Duke Magazine
Virtual Maestro
by Jacob Dagger
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Tuned in, turned on: Rehearsals for Stanford Laptop Orchestra and Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra concert at the university’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium in June.
Tuned in, turned on: Rehearsals for Stanford Laptop Orchestra and Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra concert at the university’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium in June.
Toni Gauthier

It seems possible to trace Wang’s path to computer music back to childhood, though you could also say that his interests weren’t all that different from that of the average boy growing up in the 1980s.

Born in Beijing, he spent most of his childhood in Kansas, where he grew up on classic video games like Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, and The Legend of Zelda. His first musical instrument was an accordion, a gift from his grandparents; his second was an electric guitar, which his parents bought him unprompted when he was thirteen. “In retrospect, that seemed like kind of an unconventional thing for parents to do,” Wang says. “To preemptively invite an instrument of rebellion and decibels into your home.” He took lessons from a teacher at a local music store and was soon jamming to Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. He loved experimenting with sound.

“My parents have always encouraged me to follow my interests,” he says. “They never hard sold me on anything. They waited to see what stuck. And music stuck.”

At Duke, Wang (who went by “Gary” at the time) studied computer science, excelling in programming courses, spending many late nights in the Teer Building’s computer lab, and often serving as a de facto teaching assistant and debugger for friends. But he also balanced out his schedule with music courses: composition, theory, music history.

One course in particular stood out for him: “Electronic Music,” taught by music professor Scott Lindroth, who is now Duke’s vice provost for the arts. It was during that class that Wang first heard a recording of “Table’s Clear,” an experimental piece of computer music by composer Paul Lansky. The piece begins withseemingly random clanks and bangs, the sounds of kitchenware being handled roughly. But as the piece goes on, the sounds begin to organize themselves into a musical groove. “This was the first piece of computer music that moved me musically,” Wang says. “It was like, I want to do that, or I want to help people do that.” The course also gave him his first opportunity to compose and record his own computer music.

Until this point, Wang, like many of his computer-science classmates, had envisioned a career in programming, either with a software giant like Microsoft or maybe with a videogame design company. But now a second path appeared. Lansky, an acquaintance of Lindroth’s, taught at Princeton University, which has a renowned sound lab. Wang applied to the graduate program there and was accepted.

Wang’s first foray into the start-up world also came during his time at Duke. With four friends he hatched a plan to launch an Internet site that would compile, summarize, and synthesize online reviews for a wide array of consumer products. This was in the late 1990s, when reviews of this type had just begun piling up online. The five packed their things into a U-Haul and headed north to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they rented a townhouse and got to work on their site.

“The Internet has gone through peaks and valleys in terms of levels of excitement” that it raises among investors and entrepreneurs, says Matt Killingsworth ’00, the group’s leader. “At this point it felt like anything was possible, that this is the future.” But after a few months, Killingsworth says, “we began looking at the financial assumptions we and others in the Internet industry were making.”

“In the process of raising round one of financing,” he says, “we became increasingly skeptical. The rate at which we were assuming we could turn visitors into revenue seemed less and less feasible.” When the time came to decide whether they should request an additional semester’s leave of absence from Duke, they decided to pack up and head back to campus. The following spring, the dot-com bubble burst. (Killingsworth is now pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard University. His thesis involves using a smartphone app he developed to more accurately measure and understand happiness in humans.)

In graduate school, Wang worked under renowned composer and computer musician Perry Cook, who had a joint appointment in Princeton’s computer science and music departments. Wang immersed himself in computer music.

But the programmer in him was always tinkering. Since his time at Duke, Wang had spent a lot of time thinking about the nuances of computer languages. His experience debugging friends’ programs made him “appreciate when software…was designed in a way that makes people’s lives easier.”

There are thousands of computer languages out there, including dozens designed specifically for composing computer music, but despite a great deal of experimentation, Wang couldn’t find one that met all of his needs. “One day I came to Perry,” Wang recalls, “and I said, ‘Perry, I know there are a lot of programming languages out there for music. I think I want to build yet another one.’”

He explained the basics of the new language he was proposing. Cook took one look, and said, “Okay, that sounds pretty insane. Go for it.”

The resulting language, dubbed ChucK (after the verb meaning “to carelessly throw”) and released as open-source software in 2003, addressed several problems that Wang saw as inherent in its competitors. Most significantly, it allowed programmers to modify code on the fly, changing and embellishing their compositions during performances.

One early test for the language came in 2005, when Wang, along with fellow graduate student Scott Smallwood and professors Cook and Dan Trueman, founded the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk). The orchestra, originally designed as a freshman seminar course, was intended to teach students a variety of skills, including programming, music composition, and live performance.

“People learned programming because they had to go create a musical instrument and a performance, and they were going to perform it in front of the class or in front of an audience,” Wang says. “The programming becomes a tool and not the end goal.”

Though the class comprised fifteen college freshmen, none of whom had any significant programming experience, the experiment was a great success, Wang says. “They rocked it. We were scared. They were not. They did it, had tons of fun with it.”

When he came to Stanford, he brought the idea with him, founding the Stanford Laptop Orchestra, or SLOrk, during his first semester on campus. In the course, now designed for upperclassmen and graduate students, orchestra members learn to perform pieces first created at Princeton, as well as compose their own. Wang’s other courses are similarly project-based; in one, students design and build mobile apps similar to those developed at Smule.

His hands-on approach to teaching was one of the big things that attracted faculty members at Stanford to him. “He has a really outgoing demeanor and a way of privileging innovations,” says Chris Chafe, director of the university’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. “And not just his own. He’s really interested in others’ work.”