Vol. 40 Issue 1 Reviews

Andrew J. Nelson: The Sound of Innovation - Stanford and the Computer Music Revolution

Hardcover, 2015, ISBN 978-0-262-02876-9, 248 pages, US$ 34, available from The MIT Press, One Rogers Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142-1209, U.S.A., mitpress.mit.edu.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

Nelson Book CoverThe Sound of Innovation tells the fascinating story of the establishment and growth of the Center of Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University, from an insider’s perspective. In writing this book Andrew J. Nelson brings to bear a considerable amount of research, including 37 cited interviews that took place over a dozen years. As a specialist in management and organizational structure, the author is able to shed light on how interdisciplinarity fostered an unusual environment that stimulated “creativity and contributions at the intersections of fields… a fierce commitment to open sharing… and a deep commercial engagement” (3). Much of the book traces the compatibilities and incompatibilities between these three components, and how CCRMA was able to thrive along an historical trajectory full of serendipity and setbacks.

For us, the generation of composers who came up after he sold his license to the Yamaha Corporation, the name John Chowning carries near mythological status. As a graduate student studying computer music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I recall being deeply impressed with CCRMA’s ability to leverage (a term found throughout Nelson’ book) its geographical location, brainpower, and considerable abilities at grantsmanship. It was inconceivable to me how one could flourish as a professor, composer, software programmer, and at the same time make additional income from patents and products. But I had little idea about what was going on behind the scenes. In The Sound of Innovation Nelson provides an ample supply of details about the CCRMA backstory and the reasons for its success.

The origins of CCRMA can be traced to the 1960s when Chowning and other pioneers “latched on to both the equipment and the people at Stanford’s budding Artificial Intelligence Laboratory” (2). However, the groundwork was already laid decades previous when Frederick Terman, Stanford professor, dean, and provost, encouraged strong ties between the university and industry (14), ties that eventually led to the likes of Google and Hewlett and Packard. Interestingly, one of the first products that Hewlett and Packard produced was a line of audio oscillators.

There are also larger issues that can be viewed as contributing factors, such as the fact that universities in the U.S.A. have long engaged in practical pursuits. Nelson also points out that the decentralized control of American universities “meant that funding and enrollment… was dependent upon the interests of the local community” (13). Being located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford was well positioned.

Beginning in 1944 Stanford sought to bridge the gap between basic and applied research by establishing non-departmental research centers, primarily for short-term defense-related applications. Ties were established between the university and the military-industrial complex. Decades later, as the American involvement in the Vietnam War escalated, reformers began to question the alliances between the military and university research centers. This led to a broader vision of inter-disciplinarity, one that could be equated with applied research, an idea that directly led to the establishment of CCRMA.

After World War II, electronic music studios, such as the one in Cologne, Germany where Karlheinz Stockhausen worked, were places that fostered collaborations between scientists and composers. This impulse was an essential ingredient for the Stanford computer music project, as well as the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/ Musique (IRCAM), portrayed in Nelson’s book as Stanford’s Paris-based progeny.

It is telling that CCRMA existed as a de facto, non-departmental research center thanks to the music department, whose vision about the future of music did not, at first, contain room for computers and electronic music. In fact Chowning himself was denied tenure ostensibly because of the music department’s lack of understanding about what exactly he did. However, the music department also supported faculty autonomy (29), which in the right hands directly led to experimentation and novelty in its departmental offerings. Nelson portrays Stanford, as a whole, as a place that emphasized novel research and exploration over departmental and disciplinary dogmatism (28), yet he doesn’t offer much of an explanation about how Chowning’s tenure case transpired, given this emphasis.

At the time of the founding of CCRMA, electronic music studios required a lot of single-purpose equipment, something that apparently Stanford would not support (24). So Chowning set about “repurposing nonmusical entities… in the service of musical aims” (25). Mainframe computers, which were already in place at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab, could be shared with non-music colleagues in an effort to explore the boundaries of sound and composition. This kind of repurposing is at the center of what Nelson calls “multivocality because it takes advantage of the multiple interpretations of an activity or tool in order to facilitate novel activity and acquire resources and support for that activity” (25). Max Mathews’s first program for generating music, Music 1, was written in assembly code for an IBM 704 mainframe computer. Mathews shared his code of a later version with Chowning, providing it on a set of punch cards.

In 1967 Chowning had his famous breakthrough at the AI lab, which resulted in “the discovery of frequency modulation (FM) synthesis” (34). This was a significant breakthrough, which according to Nelson “helped usher in the era of digital music” (2). A few years later, in 1975, the Yamaha Corporation of Japan licensed Chowning’s technique and used it aboard their DX7 synthesizer, one of the best selling musical instruments in history. The patent turned out to be one of Stanford’s most profitable technology licenses, a significant feat considering Stanford also produced Google, DSL, and recombinant DNA (3).

