Interview with Joel Chadabe:
The past, present, and future of Electronic Music Foundation

September 6, 2010
Anthony Cornicello


Anthony Cornicello, editor of the SEAMUS (Society for ElectroAcoustic Music in the United States) Newsletter, interviewed Joel Chadabe, founder and president, about the past, present, and future of Electronic Music Foundation.

AC: What motivated you to start EMF — when and where did you begin the organization?

JC: I was on the faculty at the State University of New York at Albany in the mid-1980s when I formed a company called Intelligent Music. It grew out of a seminar I was teaching at Bennington College. David Zicarelli was in the seminar and in the company, and we started by developing software. We did some interesting things. Among the programs remaining for sale is M, available now at Cycling 74, but we also brought Max out of its IRCAM birthplace and into the commercial world (although it had hardly touched Intelligent Music before it followed a path through Opcode and Gibson to Cycling 74). Around 1990, we were having some financial problems and we decided to focus on a hardware item we were developing called the 'Touchsurface', a 3-dimensional touchpad. We developed it and, according to plan, sold it. Microsoft was in the picture, but in fact we sold it to another company in Seattle. So ... we had a loft space in Albany that we needed to keep open to monitor the sales deal. At the same time, Julie Panke was a student in a class I was teaching at SUNY, and she was looking for a job. So I had an empty space at my disposal, with tables, chairs, fax, telephones, etc., and a friend who was looking for work.

AC: About when was this?

JC: It was in 1994. One of my colleagues at Bennington College was writing a review of Varese's Poeme Electronique, but he didn't know where the CD was available. I hadn't known it was available anywhere. I asked at stores and everywhere I could think of asking, and no one knew where the CD, on the Nuema label, was available. So to make a long story a little shorter, I thought we (all of us) needed a place in the world where we could know what was available and buy what we needed.

AC: That's shocking ...

JC: At that time, electronic music was ubiquitous but no one knew where it came from. And at that time, I was also writing Electric Sound. I've always liked history. I read history as leisure reading. And many of the articles I read here and there on the history of electronic music were full of mistakes and superficialities. I thought we needed a kind-of clearing house for the dissemination of historical information.

So the idea of a central location for finding otherwise hard-to-find CDs and for disseminating information on the history of electronic music, and the availability of the space, and Julie's willingness to work without salary for a year or two, all came together at the same time. With Julie's support, I decided to start a foundation. A lawyer acquaintance helped us with the legal work. We sent out letters to colleagues throughout the world saying something like "Foundation Alert!" and we asked for financial support. Jon Appleton was the first to respond with a check. Jean-Claude Risset and Iannis Xenakis were next. Many people responded quickly. Julie said, "Well, we better do something." And we did. We gathered CDs for distribution, and for the first time, a lot of CDs of electronic music became available. It was the startup of Electronic Music Foundation.

AC: It's grown a lot since then. When did you start doing concerts?

JC: During the first ten years of EMF's operations we expanded some of our operations and started others. Among the milestones were a collaboration with the UNESCO DigiArts Portal, a program of the cultural section of UNESCO to use the digital arts to educate students in developing countries, and a grant from the Daniel Langlois Foundation, in Montreal, to expand the EMF Institute site, which was quickly becoming a worthwhile historical resource for electronic music.

As a foreshadowing of our future we collaborated with Jack Weisberg in renovating an old firehouse on Franklin Street in the TriBeCa neighborhood of Manhattan to become a new and unique sound gallery. We were wondering what to call it until Daniel Teruggi, who was visiting New York at the time, noticed that the words 'Engine 27' were carved in the concrete above the door and suggested that as the name. We unanimously took his suggestion and Engine 27 emerged as a new venue for electronic sound art and music, just in time for the 2000/2001 season. With Jack's financial support, and using loudspeakers that Jack had built, we curated and produced that season of events. In his words (from our website at that time): "I had the idea that if a flexible performance space was constructed in such a way that it could continually transform and grow to take advantage of new technical knowledge, it would have an immense effect on how we create and hear music ... I invited Joel Chadabe, President of Electronic Music Foundation, to create a series of events for Engine 27 ..." In my words (from the same website): "Our idea is to produce a festival which will demonstrate the status of electronic music and related arts at the beginning of the 21st century ..."

The artists who appeared in the fall of 2000 included Larry Austin, Earle Brown, Darren Copeland, Annea Lockwood, Warren Burt , Hildegard Westerkamp, Machine for Making Sense, Tom Buckner, and Tom Hamilton. The artists who appeared in the spring of 2001 included Gerard Pape, Alessandro Cipriani, John McGuire, John Palmer, Hans Tutschku, Curtis Bahn, Dan Trueman, Virgil Moorefield, Perry Cook, Colby Leider, Paul Koonce, Paul Lansky, Cort Lippe, Zack Settel, Curtis Roads, and Expanded Instruments, a 9-concert festival including David Rosenboom, Evan Parker & Joel Ryan, Laetitia Sonami & John Ingle, Deep Listening Band (Pauline Oliveros, David Gamper, and Stuart Dempster), Joel Chadabe, Frances Marie Uitti & Stephen Vitiello, Barry Truax, Joan La Barbara, and Nicolas Collins.

AC: That's quite a list!

JC: By June 2001, the end of the concert season, the people that we brought in to work at Engine 27 had dispersed and Jack's loudspeakers, cased in wood, were squeaking and falling apart. I had a very pleasant dinner with Jack, during which he told me that he was working on a new set of loudspeakers. I concluded that there was nothing further to do until they were finished. And we all know what happened on September 11, 2001. What became known as Ground Zero was about five minutes walk from Engine 27.

