David Wessel: Musical scientist/scientific musician

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David Wessel, the founder of Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies, who died in Oct. 2014. Photo: courtesy CNMAT

In a town known for spawning visionary organizations that insistently hew to a singular path, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies may be the most Berkeley institution of them all. And that’s because it reflects the polymathic curiosity and probing intelligence of the late founder and director David Wessel, who died suddenly last October at the age of 72. Known by its initialism CNMAT (pronounced senn-mat), it’s a multi-disciplinary research center tucked within Cal’s Department of Music where musicians, composers and leading researchers in physics, mathematics, electrical engineering, psychology, computer science, cognitive science explore the creative interaction between music and technology.

On 4-7 p.m. Sunday, several hundred of Wessel’s friends, family and colleagues from around the world will gather at the Berkeley City Club for a series of improvisation-driven performances, a fitting celebration of his legacy. Among the artists involved are violist Nils Bultmann, Berkeley guitarist John Schott and Matthew Wright on electronics, and vocalist Thomas Buckner, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, Earl Howard on synthesizer, and percussionists George Marsh and Jennifer Wilsey.

“We’ll have several of his closest collaborators on stage performing,” said composer and CNMAT Director Edmund Campion, who Wessel brought to CNMAT in 1996 (he became co-director in 2008). “It could go on for days with all the musicians who will be there, so we had to put some limits on it.”

While the celebration is far more geared toward musical tributes than spoken reminiscing, Campion says that there will be no shortage of text, including abstracts from the hundreds of research projects to which Wessel contributed, “an incredible legacy of published papers, at a rate and amount that’s pretty mind boggling.”


But Wessel was much more than a researcher. He was a performer who loved mixing it up on stage, where he was welcomed by pioneering improvisers from a variety of traditions. He helped conceive and build previously unimagined electro-acoustic instruments and audio implements, and devised software that enabled performers to interact with computers and instrumentalists in real time.

“I think John Chowning said it best, that David brought music to the scientists and science to the musicians,” Campion said. “You run by his bio and he was a highly trained technical and scientific person, and at the same time he had this history of being in love with performance and drumming and improvisation. Somehow he was able to join it all together. He belongs to that pioneering generation that was truly interdisciplinary, that didn’t understand the borders.”

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David Wessel performing. Photo: courtesy CNMAT

CNMAT looms large on the international music scene exactly because it reflects Berkeley’s intellectual tradition of rejecting rigid boundaries. But the program tends to glide under the cultural radar in the region, particularly when compared to the much higher profile music department at Mills College. The program has never done much to promote itself in the press, and it’s pretty well camouflaged as part of the residential neighborhood. Just west of the Graduate Theological Union in a spacious two-story mission style house set behind low brick walls and a blue wrought iron gate, the building provides an enticingly conventional setting for the extraordinary work that takes place within. For aficionados of new music however, CNMAT’s 1750 Arch Street address is a storied locale.

The building was owned by the great new music baritone Thomas Buckner, who was living in Berkeley in the mid-1960s when he began experimenting with extended vocal techniques. By the early 1970s he had turned Arch Street into a new music hothouse, presenting hundreds of concerts and recording seminal albums by artists such as Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, Art Lande, and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet on his label 1750 Arch Records. After moving to New York City, where he became a key muse for the composer Robert Ashley, Buckner agreed to sell the building to UC Berkeley for a modest price, essentially donating the space for an ambitious program designed by composer and Cal music professor Richard Felciano.

Inspired by his experiences teaching at Stanford with John Chowning’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and in Paris with composer Pierre Boulez at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), Felciano set out to create an institution that could break through narrow thinking.


“I knew I wanted it to be truly interdisciplinary, encompassing all the aspects of the Berkeley campus related to sound, including architecture which I had team taught in,” Felciano said. “I sent letters around the campus to various departments and people, and to my astonishment and joy, I got very positive responses from top level people, like Leon Chua, a professor in the electrical engineering and computer sciences department who had been using the clarinet as an example of how chaos theory works.”

