Around the world, Todd Barton is best known for his work performing on and championing the Buchla modular synthesizer, an occasionally burdensome instrument of dials, patch cables, and switches that can create sounds both beautiful and nerve-rattling. He’s made a wealth of albums and performs live frequently with his weapon of choice, the Buchla Music Easel, and offers up many tutorial videos and private classes for curiosity seekers. And here in Oregon, his name is most often associated with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where, until his recent retirement, he used his talents to design sound and create scores for their plays at the annual Ashland theater celebration.
But sprinkled throughout his discography have been a few recordings of Barton’s other musical love: the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese wind instrument used in folk music as well as for meditative purposes. As he told the Mercury recently, he has been studying and improvising with it since the late ’80s, producing along the way a host of recordings, including the self-released 2003 album Ro, which was just re-released digitally and on cassette by Brooklyn label Flying Moonlight that highlights the sweeping beauty and stillness that the flute can generate with just a single note.
The reissue of Ro arrives at just the right time, as Barton’s name has been featured heavily in the chatter of record collectors with last year’s deluxe re-release of Music & Poetry of the Kesh, a 1984 collection of material conceived and recorded with author Ursula K. Le Guin to accompany her book Always Coming Home. That also helped draw attention to his recent solo endeavor Multum In Parvo, a 50-minute improvisation using the Buchla Music Easel and the Epoch Hordijk Benjolin that swells with pastoral chords that give way to some thrumming rhythms and wild creaks and pings.
With all this activity, it seemed a great time to speak with Barton about his interest in the shakuhachi, preaching the gospel of the Buchla, and making music for the stage.
MERCURY: Ro was recorded using the shakuhachi rather than the synthesizers that you are usually associated with. How did you start working with that instrument?
TODD BARTON: It’s actually two Japanese words: shaku, which means “one foot,” hachi means “eight inches.” It’s descriptive. The shakuhachi I’m playing is two feet, eight inches. It’s a much larger one. It’s end blown, which means your right hand, the lowest hand, is way far away from you. I was in music conservatory in the late ’60s and back then, you could go into Safeway and buy remaindered vinyl. I found, for a dollar, this album with this guy playing this strange bamboo flute that was even larger than this one. It was all in Japanese so I didn’t know what it was, but I sure liked it. Years later, I found out it was a shakuhachi when a friend of mine came through town and had picked up a rough hewn one off of the streets from some vendor in Berkeley. It sort of played. He would play it for me and I went, “Oh yeah, gotta get one of those.” That was in the late ’80s. So I sought out a teacher in the Bay Area and commuted every month to study with him.
At what point did you feel like you had gotten to a place where you comfortable enough to compose with it or at least improvise with it well enough to record an album?
I had actually done an album prior to this called Shakuhachi Ma, which is a Japanese aesthetic principle of negative space. You see it in ikebana and brush painting. There’s lots of white. That album was mainly traditional Zen shakuhachi pieces and a couple of improvised pieces. I’d been comfortable. A friend of mine, Monty Levenson in Willits, California who makes shakuhachis made me this large one and I fell in love with it immediately. Within a day or two, it was doing things I’d never seen or heard shakuhachis do for me. Ro came about by just sitting in the studio and turning the recorders on. All those improvisations are in real time. Apart from “Pulse” and “Improv,” which are multi-tracked, everything else is real time. It was all done within a day or two.
Is that generally how you like to work: improvising and building off of that? Especially thinking of material that you’ve done for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, do they start from improvisation or are you much more meticulous with that work?
Writing music for a dramatic play, to underscore something, there are certain parameters given. Like, “This needs to be a minute long,” “This needs to be 30 seconds long and it needs to be loud to cover the sound of the stage moving.” Which doesn’t necessarily have to do with the acting but I have to propel the plot. So I will develop themes or timbral signatures. That definitely takes some crafting. But it does come out of nowhere, my creative process. It comes from exploring sounds, exploring melodies, exploring harmonies. Improvising, for sure, on some level. But then eventually I have to create these little mini-universes that we call sound cues. Those are highly crafted to meet the director’s needs, the lighting designer’s needs, the set designer’s needs. It’s a very collaborative art.
