John Chowning: Frequency-Modulation Computer Sound Synthesis Music

Olivia Mattis  10.29.2014

Chowning, John M(acLeod) (b Salem, NJ, 1934). American composer. A pioneer in computer music, he studied composition with Boulanger (1959–61) and at Stanford University (PhD 1966) under the guidance of Leland Smith. In 1964, while a still postgraduate student, he visited Max V. Mathews and his collaborator John R. Pierce at Bell Telephone Laboratories and brought Mathews’ computer program, Music IV, back to Stanford to establish a computer music facility. His discovery of frequency-modulation computer sound synthesis allowed for rich musical sounds to be created in a simple, straightforward and elegant way, due to the complex phasing that occurs between component waveforms. In 1974 a patent for his discovery was licensed to Yamaha, who used the algorithm in the DX-7 synthesizer, an instrument hugely popular with rock and jazz musicians during the 1980s. In 1975 he became the director of Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).

Chowning’s other primary interest has been simulating the motion of sound through physical space. In Turenas (an anagram of ‘natures’), the first work to employ this technique, he created the illusion of a continuous 360-degree environment using only four speakers. He recognizes his entire oeuvre as comprised of four works, all for computer: Sabelithe (1966–71), Turenas (1972), Stria (1977, commissioned by Berio for the opening of the IRCAM studio in Paris) and Phoné (1980–81). He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1988) and a recipient of the Légion d’Honneur (1994).

‘The Simulation of Moving Sound Sources’, Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, xix (1971), 2–6; repr. in Computer Music Journal, i/3 (1977), 48–52

‘The Stanford Computer Music Project’, Numus-West, i (1972)

‘The Synthesis of Complex Audio Spectra by Means of Frequency Modulation’, Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, xxi (1973), 526–34; repr. in Computer Music Journal, i/2 (1977), 46–54

‘Frequency Modulation, Synthesis of the Singing Voice’, Current Directions in Computer Music Research, ed. M.V. Mathews and J.R. Pierce (Cambridge, MA, 1989), 57–63

J. Aiken: ‘John Chowning: Computer Synthesis Expert at Stanford’, Contemporary keyboard, iv/9 (1978), 14 only, 50–51 [interview]; repr. in Synthesizers and Computers (Milwaukee, 1985), 10–14

C. Roads: ‘John Chowning on Composition’, Compos

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