Long before Stanford University was considered a technology powerhouse, its most lucrative patent came from an under-spoken composer in its music department. Over the course of two decades, his discovery, "frequency modulation synthesis," made the school more than $25 million in licensing fees.
But more importantly, FM synthesis revolutionized the music industry, and opened up a world of digital sound possibilities. Yamaha used it to build the world’s first mass-marketed digital synthesizer — a device that defined the sound of 80s music. In later years, the technology found its way into the sound cards of nearly every video game console, cell phone, and personal computer.
Despite the patent’s immense success, its discoverer, Dr. John Chowning, a brilliant composer in his own right, was passed over for tenure by Stanford for being “too out there.” In Stanford’s then-traditional music program, his dabblings in computer music were not seen as a worthy use of time, and he was largely marginalized. Yet by following his desire to explore new frontiers of audio, Chowning eventually recontextualized the roles of music and sound, found his way back into the program, and became the department chair of his own internationally-renowned program.
This is the story of an auditory pioneer who was unwilling to compromise his curiosity — and who, with a small group of gifted colleagues, convinced the world that computers could play an important role in the creation of music.
I'm a fan of Desplat's film music - particularly the pieces he wrote for Moonrise Kingdom and the closing fugue which nods to Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Gide to the Orchestra - The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe, Part 7: After The Storm (track 21 on the album)
Some say the Laurel Canyon music scene began when Frank Zappa moved to the corner of Lookout Mountain and Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the late 1960s. Former Byrds bassist Chris Hillman recalls writing “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” in Laurel Canyon in 1966 in his house, on a steep winding street with a name he doesn’t remember. The Doors’ lead singer Jim Morrison reportedly wrote “Love Street” while living behind the Laurel Canyon Country Store. Michelle Phillips lived with John Phillips on Lookout Mountain in 1965 during the Mamas and the Papas’ heyday. Books and documentaries have mythologized and romanticized this woodsy canyon nestled behind Sunset Boulevard in the Hollywood Hills. Still, misconceptions continue.
What is undeniably true is that from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s some of the most melodic, atmospheric, and subtly political American popular music was written by residents of, or those associated with, Laurel Canyon—including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, J. D. Souther, Judee Sill, the Mamas and the Papas, Carole King, the Eagles, Richie Furay (in Buffalo Springfield and Poco), and many more. They made music together, played songs for one another with acoustic guitars in all-night jam sessions in each other’s houses. Many of those houses were cottages with stained-glass windows, and fireplaces that warmed the living rooms in the chilly L.A. nights. They took drugs together, formed bands together, broke up those bands, and formed other bands. Many of them slept with each other. The music was mislabeled “soft rock” or “folk rock,” especially in the Northeast, where critics panned it as granola-infused hippie music—too “mellow” and too white. But in truth, it was an amalgam of influences that included blues, rock and roll, jazz, Latin, country and western, psychedelia, bluegrass, and folk. It certainly was a forerunner of today’s “Americana.”
GREENE: That's Amit Peled. And the piece of wood he's talking about is a centuries-old cello once owned by his idol, the late, great cellist Pablo Casals. As a child, Amit listened to Casals' music on cassette, again and again. And as he told us on yesterday's program, the late maestro's wife loaned him Casals' cello after some probing interviews. We wanted to hear more today about what it was like to first take that cello out of the case.
PELED: Your dream is, OK, I'll take this cello, and I'll put the bow and it will sound like the most amazing cello I remember from that tape cassette from my childhood. But I took it out, and it was like an old man saying to me, why are you bothering me? Let me keep sleeping. What are you doing? And I could smell his pipe. Casals would teach with his pipe on. And the ashes would fall into the cello. He wouldn't care. He loved the cello, but he would just - full of ashes. And you know people who smoke pipe. You smell the pipe through them all the time.
PELED: And I could smell it. The cello was alive in that sense but was dead musically.
GREENE: After some restoration, it is now alive. And he played it for us in our studios.
The winner of NPR's Tiny Desk Concert contest. TDC has become one of the most important venues for musicians and the contest is seen as a big thing attracting over 7,000 entries. The winner was labeled a standout.
Fantastic Negrito calls himself a musician reborn. As a young man, the Oakland singer taught himself to play just about every instrument he could get his hands on. But after making a record that failed to take off, he felt his confidence and artistry suffer; disenchanted with music, he simply quit. The years that followed brought major life changes: a near-deadly car accident and the resulting coma, intense rehabilitation, marriage and the birth of his son. Now, renewed creative energy has spawned the musical project that is Fantastic Negrito. He chose the name, he says, as "a celebration of blackness. The 'Fantastic' is self-explanatory; the 'Negrito' is a way to open blackness up to everyone, making it playful and international." Judges Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton, John Congleton, Valerie June, Reggie Watts and Thao Nguyen agreed that this soulful, unbridled performance, captured at a makeshift desk in an Oakland freight elevator, stood out from the crowd.
The thickness of a violin's back plate also contributes to its acoustic power. Violins carved from wood are relatively elastic: As the instrument produces sound, the violin's body may respond to the air vibrations, contracting and expanding minutely. A thicker back plate, they found, would boost a violin's sound.
The researchers found that as violins were crafted first by Amati, then Stradivari, and finally Guarneri, they slowly evolved to more elongated f-holes and thicker back plates.
But were the design changes intentional? To answer this question, the researchers worked the measurements from hundreds of Cremonese-era violins into an evolutionary model, and found that any change in design could reasonably be explained by natural mutation—or, in this case, craftsmanship error.
In other words, makers may have crafted violins with longer sound holes and thicker back plates not by design, but by accident.
"We found that if you try to replicate a sound hole exactly from the last one you made, you'll always have a little error," says Nicholas Makris, a professor of mechanical and ocean engineering at MIT. "You're cutting with a knife into thin wood and you can't get it perfectly, and the error we report is about 2 percent ... always within what would have happened if it was an evolutionary change, accidentally from random fluctuations."
An interesting idea - build most of the guts of a small house into a box that could be pre-fabricated. It might be useful for very small apartments and homes. It would probably have to be built in smaller pieces for transport and even to go through doors, but interesting...
If the title made you think - ah - Malvina Reynolds and possibly Pete Seeger, try this version by Walk off the Earth.