David L. Wessel, a UC Berkeley professor and a groundbreaking researcher, scholar and performing artist who thrived in the intersections of music and science, died of a heart attack on Oct. 13 in Berkeley. He was 72.
Wessel’s early research and publishing on the musical role of psychoacoustics – a branch of science that studies psychological and physiological responses associated with sound – laid the foundations for much of his career and was part of his path-breaking accomplishments.
Wessel’s work in the 1970s on the compositional control of timbre, or musical tone color/quality, inspired the creation of some of the first computer software for analyzing, understanding and using musical material. He also championed the use of personal computers for music research and creation while working from 1976-1988 as the director of pedagogy and software development at IRCAM, an important French institute for research into the science of music and sound and avant-garde electroacoustical art music.
While at IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustic/Musique, Wessel engaged with composers, researchers and students on topics ranging from computer programming for music to the cognitive psychology of hearing. He described what came to be known as the “Wessel Illusion,” a phenomenon in which timbre determines the way a listener groups the musical notes in a melody.
Wessel was part of UC Berkeley’s Department of Music faculty and served as the first director of UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT), which opened in 1988. Wessel developed and taught courses on music perception/cognition and musical applications of computers and related technologies.
“He was a genius at merging art and science, play and rigor, life and ideas,” recalled Edward A. Lee, Robert S. Pepper Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at UC Berkeley.
“David conducted pioneering research in music perception, audio signal processing, and computer music, and he mentored dozens of students and postdocs. He had a clear head, a tremendous sense of humor, and a big heart,” said Lee.
Edmund Campion, co-director of CNMAT and a UC Berkeley professor of music and composition, said that Wessel “searched at the boundaries of music, insisting that the results inform our understanding of music while helping create music and inspire musical things.”
While at CNMAT, Wessel continued research on topics such as musical applications of machine learning and neural networks, the design and use of new musical instruments, novel approaches to analysis and synthesis of musical material, and communication protocols for electronic musical devices. He integrated his work with mentoring of UC Berkeley students from departments including music, computer science, engineering, statistics and psychology. He became an affiliate professor in the psychology department.
“His impact at Berkeley was enormous. As the first director of CNMAT, David was responsible for bringing music research with computers and technology to the university for the first time,” said Cindy Cox, chair of UC Berkeley’s Music Department and a professor of music and composition.
“Before he came,” Cox added, “we had no faculty, resources or facilities devoted to computer music or research. Under his leadership, that area has grown enormously to impact an interdisciplinary community of scholars, researchers, composers, performers, and students.”
Colleagues noted that Wessel also had an extensive career as a performing musician in free-form improvisational works, performing on his custom-designed controller/computer system alongside accomplished instrumentalists from many musical genres.
Born Oct. 6, 1942 in Belleville, Ill., Wessel’s formative years included performing as a professional jazz drummer in high school. He graduated with a B.S. degree in mathematical statistics from the University of Illinois in 1964. After earning a Ph.D. in mathematical psychology at Stanford University in 1972, he went on to conduct research and teach at San Francisco State University and Michigan State University.
Wessel, a resident of El Cerrito, Calif., is survived by his brother, Ralph Wessel of Oakland, Calif., and sons Robin Wessel of Portland, Ore., and Scottie Wessel of East Lansing, Mich., and his wife, Fee Wessel, also of East Lansing.
A public celebration of his life and work is planned for November and will be announced on the CNMAT website: http://cnmat.berkeley.edu/.