February/March 2005

Extreme Vibrato and Other Accidental Flashes of Genius

A Talk With John Chowning, parts I & 2

John Chowning, circa 1986

By Paul D. Lehrman

John Chowning pretty much sleeps when he wants and works when he wants. That is why when I'm talking to him at 10 a.m. East Coast time — and he's on the West Coast — he's been up and composing for about four hours already. “Now that I don't have institutional obligations, I find it's really great,” he says. “I remember hearing Buckminster Fuller give a talk about his lifestyle, and he said he'd work all the time, and when he was tired, he'd just take a nap. So I was inspired by that. Of course, Fuller says it's really hard on the rest of the family.”

Chowning, for those of you who just got up, was the inventor of FM synthesis, the computational technique that ushered in the era of digital synths, MIDI, desktop music production and much of what we've all been doing for the past 20 years. At the age of 70, he's now a professor emeritus at Stanford, where he was on the faculty for more than 25 years, which means he doesn't have to show up for classes anymore. So what's he doing? He's devoted himself full-time to what a great many of us would like to be doing: composing with all the neat new tools he and those who learned from him helped develop.

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