Remember Joel Chadabe

By David A. Jaffe

I met Joel at Bennington College in beautiful Southern Vermont in the mid-1970s, where he was the director of the electronic music studio. Having been a ham radio operator from a young age, I'd always had an interest in electronics. Arriving after several years studying with Karel Husa at the conservatory of Ithaca College, Bennington offered a very different environment, with an intimate apprenticeship-style approach. There, I had the extraordinary opportunity to work closely with both Henry Brant on instrumental music and Joel Chadabe on electronic music.  However, Joel's influence extended well beyond the electronic domain.

He taught a small seminar in a studio at the top of Jennings Hall, an old mansion with a panoramic view of the beautiful campus.  The studio included a large modular Moog synthesizer, several tape machines and, most unusually, a digitally-controlled prototype random voltage generator, affectionately known as "Daisy," named after Max Mathews' classic rendition of the song via computer-generated voice.  In addition, a Synclavier 1 and PDP-11 computer were on loan, for which  we wrote programs in Joel's "PLAY" interactive music language, my first experience with computer programming. Joel would sit in the window frame and, with a twinkle in his eye and a few soft-spoken words, challenge to the core our musical world view.

Joel's exploration and development of the ideas of interactive computer music composition were visionary. While an elegant craftsman of electronic sound, his focus was always on the idea, the process, the surprise, the experience.  His interest was in machines as intelligent collaborators, rather than as a means of precise control. He had a strong affinity with what was then called the "Downtown" school of composition, but his training was decidedly "Uptown.”. As such, he could speak authoritatively to both approaches. (I found the tension between them palpable, which eventually led me to forge my own path, at right angles to both.)

He had strong opinions and expressed them definitively. This could be maddening at times, but at others, was exactly what a young composer needed. As a graduating senior, I was baffled by the myriad aesthetic and practical possibilities and jokingly suggested that I should hire a philosopher to chart a course. Sitting on the grass in front of Jennings Hall, Joel--his signature mirror sun glasses reflecting the landscape before us--pointed his finger straight at me like Uncle Sam and replied in no uncertain terms, "You should go to Stanford. That's where it's happening.  That's where you should be." I did and it was. 

Joel was also a bit of a trickster.  When you'd least expect it, he'd drop a provocative bombshell into an otherwise innocent conversation.  He had a wild sense of humor and would explode with belly laughter that filled the room.  In 1982, when I returned to Bennington and played for his class a climactic frenzied algorithmic bluegrass-infused passage from my then work-in-progress, "Silicon Valley Breakdown,"  Joel laughed until he had tears in his eyes.  When I asked what was so funny, he replied "...and that was created with a computer system funded by the US Defense Department. . . if they only knew!"

His influence is clearly evident in many of my works, especially those that explore the Boie/Mathews Radiodrum, in which the composing process involves circumscribing the domain of possibilities, rather than specifying the exact details of the musical material. Such works include "The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World" for Radiodrum-controlled Disklavier and an ensemble of plucked strings and percussion, and "Underground Economy," for improvising Afro-Cuban pianist, Radiodrum and violin. My collaborator in many of these works, Andrew Schloss, also studied with Chadabe at Bennington, though we first met later at Stanford.

Throughout his life, Joel supported and advocated for electronic music and an experimentalist approach to creating music, including founding Intelligent Music and the Electronic Music Foundation. Paradoxically, he was an entrepreneur selling a decidedly non-commercial vision of the essence of music.  He will be missed by his many friends throughout the world. 

David A. Jaffe