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100 Years of Hugh Le Caine

Examining the Canadian electronic music pioneer's legacy on musique concrète.

Hugh Le Caine was way before his time. The Canadian electronic music pioneer devoted his life to building synthesizers, creating new sounds, and composing in the musique concrète style. His seminal recording, "Dripsody," which emulates and modifies the sound of a single drop of water, shines as a remarkable and fresh experiment. And it's from 1955.

That's the same year Elvis Presley released his first #1 single and people were flipping their shit over the rise of rock n' roll - the devil's music. Imagine the utter chaos that would've ensued if anyone had heard this. People would have jumped past worrying about the devil to a full-on apocalyptic alien invasion.


The thing is, plenty of people did hear it, but not in the popular music wold. Le Caine imagined new sounds as a child and developed a lifelong fixation with creating them in real life. During the 1940s, he lived something of a double life, working as a distinguished physicist during the day and creating electronic instruments in his spare time. Apparently assisting in the development of the first radar systems (which he did) wasn't enough. His real passion came out in the Electronic Sackbut - one of the first monophonic electronic keyboards. Invented and tweaked by Le Caine across the 1940s, the Electronic Sackbut was the first synthesizer that allowed players to manipulate the volume, pitch, and timbre of their playing in real time. That remains a crucial element of synths today.

Le Cain's work gained enough notoriety that the National Research Council of Canada gave him a grant in 1954 to work on electronic instruments full time. Just for some perspective, this was ten years before Robert Moog released the first commercially available, portable synthesizer. Le Caine was working in a time when electronic music came from the intersection of science and music production technology - before there were any rules, or any easy answers. He went on to invent twenty-two instruments before leaving the NRC in 1973.

In the process, he also established himself as a player in the musique concrète movement. Developed in the Nazi-resisting Studio d'Essai de la Radiodifussion National by Pierre Schaeffer during the 1940s, musique concrète was all about taking natural recordings and manipulating them into new forms of sound by using a wide array of technology and breaking all the traditional rules of music. Le Caine was fascinated by Schaeffer's work and used his methods to make some of the sounds he dreamed up as a kid.


This Friday in Toronto, The Music Gallery and the Canadian Music Centre are hosting a party for his 100th birthday. It will feature talks by a handful of musicians and scientists who worked with Le Cain himself, and a rare recreation of his music by Dave MacKinnon (of Fembots) and Rob Crulckshank.

It'll be a chance to conjure the spirit of this revolutionary musician. Until then, listen to these remixes of "Dripsody" by Boundary, Elaquent, and Sandro Perri.

Check out the the 100 Years of Hugh Le Caine event this Friday May 30th.

Greg Bouchard is a writer living in Toronto. He's on Twitter.


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