Remembering Joel Chadabe

December 12, 1938 – May 2, 2021

When I reflect about my memories of Joel Chadabe, I find myself flooded with images, sounds, and experiences. These include memories of enormous variety: memories of events, moments chatting, projects undertaken, ideas discussed and discarded, plans made, places visited, detailed editing, meals eaten, stories shared, performances produced … The list goes on and on as befitting decades of association.

I first met Joel in the classroom when I was his student at SUNY Albany in 1976-77. When I transferred to the University, I knew almost nothing about the campus or about its music program. I knew that it had an electronic music program, and the name of its head was familiar to me from SUNY-wide arts events I had attended as a student at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music. 

I was one of Joel’s composition students (my concentration as a Music major was in Electronic Music; I may have been the only one during this period to choose this path), yet I learned the most from him in lecture/seminar settings. That’s where he was in his natural element, leaning against a desk, looking at you directly in the eye. In the studio, Joel took a more laissez faire approach to student work. 

Joel was a natural teacher who loved to open doors of knowledge to whomever who would listen. What seemed to grab him the most during that period at the University were big conceptual ideas, scientific revolutions, and stories to tell. His gifts as a raconteur were nonpareil. Joel told lively stories that included noted musical personalities, often to dramatic effect (for instance about Igor Stravinsky and John Cage). The anecdotes were often funny, surprising, revealing, and just entertaining. But they always conveyed information about ideas he wanted to convey.

Here are some of the key ideas I learned as a student of Joel’s, some of them in the 1970s, some in the 1990s:

  1. Musical ideas reflect and are deeply interconnected with the large philosophical ideas of an era
  2. Sound is all around us; we simply need to notice
  3. Among the most breakthrough musical ideas of the early 20th century were new approaches to the vertical juxtaposition of musical events (rather than related in terms of harmony), were pioneered within Debussy’s “Jeux” and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” [I would add that equally reflects Ornette Coleman’s innovations]
  4. The paradigm of the era beginning with Picasso/Braque collages and then Pierre Schaeffer and musique concrete was “items and arrangements,” which means collecting materials/objects/”items” (for instance, sounds), and organizing them into compositions
  5. The subsequent paradigm is the idea that one can compose an instrument/system; succeeding the idea that s/he composes specific musical contents, within or crafting new musical templates/forms
  6. Music can be made and experienced within the context of interactive system: interactivity is defined as a mutually influential relationship between a human and a machine
  7. New musical instruments are ever emerging and unfolding, just as new musical ideas emerge and unfold

The classroom setting was particularly memorable for me because Joel and I constantly argued during class. It was usually about systems theory and its musical applications. I was strongly opposed to the idea that music should reflect algorithmic decision making, which was of course, his main focus during those years. My recollection of class was that it was just Joel and me; he’d talk for a while, I’d argue back, he’d smile, and continue on. I barely remember anyone else there. Years later, Joel had no recollection of this dynamic. Personally, it was a fantastic example of a professor giving space to a student’s ideas; ok, maybe too much space. Not putting that student down because you disagree, but acting as a patient agent of learning and growth. When I began working with Joel at EMF, years later, some of these arguments resumed, but around this time I began to notice the wisdom of his thinking, and before you knew it, as I’ll soon mention, I was composing with algorithmic elements, thinking philosophically about systems, and designing interactive systems for musical performance.

Systems and algorithms, baked into hardware and transitioning into hardware-software hybrids were Joel’s core interests in the studio setting at the University back in the 1970s. His focus at the moment wasn’t student work tied to the “items and arrangements” paradigm (that remained my focus), but the new ideas and instruments he was engaged with in his own work. This made sense given that SUNY Albany was and remains a research university and Joel was always pushing the frontier. Joel was efficient at delegating responsibility when it came to technical details, but generous with his time when it came to thinking broadly about his students’ compositional work. The latter took place in the analog Moog CEMS (the Coordinated Electronic Music Studio System) studio that Joel developed between the studio’s opening in 1966 and 1969, when it was installed in the newly opened Performing Arts Center (PAC). This system was an early systematized modular instrument, one of his vehicles conceived to explore ideas about musical systems, the role of weighted randomness, and interactivity. It was realized on equipment designed and built by Robert Moog to Joel’s specifications. Shortly before my arrival, Joel had completed his compositional interests in the CEMS system, and transitioned to the digital PDP 11/10, an early mini mainframe. During my final semester at the University, he purchased the first Synclavier ever sold, and he was just beginning his work with it.

I arrived in Albany during a period of programmatic quiescence following era of tremendous activity in the University’s Performing Arts Center, in full bloom with the opening of the PAC in 1969. Substantially due to Joel’s imagination, his friendships with musical colleagues, and funding initiatives, the early 1970s programming Joel produced featured artist residencies by a raft of the most important, cutting edge composers, performers, and multi-media artists. Under the banner of Free Music Store (a name borrowed or maybe shared with programming at Pacifica Radio’s WBAI in New York City), illustrious musicians performed, among them John Cage, David Tudor, Eberhard Blum, Alvin Lucier, Lejaren Hiller, David Gibson, Salvatore Martirano, Frederick Rzewski, Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Kenneth Gaburo, Bulent Arel, David Behrman, Larry Austin, Pauline Oliveros, Tom Johnson, Charles Dodge, Morton Subotnick. Among the visiting composers were Lukas Foss, John Cage, Bernard Rands, Vivan Fine. A highwater mark was the performance and recording of John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s multimedia work, HPSCHD. Joel’s achievement was a model display of cutting-edge musical ideas, albeit dependent upon his personal initiative and willingness to raise funds, sometimes from within the SUNY system.

