Recent Developments at the Columbia University
Computer Music Center

Brad Garton
August, 1998


Columbia University has had a long involvement with music
technology, establishing one of the first, if not the first,
research/music centers devoted to electronic music in the United
States.  Officially recognized in the late 1950's as the
Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, the EMC was a hotbed
of musico-technological work in the ensuing decades. [1]

Two years ago I became Director of the Center, with
colleagues Fred Lerdahl and Tristan Murail (and myself)
comprising a new Advisory Board because of our respective
personal interests and involvement in the Center.  We
also managed to secure a sizable boost in funding
for the Center from the Columbia University Administration
and several external sources.  With this influx of new
support, we decided to rebuild a number of our studios and
undertake a major overhaul and revamping of the Center's facilities.
We also decided to rethink the operation of the Center,
seeking to renew the status enjoyed for decades
as an advanced and progressive workplace for musicians
and researchers using new music technologies.

At that time, we officially changed the name from the Electronic
Music Center to the Computer Music Center (CMC) to reflect the
new organizational structure of the Center as well as the
renewed research/music focus.  We have since enjoyed a tremendous
increase in activity at the CMC, with all of the attendant
excitement and difficulties associated with explosive

Several months ago, Dan Thompson (editor of *Current* *Musicology*)
asked if I would write a description of some of the changes that have
taken place at the CMC for *Current* *Musicology*, perhaps thinking
that some of what we do may be of interest to *CM* readers.  Rather
than merely describing hardware and software projects, I thought
it might be more interesting for me to try to articulate my
version of the philosophy driving what we now do at the CMC. [2]
What follows is an attempt to do just that.  I feel I must apologize
in advance for the decidedly personal tone of this article, however,
the operation of the CMC is indeed a personal odyssey for
everyone involved.  One final caveat:  what I
describe is truly my own version of how the Center is, and
it may or may not reflect the actual reality of the CMC.
I like to pretend that it does.


I remember when I was back in graduate school, my thesis
advisor used to say to us: "Don't become the Director
of any sort of 'Center'; it's the kiss of death!"  And of
course I now find myself, a little over a decade later,
Director of the Columbia University Computer Music Center...
I guess I learned my graduate school lessons well.  Indeed,
many days do feel like a slow and painful act of final mortality,
but I hope that am not quite yet the corpse my advisor envisioned.
I think he had a particular fatality in mind with his "kiss of
death" statement -- the death of creativity, of innovation, and
of music (we are both composers).  I also think that the
"kiss of death" observation was motivated by a conception of what
it meant to *be* a Director of a Center back then, especially
considering the circumstances that provided a context for the definition
of a "computer music center" ten years ago.

The point of this essay is not to outline those circumstances
nor to describe the context that existed for computer music
work in the 1980's (see Georgina Born's fascinating description
of IRCAM, a well-known music-technology research center in Paris,
in the mid-80's for a detailed look at this world [Born,
1995]).  To be sure, the environment for a contemporary computer
music center probably hasn't changed all that much in ten years.
However, we are attempting to build a different sort of Center at
Columbia; hopefully learning from past "kiss-of-death" types of mistakes.
What I would like to do in this paper -- at the risk of appearing
massively self-delusional -- is to highlight a few of the alternative
organizational and philosophical approaches we are trying as we
move the CMC into the next millennium.

As far as centers go, the Columbia CMC is rather decentralized.
This is partly a result of the recent history of computer music
at Columbia.  The relatively gradual growth of support for computer
music within the older structure of the Columbia University Electronic
Music Center instead of a single 'establishing moment' precluded
the adoption of a strong central authority overseeing all computer music
activities.  The decentralization is also partly by design, for we
have noticed that many practitioners of computer music work
best in a rather loosely-structured environment.  We also
consider one of our primary goals to be the creation of a Center
that exists to support the work done by students, researchers
and composers, no matter what the particular aesthetic or
musical direction engendered by that work might be.  In other words,
the direction of the CMC is charted primarily through use.
In place of formalized schemes or organized N-year plans
we tend to go where users of the Center are taking us.

This self-organizing approach to defining the CMC's direction
has several immediate consequences.  The Center's hardware and
software foundation must necessarily be broad, because often
a given research project or musical composition requires
specific software packages running on a certain make and model
of computer, possibly with unique peripherals and input
devices (MIDI controllers, data gloves, distance sensors, etc.).
To meet this need, we have attempted to purchase as wide a range
of digital machinery as our budget will allow.  At present,
we have most of the major combinations of hardware, operating
systems, and software currently used for computer music
work represented at the Center.  We are committed to maintaining
this array of equipment and software resources. In general,
our purchasing decisions are dictated by the needs of the
of the CMC user community, within our budgetary constraints,
of course.  We want to buy machines that will be used!

