First-Hand:Classical Music Prelude to Engineering


Submitted by A. Michael Noll, September 28, 2022

Copyright © 2022 AMN

This is the life story of how classical music motivated my career in electrical engineering. My early interests in listening to classical music lead to an interest in audio technology and high fidelity, and then to electronics and electrical engineering. I went to Bell Labs to work in audio human factors and ultimately to research in acoustics and speech processing, with my heroes John R. Pierce and Edward E. David, Jr.

My first encounters with classical music were as a child. I recall standing on a large wooden toy box, waving my arms in response to classical music on the radio, as if I were conducting. Back then in the 1940s, classical music concerts on the radio were usual, such as the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Many people were exposed to classical music as a result – but I had no idea what I was hearing.

My parents had an old up-right piano, and I used to pound away on it. I liked the sounds, but never learned to read music. But I was convinced that I was composing music – to others, it was just creating noise and random nonsense.

In high school, I was required to take a music course, which was taught by Fr. Eugene Schwarz, at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey. I never learned to play an instrument though, or to read music notation. To this day, it is miraculous to me that musicians can read and generate such wonderful sounds based on scribbles on paper. The Latin teacher, Fr. Christopher Hites, played a phonograph recording of the von Suppé “Light Cavalry Overture” in class, although I had no idea what it had to do with Latin. I told my father how much I liked the music, and we were able to find a 78-RPM record of it, which I listened to on our old 78 portable phonograph.

We had a Dumont television set, which had a continuous channel tuner with FM radio stations between channels 5 and 7. One day, I heard a tremendous orchestral piece; it was really wild. It had a French name that I could not understand clearly. I went to the music department at the Bamberger’s department store in Newark, and described what I had heard to the sales person – amazingly, he guessed it was Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du printemps.” I purchased a LP recording of it by Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony.

I had no idea what a “LP’ was, nor what the 33 1/3 RPM meant. Of course, I could not play it on our old 78-RPM phonograph. But that stimulated me to learn about records, turntables, cartridges, amplifiers, and loudspeakers – the world of high fidelity audio – hi-fi – the world of sound.

My father built a cabinet for the turntable, and also for the many LP records I would purchase with my weekly allowance. I would take the express bus from Newark to the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City, and walk up 8th Avenue to 49th Street to the Sam Goody record store. I would look at the album covers and based on the cover, purchase a record or two – hearing unknown until I got the treasures home. The liner notes were my source of information about composers and their compositions.

Every new record I obtained was an experiment in music for me. I learned by listening about conductors (Ormandy, Toscanini, Monteux, Szell, Reiner, Abravanel, Dorati) and their orchestras (New York Philharmonic, Utah Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, NBC Symphony). My collection of LPs grew and grew. My father built with hand tools and a blueprint a complicated folded-horn cabinet for an Electro-Voice 8-inch speaker – I still have the cabinet and speaker, and they still work fine.

I remember accompanying Fr. Christopher as he went to New York to listen to loudspeakers at Harvey Radio. He took me to my first live concert in Newark’s Symphony Hall, where I heard the Boston Symphony perform Bartok. As my interests grew in audio, I would visit the hi-fi department at Hudson Radio on William Street in Newark. It was down the block from St. Benedict’s. The manager was Johnnie Yaniga. He hired me part time to be a hi-fi sales person, which was difficult for me, since I was quite shy in talking to strangers. I learned a lot about audio technology from him.

I remember when a new technology – stereo – was invented for LP records and became available around 1958. I predicted that in a year or so all sales would be stereophonic – and indeed they were. As a result, everybody needed two loudspeakers, new stereo cartridges, and new stereo dual amplifiers. The stereophonic effect was impressive and a great improvement over single-channel audio. I received a special sales discount on any audio equipment that I purchased at Hudson, and thus was able to afford McIntosh amplifiers – the very best equipment. My loudspeakers were Acoustic Research AR-3 and AR-1 models, with DuKane Ionovac tweeters. I became very interested in the technology of audio. To prevent low-frequency feedback, I isolated the tone arm from the base of the turntable using foam rubber.

I graduated St. Benedict’s and went down High Street to study engineering at Newark College of Engineering (NCE). My interest in audio attracted me to electrical engineering, and I would still hangout at Hudson Radio and purchase LPs at Sam Goody. I did not have a car and relied on Newark’s busses. Actually, when I was younger, I had wanted to become a bus driver. I became president of the hi-fi club at NCE and would put on demonstrations of stereo hi-fi. Dr. Achilles E. Foster taught mathematics at NCE and had a strong interest too in hi-fi and was involved with the hi-fi club. His approach to calculus was graphical, and perhaps was the stimulation for my later interest in computer graphics.

In the early 1960s, I started going to singles events in New York, and met a good friend Mathew Siu. He took me to my first opera at the old Metropolitan Opera house. He loved classical music, and we would chat much about our favorite recordings and attend concerts. I was living at home in Newark and had a car, so getting to and from New York through the Holland Tunnel and Pulaski Skyway was a breeze. I knew all the tricks to street parking in Manhattan.

Although Mathew introduced me to opera and I had a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, I was not that big an opera fan. My two favorites operas were Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Richard Strauss “Die Frau Ohne Schatten.” My favorite composer is Ralph Vaughan Williams – Sea Symphony, Fifth Symphony, Dona Nobis Pacem.

