RIP Richard Lainhart

I received some sad and sudden news this past Saturday that Richard Lainhart had passed away on December 30. It was only the day before that I had posted about our show in November at TheaterLab, in which I had played in the his project, the “Orchestra of the Future” that improvised a score to his film “The History of the Future.” I don’t know whether this was his last performance, but I am honored to have had the chance to share it with him. My condolences go out to his family.

Richard Lainhart had a long history in electronic music as well as more traditional jazz and rock idioms. He was deeply involved in the resurgence of analog synthesizers in contemporary electronic music, and I had seen him bridge old and new technologies with a Buchla synthesizer, Haken Continuum keyboard and laptop. His music had a richly textured minimal feel to it, but with a lot of timbral detail that comes from practice with electronic musical instruments. (Listen to (soundcloud tracks for examples.) He also was involved in animation and filmmaking, combining his electronic music and animated films at major festivals.

Below, are two videos. First, his duo with Lucio Menegon at the TheaterLab performance, and in 2010 at the Omega Sound Fix.

PAS presents Experi-MENTAL Night with a duo by Richard Lainhart and Lucio Menegon at Theaterlab from PAS Music on Vimeo.

Richard Lainhart live at Alfa Art Gallery (Part 1) for the Omega Sound Fix Festival from PAS Music on Vimeo.

We had first met in person at the Omega Sound Fix. He was friendly and open, and has been supportive of my music and of this site. He will be missed. His Facebook page continues to receive messages from friends and admirers. And matrixsynth has a full article in remembrance of him and electronic musician Mel Morley (midimel) who also passed away recently. Of Lainhart, he says “Rest in peace, Richard, you were one cool cat.” I think that statement would apply here, too.

RIP Dennis M Ritchie

Last week we lost Dennis M. Ritchie, whose work influenced much of what we do with computers today both as users and software developers.

From the New York Times obituary:

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, working at Bell Labs, Mr. Ritchie made a pair of lasting contributions to computer science. He was the principal designer of the C programming language and co-developer of the Unix operating system, working closely with Ken Thompson, his longtime Bell Labs collaborator…

It was only a week earlier that we were marking the passing of Steve Jobs and noting the contributions he made to Apple via NeXT. The operating system of NeXT which became Apple’s Mac OSX are Unix systems. Similarly, the much of the heavy computer programming from large-scale servers to iPhones is done with C and its descendents C++ and Objective C.

“The tools that Dennis built — and their direct descendants — run pretty much everything today,” said Brian Kernighan, a computer scientist at Princeton University who worked with Mr. Ritchie at Bell Labs.

A great many of us who studied computer science and practiced computer programming have the classic text that Kernighan and Ritchie co-wrote, The C Programming Language, known affectionately as authoritatively as “K&R”.

C is at hits heart a “systems programming language.” It’s a small language, structured in the imperative programming style of Algol and PASCAL, but the individual functions and operations are close to the machine language, simple bit-shift, arithmetic and memory location (pointer) operations. As such, it is very unforgiving compared to some of its predecessors, but it was efficient and simple and has enough expressive power to build operating systems like Unix, scientific computing, and the inner works of most software applications through the object-oriented successors, C++ and Objective C. Much of my software work has centered around these descendent languages, but when it comes to doing actual computation, it’s still C.

“C is not a big language — it’s clean, simple, elegant,” Mr. Kernighan said. “It lets you get close to the machine, without getting tied up in the machine.

Higher-level languages, like the PHP used to build this site, are ultimately implemented as C and C++ programs. So both this website and the device you are using to read it are products of Dennis Ritchie’s work.


Like so many others, we are marking the passing of Steve Jobs. But one thing that is often overlooked in the many tributes is his leadership at NeXT.

I first came across NeXT in 1989, as I was starting to explore the world of computer music. It was an ideal machine for its time for music and media work. It had a powerful operating system, it had a programmable DSP, it had SoundKit and MusicKit libraries specifically designed for music programming. And the original NeXT Cube was quite a striking physical object.

I had even written a couple of letters and formal research proposals to NeXT and directly to Steve Jobs to support my incipient research work in high school. Of course, nothing came of it, but it was an interesting exercise in learning how to write a proposal. And my opportunities to try out the system (via various institutions) game me a sense of what a more ideal computing environment could be like. As a music and computer-science student at Yale, I did in fact have the opportunity to do work on NeXT systems, but by that point the computing world, and the computer-music world, were moving on.

