Charles Cohen is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area-based free jazz musician and composer. Creating music since 1971, his music is entirely improvisational and produced solely on a vintage Buchla Music Easel synthesizer, an extremely rare integrated analog performance instrument made by synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla. He has been increasingly recognized for his artistry performing internationally and is one of a handful of musicians who has mastered the Buchla Music Easel, an extremely rare instrument. Only twenty-five of the instruments were produced in the early 1970s and only a few have survived. He is also considered a pioneer in synthesizers and performance music.
He was inspired by free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. An avid collaborator, Cohen worked for many years with musician Jeff Cain in their group The Ghostwriters. From Baltimore to Philadelphia and New York City, he collaborates with many media artists in improvisational settings as varied as the Red Room, Knitting Factory and Tonic. With few recorded or commercially available works to his credit, Cohen prefers to concentrate on creating electronic music in the setting of the live performance space. His music ranges from completely abstract and challenging to pleasantly rhythmic and infectious. His present main performance offering is Color Is Luxury, a purely improvisational, all electronic duo with another Philadelphia musician, hair_loss. He is openly gay and has performed in LGBT-specific performances, events and venues.
Buchla's instruments, such as the Music Easel (pictured), use a different method of timbre generation than Moog synthesizers. Moog units use oscillators with basic function generator type waveshapes and rely heavily on filtering with 24 dB resonant low-pass filters, while Buchlas are geared toward complex oscillators using frequency modulation, amplitude modulation, and dynamic waveshaping to produce other forms of timbre modulation. Many of Don Buchla's designs, including the Low-Pass Gates (later called Dynamic Managers) contain vactrols (photoresistive opto-isolators used as voltage-controlled potentiometers) that contributed to a very "natural" perception of Buchla sound.
Instrument design is key to the artist's creative technique:
In improvisation I try to think less and experience more. The primary experience for me is listening. Then, I want to respond quickly, honestly, playfully, and intuitively. I have no time or inclination in such a moment to squint at monitors, peck through menu trees, or decipher a panel of look-alike knobs.
I've been playing the Buchla Music Easel since 1976. With its color-coded slide pots, its musically logical panel layout, and its almost sculptural patching system, I can comprehend the state of the instrument with a fleeting glance. The touch-sensitive, capacitance-activated keyboard responds smoothly at the speed of light to the slightest skin contact, and its assorted control voltage outputs can be directed to sonic and structural parameters very quickly. The potential to supplely flow into and amongst all the basic electronic sound forms is literally at my fingertips. I am happy when I'm playing this instrument.
- The Middle Distance (EU: Morphine, 2013, DOSER 019, LP)
- Group Motion (EU: Morphine, 2013, DOSER 020, LP)
- Music For Dance And Theater (EU: Morphine, 2013, DOSER 021, Do LP)
- Morphosis Reworks (EU: Morphine, 2013, REDOSE 002, 12“)
- Objects in Mirrors Are Closer Than They Appear (US: Red Music, 1981, 001)
- Remote Dreaming (US: Mu Psych, 1986, MP-6002C)
- Straylight (US: Deep Listening, 2001, DL-CD-15)
- SUBMIT (US: alien robot media, 1999, arcd01)
- Charles Cohen at the Buchla Music Easel (Vimeo: vimeo.com/902069)
- "A Dramatic 'Odyssey' on the Temple Stage", Philadelphia Inquirer, April 21, 1987.
- Holmes, 224.
- "Duo's Sound is Eerie, Yet Provocative", Philadelphia Inquirer, February 25, 1983.
- "Bhundo Boys Offer Some 'Jit' African Pop Group at Chestnut Cabaret.", Philadelphia Inquirer, August 26, 1988.
- Keyboard, Volume 29, Issues 7-12, 2003.
- "Charles Cohen - June 2010 Chicago", Matrix Synth, June 23, 2010.
- Holmes, 225.
- "The Lowdown on the High Zero Festival", CMJ:New Music Monthly, page 81, Oct 2001.
- Elliott Sharp, "Noise Storm", Ars Nova, September 20, 2010.
- Holmes, 16.
- The Wire, page 40, Issues 203-208, 2001.
- Signal to noise, page 54, Issue 35, 2004.
- "Charles Cohen: Music for Dance and Theater", Option magazine, page 123, Volume 20, 1988.
- Ear, Volume 15, page 59, New Wilderness Foundation, 1990.
- Experimental musical instruments: Volumes 12-13, pages 36-9, 1996.
- "Saul Stokes Performs Live with Charles Cohen", Star's End, December 12, 1998.
- Jennifer Kelly, "Folk Goes Interplanetary with Espers", Pop Matters, 2 May 2006.
- Sara G. Levin, "Where every escalator is a stage", Downtown Express, Volume 18 • Issue 43 | March 10–16, 2006.
- J.S. Adams, "Despite Protestations", Queering Sound '08, May 18, 2008.
- "Chicago Modular Musickal Extemporization Klinic June 19, 2010", Matrix Synth, MAY 20, 2010.
- J. Alex, "The Hibiscus Company", Walnut Philadelphia, November 20, 2008.
- "MIX Experimental Queer Film Festival: 20 Years of Dedication to Demanding Experimental Queer Films", Trans Academics November 1, 2007.
- "Thoughts on Buchla instrument design"
- Holmes, Thom, Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition, Routledge, 2002.
- Holmes, Thom, Electronic and experimental music: technology, music, and culture, Psychology Press, 2008.