Maintaining this broadly-based infrastructure poses two direct
difficulties.  The first is, well, simply *maintaining* the
infrastructure.  Hardware breaks, software configurations get
trashed, wires come unplugged, disk drives fail... all these
on-going (and very real) problems place an enormous load on the
CMC staff.  I have yet to visit a contemporary high-technology
academic research center where the support staff wasn't
overtaxed, overworked and overburdened.  The Columbia CMC is
no exception.  It is not unusual during peak times of the academic
year for our technical staff to spend 12-15 hours a day putting
out technological "brush fires" to keep the CMC running smoothly.
This situation cannot continue indefinitely.

One way to lessen the burden of at least routine maintenance
work is to involve Center users directly in our support
procedures.  I would hesitate to cast the CMC as a kind
of post-60's technological commune, but we do try to
nurture a communitarian spirit of sorts.  People working
at the CMC generally recognize that a small investment in
their time can help make the Center a more productive
place.  In general, we allow all our users to
take as much responsibility for configuring
and maintaining our hardware as they want.  We often
find that individual students or researchers have detailed
personal knowledge of a particular machine or software package.
This "knowledge bank" among our users is invaluable to us
as we confront the plethora of hardware/software possibilities,
each with idiosyncratic configuration features that must
be known for proper operation.

Another obvious way to lessen the maintenance burden is to
simply hire more staff.  This "solution" intersects with the
second of the immediate difficulties encountered in trying
to maintain a broadly-based technological infrastructure:  budget.
In a world where hardware is nearly obsolete the day it is shipped,
a solid foundation of financial support is a necessity.  Even
remaining barely "even" with new innovations in technology
requires a constant reinvestment in basic machinery at the
Center.  Compound this with the additional support and maintenance
time and budget needed for incoming new hardware/software
and the downward budgetary spiral begins to become apparent:  new
equipment and software needs more support, but additional support
requires monetary commitments, leaving less for new equipment and
software, which must be purchased to remain technologically
current, but the new equipment and software needs more support...
etc.  Every center currently engaged in a fundamental way with
new technology will probably *never* have a budget sufficient
to meet demand.

At Columbia, we are fortunate in having an administration that
recognizes the necessity of providing at least a modest amount of
direct support for technology.  It has become almost a cliche'
to say that most progressive universities and institutions of
higher education are aware that a strong technological base will
most likely be essential for future survival in an increasingly
competitive academic market.  Columbia is no exception, and the
CMC has been the beneficiary of this state of affairs.  However,
the amount of annual support we receive as the operating budget for
the Center does not begin to approach what is needed to maintain our
technological viability.  To make up for this difference, we
have to seek -- as many other centers do -- outside sources
of funding.

This is where our "open door" policy towards work done at the
CMC has truly paid dividends.  Nearly all of the projects that
have generated external income for us in the past few years
have originated in a use of our facilities that would not
have been envisaged had we adopted a narrow, hierarchical
definition of what the CMC should be doing.  Certain individuals
made specific use of our facilities and capabilities -- often
uses we had not anticipated when setting up the Center -- and
these alternative uses grew into relatively lucrative
income-generating projects. [3]

To be honest, this is probably in reality  how most other
centers operate.  Projects are generally driven to a greater or
lesser extent by the individuals involved in them instead of
by 'official' institutional sanctioning or backing.  Our plan
is that by *explicitly* articulating an "anything-sort-of-goes"
attitude, along with the range of resources we provide, we
will create an extraordinarily fertile environment for
the gestation of new and innovative projects.  We don't want
to eliminate *a* *priori* any possible avenues for fruitful
musical investigations by adopting an artificial set of limits
on what the CMC should be doing.

A side-effect of this policy has to do with how the CMC relates
to other divisions in of the University.  I recall that when I
first became Director of the Center, we had many long discussions
on how to define our relationship to the Music Department,
other Departments, other university research centers, etc.
These discussions are still going on as very real issues surface
concerning allocation of specific resources.  To a large
extent, however (and lengthy discussions notwithstanding),
the CMC has already become tightly integrated into the workings of
the Music Department in general.  This integrating occurred
not as a result of any planned effort on our part, but was
much more a consequence of individual student and faculty
initiating projects that became what the Center was doing.

