a trade show and playing his own Touch-sensitive Organ, attracting a large crowd.

What led Le Caine to stop playing his instruments, to stop composing with them? Was it simply that he was too busy? That explanation could more than justify the decision, since there were always instruments at the lab in partially completed condition. But other factors were involved, including Le Caine’s intense shyness and his tendency towards self-deprecation. And so he left to others the playing of his instruments, and the composing for them. This was a crucial turning point, I believe, at which Le Caine began to distance himself from practical music-making processes.

The instruments from Le Caine’s lab were intended by the National Research Council to be manufactured by Canadian companies, much as eventually happened elsewhere with other instruments. This came tantalizingly close to happening with three of Le Caine’s instruments, but in the end none of the manufacturing projects succeeded. Each of the instruments designed for the electronic music studios was intended as a tool, dedicated to the legitimate (i.e., formally trained) composers of the day. Le Caine did not want any confusion to arise about his role as a designer and the creative role of the studio composers. He maintained this position to such a degree that he sometimes neglected to tell them about everything that could be done with the instruments, because he did not want to tell them how to compose. Manuals were sketchy and sometimes appeared rather late in the process. It was as if he expected them to explore the possibilities of the instruments with a similar level of awareness to his own. But that would have been impossible for someone not trained in science, acoustics and engineering.

Le Caine’s attitude towards working with electronic sound was rather singular. He felt uncomfortable with digital technology when it came in during the early 1970s. That in itself was not unusual, but the reasons for this discomfort show something of his thinking processes. With analogue technology he could be aware of everything that was happening, of all the levels of the electrical current that was being altered, of all the components of the resulting sound wave. With digital technology those processes were layered more deeply in the numerical matrix, where he could not know how they were interacting. This made him uncomfortable using computers. For most of us, the difference is not that important, since we are not intensely aware of the fundamental processes in either case. This would have been true of most of the composers using Le Caine’s instruments, whose approach would have been to try something out and see if they liked the way it sounded.

I believe that when Le Caine stopped composing with his own instruments a dislocation developed between his intentions in designing the instruments and their actual use in the studio. In withdrawing from the creative aspects of the process, I suspect that the drive behind the instruments became subdued. Thinking about it leaves me with a sense of lost opportunity, of lost momentum.

Sometimes I imagine Le Caine creating his own instruments, writing his own music, presenting it, writing about it, recording it. In the early years he did all this, and I imagine a what-if scenario, a do-it-yourself situation, in which the integration of instrument and composition is recognized: Le Caine as a Harry Partch figure. Partch’s approach had its problems, but his work in the end was well known and influential. Or, I imagine Le Caine as a Bob Moog figure, building instruments independently in his basement, operating on a shoestring budget. But Le Caine would have had to do all that without the support of the staff and the labs at the National Research Council. That would have been impossible: his ideas were too expansive for one person to manage.

In retrospect, a pattern becomes clear, but nobody figured it out until afterwards. Initially, the link between instrument and music was implicit, not as explicit as it is now, almost fifty years later, when the do-it-yourself method seems to have worked marvellously well. In almost every case of a new instrument becoming accepted, the music took precedence. The most famous example is the Carlos recordings making the commercial manufacture of the Moog possible. Le Caine’s tapes are exciting enough, even today, to demonstrate that there could have been a recording that would have brought attention to the instruments.

But all this is hindsight. Le Caine’s instruments did not revolutionize the musical instrument manufacturing sector, any more than my book on him changed people’s listening habits. Yet Le Caine is not without his influence. Hundreds of students were introduced to electronics by his instruments in Montreal and Toronto. And the biography and CD that I did of his compositions and demonstrations have provided historical and musical context for people who, like me, were searching for a broader context for their listening.

Many of Le Caine’s instruments have been preserved, though few are still in working condition. Over a period of years the university studios donated equipment they were no longer using to the National Museum of Science and Technology. There is now an impressive collection in their climate-controlled warehouse. Some of the instruments have been displayed to the public at special events or museum shows, but they remain for the most part out of the public eye, visible only on the museum’s web site.

When I first began the research I was not really aware of the fragility of the situation, of how easily and quickly the information and the stories could be lost. It did not occur to me until much later that I had interviewed people who, to put it bluntly, would soon die. Perhaps this was due to a naïve sense that the older generation would always be there. At that time in Canada nearly all our founding cultural and musical artists were thriving: we had little sense of a tradition that reached beyond the living generation. Norman McLaren, Louis Applebaum, Keith MacMillan — as well as many less-known men who worked directly with Le Caine — all provided insights into their experiences of and their responses to the issues raised by Le Caine’s instruments. I was able to capture their impressions of aspects of their period of history on tape, to create a portrait of a specific time, and to position Le Caine in the context of that time.

Notes and Further Reading

My research was assisted by funding from the Explorations Programme of the Canada Council, the Sir Ernest MacMillan Foundation, and the Canadian Secretary of State.

My biography of Hugh Le Caine, The Sackbut Blues [isbn: 0-660-12006-2] / Blues pour Saqueboutte [isbn: 0-660-91655-X], was published by the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology (Ottawa, 1989).

The production of the CD of Le Caine’s compositions and demonstrations was supported by the National Library of Canada, The Canada Council for the Arts and The Electronic Music Foundation.

Le Caine’s papers and recordings are held at the Music Section, National Library of Canada.

For further information in English and French, visit the Hugh Le Caine website.

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