AMIS 2022: The Electronic Sackbut Project

The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

The Electronic Sackbut Project
Tom Everrett

Tom Everrett, PhD, is Curator of Communications at Ingenium: Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation. He also holds an Adjunct Professorship at Carleton University, Ottawa. He curated the Canada Science and Technology Museum’s permanent Sound by Design gallery, is co-editor of Sound & Science: a database for sources in the history of acoustics, and is currently leading a multi-year sound museology project called “Sound Artifacts: Histories & Futures.

The Electronic Sackbut, built by Canadian Hugh Le Caine in 1945–48, is widely regarded as the world’s first modern synthesizer. Yet we still know surprisingly little about how it works. Complex electrical routing, buried capacitors, brittle wires, broken solders, and other material challenges have made knowledge-generation difficult. Thanks to a two-year conservation effort, led in 2015 by electronic instrument technician J. L. Leimseider (National Music Centre, Canada), we now know more about the Electronic Sackbut’s design and functionality than ever before. Yet without being able to play the instrument—an impossibility given the degraded state of its original components— our understanding of the Electronic Sackbut’s instrumentality remains limited. Although written descriptions, photographs, and audio recordings do exist, researchers have yet to unearth any film footage that might help us understand exactly how Le Caine built the instrument, or how he achieved the sounds that he did in performance. Moreover, the surviving audio recordings reflect prevailing musical sensibilities (traditional and experimental) of the 1940s–50s. As such, they offer only a glimpse at the instrument’s technical capabilities and musical potential. Recently, curatorial and conservation staff at Ingenium: Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation (Ottawa) initiated a project to build a hybrid mechanical/digital reconstruction of the Electronic Sackbut in order to deepen our material and musical understanding of the instrument. The idea is to physically reconstruct the instrument’s mechanical elements—pressure-sensitive keyboard, finger-controlled filter and modulator, sliding tone wheel, various pots and switches—while patching these into a bespoke digital sound engine which can approximate its electronic functions and sound. Our goal is therefore to deliver an ergonomically and sonically “faithful” reconstruction of the 1948 instrument that will permit new opportunities for handson experimentation, public performance, and fuller material culture exploration. This paper will describe the background and current state of the project, including reflections on the many practical, ethical, and interpretive issues involved.

Watch more videos from the 2022 AMIS Conference here.