We have also established an excellent working relationship with
the Music Library (and in fact with the greater Columbia Library
system), and we are becoming involved in collaborations with the
Film Division, the Engineering School, the Medical Center, the
Chemistry Department as well as with many other units within the
University.  Again, these connections have all occurred through
specific projects and initiatives arising from the CMC user
community; not from the implementation of some pre-planned and
agreed-upon "CMC Objective".  Rather than forcing a conception of
how the CMC should relate to other University entities, the
collaborative projects have already produced the best possible
definition of Center policy regarding inter-departmental relations:
relationships based upon a mutual pursuit of common goals as embodied
in actual, on-going work.

We would like to expand this approach to collaborative
ventures beyond the walls of Columbia University.  In the
past, there has been little substantive cooperation between
different centers for computer/contemporary music.  In truth,
it was probably necessary for Centers to establish their
independent, autonomous existence before any inter-center
collaborations were possible.  Recently, however, several
music technology centers have begun to work together on
joint projects.  We are among those centers, for we believe
that diverse perspectives can greatly assist the development
of these projects.  As with our other work, the approach we
are attempting to take is to aid the creation of self-generating
projects, rather than dictate from the top which "collaborations"
(even if in reality they may be quite empty of real content) we
will undertake.  So far this approach appears to be functioning
quite well:  we are currently engaged in fledging projects
with Princeton University, the University of Virginia,
the University of Thessaloniki, the Tokyo College of Engineering,
the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the
National University of Uruguay, IRCAM and a number of commercial

Stepping back a bit from the local circumstances of the CMC,
this notion of decentralized planning seems part of a larger
phenomenon -- call it postmodern management if you will.
The fragmentation and lack of central authority that have been
cited as salient features of postmodern philosophies are
generally seen in a negative light, however:  hierarchical
high-modernist edifices are *destroyed*, are *demolished*,
are *deconstructively* *reduced* by postmodern thinking.
I suggest that the activities and organization of the
CMC represent a more positive postmodernism.  To borrow a
metaphor from artificial life or neural network research
in computer science, the CMC functions as a self-organizing,
"bottom up" system, where aspects of centralized control
and coordination are emergent features of a confederation of
autonomous users.  The Center operates almost as a logical
or virtual construction, an entity that comes explicitly into
existence to meet the demands of a particular situation. [4]

The decentered nature of the CMC has a pronounced effect
upon some of our products.  A culture of shared information
is nurtured by a self-organizing approach, thus the software
we develop is nearly always public-domain (at the discretion
of the individual responsible for the work, of course), and
source code is generally freely available to all.  I contrast
this with a suite of distribution-protected software
packages we recently purchased from a notoriously hierarchical,
epitome-of-high-modernism organization.  The software was
a nightmare to install, mainly because it assumed very specific
machine and network configurations.  We were required to
duplicate large and relatively tangled parts of the selling
organization's hardware/software structure just to get the
programs running.  Had we access to the protected source
code (or had the seller been a bit more accommodating of
diversity in machine configuration), several days of
painful, frustrating installation work would have been
reduced to a matter of minutes.  I'd like to imagine
that software developed at the CMC -- perhaps because it
is developed in a heterogeneous and constantly-shifting
environment -- is a little more tolerant of different
computer configurations.  We are actually developing some
of our larger software applications on several 
machine/operating-system architectures simultaneously
because the range of machines at the CMC makes the expediency
of doing this quite obvious.  And of course, most often
source code for our programs is available for the taking, making
any reconfiguration (or enhancements!) easy for knowledgeable
individuals to do.

As fabulous as this decentralized, bottom-up approach to
Center organization may seem, it does dodge important decisions
that still must be made from a top-level perspective.  Although
it is theoretically wonderful to speak of the CMC as this fantastic
logical/virtual construct that forms and reforms for various
user-initiated projects, many of our larger undertakings
do require a serious allocation of limited resources.  In
actual practice, we do administer the Center by making
decisions about the level of support we can provide for
individual projects.  These decisions are becoming more
and more difficult as the activity of the Center increases.
Although we must act in a decidedly hierarchical
fashion when choosing what we can and cannot afford to
support, a crucial distinction to be made is that the
projects forcing the decision are originated in the user
community at large; they do not begin as officially-sanctioned
projects arising from a top-level, central CMC authority.

