Guitar Dreams

Adrian Freed's decades-long desire to marry music and technology is finally going public. Will anyone listen?

Founded in 1988 by now-retired UC Berkeley professor Richard Felciano, the organization is an offshoot of the university's music department. It works with students from various academic backgrounds such as physics, engineering, and dance in an effort to find ways that technology can drive music in new directions. CNMAT is just one of numerous computer music research institutions dedicated to this mission, with other notables including Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, MIT's Media Lab, and Paris' Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), founded by famed composer Pierre Boulez. This international community has, for more than four decades, labored to elicit new sonic possibilities from technology, and Freed has based much of his research – including his work on the MaGIC guitar – on this world.

The first computer-synthesized sounds emerged from experiments at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey in 1957. In those early days, artists used mainframe computers at labs or universities to make works on tape. By the late '70s, they had begun building their own "home-brew" computers in order to express their melodic notions. As PCs became more sophisticated in the mid-'80s, computer musicians began writing software (currently, the most popular is a program called Max MSP) to help them express their artistic ideas directly.

The form of computer music most of us are familiar with is electronica, but what Freed and his cohorts produce is more theoretical. Both the research conducted at these centers and the avant-garde compositions that come out of this community remain obscure in the United States; the work is heady, challenging stuff. You could say it's what happens when band geeks and math Ph.D.s join forces.

Edmund Campion, CNMAT's 
composer-in-residence, believes in the 
marriage of music  and technology.
Paolo Vescia
Edmund Campion, CNMAT's composer-in-residence, believes in the marriage of music and technology.
Matt Wright created a number of new guitar 
effects for the MaGIC.
Paolo Vescia
Matt Wright created a number of new guitar effects for the MaGIC.

The digital guitar that Freed worked on may be the most public face of CNMAT right now, but in some ways, the guitar venture couldn't have happened without computer music pioneer David Wessel at the helm of the organization. Because of his jazz background, Wessel is preoccupied with using computers to enhance live, real-time performance, and as a result, much of Freed and CNMAT's research lies in developing new technology and instruments for that purpose.

With the simplicity of the new digital guitar – plug an Ethernet cable from it into a computer or an amp – those at CNMAT believe it empowers musicians in new ways. Though it's currently possible to convert analog guitar sounds to digital ones without the aid of a $3,000 instrument, the complexity of the setup makes it impractical and unreliable for a live show.

"The guitar has to be the instrument of the 20th century," says Wessel, who is also a well-regarded composer. "It was a good place to put technology, from our perspective. Had we done another instrument – the electric trombone, for instance – there wouldn't have been that same opportunity for interesting developments."

Adrian Freed is a dreamer, and for a long time now, he has dreamed about guitars.

His curiosity about the instrument began when he was a teen growing up during the 1960s in High Wycombe, England, about 30 miles north of London. He'd cut school during his required rugby classes to spend hours noodling away at a synthesizer at a local music store. During pauses in these jam sessions, during which he wrenched great and cacophonous sounds from the keys, Freed would stop to look at the stringed instruments displayed around the store, and wonder: Why can't I experiment with sounds in the same way on a guitar?

"The question that never went away was, 'Why can't the guitarist have access to this orchestral, deep, weird – this palette of sounds and possibilities? Why can't those two worlds meet?'"

Freed's hunger for music was nearly insatiable. He spent hours in front of a radio, listening to a pirate station that gave him his first taste of modern rock, pop, and blues.

"Music represented an emotional world for me that did not exist in my day-to-day life," he says.

A note of regret enters his voice when he talks about his lack of childhood music training. "There were many things broken about my enthusiasm for music; it was not cultivated by my parents," he says. "They had decided I had no talent in that area. I fell through the cracks there."

Freed's parents had probably underestimated the breadth of their son's abilities. The mathematically adept Freed had already shown an early knack for engineering (he invented an electronic two-tone doorbell when he was 13, an idea that was subsequently published in a British scientific magazine), but music continued to haunt him. He became so smitten by the blues that he decided to start teaching himself to play the guitar at age 17. While at college in Australia studying computer science, though, he played the instrument infrequently, and turned his scholastic attention to researching synthesizers.

After college, Freed landed his first job as a computer programmer in Paris, and because of his technical skill, he soon found himself employed by Pierre Boulez's IRCAM – hired there by David Wessel, who was the director of pedagogy at the time.

Freed's time at the French institution was his official introduction to computer music. He tried his hand at recording a couple of songs that he'd written on guitar and then transcribed into keyboard music, but he soon became frustrated. He didn't feel he had the training to advance his musical ideas very far, and everyone around him had been playing an instrument for longer than he had. He decided to focus his technical skills on helping musicians, and wrote the first program to let artists do sound editing and mixing on a general-purpose computer, called MacMix (later licensed by a German tape-recording company).

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