Due to the rarity of the instrument Charles Cohen has been using since the mid-1970s, an infinitesimal number of people in the world can make the sounds he makes.
The 67-year-old Philadelphian’s primary music-making device is a Buchla Music Easel Series 200. The synthesizer innovator Don Buchla made only about 25 of them — Cohen purchased his directly from Buchla in 1976 — and so Cohen is one of the few, brave explorers to devote his life to the peculiar instrument.
Cohen describes the music he makes as “beeps and boops.” But there are countless oddities in between: drones, plops, hisses, blips, thumps, scrapes, screams, whirrs, skrrts, kerrangs, whams, slams, zaps.
He has spent nearly 40 years perched behind this colorful synth-in-a-suitcase, fiddling with its gleaming knobs and levers and cords.
Still, Cohen does not claim to be a master of his Easel. He is far too humble. After all these years, he is still in awe of his instrument: He remains surprised by the sounds it emits, and he is happy to know he cannot intentionally recreate them all. This inherent unpredictability, along with Cohen’s commitment to improvisation, are two of the reasons he has not left behind a trail of recordings.
He released two albums in the 1980s with Ghostwriters, a duo with the electronicist Jeff Cain, and has contributed a few tracks to limited edition electronic music compilations. But, otherwise, in order to hear Cohen’s music, you would have to see him perform live in galleries and basements and sometimes venues around the city.
He plays regularly — last month on top of a Philadelphia tour bus as part of the Double Decker Music Series — both solo and in his Color Is Luxury duo with noise musician hair_loss. About his decision to avoid recorded work, Cohen writes in an email: “I just like to play, have fun, then go home and forget it.”
That changed last month when Morphine Records released the four-LP collection Charles Cohen: A Retrospective of Early Works, 1978-1989. Many of the tracks included there, mostly recorded live in Philadelphia and New York City, document Cohen’s early work for live performance companies such as Philadelphia’s Group Motion Dance Theater and Malvern’s People’s Light & Theatre Company. The music is sonically diverse, beautifully weird and remarkably fresh. As a whole, the collection is an invaluable document of both Philadelphia’s underground experimental-music scene and the evolution of electronic music.
After decades without releasing any recorded music — aside from the delightful but ultimately unsatisfying SoundCloud snippets he irregularly shares on his website — why did Cohen decide to do it now? Perhaps it has something to do with legacy: Cohen is approaching 70, and two years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. And, last year, he was awarded a $60,000 Pew Fellowship by Philadelphia’s Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Maybe this unexpected financial bump allowed Cohen some time to focus on his archives.
But, when asked, Cohen provides a characteristically modest and murky response: “I had no particular reason or ambition for it. No one had ever made such an offer, so I said ‘Why not?’”
So it should also come as no surprise that Cohen does not know what he will do next. “I’m mulling over how I might pull off a live performance recording that actually sounds good,” he says. “Easier said than done.”
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