Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


Computer music was a field ahead of its time at Peabody Conservatory--
Opening photo illustration by
Craig Terkowitz
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Discovery

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Finding the Power
By Dale Keiger

Geoff Wright remembers when being a composer of computer music meant spending all night at a government defense facility because that was one of the few places that had a computer powerful enough to generate his music. Today Wright, the director of the Peabody Conservatory Computer Music Studio, has that computing power on his desk.

Peabody has been exploring, producing, and teaching electronic and computer music for a long time, at least in technological terms. Pioneering female composer Jean Eichelberger Ivey founded Peabody's Electronic Music Studio in 1967. Wright recalls, "There was an old Moog synthesizer. In that day if you wanted to buy one, you called Robert Moog and asked him for one, and he showed up in a VW van, essentially with wires trailing out the back. There wasn't even a manual in those days, so he would set it up for you. I remember one of the first things that I did [after coming to Peabody in the mid-1970s] was to systematically go through the synthesizer and document it, so other people could use it."

From those modest beginnings--of patch cords, makeshift technical manuals, and all--has grown the Peabody Computer Music Department, offering master's and doctoral-level graduate work in composition, performance, concert production, and research/music technology. Peabody was the first American conservatory to venture into electronic music composition, and no conservatory today can match its integration of technology with musical composition and performance. Two years ago, the department added the doctoral program, and two years before that initiated a technology transfer office called Peabody Ventures. In addition to composing and performing music, students and faculty have developed new instruments and software, refined and explored existing technology, and studied psychoacoustics and perception. In 1993, the program initiated the Sidney M. Friedberg Lecture Series in Music and Psychology. The Peabody Computer Music Consort, founded by Wright 18 years ago to perform compositions that employ technology, has appeared in concert throughout the world, and Peabody composers and musicians played major roles as performers and producers in the marathon millennial New Year's Eve celebration in New York City.

Wright emphasizes the importance of a conservatory devoting its resources to synthesizers, computers, and other technology: "In universities these groups developed around scientists who were interested in music. Here, from the start, the program was developed by musicians for the purpose of composing music. They weren't computer scientists, they weren't mathematicians. It was totally a musical environment."

When he arrived at Peabody, Wright had degrees in music and composition but knew a lot of math and computer science. And as a guy who'd started classical piano training at age 4 and played in rock bands for a few years starting at age 13, he was comfortable with technology applied to music. So he began working with computers and studio synthesizers as an undergraduate, and started to improve the Peabody studios shortly after he arrived to teach. One of his biggest problems was simply finding a machine he and his students could use. "Peabody didn't have the funding to buy any kind of computer," he says. "There weren't PCs, and the cheapest computer we could have considered would have been $100,000 to $150,000." Wright and his students turned to the central university academic computing facility in the basement of Garland Hall. Through a time-share arrangement, they could create sound files on the Garland computer, but they couldn't hear them. The Hopkins computer was too slow to convert the data files into music unless everyone else using it logged off, which they weren't about to do. "We had to send our data tapes off to Stanford or Colgate University," Wright recalls. "They would convert the tapes, and a week later we'd get a reel of tape back, with music on it. Or with silence, because if you made a mistake in programming you might get a lot of zeroes out, which fill a lot of space but don't sound like anything." A few years later when the Hopkins Chemical Engineering Department got a new computer, Wright talked it into letting him convert the music files on that machine. "They'd give us a key to use after midnight, and we'd go over and convert the tapes."

When people from the Hopkins Engineering and Computer Science departments were hired by the military's Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Wright arranged for use of a Cray supercomputer there. "Aberdeen was an incredible place for us. It was a technological wonderland. But it was a government institution. We had to be escorted everyplace we went. We had to go in at four in the afternoon before the change of shifts of the guards, and once we left we couldn't come back, so many times we would stay all night and be let out in the morning."

By 1982, technology had come down in price and size. A digital synthesizer that had once cost $100,000 could be bought for $2,000; computing power that had cost $75,000 now could be acquired for $5,000. Wright founded the Peabody Computer Music Studio, which eventually merged with Ivey's electronic studio to create the current department. "Psychologically and physically, we have always been located deeply within the world of music," Wright says. "There have been options to move our facilities to an annex or another part of the university, but we've stayed right in the center of the conservatory, in its oldest building."

Down the hall from all the computers and synthesizers and data storage, students on pianos and violins practice Bach, Haydn, and Schubert. The mix of tradition and leading-edge technology is important to Peabody students. Says Matthew Burtner (Peabody '97), a composer now at Stanford who uses instrumentation centuries old in combination with technology he invented at Peabody, "This department has adapted the 150-year-old values of the conservatory but is pushing that history into the next 150 years."