Academic journal article Psychomusicology

David Wessel (October 6, 1942 - October 13, 2014): Tributes and Remembrances

Academic journal article Psychomusicology

David Wessel (October 6, 1942 - October 13, 2014): Tributes and Remembrances

Article excerpt

Biographical Compilation and Remembrances From Johanna Devaney, Former Postdoctoral Fellow

David Wessel was an innovative researcher, composer, and improviser; his work had a major impact on the fields of both music psychology and computer music. He applied his training in psychoacoustics to pioneering work on the perception of musical timbre and worked extensively on questions of human-computer interaction for musical improvisation. He passed away on October 13, 2014, aged 72.

David Wessel was born October 6, 1942, in Belleville, Illinois. While attending the University of Illinois, where he earned a B.S. degree in Mathematical Statistics in 1964, he heard Lejaren Hiller give a talk on computational analysis of music. He would later relate in a 2005 interview for Cycling 74 that this event was pivotal to his developing research interests: "I was studying information theory at the same time in another class and well . . . suddenly it just connected up my interest in music and science and technology. That was sort of the first piece of connective tissue" (Taylor, 2005).

After graduating from the University of Illinois, Wessel pursued graduate work at Stanford University, culminating in a Ph.D. in Mathematical and Theoretical Psychology in 1972. At Stanford, he worked with famed learning theorist William K. Estes and joined the Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences. Although his doctoral work focused on detection of signals in briefly presented visual arrays (Wessel, 1972a), his time at Stanford also afforded him the opportunity to explore his musical interests through interactions with John Chowning. Wessel first met Chowning when enrolled in his percussion class, but subsequent conversations with Chowning introduced him to computer music. In reference to his introduction to computer music, Wessel would later observe that, "I heard about the idea of doing it before, but it became real. I decided at that point that I really wanted to orient my work in psychology and perception toward musical problems" (Taylor, 2005).

During the period of his doctoral work at Stanford, Wessel taught at San Francisco State University in 1968 and then Michigan State University from 1969. While at Michigan State he began working directly on music perception and cognition, focusing on the application of psychoacoustics to the perception of musical timbre (Wessel, 1972b, 1973). He also organized the inaugural International Computer Music Conference at Michigan State in 1974.

In 1973, Wessel read about Pierre Boulez's ambitious plans for the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris and arranged a sabbatical to visit in 1976 and was subsequently involved in its creation in 1977. As program chair for the IRCAM/GALF Symposium on Musical Psychoacoustics that summer, he created a forum for discussion of the relationship between psychoacoustics and musical creation. He officially joined IRCAM in 1979, as the head of the Pedagogy group. While at IRCAM he continued his research into timbre, including collaboration with Jean-Claude Risset (Risset & Wessel, 1982/ 1999; Wessel & Risset, 1979), and he placed a particular focus on the application of multidimensional scaling to produce lowdimensional representations of timbre that could be used for synthesis control (Ehresman & Wessel, 1978; Wessel, 1979; Wessel, Bristow, & Settel, 1987). Wessel was also actively engaged in promoting the use of personal computers for real-time computer music. This latter interest led him away from the Pedagogy group to start the Personal Computing Systems and Development group in 1986. Throughout his time at IRCAM, he continued to be actively involved with the field of computer music. He organized the International Computer Music Conference for a second time in 1984 and taught the first course in computer music at the Paris Conservatory. In recognition of his work at IRCAM, Wessel was made a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. …

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