Percussa micro super signal processor

To this day, it’s a synthesis method capable of producing wonderfully otherworldly sounds. And now as its applications on cell phones and cheap PC audio fade into distant memory, FM synthesis is left as one of the great achievements of musical invention, full stop – let alone being a key milestone of 20th century technology. So perhaps it’s time to revisit its significance.

Who better to do that with than the person who first discovered the technique?

At an event hosted by CTM Festival and HKW Berlin, with CDM as media partner, we got to do just that, inviting John Chowning to recount FM’s evolution. I have to say, it was one of those uniquely inspiring moments, where you get to feel you understand how the sounds you make connect to musical history.

Part of that feeling came from the fact that artist Holly Herndon, who herself has studied with John at Stanford, hosted the interview – one sound experimenter and composer to another, student and teacher.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

It’s worth giving the whole interview a listen. Some of this has been recounted before, but it finds some unique clarity here.

The scene starts with a comparison of Paris’ avant garde music scene to Berlin’s today (something I got to talk to John about a bit over dinner), tracing his path from there to the fertile ground for technological invention that was Bell Labs. (If something cool and futuristic was invented in the 20th Century, there’s a good chance Bell was where it happened.)

At Bell Labs, John talks about finding the “open door” of the computer – the unlimited possibility for that machine to produce sound as envisioned by Max Mathews, coupled with the expertise to harness that power.

But it took a musician’s curiosity and brute-force trial and error to find what would become a seminal means of synthesizing sound. And at first, John thought it might be a mistake. (From about thirteen minutes in, you get the story, complete with sound examples.)

It’s what John himself describes as a “happy accident.” Perhaps that’s the best kind of musical discovery.

John recalls:

“Was it distortion? …. I thought, well, maybe this is an artifact of the system. But I did more experiments and realized that I was hearing … a complex wave using two oscillators that I imagine probably had eight or ten harmonics.”

“I didn’t yet understand the applications of the mathematics of FM to what I had done. So with a set of examples I went to an engineering friend and asked if this was some sort of unique, surprising but interesting result. I pointed out that it transposed; it seemed to behave in a proper way.”

“We looked up the mathematics for the equation for frequency modulation radio broadcasting, and it all fell out and was perfectly explained. So that was the beginning.”

Here’s the 1971 piece Holly mentions, Sabelithe. I’m finding a lot of these early computer pieces are starting to sound weirdly contemporary today. I think our ears are ready to revisit them in a new cultural context, with new works likely to go different directions – especially as we routinely now hear these sounds in festivals and clubs, whereas they were once restricted to sit-down affairs in academic concert halls. (Believe me, I know – the latter is where I started, so I’ve watched this shift first-hand.)

There’s also a great video from Berklee that features John talking about his work:

And if you need still more history, here’s an historic meet-up between John Chowning, Max Mathews, and Curtis Roads: