Grounds for Sound

After seismic work, Knoll reopens to good CCRMA.

July/August 2006

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Grounds for Sound

Photo: Rod Searcey

Herbert Hoover, Class of 1895, once likened the Knoll, built in 1918 for Stanford president Ray Lyman Wilbur, Class of 1896, MA ’97, to an “insane asylum.” Wilbur’s successor, Donald Tresidder, ’19, MD ’27, decided to make his official residence elsewhere. Members of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics are just glad to be home again. This year, CCRMA (pronounced “karma”) marked 20 turbulent years at the Spanish Gothic fortress, whose $9.1 million yearlong renovation was completed in August 2005.

A three-day celebration in April, dubbed “Newstage: CCRMA,” mixed showcases of electronic and other music, academic presentations and a significant amount of food. Participants had reason to rejoice: they had led a peripatetic life over the years.

The first incarnation of the center was a ragtag group of musicians from disciplines as varied as computer science and psychology who experimented with making sounds using computers. After co-founder John Chowning, MA ’64, DMA ’66, joined the music department faculty—then located at the Knoll—the group found a home at the Donald C. Power Lab at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, which was constructed in the early 1960s and never fully completed. It became known as CCRMA in the next decade, when researchers needed a name to tag onto grant applications.

The center took residence at the Knoll, modified for its purposes, in 1986. Though the building had been one of the first in the Bay Area to feature seismic engineering, parts of it succumbed to the Loma Prieta earthquake just three years into CCRMA’s occupancy. “The shell proved its worthiness, but the third floor was so damaged that it was condemned for almost 15 years,” says center director Chris Chafe. Its only inhabitants were a family of barn owls that lived in the copier room and were carefully relocated once reconstruction began in the summer of 2004.

The renovated Knoll features a 100-seat performance stage, a museum of computer instruments, state-of-the-art audio and recording equipment—including a listening room with full-spherical sound—and flexible teaching space, all of which reflect the needs of CCRMA and the facility’s other resident, the Center for Computer-Assisted Research in the Humanities. Tour guide Carr Wilkerson, MA ’02, a Tulane instructor who helped set up a New Orleans radio station from Stanford after Katrina, points out that the third floor again provides a bird’s-eye view of campus—including a clear sight line down Palm Drive.

Chafe, DMA ’83, says that he hopes the Knoll renovation will introduce more people to CCRMA’s work, much of which is downloadable from the web. “People still wonder what computer music is, but popular music is heavily influenced by computer technology.

“The upgrade has finally been finished, and I feel good vibrations for the future,” Chafe said at the opening ceremony. Contemplating a future earthquake, he added, “Next time, with the seismic reinforcement, it should vibrate correctly, I hope.”

- Jennifer Liu, '08

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