Moving forward, the 2004/2005 season marked our tenth anniversary and a major series of events. Not only did we produce a large number of concerts in New York, including a wide range of approaches such as laptop music, improvisation, tape-and-instrument music, interactive instruments, and so on, our colleagues in France produced two major marathon concerts at Le Palais de Tokyo, one of the important modern art museums in Paris, to join us in our celebration. 

We also evaluated our programs. We realized that during the ten years since our startup, the history of electronic music had become widely known thanks to several books and articles and our website - I'd like to think that my book and articles had played a role in this - and, following considerable discussion, we decided to develop an ongoing concert and public event program. Our central focus changed and began to evolve towards the public dissemination of information, through the direct person-to-person contact of a concert, to be sure, but also through the internet. We re-designed our websites. And we are in the process of designing and expanding what I'm thinking of as a general internet interface.

AC: The concert series seems to have changed as well, especially with the Ear to the Earth series.

JC: That all happened at around the same time. Coincident with this evolution of our programs and capabilities, I became increasingly aware that the greatest problem the world faces is the environment. In my view, everything pales before the possible worldwide disasters that may await our grandchildren and that have in fact begun to affect our own lives. Aware of and interested in acoustic ecology, many of my colleagues within EMF agreed that we should take the concepts of acoustic ecology to the next step and use sound to engage the public in environmental issues. In December 2005, we produced an event at NYU called 'Knowing the World Through Sound'. In October 2006, we produced the first Ear to the Earth festival, and we have produced a festival along these lines every October since then.

Having, then, established an active program of concerts and other events in New York, described in the EMF Productions and Ear to the Earth websites, in addition to our older programs, described in the EMF, CDeMusic, EMF Media, The EMF Institute, and Arts Electric websites, one might ask: How does all of this hold together? Is there any coherence or is this simply all over the place? And the answer, of course, is yes, there is coherence. These sites and these programs interact as a network of perspectives from which an artist can be viewed: performance of work, recordings in CDs and other publications, current events, and historical context. 

I view the structure of our outreach as two concentric and communicative circles, an inner circle of professionals whose work we support and represent to an outer circle of the public. The inner circle is a network whose members are self-defined as EMF and LE Subscribers. Counted together, at this time EMF and LE Subscribers number more than 2,000 composers, performers, sound artists, producers, curators, and other music professionals. They live around the world, including North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and a growing number in Africa. They provide a focus for our support and presentations and they constitute a group of recipients of information and products that circulate through the network. The outer circle is self-defined as those who attend our concerts, read our emails, purchase CDs, and in general share our interests. 

Imperfect as our programs are at this time, we are currently building a resource center and internet base in New York and we are upgrading CDeMusic to a status of actively marketing new, and not-necessarily electronic, music. As the circles become more perfect, and as the outer circle becomes more participatory, our roles as composers may develop and we may become the providers of models for a general public interested in being musically creative with technology.

There's an ideological idealism behind all of this. I do think that musical creativity with technology, at all levels, can lead to learning and a sense of community, which was, incidentally, the underpinning thought behind the UNESCO DigiArts Portal. I also think that learning and a sense of community can lead us on the road to a better world and that music, especially music based in technology, can provide one of the vehicles. 

AC: It’s my understanding that you have a new facility. How did that come about?

JC: As of the spring of 2010, EMF has taken over a studio/office space at 7th Avenue and 28th Street in New York City. The space includes Studio A which is a large control room connected to a separate acoustically-insulated live room. It also includes Studio B, a smaller space that is designed primarily for editing, processing, and composing. Our technical director is Tom Beyer, who is Chief Systems Engineer at the Music Technology Program at NYU. The space also includes EMF's New York office as well as a gallery that we have used for receptions and an informal listening room.

AC: Is this a recording studio?

JC: We use the space in several ways. First, we meet the need for a general-purpose technical resource center for serious musicians in New York. We offer a superb recording facility with engineers that understand the sound of non-commercial music and that know how to record, edit, and process non-commercial sound and multimedia for DVDs, CDs, downloads, or concerts. We're certainly aware that many composers have equipment at home, but we're also aware that every composer may occasionally need, for example, a professional recording made with excellent microphones. Composers may also need a special editing or processing facility in the preparation of a particular composition or performance. And Studio A has occasionally been used as a rehearsal space.

Technical support is only one aspect of what we're doing. Another core activity is what we call Creative Groups, aimed at extending what composers can do, in skills, concepts, and technical possibilities. Creative Groups come together, often with expert teachers, to learn and practice particular skills, discuss creative work done with those skills, and use those skills to work together to solve professional problems. Our current Creative Groups are focused on studio recording, field recording, and interactive audio processing and composition with the Kyma System. Anyone can join a group at any time and any kind of individual instruction is available. We're now starting an additional Creative Group of emerging composers. We're very open to forming new groups as new needs come up.

Yet another important use of the space is as a sort-of community center where ideas can be discussed and presented, composers can present their music, composers can meet other composers, and the public can meet composers. Even though I've played an important role in organizing these events, attending them has been a life-enriching activity. The encounters take place in the control room of Studio A which comfortably seats about 20 people. Some of the encounters during this past spring have been with Helmut Lemke, based in the UK, who discussed sound and the environment; Walter Branchi, visiting New York from Italy, who discussed his processes in linking sounds to the environment; Derek Holzer, visiting from Berlin, who talked about the history of optoelectronic synthesis;  Frank Baldé and Takuro Mizita Lippit, visiting from STEIM in Amsterdam, who joined Ben Neill and I in talking about the evolution of realtime synthesis; Francisco Lopez, based in Holland, who discussed Mamori, his camp in the Amazon open to residencies by composers; and Axel Mulder, visiting from Montreal, who discussed his research in gestural controllers. It's the world at our doorstep.