Note: Emmanuel Ghent, who is quoted in this article, passed away on March 30, 2003, at the age of 77. Our condolences to his family, and especially his daughter, Valerie, a wonderful musician who not long ago produced an album of her father's previously unreleased children's songs. For more information, visit West Street Records' site.

March 1999

Recalling a Legendary Playpen
A Revisit With Bell Labs

by PAUL D. LEHRMAN

ILLUSTRATION: JAMES YANG

Where does the spark of creativity come from when new tools and systems are designed? Is it from freedom, or from pressure? Can an engineer, working in an environment free of deadlines and milestones, come up with anything useful? On the other hand, can that same engineer, working within the tight structure of a fast-moving, results-oriented corporation, bring a truly innovative perspective to a design? What would happen if an engineer were to strike out in an entirely new direction and work in an artistic field for a period of time? Conversely, what would happen if an artist were dropped into a laboratory and given carte blanche to tap the brains of the tech-heads and to play with the machines?

For those of us who consider ourselves artists, and who work with technology all the time, these might seem strange questions. After all, combining art and technology is what we do. Balancing freedom and structure is what we live with every day. We're constantly being called upon--or call upon ourselves--to do that left-brain/right-brain dance that requires being creative at the same time that we're mastering sophisticated technological tools.

But once upon a time, the worlds of the artist and the scientist were quite different. People wore different hats, and it was only under the rarest of circumstances that they trod on common ground and, if they dared, exchanged headgear.

In the companies where audio and music software and hardware are designed today, artists trained in technology and engineers with artistic hankerings work side by side. The artist who blithely goes through an entire career ignorant of the technological tools of his or her trade strikes us as a sad anachronism, and the technician who doesn't spend at least some down time fooling around with graphics, animation or music seems to us terribly one sided.

But not too many years ago, engineers who admitted to having musical aspirations, or musicians who were willing to pick up a soldering iron, were rarities. When those people started to come together, a revolution began. And nowhere was that revolutionary fervor felt more than at Bell Laboratories.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman