A Portrait of Todd Barton
Todd Barton is a composer, performer, lecturer and analog synthesist who is endlessly fascinated by and exploring sound…
Todd Barton is…
a few words from you about who you are , your past works ,your passions,
your likes and how you got in contact with modular synthesizers.
My passion is timbre. I’m infinitely curious about the effects of timbre on me
and others. The quality and color of sound seems fathomless and I continue
to explore it in as many different ways as possible: synths, shakuhachi, found
sounds, listening, listening, listening. . .
I’ve been exploring music and sound since childhood. Composed at the piano
and trumpet in elementary school then moved onto band, choir and small jazz
combo and orchestras in junior high and high school. Received a gift of a two-
track tape recorder as a teenager in the mid-60’s and haven’t stopped exploring
electronic manipulation of sounds ever since.
My main gig for the past 40 years has been Resident Composer for the Oregon
Shakespeare Festival. That vocation allowed me to compose electronic, electro-
acoustic, and acoustic for both studio work and live performance. I literally got
to explore hundreds of different combinations of musical/sonic forces. Also, in
the early 70’s I was performing a lot of early music (medieval, renaissance and
baroque) on recorders, shawms, krumhorns, and baroque trumpet both here
in the US and in Europe. I was, of course, fascinated by the various timbres of
these instruments and musics. Also in the mid-70’s I came in contact with my
first modular synthesizer . . . which leads to your next question. . .
How did you discover the Buchla?
My first encounter was with a Buchla Music Easel that my friend, Doug Leedy
handed me and let me just explore it for a few days back in the mid-1970’s.
At that time I had no idea what I was doing…just plugging in patch cords and
twisting knobs hoping to get a sound. Eventually sounds came. I was smitten
with the ability to alter timbres and create sounds from scratch.
Since I couldn’t afford a Music Easel I instead saved up and got a lovely three
panel Serge from Serge Tcherepnin in the Haight Ashbury in 1979. Still not
knowing much about synthesis I also got Allen Strange’s book, Electronic Music:
Systems, Techniques and Controls. Parts of that book helped but mainly I began
patching 4-8 hours a day.
It wasn’t until 2004 that, having a steady job as Resident Composer at the
Oregon Shakespeare Festival since 1969, I was able to save enough to finally
get a Buchla 200e system. Since then I have spent as much time as possible
plumbing its endless depths.
What are the Pros and cons of the format?
For the type of abstract music I and doing and am drawn to, the Buchla is the
most facile, responsive and rich format I could imagine. I believe that we need
to really listen to our instruments, that is, become intimate with their quirks and
characteristics in order to have an expressive performance relationship with
them. It has taken me years and years to just begin to understand and feel the
Buchla. But now I’m at a point where I feel connected to it.
The Krell self-generating patch…
I’ve always been questing after a simple patch that would produce complex and
varying articulations, timbral shifts and interesting pitch adventures. I’m sure this
goes back to my fascination with Doug Leedy’s Entropical Paradise LP set – an
amazing compendium of self-generating patches.
So…I felt lucky to stumble into the “Krell” patch a few months back – I can’t even
remember if I set out to create such a patch but it seemed to present itself to me.
I named it “Krell” in honor of the self-generating circuits that Bebe and Louis
Barron created as source material for their Forbidden Planet score or, as they
called it “electronic tonalities”. I was lucky enough to spend a day and dinner
with Bebe and the twinkle in her eye, as she described the waiting in anticipation
with tape recorders rolling hoping that their little circuits would eventually birth
some sound, stays with me always. She revealed that each circuit had its own
life span and unique sonic footprint. “Sonic lifeforms” that had a birthing from
silence, an adolescence, a maturity, a decaying and finally a death that slipped
back into silence. It was from hundreds of these circuit “children” that she and
Louis compiled and composed that epic, breakthrough score.
What other synths do enjoy using in your work and why?
A wonderful Steiner Synthasystem and Synthacon – just love the filters on those
instruments. Also a EML-101 and EML-200 just for pure raw power sound. And
the Haken Continuum for tactile, expressive live performance!
Your thoughts on composition, improvisation and random.
