The prestigious 128-year-old European cultural institution La Biennale di Venezia has announced that UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute (QI) Composer-in-Residence Miller Puckette has won the Silver Lion award.
“In recognising [sic] the work of Miller Puckette, the Biennale Musica pursues its path of attributing the award to figures on the contemporary music scene,” said Italian composer Lucia Ronchetti, director of La Biennale di Venezia’s Music Department. “Through their programming, performance and collaboration with composers, [these individuals] have enabled the creation of numerous masterworks during recent decades in the history of music.”
In particular, Ronchetti cited Miller’s work designing and developing the software Max and Pure Data, two of the most widespread programs for computer music.
Miller, who is also a retired UC San Diego Department of Music professor, will accept the award in Venice on October 19. The event will be part of the Biennale Musica, La Biennale di Venezia’s 67th annual international festival of contemporary music, where Miller was also invited to perform and mentor students.
The festival’s theme this year ismicro-music, highlighting “the fascination and richness of expression of digital sound.”
From Math to Music
Miller’s trailblazing career in contemporary music was somewhat of an accident. In fact, as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he was pursuing a different path.
“My plan was to basically be a math prof, invent a few new math theorems, and run my life that way,” Puckette said.
But, during his senior year, Puckette got wind of a Department of Music class on how to use a computer to make music, tapping into a rare resource at that time—a computer at MIT with audio input and output capabilities.
“I skipped all the prerequisites and just showed up for the class,” Puckette recalled. “No one controlled prerequisites at that time. The prof would just throw you out if they thought you were a problem. As a mathematician, I understood everything they were doing, like why things sounded the way they did—that’s really all mathematics. It was so much fun, I just found myself gradually spending more and more of my time doing that.”
The musicians welcomed Puckette when he lingered in the lab after class, and he made the discovery that others appreciated his contributions. “I had a lot of fun,” Puckette recalled, “and because the field was so early, there was a lot to do.”
In graduate school, Puckette continued studying mathematics, earning a Ph.D. from Harvard University. However, when it came time to select his first position after graduation, he opted to become a researcher at Paris’s IRCAM (l’Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Musique/Acoustique), an institution founded by composer and conductor Pierre Boulez to stimulate and pursue scientific research around musical creation.
Immersed in the World of Sound
Surrounded by others with similar interests, Puckette was able to identify major issues that needed to be solved for composers to use computers to create sounds.
According to Puckette, one technical problem was real-time scheduling, in other words allowing the continuous computation of sound, as well as the ability to react to disturbances that changed it.
In addition, the existing prototypes required a level of understanding of programming languages that was a serious barrier for many composers in the 1980s.
“Many composers had never actually touched a computer, but those who did pretty much were at the level of pushing buttons,” recalled Puckette. “So I found a way of describing real-time reactivity as a music instrument would react to a player playing; composers could understand and make things in that environment. It all came down to a programming model that had good real-time properties, but also had a good visual representation for designing electronic instruments virtually.”
One of the first composers to use this early version of the software—which Puckette named “Max” after Bell Labs electrical engineer Max Mathews—was Philippe Manoury, who used it to create Pluton, a piano and computer piece, in 1988.
Puckette’s Silver Lion prize recognizes the fact that, given the evolution of technology over the last 35 years, it is remarkable Max is still in use today. Max was released commercially in 1990. The product, whose most recent incarnation is available from Cycling74.com, maintains a large and enthusiastic user community.
In 1994, Puckette joined UC San Diego’s Department of Music, which had a reputation for being a forward-looking group that embraced the possibilities of electronic music. From 2000 to 2011 Puckette was also associate director of UC San Diego’s Center for Research in Computing and the Arts.
Because of copyright restrictions, Puckette found himself unable to continue to evolve his original creation, Max, as a faculty member at UC San Diego. That was how Puckette came to develop and introduce Pure Data, a programming environment that, like Max, worked in real-time sound and used visual programming. Unlike Max, Pure Data was free and open source; it was also, in Puckette’s words, “more do-it-yourself and experimental.”
Puckette has continued working on and with Pure Data ever since. This work has involved a lot of music-making with artists across genres, where Puckette enthusiastically takes on the creative challenges his colleagues bring to him.
“Composers and performers plan music for which they need some new kind of sonic possibility,” Puckette said, noting he was currently imagining and creating the sound of an angel with a raspy voice. “So I go design things that make cool sounds come out of speakers.”
Frequent creative collaborators include Manoury, Rand Steiger, Vibeke Sorensen, Juliana Snapper (as in this performance at Linux Sound Night in 2021), and Kerry L. Hagan (whose website include examples of their joint work).
In early 2020, the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute appointed Puckette composer-in-residence. While the pandemic quickly derailed some initial performance plans, it opened up other possibilities.
“I used to travel a lot going to premieres of music,” Puckette said. “The COVID period meant that everything that I was going to do had to be done over the network. So I ended up writing some software for virtual music collaboration, which I still use. That’s typical for me: I’m trying to do something and I need a tool to do it—so I just build it. That’s really the gist of my career, then sharing the tools with others.”
Puckette’s work with Hagan during this period resulted in the parody “All You Need is Lunch,” a montage of popular songs on love morphed into an audiovisual exploration of lunch.
After retiring from teaching last year, Puckette also began working with the audio/visual team at QI to record all the classes he had developed. “I’m trying to put a copy of about 10 different classes, about 200 hours of lectures, up in that same series,” he said, “so you can follow classes I’ve taught at UCSD freely.”
In the meantime, he is packing his bags to move back to Paris to rejoin IRCAM. He plans to return to UC San Diego on a regular basis, including to perform with Hagan and a percussionist known as Irwin at the Qualcomm Institute in January next year.
Looking back over his career, he has no regrets.
“I have been a great deal happier in music than I would have been in mathematics,” he said. “I found a field that really needed what I could do in a way that mathematics didn’t so much. I’ve had more of an impact in music than I would have in math.”