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STEIM project blog

October 13, 2008

Here’s what I wrote for the STEIM project blog a few weeks ago. There are some quite nice pictures there too.

Richard Scott > Buchla Lightning vs LiSa

My residency was to help me develop the Buchla Lightning II Midi Conducting Rods, a legendary early infra-red sensor instrument , along with LiSa, into a viable perfoming tool, in particular for live improvisation. This period of residency was very valuable for me as a chance to disappear into the dark hole of studio 2 and concentrate in the software aspects: something I have great resistance to in my normal life. And also to exchange ideas with the STEIM team and to get on hand support for LiSa when I needed it. Most of my time was spent experimenting with programming the Buchla and LiSa to find ways that makes some kind of intuitive sense to me and give me a variety of controls derived from gestures necessary to make an instrument capable of complex and varied improvisations.

I need an instrument that can be very precisely controlled that I can use to interact with other musicians, for example Grutronic : shown here playing with Mr. Evan Parker

But I also want an instrument that surprises me, that remains interesting and doesn’t lead me to the same sounds every time I use it

What I developed so far is not quite the minimal wholly wireless system I was invisaging after the orientation period a year ago. I imagined having no table in front of me and just standing there with the buchla wands, but this would involve a heck of a lot of hardware modification and would maybe leave me wired up like a xmas tree. At the moment I am free of any wiring at all – I just have two sticks to wave about in the air and it feels very free and liberating – so it seems a shame to spoil that. At least at this point I really don’t want to get into building or hacking hardware, I think there would be too many issues with power supplits transmitters etc and besides, I have enough problems keeping these old buchla’s working as it is without drilling big holes in them. What I have now for performing now is practical and it works pretty well. It combines the Buchla, faderfox controller also using an Akai MPC and a couple of Korg Kaoss pads – sometimes augmented with a kalimba, nord modular, my cute custom analog suitcase synth:

and a cracklebox for example. Also Moog, Eventide and Vesta Kaza processors if I can carry them. Its all pretty visceral and body based and I can have the computer screen closed when performing which is important – as watching people who are 100% visually involved with their screens onstage is definitely not my idea of fun. At the moment I’m using mostly analogue modular sounds sampled to hard disc – ultimately I’d like to combine this with live sampling too.

Performing with the Buchla at the STEIM organised concert on May 30th was a little bit premature but it also put a pressure on me to develop something very quickly which in the end was quite mad and funny and i think worked out pretty well. I have performed with the Buchla many times but never along with LiSa, or with any other computer progam for that matter. My Faderfox controller was kind enough to die on me the next morning, rather than 2 minutes before the gig – which, from my experience, is normally when things decide to break…

The residency has also left me with an overview of a how I would go about constructing a live sampling patch and how I could use that to interact with other musicians. Also discussions with Frank and Taku generated some new ideas about working with a sequencer in conjunction with the Lightning, the Faderfox and LiSa: early experiments were surprisingly hard to control. I also think it could be worth my exploring Junxion and the Nintendo wii controller. Junxion could me a much more elegant solution to the mess of midi mapping I have to do. The wii can probably not replace all of the Buchla’s functions but it could certainly augment them and maybe replace one of the wands. One weakness of the Buchla is that it has very few button encoders. Despite my appeals to Mr Buchla to add a bunch of switches to the forthcoming and long, long overdue Lightning III, he told me he won’t add much significant to the existing Lightning II functionality.

In the end of course its more than a bunch of hardware and software, its an instrument and I’ll need to test out the programming and practise with it in different contexts over the coming months – all this programming stuff is fine, but its all ideas really – what might seem useful locked away in a studio and what is really useful onstage with other musicians are often not the same. So I still have to get to grips with performing on this thing, and developing the mixture of control and abandon that I would like to achieve, which really isn’t that easy. I think I will never try to play Charlie Parker tunes on it.

I don’t actually know of anyone who has ever really mastered the Buchla Lightning. There is hardly any documentation or recordings. In fact the only person I have ever heard playing it is me – which is refreshing and also unnerving. When I first found came across it I felt like it was magic and somehow made especially for me. That feeling hasn’t left me yet. Its taken me years to get to point where I feel I know what it is for and am comfortable performing with it, but I am beginning to put the pieces together. I’m sure there is a lot of work still ahead but I am happy to got this far. I hope I can go back to STEIM to carry on this work in the near future.

Apart from the odd phone conversation with Mr Buchla I have felt strangely alone and in outer space when working with it and concieving of what it could do and what I want to do. But for some reason I have taken on this challenge – to the point that it now feels like it is becoming my main performing instrument. It has been very helpful to go to STEIM and feel that what I am doing with the buchla is relatively normal – I can honestly say its the only place I know where i feel that way.

Here’s a quite funny little clip from a Berlin Salon Bruit gig with Caretakers made a few days after the residency:


lenin played the theremin!

October 13, 2008

a very interesting interview with Leon Theremin:

some of my compositions with the buchla lightning

October 13, 2008

Most of the videos I have linked to so far seem to portray me as some kind of crazed stick flailing lunatic. I may in fact be that, but anyway I have linked these three compositions here to broaden the picture

Two tracks are from a forthcoming vinyl album on inuitu records called “Let’s Make A Solar System” by Twinkle3 which is myself, and David Ross playing a bunch of instruments and Clive Bell playing shakuhachi flute.

Let’s Make A Solar System: step4 is a somewhere between a bass solo and a chamber piece. It was played live in one take on Buchla Lightning controlling an Akai sampler with an Eventide Eclipse modulating some delays. Maybe I was thinking about Gary Peacock.

