Multiples, CD commentary

When I was reading Analog Days, the Buchla Box 100 kept getting mentioned. I did a cursory web search on it and turned up a few pictures, which were interesting. I’d never heard of Buchla before, but the description of the synth in the book wasn’t really inspiring. The authors kept referring to it as a machine for expanding musicians’ options for making music in “non-traditional ways”. It didn’t have a regular keyboard; instead, note events got triggered from a random gate generator which could then be used to fire off various sequencers, and there was a ribbon controller. So, it’s an atonal, random oscillator box. While Buchla himself is still selling modern versions of the Box, it never gained any real popularity and is probably going to stay in the novelty category for eternity.

Anyway, I was going through and typing in various search terms, including Moog, MiniMoog, etc. When I searched on Buchla 100, I got a hit on Multiples, an electronica album from Keith Fullerton Whitman. Keith was born in 1973, making him way too young to have experienced the events described in Analog Days. On the other hand, he is an electronic musician, and has been making music since around 1999. In 2002 he was invited to Harvard for “a week of lectures, concerts and recording sessions” along with the duo Matmos. He was invited back in 2003 for a residency to teach workshops in exchange for access to Harvard’s collection of old synths, including the Serge modular synth from the 70’s, and several Buchla Boxes from the 60’s. Keith used these machines to record Multiples, which came out from the Kranky label in 2005.

Multiples does have a strong 60’s, 70’s feel, combining primitive harmonies with “cosmic background sound effects” for support. Since all of the early synths were monophonic, meaning that you could only play one note at a time, the only way to get chords is to use multi-track recording and just keep playing the same song over and over again to layer the additional chord notes down in multiple passes. This isn’t really feasible if you’re using a machine that generates random sequences. So, most of the songs are gentle, non-threatening new age pieces. The titles are more-or-less descriptive, simply listing the machines used for the piece (i.e. – “Stereo Music for Serge Modular Synthesizer – Part Three”). The results are things like simple piano-like sequences repeated over and over, with cello-like base notes rolling up from the bottom of the scale and shifting over time. All of the songs are throwbacks to the early days of synth development, when musicians had been split into two camps – one trying to make all-new sounds with a machine no one understood clearly, and the other trying to make traditional music with something that could replace the piano and organ while still having the same keyboard interface.

Multiples would have a decent place in music history if it had been composed 40-50 years earlier. As it is, though, it’s a retro CD that will appeal mainly to new agers, and minimalists. I bought the mp3s because I wanted to know what the Buchla Box sounds like, and on that count I’m disappointed. There’s nothing that specifically screams “this is a really cool synthesizer”, or even “what IS this?” I’ll keep the files, because I did pay money for them, but this isn’t something I’m going to add to my regular playlist. To an extent, Multiples is to new age what Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” is to whatever fugues are. That is, fine in small doses but boring if you have to sit through the entire album at one time.

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