Apple acquired NeXT in late 1996. In the process, they reacquired Steve Jobs, whose return marked the Apple that we know today, and also the NeXTSTEP operating system, which lives on to this day as the foundation of Mac OSX. Every contemporary MacBook and MacPro is in many ways a late model NeXT computer. Indeed, it was only after the introduction of OSX that I purchased my first Mac (an iBook) in 2003 and gradually shifted into being one of those annoyingly obsessive Mac/iPhone/iPad users. All of my music and photography work is done on these devices, as are all posts to this blog and updates to our Twitter and Facebook streams. Even my day job is intimately connected to the technology from Apple. We associate these technologies and designs with Steve Jobs, but much of it can be traced back to what he and others pioneered at NeXT.

Ketzel, Feline Composer, Dies at age 19

Sad news about a feline composer, from the New York Times:

Ketzel, who won a prize for piano composition in 1997 and went on to be featured in a book, “The World of Women in Classical Music,” died Wednesday in Manhattan. She was 19 and lived on the Upper West Side.

Ketzel was a black-and-white cat.

In the article you can see a picture of Ketzel (whose name means “cat” in Yiddish), and a recording of her one composition, Piece for Piano, Four Paws. It is descending pitch-wise, but has a good sense of timing with a “beginning, middle and end.” The work was transcribed by one of Ketzel’s humans, Morris Moshe Cotel, who retired as chairman of the composition department at the Peabody Conservatory in 2000 and became a rabbi. It would be interesting to see, and even perform the score of Ketzel’s piece at some point.

Her piece one an award in the Paris New Music Review’s One-Minute Competition, and led to exchange between Professor Cotel and Allan Forte, with this observation:

long the way, Professor Cotel said he realized that Ketzel’s “exquisite atonal miniature” used only 10 pitches of the chromatic scale. “The two missing pitches are G natural and B-flat” — the opening notes of Domenico Scarlatti’s famous Fugue in G minor, known as the “Cat’s Fugue.”

Our thoughts go out to Ketzel’s surving human, Aliya Cheskis-Cotel.

Weekend Cat Blogging and Photo Hunt: Square…and Rememberance

This weekend, we have another combined Weekend Cat Blogging and Photo Hunt. The theme this week is square. Geometric shapes, including squares, abound at CatSynth HQ. But with the exceptionally gorgeous weather, we turn our attention once again to the patio:

The patio is covered in square slate tiles on which Luna enjoys rolling around. We are still doing some work to fix things up for spring now the construction is in the past. New design ideas to emphasize the industrial and geometric aesthetic.

This weekend we are also joining our friends the Three Tabby Cats in Vienna ~ Kashim, Othello and Salome ~ in a Weekend of Remembrance. We participated when they hosted a similar weekend back in 2007, lighting a candle like this one.

As we have made more friends online, so we have also lost many friends. We said goodbye to Mickey only a few weeks ago. Last year, we lost DJ Kikovas, the feline companion of our friend and fellow electronic musician Vivi Pedraglio. We also said goodbye to Tali and Sniffie. It is interesting to look back and see the diverse collection of people, mixture of musicians, engineers and cat lovers, who cross paths in these stories. We have also lost many heroes in music, art and mathematics in this same period of time; and some personal friends. We remember them as well.

Our thoughts for all our friends who lost love ones (human and non-human) over the past year, and for those who are struggling in the current storms in southeastern U.S., recovering from the disaster in Japan, and living through the seemingly greater number conflicts around the world.

Weekend Cat Blogging #308 is hosted by Samantha and Clementine at Life From a Cat’s Perspective. They are dedicating their post in remembrance of Praline.

Photo Hunt #263 is hosted by tnchick. This week’s theme is SQUARE.

The Carnival of the Cats will be up tomorrow at Meowsings of an Opinionated Pussycat.

And the Friday Ark is at the modulator.

RIP Max Mathews (1926-2011)

Yesterday morning I received the sad news that Max Mathews, considered by many of us to be the “father of computer music”, passed away.

Not only was he among the first to use general-purpose computers to make music, but his work spanned many of disciplines within the field that we know today, including sound synthesis, music-programming languages, real-time performance and musical-instrument interfaces.