Composing is, for me, sculpting energy. Sometimes I explore pushing sounds
around to see what and how they interact with each other, that is the sonic
scientist in me, but mostly I listen and try to hear where they might want to go,
that is the composer/improviser in me. Random circuits and random unexpected
sounds in a performance – both provide spontaneous surprises which then
beckon me to respond in a new way, to listen in a new way and to, hopefully,
create a new sound or expression.
What I find myself fascinated with recently is performing on a 10 module Buchla
system with no control surface or interface and no preset memory: just turning
knobs and moving sliders. Basically, I am creating a new instrument each time
I make a patch, learning on the spot to play that instrument then committing that
sound to a looper and further responding with that patch until I create yet another
new patch/instrument and respond to the unfolding and surprising sounds.
I find now that playing the Buchla that way is like playing an excellent Stradvarius
violin or an amazing shakuhachi. I can feel the nuances of the knobs and sliders
just like the subtle shifts in breath stream, lip tension and finger placement while
playing a shakuhachi flute or what I imagine an excellent violinist must feel
as the interplay among finger pressure and placement and bow pressure and
A word about the Waterphone and how do you integrate it into your work
The waterphone is like a handheld acoustic synthesizer! There are so many
myriad colors, articulations and gestures possible. I’m still at the beginning
stages of integrating it into the Buchla setup via pre-amp and the envelope
detector. Still questing for the moment when these two instruments will “become one”.
It was my first synth! It was 1979. It taught me patience, connectivity, sonic
sculpting and delight. I really liked the fact that the banana cable carried both
audio and control voltage – loved feeding back all those signals into the original
oscillator to hear what happened. This is akin to what John Cage said, “I don’t
hear the music I write. I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.”
Along those lines here is a vintage recording of an interactive/self-generating
patch I created back in the early 1980’s. The units are: Serge, JP-8 & Effectron
II. I would put the JP-8 arpeggiator in hold mode then play 5 notes which then
would cycle randomly. The Serge controlled the arpeggiator triggering, the JP-
8 controlled the varying delays on the Effectron, etc. It was always fun to enter
notes in the morning and see what it sounded like when I came home from work.
Later in 1983 there was a call for Serge user’s sounds. I remember submitting a
little sound effect, Killer Didgeridoo. At the time I didn’t realize who all else was
out there exploring the Serge – when the cassette tape was published there was
an amazing array of composers!
Serge Musician’s Tape, 1983
How did you get involved with Zen Shakuhachi meditation music?
I’ve always been and continue to be turned on by timbres and timbral shifts.
I’d listened to shakuhachi music in my teens but didn’t know what it was and
couldn’t find anyone that knew about it. Finally in the late 1980’s a friend
stopped through town and brought an instrument – I was taken by the timbral
flexibility of the shakuhachi and sought out a master teacher, John Singer
in Berkeley. From that point on I was playing shakuhachi everyday and
incorporating it into my daily Zen meditation practice.
There is a saying in Zen shakuhachi practice that a player is always questing to
find “Buddha in a single sound, that is, enlightenment in a single sound.” It is the
notion that a single sound is a microcosm of the entire sonic universe if only we
could refine our listening and performing beyond our ego’s limits. I find this not
unlike Bebe Barron’s delight in “sonic lifeforms”.
An original composition of mine for shakuhachi:
A traditional 450 year old Zen shakuhachi piece:
After four decades of sonic exploration what keeps you excited and
Infinite curiosity and wonder!
Lately I’m taking that curiosity and wonder online every Friday with my little
offering of Buchla Breaks. Each week it is becoming more interactive as sonic
adventurers from around the world tune in and suggest patching points, know
turns, switch flips, etc.! It is a chance for me to learn and share my joy of
Also, I’m hoping my daily explorations will eventually unfold into an album of new
music sometime in 2013!
Ask yourself a question and give yourself an answer.
What does breath have to do with electronic sounds?
Being a wind player (trumpet, shakuhachi, recorder, et al) I have always been
obsessed with the breath. For me it is breath that connects us to the audience
and to one another. So. . . I try to find a way to shape electronic phrases,
gestures and inflections to give the illusion and rhythm of breath. I think this
is why the Krell Patch seems to connect with so many folks, oddly enough
it “seems” to breathe.
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