Following his breakthrough, Chowning gained international recognition and support. Pierre Boulez invited him to participate in the planning sessions for IRCAM (46). But even with his newfound notoriety, he was denied tenure and had “tremendous difficulty” in securing funding for CCRMA. Eventually Stanford is forced to eat its words and reinstate him when the National Endowment for the Arts and National Science Foundation came looking for the lead researcher on several grants that they wanted to award Stanford totaling $410,000. Anyone who has been involved with academia, especially in the U.S.A., for even a small amount of time will recognize the hypocrisy and absurdity of this situation. A few years later, in 1982, CCRMA received a five-year, in-house grant for $2.3 million dollars that provided funding for the center described by Nelson as a “lifeline… needed to maintain the center for several more years” (71).

Chowning is rightly credited for inventing a method to produce complex FM synthesis via digital means, but the book seems to imply that he invented FM synthesis itself. Years before Chowning patented his digital technique, companies such as Moog, Buchla, and ARP all produced FM-ready analog synthesizers, which in some cases had special, dedicated knobs or buttons to accomplish this task.

This book contains much valuable information and is clearly a pivotal study of its subject. Nevertheless, there are a number of flaws and omissions that suggest to me that the author may not have leveraged the proper amount of critical distance.

According to Nelson, his book focuses on two intertwined questions. “First, how and why did CCRMA emerge?” And second, “…how has the center continued to engage in… diverse and creative activities nearly fifty years later?” His answer to the first question suggests that CCRMA was born out of interdisciplinary necessity, repurposing, and a uniquely innovative environment. His answer to the second question is that it continues to thrive because its very existence was premised on artistic, compositional ambitions. From the beginning of the book Nelson posits his claim that under the technological history he provides is a musical one. “CCRMA’s technological contributions must be understood, first and foremost, as facilitators of compositional aims” (3). A little bit later we are told, “CCRMA composers do not merely apply or use existing technologies from commercial firms. Instead their own musical and compositional aims suggest new technologies…” (6). Nelson also describes how Chowning spent a tremendous amount of time trying to secure financial support, which negatively impacted his compositional practice or as the author puts it, “distracted him from the real work of the center” (70).

But Nelson’s premise that the driving force behind all the technological developments at CCRMA was composition remains largely unexamined from a critical perspective. To be fair the author does mention a few examples of pieces produced at CCRMA but doesn’t go into much detail about the compositions themselves or the composers’ motivations beyond describing their ambition to create something “beautiful.” The irony of applying a Romantic notion to explain a technologically proficient composer’s motivation is apparently lost on the author. Furthermore, did the composers at CCRMA really address compositional concerns first? Or did they disseminate these concerns from their technological tools? We are not offered any evidence for either side of this question. Perhaps there was no room to include compositional analyses, or the author might not have felt up to the task. But whatever the case, the book and its subject would have greatly benefitted from even a few analyses in order to more clearly demonstrate the direct connections between compositional and technological aspirations. An initial question that might have been posed is: did the composition require the technology that was used to realize it?

Nelson points out that numerous treatises on organizational renewal demonstrate that the “continued regeneration of an innovative culture is both precious and unusual” (4). Given this, it would make sense to attempt to answer why CCRMA has managed to provide this unusual state for so long. It is here that the author falls short. His answer reads as follows: “I argue that the center’s emergence, sustenance, and renewal stems from the ability of CCRMA participant to intertwine and mutually leverage these activities in unique and powerful ways” (4). His statement is short on specifics and reads more like a marketing slogan than a scholarly argument. He might have provided more operational details and described the specific types of problems encountered when business encroaches upon academia. One way to approach these concerns is suggested by Georgina Born in her book Rationalizing Culture, which is a sprawling study about IRCAM as an institution. Although her book has been labeled as polemical by some, given the importance of IRCAM to CCRMA (and the reverse) one would expect Nelson to at least have consulted it, which he did not.

Elsewhere in Nelson’s book he describes the significant influence that various personal relationships had on the receiving of grants and favors but doesn’t address how the notions of favoritism or nepotism played out in this context. Professor Ge Wang is cited as a musician-entrepreneur who employs his own students in his company Smule, yet Nelson fails to examine how this might appear as a conflict of interest.

After reading this book I am left with some additional questions. For example, Nelson cites many examples of communications and grant applications that are chock full of erroneous sics and misspellings. One wonders how Chowning was able to secure so much funding represented by these materials? The author doesn’t even ask this question.

Nelson describes the path CCRMA took from the FM patent to the current trend of developing start-ups. He seems to suggest that they are on par with each other but they are not. Chowning’s FM patent was a game changer, whereas the start-ups he cites offer a tiny fraction of currently available, and largely insignificant, smartphone applications.

Nelson revels in the myth of the digital revolution being accessible to all. For example, the DX7 is called inexpensive, sporting a mere $2000 price tag when it first appeared. In today’s dollars that would compute to around $7500, hardly an inexpensive consumer item by any reasonable measure.

Finally, Nelson describes CCRMA largely as if it existed in a Silicon Valley vacuum, without attempting to place it with respect to other early electronic and computer music centers such as Columbia-Princeton and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A more complete picture would have offered the reader a more nuanced view of one of the most important centers of computer music in the world.