Let’s Make A Solar System: step5 features David Ross on tremeloa (an obscure one-stringed hawaiian slide guitar), and hang (steel pan drum) and myself on Lightning. The Lightning is restricted to the hovering orchestral (string and woodwind) sections and the more soloistic somewhere-between-a-harp-and-guitar plucked sounds. I am also controlling a Sequentix P3 sequencer doing all things analogue, bleepy and squealchy. This, incidently, is the music I would like to have played at my funeral. To me its really quite heavenly and if I want to say anything in music this is probably it. Dave and I both like Ornette Coleman a lot, it doesn’t sound anything like his him, but I would like to think he would understand where we are coming from with this piece….

But getting back to the point: both these tracks show that the Lightning can handle more “musical” elements like pitch and dynamics pretty well.

The third piece was an outtake from my CD Heartmap (docdic records) and a few years old. It features the Lightning controlling some severe metallic plucking sounds from a Clavia Nord G2 modular, which is then being heavily effected and pitch-shifted on an eventide eclipse. The rhythm is coming from something (probably a Oberheim Cyclone) sequencing an Alesis Andromeda which gives a bit of a softer analog bed to all the digitalness. I am not sure where this piece goes, mostly it hovers, it wants to be ambient but its too nervous, but then its not really nervous enough to break free of its constraints. The piece is too stuck in itself for that CD, which has a strong theme of memory and melencholy, but I still quite like it.

some lightning links

October 13, 2008

Joel Davel’s page is here.

He worked (works?) on the Lightning II with Don Buchla, including the presets. I don’t have any links to his music.  Anyone know of anything out there? Or links to audio or video of anyone else using the lightning??

Create Digital Music have a bit of history of infrared and other movement controllers here.

I have a bunch of clips from a gig with One Man Nation in Amsterdam earlier in the year . It was the first time I performed with LiSa, mostly with a lot of EMS VCS3 and other modular synth samples. I’m using some onboard sounds too, and an Akai MPC1000 everything running through a Korg Kaoss 3. At one point someone in the audience actually starts up a large motorcycle and drives off – halfway through my solo too. Which is why we look a bit surprised. Its an entirely improvised set, Marc’s using a Monome and Ableton Live

Johan Boberg is selling a Lightning II here. They don’t come up for sale very often. In fact its only the second one I’ve seen for sale in the past 3 years. It looks very nice.

question from Bryan

October 13, 2008

question from Bryan

Bryan asked this on my myspace site:

Hi Richard,

I’ve enjoyed all your cuts that include the Lightning. You are right, there isn’t much out there about the Lightning. Could you help me with a couple of questions?

1. I don’t quite understand. Are you using an external synth? Can it work with the synth that comes with it?

2. I understand the freeform nature of the music this thing makes. But is the instrument built and designed well enough that there isn’t too much missing movement?



Hi Bryan

Glad you enjoyed the rather random selection of clipsThe synth built into the Lightning II and forthcoming Lightning III is just a general midi voicecard, a daughterboard from Kurzweil or Yahama I think, and more or less there as afterthought. Its useful for trying out ideas but the sounds are not really editable and you can’t modulate things like timbre or attack from the rod positions. For what it is it sounds good and I do actually use those sound from time to time (I managed to use a lot of the onboard clarinet, guitar and quasi chamber ensemble sounds on a forthcoming CD with the group Grutronic on PSI Records). But the amount of control, varaition and expression possible with the Lightning as a midi controller far exceed what the onboard synth can do. It really intended to feed an external synth, sampler or software midi environment.

I am not sure exactly what you mean by “too much missing movement”. It does a pretty good job of getting general gist of the movement and in ideal circumstances, if the distance is correctly setup and there is not too much shit in the way, like tables or other musicians it works pretty well. I’d say its not as fast as it could be and sometimes really complex fast combinations of movement don’t sound quite as expected. But with practise and proper programming very detailed and precise music is possible. For the time it was conceived and made the design is pretty remarkable and robust. I think the Lightning II is better than the original 1988 model in this regard, and according to Don Buchla the Lightning III will be significantly faster and smoother to use… IF he ever actually releases it, that is. Its long overdue: its been “a few weeks” away for the last two years as far as I can tell. With the advent of the Wii technology I wonder if there is really a market for a two thousand dollar infrared controller…

do ask away if you have any more questions.


Welcome to infraredmusic

October 3, 2008

Hello. My name is Richard Scott. I am a musician/composer living in Berlin working with the Buchla Lightning II midi controller along with a bunch of other analogue and digital stuff. I am also working on supplementing the Lightning’s rods alongside Nintendo Wiimote handsets. Although one is a $2000 musical instrument and the other a $40 toy the technology is more or less the same so I am wondering how far the Lightning could even be replaced by the wiimotes, in combination with STEIM’s junxion software for example  which translates the ouput from the wiimotes into midi data that could be used to control any hardware or software midi instrument or plugin. A little nutty video of me playing the Buchla Lightning with STEIMs LiSa sampling software is here

One this one I am playing something like a steel guitar sound – probably on a yamaha VL70.

Mostly I play the kind of improvised and experimental music which draws sarcastic comments from drunk guys on the web – who don’t seem able to see that there is also a certain humour behind it. But that’s just what I do. These infrared instruments can potentially be used with more conventional kinds of electronic music too – though I’m damned if I’d want to try to play jazz with ’em.

i HOPE OTHER LIGHTNING AND WIIMOTE USERS WILL SAY HELLO. it would be good to have a place to exchange information on the web.