Silent Night: Warner Jepson’s “Buchla Christmas” (1969)

Warner Jepson (1930-2011) is not a household name amongst electronic music aficionados, but his unique, gestural approach demands recognition. Jepson was an early member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC), even before its move to Mills College in 1967, and worked with some of the most prominent musicians and artists of the San Francisco Bay area throughout the mid-1960s and 1970s (e.g., Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and Yvonne Rainer). Jepson was also one of the first musicians to ever use the Buchla 100 modular synthesizer.

Jepson may have used the revolutionary machine as early as 1965, when Don Buchla first revealed the prototype for his famous “Buchla Box” to the SFTMC. The equipment was commissioned by the center about one year prior, and Jepson, along with modular juggernaut Morton Subotonik, was immediately taken by its radical departure from the tape-based, cut-and-splice methods of electronic music that had largely defined the practice. Jepson continued working with tape, best exemplified by his epic Buchla-based and nearly 40 minute ballet score, TOTENTANZ (1967), but in his personal writings he also fondly recalls “[going] to the Tape Music Center, then at Mills, at 8pm and [working] through the night at Don Buchla’s ‘box’.” One can easily imagine Jepson sitting alone in the studio, surrounded by electronic equipment, sequenced lights cascading over his face, attempting to communicate to (and through) this alien machine until sunrise.

This is the scene that I envision when listening to the strange, rarely heard recordings from one such 8pm session, a bizarre collection of Christmas carols recorded shortly before December 25th, 1969.

The recording was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for their annual Christmas party (apparently with little notice, as Jepson dedicated only one evening to completing the session). However, upon arrival to the studio Jepson realized that he left behind the scores of Christmas-themed music that he planned to work from, and was forced to improvise the entire session from memory.

Warner Jepson and the Buchla 100, ca. 1968. The Estate of Warner Jepson.

The result is an ethereal, fleeting display of traditional carols and wintry vignettes that together span some 30 minutes. Jepson reduced each song to its simplest melodic form, as much the result of having to work from memory as the harmonic limitations of the Buchla prototype he was working on. But it also sounds as if Jepson was actually attempting to teach these nostalgic tunes to the obdurate display of knobs, switches, and lights before him, an elusive sentience that he seemed to recognize:

“The most pleasure came when I incorporated the sequencing module that gave a tune rhythm that it never had nor would have, since it came from a synthesizer with a different kind of creativity that a human wouldn’t have.”

The commission was likely sought by the museum because of the release of at least two Moog-based Christmas albums in 1969 (The Moog Machine – “Christmas Becomes Electric“; and Sy Mann – “Switched-On Santa“). Indeed, the popularity of such albums would have guaranteed at least marginal interest in a recording of similar songs composed on the Buchla, which was unveiled about a year after the Moog. However, Jepson’s own recording stands apart from these commercial releases: it does not sound mechanical, sugar-coated, or overly produced like most albums associated with the “Switched-On” phenomenon. Instead, these pieces are simplistic, fragmented, and surprisingly atmospheric. They are clearly marked by the gestures of someone who dedicated their life to truly connecting with this strange machine.

Despite the absurdity of the task, in these recordings Jepson not only presents a nice collection of truly ‘out there’ Christmas music, but he also manages to impart to the listener something real, something human, leaving us with an impression that the ‘Buchla Box’ with which he spent so many nights might have actually been alive itself.

The recordings were recently uncovered by an Oberlin-based label, SHINKOYO, which distributed the session as a digital download in 2010 with the artist’s permission. The Bandcamp site was once operated by Jepson himself, but has since transformed into a sort of living memorial following his death in 2011. The recordings are still available as a name-your-price download with all proceeds going to the Estate of Warner Jepson, which is currently sorting and cataloguing the artist’s archival materials.

Charles Eppley is an art historian and sound enthusiast from Brooklyn, New York.

by charles eppley on 12/11/2013 in Reviews | Tags: , , , , , ,