The question of what kind of work the CMC should be doing
reappears in resource-allocation choices.  My tidy picture
of a happy group of users cooperatively determining the
direction of the CMC begins to crack and crumble for
many people in the face of criticisms about the legitimacy
of the kind of music composition and research done at
the Center.  Every user has a different concept of what should
be of central concern for the CMC, a few people going so far
as to dismiss composition and research not in line with a
particular viewpoint or aesthetic as somehow not *really*
doing music composition or research.  An example of this
dynamic in action can be seen in the CMC's engagement
(or non-engagement) with "multi-media" (film/video/etc.).
We have not invested heavily in video production or
graphic design systems at the Center, although I have
seen many wonderful and exciting multi-media computer
music works in the past few years.  Partly this is
because of the high cost of these systems, but partly
it is due to a prevailing attitude at the Center
(and in the Music Department) that this sort of work
isn't "pure" music.  This situation is changing, however,
as several students have recently become heavily
involved in multi-media projects.  I predict that
it will be through these collaborative, cross-disciplinary
projects that we eventually move to include film/video
equipment as part of the CMC facilities.  This is a
real case where specific individual projects are driving the
direction of the Center, but in this particular instance there
exists a strong budgetary counter-pressure, partially
fueled by notions of musical legitimacy, that works against
the realization of these individual projects.  The challenge
that we face at the CMC is to meld disparate conceptions
of what we should be doing into a manageable, affordable
environment that will not discourage innovative work.
The boundaries that we set must be semi-permeable.

Concerns of what is "central" to the CMC's direction are
related to another question, the question of the pedagogical
role played by the CMC.  What should we be teaching?  How
should we teach it?  Terry Pender (the Technical Director
and a composer working at the Center) participated in
a panel discussion taking place during a computer
music conference in Tokyo last year.  The panel was charged
with addressing the question:  "What does a computer musician
need to know?"  This pernicious issue seems to surface
repeatedly as people strive to codify and make sense of a
rapidly changing technological/musical world.  Despite many
rather heavy-handed pronouncements made about what musicians
must know to create True Art, Terry's basic response was that
we should -- to the best of our abilities -- teach what people need
to know to accomplish their own personal goals. The emphasis here
is placed again on the individual instead of an external doctrine
or tradition that must be absorbed in order to produce real music.
Our students and researchers at the CMC are now coming from a
wide variety of cultural backgrounds.  Enforcing a unitary
view of musical knowledge could produce a cultural schizophrenia
that might easily destroy individual creativity.

While I certainly endorse Terry's attitude, the truth is that
the very act of selecting the issues to address pedagogically
in a field as broad as contemporary computer music does carry
heavy aesthetic presuppositions.  My hope is that we can maintain
a relatively "open" approach by relying on a philosophy of individual
engagement coupled with a commitment to maintaining a diverse
population of students and researchers working at the CMC.  I would
also want to replace the "need to know" question with an
alternative: "What sort of musical community do we want to
build?"  For me, ephemeral questions of musical knowledge often
reduce to issues of social relations and the reinforcement of
particular social hierarchies and structures -- I guess I subscribe
to the Foucaultian view of how knowledge/power works in the world.
Knowledge of computer music is still relatively young, however,
and my personal desire is that we may build a community of
knowledge at the CMC that is reflective of liberal, egalitarian
values I cherish.  As is obvious by now, I also believe that
this is the best possible way to organize a Center dedicated
to nurturing creativity and promoting musical diversity
(diversity and creativity being inextricably interrelated
in my view). [5]  Even should we fail, the attempt to create
a light and shallow controlling structure
at the Center will be an interesting experiment.

I do think that circumstances have changed in the
world to allow space for the kind of infrastructure and
management philosophy manifested by the CMC.  The growth of
international travel is allowing personal contacts to
break down deep-seated cultural prejudices and foster a
heightened inter-social awareness, and the Internet (although
probably not the liberator of mankind that techno-idealists
proclaim) has surely created a climate of individual potential.
Even my former advisor, with his dire "kiss of death" warnings
about administration, is now chair of a prestigious music
department.  Since becoming chairman, his music-compositional
output has nearly tripled.  Maybe there is hope for us yet.


[1]  A detailed history of the Center may be found on our
web site:

[2]  For an up-to-date description of the CMC facilities,
along with a description of current projects (and software
available for downloading), again see our web site:

[3]  I realize I don't give specific examples of these projects --
this paper is intended to provide a philosophical overview of the CMC.
I refer again to our web site for a good listing of work
being done at the CMC.

[4]  Kevin Kelly presents an interesting set of essays
about this sort of organizing methodology in a variety
of areas in [Kelly, 1994].

[5]  Many "postmodern management" theorists agree with this 
approach -- see [Kao, 1997] for a popular, albeit somewhat
breathless, example.


Born, Georgina (1995).  *Rationalizing* *Culture*.  University
	of California Press:  Berkeley, CA.

Kao, John (1997).  *Jamming*.  HarperCollins Publishers, 
	Inc.:  New York.

Kelly, Kevin (1994).  *Out* *of* *Control*.  Addison-Wesley
	Publishing Co.:  Reading, MA.