Portrait of a Scientist/Musician

Hugh LeCaine, B-Sc., M.Sc., Ph.D. (1914-1977)

Science Dimension volume 9 issue 6 1977

Dr.Hugh LeCaine at the keyboard of the electronic sackbut
Above: Dr. Hugh LeCaine at the keyboard of the electronic Sackbut. (Electrical Engineering Division)

"He is remembered as a man with a vision" - Istvan Anhalt, Head, Department of Music, Queen's University.

Dr.Hugh LeCaine performs for the Duke of Edinburgh .
Above: Dr. Hugh LeCaine combines electronic theory with a "command performance" for His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on his visit to NRC in 1954. (Electrical Engineering Division)

Father of electronic music in Canada; scientist, composer, inventor, painter; add to this teacher, lecturer, consultant, photographer, horticulturist and, last but not least, humanist - and a portrait of the late shy and private Hugh LeCaine emerges.

"He epitomized what research is all about," says Horace Aubrey of the National Research Council's Division of Electrical Engineering, where Dr. LeCaine spent his entire working life. Joining the Council in 1940, just when radar work for the war effort was getting under way, he started work on the first of his many inventions. "With the use of tin cans and a couple of potentiometers - the most hairy-looking thing you ever saw," says Aubrey, "LeCaine designed the first automatic pattern recorder, an instrument used to measure the directions in which an antenna propagates a radio signal." For years, the Council had the only one of its kind in the world. At war's end, Canadian National used receiving equipment designed by LeCaine to plan radio links across the country. In the field of nuclear physics, he collaborated in building the forerunner of what is today the Van de Graaff nuclear accelerator used to generate a stream of high-speed sub-atomic particles. Such accelerators are used in the fields of medicine, chemistry and atomic energy as "super" microscopes or probes.

Vascillating between music and physics, the former became the all-consuming interest of his life. With the invention of the electronic Sackbut in 1945, Hugh LeCaine opened the era of electronic music (the more widely-accepted advent of this music occurred three years later when the French engineer/composer Pierre Schaeffer recorded street sounds in Paris, combining them in various ways to form his "musique concrete"). The original Sackbut was the earliest form of the slide trumpet derived from the Roman buccina, which afterwards developed into the trombone. Although LeCaine's work on the instrument began at home, NRC entered the picture in 1954, supporting it as a form of communication between scientists and artists. "My primary concern," Hugh once said, "was making an electronic instrument that was musically expressive." The problem, he felt, lay in the cold, mechanical sounds of available electronic instruments. LeCaine's answer was the construction of an extremely sensitive instrument which, unlike other keyboard instruments, could slur and slide from note to note, producing continuously variable sounds with an additional capacity for making constant tone, color and pitch adjustments. Musicians, who have played it maintain that its best feature is the way a note can be made louder by pressing a key harder or to waiver with a sideward movement of the finger; and it is adaptable to every kind of music. The Sackbut has been featured at Canadian and international exhibitions and used for the musical scores of several films.

. President Sukarno of Indonesia listens to Dr. LeCaine
Above: President Sukarno of Indonesia, on a state visit to Canada in 1956, listens to Dr. LeCaine play some of his own compositions. (National Film Board)

"Each new invention sparked ideas for more," explains another colleague, Dave Rocheleau. "There really was no end to the number of areas Hugh wanted to explore." Once, as his team completed preparation of the Sackbut for showing at an exhibition in Toronto, they were suddenly told the Sackbut wouldn't be going. Why? Because another LeCaine idea had come to fruition much sooner than expected - the multitrack tape recorder which would eventually be shown instead. The recorder is a device primarily for replaying and retaping sounds. With it, 16 tapes can be played at the same time, and by mixing them or combining together certain sections, musical compositions can be created. "There are other tape devices," says Dave, "but none has the flexibility of this one."

"Hugh and I discussed the kinds of heads to be used in tape drives," continues Horace Aubrey. "At that time, no one knew much about these drives and unlike other tape recorders with one head, the multitrack had six! The head had to be strong enough to hold the tapes as they went through, but not of sufficient load to slow them down. For months, I worked on it and at last came up with something I thought was absolutely superb. I attached it to the multitrack, and left for the day. Well, you should have seen it next morning; Hugh had been in during the night (he preferred to work during these quiet hours) and taken a hacksaw to it! I was almost in tears - and then I saw the note: 'as soon as I looked at it, I realized you could improve it Horace, if you did this, and this, and this!' "Most people would have been frustrated," concludes Aubrey, "but we appreciated the genius of the man."

"We're all mentally lazy," Hugh LeCaine has said. "The electronic system aids a composer much in the same way as an adding machine aids an accountant. It gives him the mental energy to cover more ground and to see exactly what implications are contained in his original premise. What he composes is more truly an expression of his own subconscious idea about the piece - having heard more, he is able to pick the inspired combination better."

The Serial Sound Structure Generator .
Above: Anyone who visited the Man and Music Exhibit at Expo 67 and had a chance to "compose" electronic music by pushing various buttons controlling notes, timbre and pitch, operated a simplified version of another LeCaine invention - the Serial Sound Structure Generator.  Simply by switching dials, a composer can produce all possible combinations of the chosen qualities; he can listen to the still unwritten music score and test the electronic notes for duration, intensity, tone-color, attack and decay. (Electrical Engineering Division)

In demand as a lecturer, LeCaine was known to spend hundreds of hours preparing for one 30-minute talk. Although he had dozens of compositions to his credit, many of which have been heard on radio, television and in concerts, perhaps the best known is Dripsody, written in 1955. "The whole composition," wrote a reviewer in High Fidelity Magazine, "is based upon the single sound produced by the fall of a drop of water. This is developed in all manner of ways plain and fancy scales, played with a neat, pearly perfection any piano virtuoso might envy; bell tones of several kinds; long sustained pure tones; and mixtures of these several elements. The work is particularly useful as an introduction for the lay listener."

As a leading authority and one of the world's foremost designers of electronic musical instruments, Hugh LeCaine was called upon for advice in the setting up of Canada's first electronic music studios - at the University of Toronto (from which he received an honorary LL.D. in 1973) and at McGill University (D. Mus. 1971) - and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His alma mater, Queen's University, awarded him an honorary LL.D. in 1974.

A posthumous honor was conferred upon him when tapes, photographs and scores depicting his life-long work formed part of the audio-visual exhibition on the history of electronic music at the recent opening of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France; and at Queen's University, Harrison-LeCaine Hall stands in memory of the NRC scientist-musician who introduced electronic music to this country.

Reprinted courtesy of National Research Council of Canada