He studied electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving a Sc.D. in 1954. Working at Bell Labs, Mathews wrote MUSIC, the first widely-used program for sound generation, in 1957. For the rest of the century, he continued as a leader in digital audio research, synthesis, and human-computer interaction as it pertains to music performance. [Wikipedia]

The “MUSIC-N” languages have influenced much of how we still program computers to make music. It has direct descendants such as Csound, and has also influenced many of the other languages for composer, perhaps most notably Max (later Max/MSP) that was named in his honor.

His rendition of “Daisy Bell” (aka “Bicycle Built for Two”) is one of the early examples ofphysical modeling synthesis. Sections of the vocal tract were modeled as tubes, and sound generated directly from physics equations. His work inspired the version of “Daisy Bell” sung by HAL9000 in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (though he did real at a talk in 2010 that the version in the film was not his recording.)

Mathews continued to expand and innovate throughout his career, moving into different areas of technology. In the 1970s his focus shifted to real-time performance, with languages such as GROOVE, and then later with the Radio Baton interface, which can be seen in this video below.

I had the opportunity to see and hear Mathews at the ICMC 2006 conference and MaxFest in 2007, both events that honored his 80th birthday and five decades in music technology. At 80, it would be relatively easy and quite understandable to eschew the latest technologies in favor of earlier technologies on which he did much of his work, but there he was working with the latest MacBooks and drawing upon new research in connection to his own work.

[Max Mathews at GAFFTA in 2010. (Photo by Vlad Spears.)]

More recently, I saw him give a talk at the Gray Area Foundation For the Arts in 2010, where he introduced the work of young artists and researchers, something he continued to do all the way to the end. He was at the Jean-Claude Risset concert at CCRMA (and I later found out, gave the introduction, which I had missed.) I have also heard comments over the past day that he was still involved in email and discussions over current projects up through this week, a testament to his character and his love for this field and for the work that he pioneered.

Weekend Cat Blogging 301: A Sad Day

March 11 was a sad day.

It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to our friend Mickey.

As mentioned earlier this week, he fell very ill and passed away on Friday. He (through his mom) first visited us in late 2007, and they have been regulars on our site ever since, as likely to comment on experimental music shows and photography as Luna’s feline antics. And in turn, we enjoyed getting to know them better through their site. Our thoughts go out to Mom Nancy and the rest of the family today.

We have been closely following the tragic events in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. Images such as these are heartbreaking, and our thoughts are with the people of Japan right now. While every year brings multiple huge disasters, when it happens somewhere you have visited or affects people you know, it hits harder.

Our friends at Cats of Wildcat Woods have compiled a list of relief organizations. The Red Cross is always a good place to start, and now you can donate via text messages.

There is no information currently on Tashirojima, or “Cat Island”, which is off the eastern coast of Japan in Miyagi Prefecture, near epicenter of the earthquake and tsunami, but the fear is that the island was lost.

Weekend Cat Blogging #301 is hosted by Pam at Sidewalk Shoes.

The Carnival of the Cats will be up this Sunday at Two Little Cavaliers.

And the Friday Ark is at the modulator.

RIP Milton Babbit

Milton Babbit, a noted and influential composer, teacher and thinker, passed away this Saturday at the age of 94. He is someone who I had met personally and with whom I had a rather influential encounter.

He is known for his highly complex and highly rational music – music that could truly be called “experimental” in light of his vision of academic music programs as laboratories for. He was not only involved in the early expansion of serialism beyond pitch into rhythm and dynamics, but also involved in the early development of electronic music. He was one of the first directors of the “Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center” and involved with the development of the RCA Mark II synthesizer. Many of his compositions from the 1960s were either fully electronic, such as his 1961 aptly named Composition for Synthesizer and his piece Philomel which featured electronic sounds and the processed voice of Bethany Beardslee. Philomel was probably his most well-known work, and you can hear a clip in this video:

Many remembrances describe his music as difficult or unapproachable, indeed the New York Times obituary opens with a description of his music as “impenetrably abstruse”. But I actually find several of the pieces beautiful, I could see listening to them and enjoying them for particular moods rather than as objects of study. Although he is most closely associated with the integral serialism that informed his composition, I see in pieces like Philomel similarities to works by Karlheinz Stockhausn and Luciano Berio based on very different compositional ideas.

