Computer Music Center: 60 Years
of Revolutionary Sound

by Nick Obourn 

Dec. 21, 2011Bookmark and Share

Sixty years ago, music professor Vladimir Ussachevsky received a large package at his office with revolutionary new technology: a reel-to-reel Ampex tape recorder. At the time, most people were using such a device to record and edit sound. Ussachevsky had another idea. He wanted to use it to create original music.

Otto Luening, left, and Vladimir Ussachevsky are shown with tape recorders, filters and mixers in the electronic music center they founded at Columbia in 1958. (Image credit: Computer Music Center archives)One of the first Buchla analog synthesizers built (100-series), mid-1960sVladimir Ussachevsky working with a tape loopPril Smiley, composer and staff member at the Columbia-Princeton studios, 1970sAlice Shields and Vladimir Ussachevsky, late 1960sMilton Babbitt in front of the RCA synthesizer, 1970sThe Columbia Electronic Music Center, c. 1959Otto Luening in his home studioBrad Garton and Terry Pender at the Columbia Electronic Music Center, 1995Douglas Repetto with one of his sound installations at the CMC, 2011The Columbia Electronic Music Center, c. 1989

Click on the photo to view a slideshow of images from the Computer Music Center archives. slideshow

His subsequent experiments led to the founding of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, the oldest center for electronic music in the United States. Launched in 1958 with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the center sought to encourage the brand-new art of electronic music composition. It installed a custom-built, RCA Mark II Synthesizer, the first programmable synthesizer ever made, a multi-paneled behemoth that today occupies an entire room at Prentis Hall.

Since the 1980s, of course, computers have become ever smaller and more ubiquitous, raising the question of what happens to a much-vaunted computer music center, one that nurtured the likes of Switched-On Bach composer Wendy Carlos, Edgard Varese and Charles Wuorinen, when people can create computer music in their own home using programs like Garage Band?

The answer has been for the center to evolve into a sort of music and technology salon, welcoming students, faculty and staff across many disciplines to collaborate on the most experimental projects imaginable. “We offer the chance to expand what you do,” says Brad Garton, the center’s current director. “If you come here as a composition student or a music theorist, you can suddenly become immersed in an environment with visual artists, filmmakers and engineers.”

Garton, a professor in the music department and director of undergraduate studies for music, took a decidedly tech route into the arts. “I was a failed pharmacist,” he notes. He received his undergraduate degree in pharmacy at Purdue University, where he spent much of his time on music, producing sound effects and playing keyboards for a punk band called Dow Jones and the Industrials. He got involved in digital music just as the technology was burgeoning in the early 1980s and applied to graduate school at Princeton, where he worked in the Princeton half of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.

But in 1984, the two universities went their separate ways. Princeton was going full tilt toward the digital world, while Columbia was sticking with tape. It wasn’t until Garton came to Columbia in 1987 that the music center here went digital. He helped install the first computer systems and in 1994 was named director. Two years later, the Electronic Music Center was renamed the Computer Music Center, and Garton began shaping its direction.

Assisting him are Terry Pender, the center’s associate director, and director of research Douglas Repetto. Between the three, they offer a dazzling variety of classes united by a cross-disciplinary approach.

Garton recently taught a class on creating music applications for the iPhone, while Repetto co-teaches a class with School of the Arts visual arts professor Jon Kessler on how to create multimedia installations. Soon, the center will offer an M.F.A. degree in sound arts.

Simon Herzog (CC’12) was drawn to the center because of his background as a disc jockey. Now the sociology major is developing mixer/controller hardware with Repetto’s help, which he hopes to manufacture and sell. “Everyone at the center has been fantastic and helpful mentors to me,” he said.

In other examples of the center’s boundary-blurring work, Teachers College graduate students use the center’s technology to bring digital dance and sound into children’s classrooms, and Barnard dance majors learn digital tracking and sonic mapping of motion.

Garton’s wide-ranging acoustic interests have led to a collaboration with Columbia Brain Wave Music Project, in which sensors are used to turn brain waves into music and paintings.

The focus on the latest technology isn’t such a stretch for the 54-year-old Garton, whose mother was a musical prodigy and whose grandfather played for 44 years with the St. Louis Symphony. As a boy, he got hooked on Switched-On Bach, the platinum-selling album that helped popularize synthesizers. As a teen, he listened to the progressive rock banks Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, then techno bands like Devo and Talking Heads.

“It was always music at the core, but music and technology were really mixed together for me,” he says. “I still play piano for fun at home, plus use it for recording. But I would say my primary 'instrument' these days is my laptop.” Then he added as an afterthought, “As part of a belated mid-life crisis, I did buy a cherry-red Epiphone Les Paul model guitar a few years ago.”

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