I lost touch with Joel during the 1980s, a period when I went on extended vacation from music. In the early 90s, I began to explore music software on my first Amiga computer, mostly early sequencers, and found them uninteresting. Soon after my family moved to the Berkshires, I dropped Joel a letter, asking his advice about what was new in electronic music. In other words, I was asking about what had happened in the 15 years I kept my distance from what I soon learned were incredible advances that had taken place in electronic music. 

Joel invited me to visit him at his Electronic Music Foundation (EMF) office in downtown Albany, to chat and have lunch. Joel, ever excited by new ideas and an inveterate entrepreneur, was eager to demonstrate the software application Max (soon to become Max/MSP). Max seemed to me at first to be a clever way to design and run algorithms that could generate musical materials, but after making my purchase, discovered that Max opened all sorts of doors to new approaches to making music. Joel had explained to me an idea we had discussed years before, how semi-randomized processes could result in musical outcomes that varied in their predictability. This could be an avenue to further collaborations between humans and machines. I became enthralled, composed my first new compositions in years, and soon began to design new software, and soon hardware-software hybrid instruments. I essentially went from musically indifferent to musically super engaged. It was only a matter of time before I rethought my life direction and was headed back to graduate school for electronic music.

Joel and I periodically met between that 1994 visit and my arrival in 1998 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s iEar Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer master’s degree program. I immediately began to work for Joel at EMF. One of the more entertaining aspects of working at EMF, at times closely with Joel’s son Benjamin, was Joel’s fascination with the fact that I was a rabbi. Sometimes when visitors came to EMF, Joel enthused about the organization having its own rabbi in-house! What began for me as work writing descriptions of recordings gradually morphed into co-editing a historical website to document the history of the field of Electronic Music. 

Thus began many years of meaningful collaborations and of discussions with Joel about the history and about historiography, how history is told. We debated a wide range of topics, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing. Joel was open to being challenged on historical issues about which I felt strongly, for instance my sense of an over-emphasis on European and Euro-American origins of electronic music, and about the importance of considering music through a lens of the environment. In turn, Joel pressed me to deepen my exploration of interactivity, and the importance of oral history, something modeled in his 1997 book Electric Sound. Most important, Joel taught me that facts become most significant when organized into patterns representing a meaningful whole. Why something mattered was more important than the fact that it took place. It was in this period that I substantially honed my ability to write professionally. I credit Joel’s mentorship with my developing career as a writer of musical histories. 

During the ensuing years, the 2000s-2020s, my relationship with Joel matured in one of peers. In 1999, I began to teach at SUNY Albany, recently renamed the University at Albany. I moved into the office Joel had occupied until his retirement in 1997. By 2003, I had become Assistant Professor, and served as director of the studio Joel founded. During this period, Joel’s company EMF Media released my first three recordings and his produced some of my early public concerts. Once I became associate and then full professor, Joel and I often commiserated about our experiences in academia. My family became regulars at Chadabe family parties, hosted by Joel’s spouse, Francoise, herself a gifted teacher and talented cook.

During many of Joel’s years at UAlbany and following, he also taught at Bennington College, and for a time, at the Manhattan School of Music. During his final decade, he joined the adjunct faculty at New York University (NYU)’s Steinhardt School. These late career teaching experiences fed and excited him, renewing the energy that fed his initial teaching career. Joel’s enthusiasm translated into his desire to write new books and initiate a publication enterprise. For me, the door opened to new opportunities to discuss and debate with Joel about a widening range of issues, from musical to organizational, artistic, and personal. 

What I always appreciated the most about Joel was his optimism. There was a constant twinkle in his eye. Something was always percolating in his mind and he’d sometimes become lost in his thoughts. He’d squint a little and suddenly say, “… have you ever thought about… maybe you should try….” 

Joel had an eye for beauty and novelty. He’d point out fascinating and beautiful looking things that grabbed his eye, from people to objects. He was excited by good food and brilliant colors. He loved to photograph everyone and everything. He was eager to ask people to tell their stories. 

Joel was the most forward-looking person I’ve known. For Joel, there were always new concepts to consider, new sounds to hear, new angles to approach anything and everything. There were always ideas coalescing in his mind, each of them pointing to concepts for new music to compose, new enterprises to consider, and new books to write. 

Joel was a good friend, a great teacher, and a mentor to many. Joel was a person for whom every day offered the potential to discover a new horizon. The world is a better place because of Joel’s presence.

~ by bobgluck on May 5, 2021.

3 Responses to “Remembering Joel Chadabe”

  1. Thank you, Bob, for the kind and thoughtful piece on Joel. He was an inspired and generous soul whose connection made many lives so much richer for the link. We (my wife, Kat, and I) had no idea he was ill and were so sorry to hear of his passing.

    • Thank you, Bernie. I know that he thought highly of you (as do I), across all the incarnations of your career. I appreciate the way you’ve succinctly articulated Joel’s personal importance to so many of us, and to the broader world of musics.

  2. Very moving tribute to Joel. Thanks for writing this, Bob. He will be missed by many, including me.

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