Connie Field (right) and Gregory Scharpen: the pair are making a documentary about Berkeley music pioneer Don Buchla

Connie Field can usually be found on the front lines of social struggle. From her classic 1980 documentary The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter to last year’s seven-part PBS series on the global movement to end apartheid, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, the Berkeley filmmaker seeks to ensure that history doesn’t forget the citizens and activists behind world-shaking movements for social justice.

Her latest project, Buchla, for which she’s seeking initial funding via a Kickstarter campaign that concludes on April 15, explores a different kind of untold story. Working with her longtime editor, Gregory Scharpen, she’s delving into the fascinating world of electronic music pioneer Don Buchla, the ingenious Berkeley inventor and theoretician who has played an essential role in shaping the way humans interact with electronic devices.

While his late East Coast contemporary Robert Moog gets the lion’s share of the credit as the forefather of electronic instruments, the 75-year-old Buchla preceded him. After earning a degree in physics from UC Berkeley in 1960, he collaborated with avant garde composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, who were both associated with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which led to the invention of synthesizers controlled by touch sensitive plates (a concept that turned out to be decades ahead of its time).

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Don Buchla: a Berkeley inventor and theoretician who has played an essential role in shaping the way humans interact with electronic devices

“In many ways he’s a child of the 60s,” Field says from the office of her production company Clarity Films in the Saul Zaentz Media Center. “In developing his synthesizer he really took a big leap and made something with no keyboard. Moog had a keyboard. It’s not that he’s not commercial, but that’s not the heart of anything that he does.”

A documentary on Buchla is admittedly a topical departure for Field. Their connection is a decidedly Berkeley affair. Her husband Pierre Divenyi is the head of the Speech and Hearing Research program at the Department of Veteran Affairs in Martinez. He’s a scientific colleague of Buchla’s wife, Anne-Marie Bonnel, who conducts research in psychophysics and was a long-time Psychology Department lab manager at UC Berkeley.

Field’s close friendship with Bonnel and the couples’ social relationship paved the way for the documentary. Buchla’s general aversion to the spotlight thwarted Previous doc attempts. Instead of approaching the project as an up-close profile, Field and Scharpen are stepping back and focusing on some of the many artists indebted to Buchla’s instruments and insights.

“I make social issues docs, but this is a lot of fun to do,” Field says. “I love meeting these musicians and composers who use his instruments. Don doesn’t like a lot of attention. Other people have tried, and he said no. I assured him I wasn’t going to be tagging along. We thought a great way to tell the story is through the people whose creative work has hinged on his inventions.”

Field’s other point of entry was Scharpen, who came to film editing after years as an award-winning theatrical sound designer for Central Works Theatre Ensemble, Shotgun Players, TheatreFIRST, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and other companies. An active figure on the Bay Area experimental music scene (where he performs and records as Thomas Carnacki), Scharpen is also a prolific KALX deejay responsible for numerous programs on the arts. Like many people, he learned about Buchla through Joel Davel, who plays the inventor’s electronic Marimba Lumina in the Paul Dresher Ensemble.

“I realized there’s this unsung musical genius right here,” Scharpen says.

Academy Award nominee

It’s a sign of the times that he and Field, a two-time Academy Award nominee whose work has been widely acclaimed and broadcast, are conducting a Kickstarter campaign. Documentary filmmaking is a notoriously shoestring profession, and it’s not unusual to spend years writing grants before starting a project.

With PBS’s arts coverage largely hollowed out, “Kickstarting is what we do nowadays,” Field says. “‘American Masters’ is not going to fund it, so where do you go? The Internet gives us ability to find particular communities. The beauty of it is that you also build a community for when the film gets out. The key is reaching ever-expanding circles of people.”

The thing about Buchla is that his work has touched millions of people, though they probably don’t know it. Working in his Berkeley workshop, he continues to create electronics that introduce new ways for artists to interact with technology, though he’s also collaborated with the Veteran’s Administration on guidance systems for the blind.

“He worked for NASA for a while, and did some non musical-inventions,” Scharpen says. “All his work explores the relationships between humans and machines. He’s an early pioneer of this entire field. In a way Don invented a new musical language, and we’re still exploring the implications.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....