Wessel had been working with Boulez at IRCAM for a decade when Felciano approached him about founding a new music and technology center in Berkeley. The idea was to adopt many of the avant garde musical practices going on at IRCAM, but set them in an environment with an abundance of technical research, support and development. Wessel became a professor in Berkeley’s music department, though he was also affiliated with the department of psychology because of his work in music perception and cognition.

“When I arrived we had a mandate to develop a new center that would be highly interdisciplinary, that would leverage the incredible computer science and electrical engineering departments here and the auditory perception group in psychology,” Wessel said. “I think we’ve achieved this notion that there’s common ground where intellectual free trade can take place between all these departments, always with the focus on musical activity.”

I had occasion to interview Wessel several times over the years, and he always stressed that he wasn’t driven by an interest in pure research. Everything came back to the bandstand, or was guided by the possibilities it presented to musicians, composers and listeners.

“I come from a jazz tradition, and there’s real interest in music that has some life on the stage, where there’s dialogue and interaction,” Wessel said during a conversation in CNMAT’s small gear-strewn performance space. “One of the things that is critical to our way of thinking about technology is that we want to bring it to the stage, to the performance process, as opposed to just studio use. We openly admit that in order to succeed in this, musicians are going to have to think about performing and developing new performance practices.”


Always on the lookout for gifted artists, Wessel consistently attracted some of the most promising musicians to the program, like pianist/composer Vijay Iyer. These days he’s a professor at Harvard University, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship recipient, and a leading force on the New York jazz scene who has forged a rigorous group sound blending classical Indian rhythmic cycles and post-bop harmonies. But in the mid-90s Iyer was a disillusioned doctoral student in Cal’s physics program.

On the verge of dropping out to pursue a career in jazz, he decided to take Wessel’s undergraduate course in computer music and cognition. As Wessel came to understand Iyer’s conflict between his waning interest in academia and his creative ambition, he persuaded Iyer that CNMAT could provide him with an intellectual framework for deeper musical exploration. Designing an interdisciplinary doctoral program, Iyer ended up working with people like Donald Glaser, a Nobel laureate and distinguished professor of physics and neurobiology, and Ervin Hafter, director and principal investigator of Hafter Auditory Perception Lab.

“CNMAT is created in David Wessel’s image,” Iyer told me in an interview two years ago. “It ended up being this space for a lot of music and intensive research on arcane details of sound synthesis and file formats for audio. It seems extremely technical, but because he’s a musician and an artist and very close to a lot of leading artists in different fields, he has this broad perspective. Often when you find someone ensconced in academia, they’ve staked their territory in the little field they’ve mastered. David loves all good music. His taste ranges from Johnny Hodges to Berlioz, from Ali Akbar Khan to Pauline Oliveros. He’s at this nexus of so many different streams of music. He’s a master of creating environments for people to do interesting and innovative work. It’s everything that’s good about the Bay Area.”

Recommended gigs: Dick Whittington / Dan Plonsey

Dick Whittington
Dick Whittington

Pianist Dick Whittington, who presided over a golden era when he and his wife owned the Maybeck Recital Hall in the 1980s and 90s, returns to the venue on 3 p.m. Sunday with the veteran rhythm section tandem of bassist Robb Fisher and drummer Vince Lateano and special guest Andrew Speight, a fiery alto saxophonist who plays bebop with absolute authority.

Composer, saxophonist, Berkeley High math teacher and trading-card visionary Dan Plonsey presents a program of new tunes for string trio and for saxophones at the 2133 University Avenue Berkeley Arts Festival space 7 p.m. Sunday. The string trios were composed with the support of a grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, and Plonsey’s cast includes violinist Masha Albrecht, violist Sarah Willner, cellist Mary Artmann, and Randy McKean, Josh Smith, and Cory Wright on saxophones and clarinets. New hand-numbered editions of PlonseyCards, which detail his decidedly non-heroic “melancholic, agitated, disastrous” exploits on the baseball diamond, will be available for purchase, as will the recent, decidedly more heroic CDs Hockey Season, New Monsters: First Appearances, If I Were a Person Who, and Football Season.

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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