The Sackbut Blues: Hugh le Caine. Pioneer in Electronic Music

By Keane, David | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Sackbut Blues: Hugh le Caine. Pioneer in Electronic Music


Keane, David, Canadian University Music Review


GAYLE YOUNG. The Sackbut Blues: Hugh Le Caine. Pioneer in Electronic Music. Ottawa: National Museum of Science and Technology, 1989. xiv. 274 pp. ISBN 0-66012006-2

Canada has a history of original creative thinkers, and Hugh Le Caine (1914-1977) must be one of tne most remarkable among them. LeCaine was both an experimenter and an inventor. In the 1920's, he experimented with aspects of sound recording and processing: John Cage did much the same things in the late 1940's and early 1950's and almost immediately became a celebrity. In the 1940's. Le Caine designed and built a musical synthesizer (described in The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments as "the earliest instrument that resembles a synthesizer" [Davies 1984: 680], whose power and flexibility of control still has not been surpassed by modern digital instruments: Robert Moog built a similar instrument twenty years later and gained no small reputation thereby.

While still a child. Le Caine built such futuristic, if rather impractical, devices as an electronic ukulele, a paper-roll-driven autoharp, and a guitar with foot pedals for tuning like those of a harp. He experimented with processing sounds by means of microphones and speakers and by means of modified playback of homemade phonograph recordings. His absolute pitch, remarkable musical memory, and formal and autodidactic study of musical instruments made him particularly suited to musical instrument invention. After the first synthesizer, he went on to create the first polyphonic synthesizer, an audio playback device that allowed for highly controlled mixing and editing, and ingenious controllers to allow composers to interact with synthesizers and tape recorders.

Given his unusual accomplishments, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the man was his shyness. Although he was the composer of the first (and for many years, the most famous) tape composition produced in Canada and for more than a decade the Canadian composer of electroacoustic music best represented on disc, he never considered himself a real composer. He maintained he was only trying out his instruments in see them from the composer's point of view. He tried in various ways to draw the attention of composers to what his instruments had to offer, but the attempts were so humble that few composers or performers came to know of Le Caine's accomplishments during his lifetime.

There were illustrious moments, of course. Arnold Walter seized upon Le Caine's work and, in cooperation with the National Research Council (Le Caine's lifelong employer), set up the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studios (UTEMS). In 1959, this was but the second electronic music studio in North America (the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center having been established the preceding year) and for the next ten years one of the of the world's most important centres for the art. Le Caine filled UTEMS with his marvellous devices and, a few years later, did the same for Istvan Anhalt's facility at McGill University. He also placed equipment in the studios of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Queen's University (Le Caine's alma mater, where the School of Music building was named, in part, in his honour in 1974).

Le Caine published much of his work in technical journals and occasionally in musical ones, but the world was not quite ready at that time to make much use of such information. Moreover, since Le Caine worked for the Canadian National Research Council, the marketing of his inventions was subject to certain restrictions. Perhaps more importantly, even where commercial production of Le Caine's devices seemed to be on the horizon, his modesty and perfectionism made him reluctant to agree that a project was finally ready for manufacture. Robert Moog's name became synonymous with musical synthesizers for more than a decade not because he made a better synthesizer but because he managed actually to market one (something perhaps easier to accomplish in the United States). …

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