In memoriam of Joel Chadabe

  • Research

Remembering Joel Chadabe (1938-2021)

“In 1966, I got an idea. I drew up a plan for a completely automated synthesizer system, discussed its feasibility with Robert Moog, described it in an article in Perspectives of New Music, and got the funding to have it built.”

This is one of the few pages of Electric Sound: the Past and Promise of Electronic Music where Joel Chadabe appears at the forefront. As a composer, pedagogue and inventor, Joel was mostly working in the privacy of his studio, and was not particularly fond of the limelight. The lines quoted above, however, introduce a chapter entitled “Interaction”; and it would be hard to speak about interactive music with no reference to Joel Chadabe.

Joel did grasp that the most obvious potential of music machines was their capacity in developing automata. This definitely was one of his most powerful intuitions: before being some kind of extended instrument, the machine would serve as a generator of compositional processes. And interaction was possible, in the guidance of these processes. Emulating the corporeality of traditional instruments was a long way ahead, but, he knew it, nothing could match machines for memory and automation of complex processes.

This combination – which we could possibly call “interactive automaton” – can be found in most of his compositions, including the older ones, dating from analog times. In Blues Mix (1966), as in Many Times (2001), Joel is at the same time the performer and the creator of a music that sometimes eludes him and develops its own life. He called this process “Sailing Boat Navigation”, a kind of ecological concept perhaps inspired by David Tudor’s Rainforest. In other words, the natural system is always stronger, and the way a sailing boat navigates from one harbor to another is much more determined by the natural elements than by other parameters.

There have been many exchanges between Joel and Ircam. In a quite enigmatic instance, before its distribution by Opcode, then Cycling74, the Max program was planned to be marketed by Intelligent Music. Intelligent Music was a company founded by Joel, that published two early pieces of software of interactive music: M and Jam Factory; in order to develop these computer programs, David Zicarelli was actually hired by Joel.

The influence of Joel on Ircam, and on the general field of electronic music, had in fact very little to do with business (probably not one of his strong points), but more with his general views on the evolution of musical systems. With David Wessel, he very early campaigned for small size computer systems; when I visited Joel in Albany in 1977, he was composing Solo on the New England Digital Synthesizer (it was actually the first instance of the first model). It was a portable system, one could tour with it without requiring the help of a removal van. At the time, it was just unbelievable!

All along his life, Joel has weaved links inside the world of electronic music; the creation of Electronic Music Foundation(EMF) was a way of institutionalizing this goal. This can also be perceived in Electric Sound, as well as many aspects of Joel as researcher. Based on hundreds of interviews with actors of electronic music, this book could look like an exercise in journalism. However, it becomes a deep consideration and weighing of the various components building the field of electronic music in the twentieth century, some technical ones, some institutional ones, some personal ones. Among his numerous appearances in Ircam, Joel (and EMF) was a major partner in the famous “Sound and Music Computing 04: Improvisation with Computer Workshop”, lastingly launching the theme of computer improvisation inside Ircam.

In some ways, Joel was my “Uncle from America”: hence my difficulty to speak about him. After I met him, studying in an Engineering School but wanting to go into music, he did not hesitate to invite me to work with him in Albany in 1977. He was convinced I could (and should) be a musician when I sang a Verdi aria in front of him. Actually, he accompanied me on the piano, knowing this repertoire well; during his scholarship days in Italy, he had put butter on his bread by coaching opera singers.

Also, Joel was a wonderful teacher, leaving his mark in SUNY Albany, Bennington College, NYU… I know there are many other “nephews” throughout the world, who already miss the wonderfully generous person he was.

Georges Bloch

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