.Strange Synth

Some people give old clothes to the Salvation Army. I donate FM synthesis techniques to the building where I came from.

I recently unearthed a few boxes of old music textbooks from college that I hadn’t opened in 20 years. Rifling through them felt like meeting an old version of myself in a previous life. Being an “extinguished alumnus” of the SJSU School of Music and Dance, I figured the current students would certainly make use of this material, so there was no longer any reason to save the books. The time was right to Marie Kondo-ize my dusty stash of C Programming for MIDI, Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music, Modern Recording Techniques, The Baroque Era and more. 

The distance between my college decade and the current era may seem like a long number of years, but since I never left the neighborhood, all spacetime relationships have disintegrated. The memories remain unavoidable.

In music school, if you weren’t a performance, composition, history, jazz or music education major, there wasn’t much else, especially in San Jose. We were lucky that Allen Strange created a separate undergraduate concentration called Electro-acoustics, which wasn’t that different than studying composition, as you still took all the same classes, but you supplemented it with learning synthesizer architectures, hardware or electronics projects, writing code for software synthesis, interactive computer performance systems, sound engineering chops, musique concrète, the compositional lessons of Indian cooking, Middle Eastern tunings and all sorts of stuff that nobody else in the department understood, which made it even more fun. 

This might be as simple as integrating computer-generated sounds with chamber music, or it could be writing patches in MAX, an object-oriented programming environment. This was back when MAX was still relatively new. Nowadays, if I encounter DJs, EDM folks or video mixers who brag about using MAX and ask why I’m not writing a story about them, I say I’m too jaded because 25 years ago I was getting wasted at academic conferences in Hong Kong and Greece with the very people who wrote all that software. This is not a healthy response, I know.

We were lucky. The program Allen started was inseparable from Silicon Valley history. He had already written the very first electronic music textbook in the early ’70s and by the time I got there, he was still known all over the world. At that time, music undergrads would not normally hack on UNIX machines to make a racket with oscillators and envelopes, nor would they be devouring all the history of John Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Dada, Fluxus, La Monte Young, Zen, Buchla, the ’68 student riots, Duchamp, sound poetry and how it all connected. I mean, why obsess over perfect authentic cadences when you can nerd out over FFT analyses of tuba waveforms? It was a fabulous time to be an undergrad in San Jose. That program was our little worldly aesthete bubble at what was then a commuter school in a vast suburban wasteland.

The books I donated were among those one encountered as a music student mixed up in this world, all those years ago. Most of them weren’t required of us, especially the brute-force programming stuff, which was passé even back then, but I was the collector type, curiously obsessed and obsessively curious, so along the way I picked up what I could. It was like traveling. I just needed to explore and learn and do research and keep learning and never settle down, since I didn’t fit in with anyone anywhere anyway.

Again, we were lucky. Allen had come from the world of ’60s experimental music. He knew everyone on the planet, everywhere. He was not a programmer—he was a musician and a composer, first and foremost—but he was the link between the international ’60s avant-garde and our particular local crew of students. That department, and especially a job Allen set me up with for the last half of the ’90s, put me on the path to where I am today, wherever that is. 

So the time was right to donate my old stuff. Hopefully some of the students can make use of them. Hooray for music textbook Kondo-izing!

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