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  • The Sound of Innovation—Stanford and the Computer Music Revolution
  • Ross Feller
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; The MIT Press, One Rogers Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142-1209, USA;

The 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” (p. 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’s book) its geographical location, brainpower, and considerable abilities at grantsmanship. It was inconceivable to me how one could flourish as a professor, composer, and 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” (p. 2). The groundwork was laid decades previously, however, when Frederick Terman, Stanford professor, dean, and provost, encouraged strong ties between the university and industry (p. 14), ties that eventually led to the likes of Google and Hewlett-Packard. Interestingly, one of the first products that Hewlett-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 USA 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” (p. 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 nondepartmental research centers, [End Page 73] 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 interdisciplinarity, 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, nondepartmental 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. The music department also supported faculty autonomy (p. 29), which in the right hands directly led to experimentation and novelty in its...


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pp. 73-75
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