Electronic musical "sound synthesizer" makes Seattle debut on July 28, 1970.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 12/14/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20239

On the consecutive nights of July 28 and 29, 1970, the cutting-edge device officially marketed as the "Buchla 100 Modular Electronic Music System" debuts in Seattle at a demonstration event promoted as "An Evening of Electronic Music" in the Eames Theater at the Pacific Science Center. The experimental program is presented by Joan Franks Williams (1930-2003) and Glenn Dresie White (1933-2014) -- two stalwart trustees of the New Dimensions in Music organization, which formed in Seattle back in 1962, the year of Seattle's space-age Century 21 World's Fair.

Two Stalwarts

Joan Franks Williams, a composer/conductor interested in experimental and, especially, electronic, music, was once described by The Seattle Times as "energetic and imaginative" (Guzzo). She arrived in Seattle in 1962 and became the director of New Dimensions in Music that same year.

Glenn Dresie White, a founding trustee of the group, was something of a Renaissance man. After majoring in physics at the University of Washington, he became a missile engineer who supervised instrumentation at the Boeing Environmental Test Laboratories. By 1964 White was serving as the Seattle Center campus staff audio engineer -- a role that saw him mixing the sound for the Beatles concert in the Coliseum there that August 21st. He also regularly mixed sound at the center's Opera House and engineered albums for, among others, the Seattle Symphony and the Philadelphia String Quartet. Along the way he helped found a pipe-organ company in the Fremont neighborhood and hand built harpsichords solo. By 1969 White was working at the University of Washington (UW), where, as the manager of Audio-Visual Engineering Services, he would for years teach acoustics science, audio recording techniques, and, in time, the new Moog synthesizer.

Early Electronica

New Dimensions in Music held its first public program in late 1962. Then, in February 1963, another was scheduled at the UW's Henry Art Gallery, another at the Seattle Center Playhouse in April, and another in November. One upbeat newspaper arts critic was surprisingly enthusiastic about the upcoming November show -- considering that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated just two days prior -- noting that it "will include avante-garde [sic] music from the instrumental to electronic and should be a tantalizing introduction to experimental music for those who haven't had a taste of it" (Guzzo).

Still, Joan Franks Williams seemed to have a solidly realistic grasp of the public's probable appetite for synthetic electronic music in that time of such frivolous pop radio hits as Leslie's Gore's "It's My Party," Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet," and Jan and Dean's "Surf City." Williams told The Seattle Times, "Our purpose is to give Seattle audiences a chance to hear this kind of music. We don't expect everyone to like it -- but we do think most persons will find it interesting" (Baker).

Buchla Synthesizers

The Buchla instrument itself had been developed in 1963 by the Berkeley, California, firm Buchla & Associates headed by Don Buchla. The goal had been to build a voltage-controlled device that would allow creative musicians to sculpt new synthetic sounds from scratch -- and at a time when few people could even envision a world where the general public might want to listen to such unnatural audio simulations. But the bold future awaited ...

It arrived in Seattle seven years later. Advance publicity about the 1970 event that New Dimensions in Music presented at the Pacific Science Center successfully touted the historic fact that the two evenings' programs "will present the first live public demonstration of the electronic Buchla Sound Synthesizer" in Seattle ("Electronic Music Featured ..."). And lo and behold, an audience actually showed up.

Also intrigued, arts critic Carole Beers from The Seattle Times gamely attended the event and evidently was rather entertained by the first night's presentation. The following day she told readers:

"Williams and ... White did much to enlighten listeners about electronic music. Most helpful were their lecture-demonstrations of the different sounds available to the musician who wished to compose on the synthesizer. For their demonstration, they used excerpt-tapes from compositions on R.C.A.'s electronic synthesizer and worked live with the smaller, transistorized Buchla synthesizer owned by New Dimensions in Music" (Beers).

The Human Factor

A highlight of the night was the performance of Charles Wuorinen's 1970 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece Time's Encomium, which was "composed entirely from electronic sounds" ("Electronic Music Featured ..."). Indeed, Beers felt that that prearranged piece was more successful musically than the seemingly free-form random experimentation attempted on other efforts. To her experienced ears:

"It would have been better if they simply had played more of the curiously fascinating, always turned-on music. One bleep-a-blop is worth a thousand words. ... The concert-demonstration as a whole ... was a success. The tapes, backward or at the wrong speed, added unnecessary minutes to the length of the program but also showed a humorously human aspect of electronic music" (Beers).


Peter Blecha interview with Glenn D. White, November 6, 2003; Ed Baker, "Wired for Sound: Electronic Music to Be Heard Wednesday," The Seattle Times, February 10, 1963, p. 25; Louis R. Guzzo, "Little Orchestra Announces Season," Ibid., November 24, 1963, p. C-15; '''Modern Stuff' Not So Hard to Take, After All," Ibid., March 24, 1964, p. 25; Karen Pataki, "The Music of Now," The Seattle Times, March 15, 1970, Pictorial, p. 10; "Electronic Music Featured in 'Dimensions' Program," Ibid., July 26, 1970, p. E-2; "Electronic Music Tonight" Ibid., July 28, 1970, p. A-10; Carole Beers, "New Dimensions: Music to Bleep-a-Blop By," Ibid., July 29, 1970, p. B-2.

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