One of the things that I have appreciated about your career is that you have this material that you have released on your own under your own name and plenty of material that comes from collaboration and working with other musicians. Is it important to you to have that balance of both elements?
Absolutely, yes. In fact, after 40 years of collaboration with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which… you couldn’t ask for a better situation. I got to compose every day for 40 years and everything that made the cut got heard by audiences. But for the last seven years that I’ve been retired, I’m only doing solo concerts pretty much. I’ll do some group improvisations now and then, but the bulk of my career is solo. And fully improvised. Not really knowing what I’m going to play when I step on stage. Which is scary and exhilarating. But it’s a total high in contrast to the collaborative, highly crafted artform that is a part of my life.
When it comes to making an album, is it with an intention of wanting the listener to feel a certain way or get a certain message, or is that not even in your mind when you’re putting a record together?
It depends on the album. For instance, [Multum in Parvo] from Blue Tapes, they requested an album, but they left it up to me to go where I wanted to go. I had been doing lots of free improvisation performances. Basically, that 50-minute album was a free improv. And, to answer your question, not in the concrete way. It’s definitely not a message. It’s an abstract invitation to join me on a journey to follow the sound. When I’m performing electronic music, it’s usually on the Buchla Music Easel. I’ve created a patch, whereby when I touch one of the plates on the keyboard, I have no idea what kind of sound it’s going to make. And if I touch it again, it will make a completely different sound. The first time I touch it, it might have this high sound that’s wobbly. The next time I touch it, it will be a low, clicky sound. The next time, it will be this timbre that sweeps through things. I have a lot of control over it with the amount of pressure I put on the keys. Basically, I will start a concert with a sound that I don’t know what it’s going to be and then I follow it. I immediately go into dialogue with it.
Speaking of the Buchla, you are known for your online tutorials and classes you do using that and the other synths that you perform on. How important is that for you to be preaching the gospel of these instruments and sharing information about them?
The beauty of the Buchla is that, even if you do know what you’re doing, there’s stuff you don’t know. It’s so deep. Literally, the day after I retired seven years ago, I decided I would go out to the studio and play the Buchla every day. And with my performance partner, Bruce Bayard, every Saturday we go into the studio and jam for a few hours on the Buchla Music Easels and we are still finding new things. It’s endless. The reason I started sharing my knowledge and my discoveries is because, if we all share our knowledge and discoveries on the Buchla, we will all go deeper quicker. It’s very important and I’m happy to share my adventure, my explorations. Every day is an exploration. My favorite quote is from David Tudor, who performed with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. It’s a paraphrase, but basically, “I don’t want to make the instrument do what I want it to do. I want to listen to what it wants to do.” It’s completely different than the Western capitalist culture approach to an instrument.
Your name has been coming up a lot recently with the re-release of Music and Poetry of the Kesh, the album you made with Ursula K. Le Guin. How was it for you to see that music brought back into circulation and then embraced like it was?
It was wonderful. I didn’t know that that was going to happen. [laughs] It was because of Freedom To Spend Records. They kept after me. “Let’s re-release that.” I thought, “Okaaaaay…. Sure.” I called Ursula and said, “This is happening. What do you think?” She said, “Sure.” It all happened and it took off like gangbusters! It’s great to share that again and to offer that to people. Ursula’s vision/imagination/genius has no bounds. It’s really great to feel that more and more people keep finding out about her. Her legacy will last a way, way long time.
What comes next for you? What does the rest of the year look like?
I have a bunch of albums coming out. One just got released. It’s going to be a sequence of releases on ante-rasa out of Belgium. It’s a mini-series of short pieces I did on the Serge Modular Music System. So it’s really abstract electronic experimental music. In July or early August, I have an album coming out called Spaces. I know that’s sort of a New Age-sounding title. Many of my last releases have been all free improv in the studio or live performance, but this is composed. It’s fun to get back and actually start pulling things together as a composer and have weeks or months to really hone things. This album is using the Buchla, the Hordijk [Synth], and a program I use called MetaSynth, whereby you actually draw and each pixel is an oscillator. And it can translate pictures into sound. It’s pretty wild.