I had my own encounter with Babbit about 16 years ago, when I was applying for the graduate composition program at Julliard. I had gotten a callback for live interviews with professors, and I found myself in his office with him looking over my scores. He was very friendly and humorous, and had kind words for my music (far more so than any other reviewer that day). Most significantly, he advised me about the relatively conservative “star-struck” environment Julliard – which has its place for turning out the next generation of professional concert musicians who aspire to cross the street to Lincoln Center – but that I would probably be happier continuing my work at a university such as Yale where I was completing my undergraduate work or Princeton where he taught. There was nothing condescending or discouraging about his advice – it was more a sense of “you are one of us” and I remember it fondly to this day. It was also important in the process that eventually brought me to UC Berkeley and to my current life in California.

My positive personal experience with him was in contrast to the portrayal he received in some of my early classes, where his statements about music most notably his essay “The Composer As Specialist / Who Cares if You Listen?” (an editorial retitling that he never liked) were often put into a dichotomy with others – I recall a couple of smackdowns with Babbit’s essay on one side and a counter-essay by Susan McClary on the other. As someone who was struggling to figure out where I fit in the world of academic music, moving between very rational and very theatrical, I sometimes took the bait on one side or the other. In the end, the argument was a non-argument. In fact, one of the fun things I have learned about Milton Babbit from the obituary writings was his fondness and knowledge of popular and theater music (particularly pre-World War II) and his brief experience with Broadway musicals. Something to keep in mind as we continue to make new music.

RIP, Benoit Mandelbrot

Today we return to mathematics, and sadly note the passing of Benoît Mandelbrot. His work was very influential not only within mathematics and science, but also art and music.

Benoit Mandelbrot. (Photograph by Rama via Wikimedia Commons.)

He is credited with coining the term “fractal” (literally, “fractional dimension”) and is often dubbed the “father of fractal geometry” – and he is of course memorialized by the Mandelbrot set (which is technically not a fractal). I had written an article that touched on the Mandlebrot set and fractals for this site back back in 2008.

This quote from his official site at Yale sums up the wide-ranging applications of his work to science and the humanities:

Seeks a measure of order in physical, mathematical or social phenomena that are characterized by abundant data but extreme sample variability. The surprising esthetic value of many of his discoveries and their unexpected usefulness in teaching have made him an eloquent spokesman for the “unity of knowing and feeling.”

I did have the opportunity to take a course at Yale for which he was a regular lecturer (the course was taught by his former colleague at IBM Research, Richard Voss). The course was aimed at an introductory audience, and I think many of the students did not appreciate the opportunity it presented – but that left me with more time to directly ask him deeper questions in both lectures and seminars. At the end of the term, he signed my personal copy of The Fractal Geometry of Nature, which still has a place of honor on my bookshelf.

[click to enlarge]

In reading some of the online articles this morning, I also was reminded that he and his family were part the great exodus of Jewish intellectuals from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe in the years before World War II. It’s a story that comes up time and time again among thinkers, writers and teachers who have influenced me of the years.

Weekend Cat Blogging and Photo Hunt: Natural

The theme for our combined Weekend Cat Blogging and Photo Hunt this weekend is natural. This complements a theme from a year ago, artificial. At that time, we explored the interplay of Luna’s natural beauty with her artificial surroundings. Especially in light of my recent experience with New Topographics, it seems like an appropriate subject to revisit. We often explore the interplay between Luna’s naturally curving biological body and the straight lines that dominate the art and architecture of her surrounding environment.

The patio is really our landscape. It is an artificially constructed one, but it is a space claimed by natural elements, such as the plants, Luna, the bugs she likes to hunt, the grass she tries to eat out of the flower pot…

Another bit of nature this morning, this time one that is not so welcome.

These snails were a menace in our garden when I lived in Santa Cruz where they seemed to arrive in swarms. This is the first one I have seen in our patio in San Francisco in over two years. Removing it from a cactus is not a simple task. On the plus side, it was opportunity to practice with macro shot, which is not something I usually do.

A sad note. Our friend Nirmanakaya’s Viandra (aka “Sniffie”) passed away last week. “Sniffie and Florida Furkids” have often visited and shared their thoughts with us on topics far beyond feline, and in turn we got to know a little about them. Sniffie will be missed, and our thoughts go out to her family.

Weekend Cat Blogging #277 will be hosted by Othello (with some assist from Astrid) at Paulchens FoodBlog?!

Photo Hunt #232 is hosted by tnchick.

The Carnival of the Cats will be hosted this Sunday by Nikita and Elvira at Meowsings of an Opinionated Pussycat.

And the Friday Ark is at the modulator.