SDR Deposit of the Week: Oral history interview with John Chowning

On September 2nd, 2015, I had the great privilege of conducting an oral history interview with John Chowning, Professor Emeritus at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). Chowning, a pioneer in the world of computer music, is perhaps best known as the inventor of Frequency Modulation (FM) synthesis. His discovery was eventually licensed to Yamaha who integrated it into a number of instruments, most importantly, the DX7, the world’s first mass-produced digital synthesizer, released in 1983. The DX7 is generally regarded as one of the most important musical instrument inventions of the past 50 years, and was widely adopted by artists across multiple genres in the 1980s. My interview with Chowning is now available via the Stanford Digital Repository (SDR). Chowning and I principally sat down to discuss Leon Theremin’s visit to Stanford in 1991, which Chowning organized and oversaw. Stanford University Libraries recently digitize video footage of this visit which included a day long symposium at CCRMA and an evening concert in Frost Amphiteatre at which Theremin, Max Mathews, and many other notable figures from the world of electronic and computer music at the time performed. However, Professor Chowning and I also discussed additional topics including Chowning's background in computer music, his history at Stanford and the inception of CCRMA, and his close personal and professional relationship with Max Mathews. 

Chowning offers a unique and detailed account of Theremin's visit to Stanford. He notes that the visit came about following a trip Chowning took to Moscow in 1990 where he met the world famous inventor for the first time. He notes that he had often compared Max Mathews renowned radio batons with Theremin's most famous invention, the Theremin. He calls Mathew's invention the digital equivalent of Theremin's analog instrument. Chowning therefore started to explore the idea of getting Mathew's and Theremin together on the same stage. The 1991 Stanford Centennial celebrations were identified as the ideal forum for such a collaboration. The resulting symposium and concert at Stanford attracted over 2000 people to the campus.

One of the most intriguing stories Chowning recounts about Theremin's visit was a day trip Chowning and Theremin took to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. On route, driving through the streets of the city, they drove over a hill which revealed the San Francisco Bay in front of them. Theremin, who Chowning noted was quiet and understated for most of the trip suddenly announced excitedly "I have been there". Theremin was pointing at Alcatraz Island. The inventor offered no additional explanation despite Chowning's efforts to encourage him to expand on his statement. During his time in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, Theremin was principally based in New York. There is no record of him ever visiting the west coast. This is therefore the first indication we have that Theremin travelled west during his residency in the USA. Chowning goes on to state that he and Olivia Mattis, a then Stanford doctoral student who had interviewed Theremin in 1989 (a copy of this interview can be found in ARS.0107 - Olivia Mattis Collection), later speculated that perhaps Theremin was invited to visit Alcatraz by US authorities with a view to possibly building a proximity based security device for the prison, based on the same technology as that used in a Theremin. Chowning goes on to state that this is purely speculation on his part and more research would be needed to perhaps confirm this visit.