After graduation from NCE in 1961, I was hired by Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. (Bell Labs) in Murray Hill, New Jersey. I was in a department that investigated the human factors of sound, which built upon my interests in helping customers listen to different loudspeakers at Hudson Radio. A few years later, I was transferred to the acoustics and speech research area at Bell Labs, working for physicist Manfred Schroeder.

In the mid 1960s, Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center was opened – and declared an acoustic disaster by the critics. The acoustician Leo Beranek was dismissed. My boss at Bell Labs, Manfred Schroeder, was asked to study what was wrong. I volunteered to join his team of researchers, sensing many free concerts. I actually got to stand on the podium of Philharmonic Hall! The rear wall was covered with sound absorbing material. I clapped my hands, and the reflection came back very strongly to me. The spherical shape of the rear wall strongly concentrated the sound, and probably was contributing to the poor acoustics. We were there one evening to the morning of the next day making measurements. One time, the architect Max Abramowitz was chatting with Manfred and lamenting the poor acoustics of his hall, wondering whether it would ever be fixed -- he had a strong emotional attachment to his creation. Decades later, the Hall still seems to be an acoustic challenge.

Leopold Stokowski had formed a new orchestra open to anyone – the American Symphony Orchestra – in New York City. Its concerts were on Sunday afternoons at Carnegie Hall. I remember when he premiered the Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony at one concert – we were all in tears from the music and occasion. This got me thinking about Stokowski’s interest in audio, and I telephoned him to invite him to visit Bell Labs. He spent lunch and an afternoon at Bell Labs, seeing what we were doing with computers and acoustics. I accompanied him in the limousine on his return to New York City, and was able to chat with him about his orchestra. I wish I had recorded our conversation.

I attended many concerts in New York City -- at Carnegie Hall and at Lincoln Center. I got interested in ballet and attended many dance performances. I did not like chamber music, and preferred orchestral music. I disliked electronic music and computer music – I thought it was just boring noise. I found piano music to be jarring, and did not like most vocal music.

I remember when the conductor Herman Scherchen visited Bell Labs, and listened to the electronic music that Max Mathews was doing. Scherchen told Max that similar sounds could be created in Scherchen’s studio in Gravesano with a few audio oscillators. Max was unhappy. However, Scherchen was impressed with what we were doing with computer animation at Bell Labs – he invited me to his concert at Philharmonic Hall, and we discussed computer animation at a reception for him afterwards. I gave a talk at an IEEE event in the 1960s at which I played random noise, and told the audience that it was serious computer music – it was all a joke that the audience took as serious. I learned to never again to try to have some fun with an audience of engineers.

In the mid 1980s, I became a professor at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. This introduced me to the classical music world of Southern California. I discovered that Los Angeles is a great classical music town with oodles of professional musicians – far more exciting than New York City. I was in my music high heaven during my years in Los Angeles. I was even on the board of the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra, directed by Lucinda Carver, who is a fine pianist and conductor. Greg Norton was music director at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, with its magnificent pipe organ in a space with glorious acoustics. He conducted “Dona Nobis Pacem” by Ralph Vaughan Williams in a tremendous performance, which I helped sponsor.

Rutgers University had summer concerts in New Brunswick in the early 2000s conducted by Richard Auldon Clarke. At one concert, Paul Somers of the Classical New Jersey Society was distributing material about his organization in the lobby during the intermission. Paul used to be the music review for the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper. I chatted with him, and he asked me to be one of his reviewers for the Classical New Jersey Society’s newsletter. I told him I knew nothing of music, but he insisted that I give it a try. I did, and even did some reviews of concerts in the Los Angeles area. I found the acoustics of the new Disney Hall to be bad, and started so in my review – the only negative review of the Hall’s acoustics up to then. I learned how to offer gentle critical advice, particularly to amateur musicians and groups. Paul was a good editor and guide to doing critical reviews.

I became interested in chamber music and even organ music. Los Angles is a great pipe organ town with many magnificent organs in great acoustic spaces. The organ at the Cathedral of the Angels has tremendous low frequencies. I wrote a review of three of these organs.

I attended the rehearsal and premier of the Viola Concerto by Peter Schickele, performed by the Pasadena Symphony conducted by Jorge Mester, with Danielle Farina on the viola. It was a tremendous work, and I wrote one of my few rave reviews of his composition. To this day, Schickele’s serious compositions are mostly ignored, eclipsed by the fame of his P.D.Q. Bach. After a concert in Pasadena of his serious works, I attended a reception for him and was able to chat with him about this great disappointment. He had a very popular radio show for a while also.

My significant best friend, Marika, and I attended many concerts together in Southern California, and also in New Jersey, with me writing reviews of some of them. In New Jersey, we were impressed by the incredible quality of the series “Mostly Music” organized by Claire Angel and directed by cellist Carter Brey and violinist Ani Kafavian. Marika and I were able to sample great classical music on both Coasts. Even community orchestras attracted us. Bob Butts in New Jersey had an orchestra and also directed some opera – and gave greet lectures about opera. He too had been a reviewer for the Classical New Jersey Society.

I collected over a thousand LP stereo records. And then along came digital and the compact disc (CD) in the mid 1980s – the LP was obsolete. I predicted that LPs would be all soon replaced by CDs. My LPs went, and I collected a few thousand CDs of classical music. I store them in little plastic bags rather than the thick containers, and file them like little folders by country and composer. I have many different conductors doing the same work, and like to listen and compare them to choose my favorite. I guess I am indeed a listening critic.

I still recall great concerts of the past: the Vaughan Williams “Sea Symphony” conducted by Leonard Slatkin at Carnegie Hall; the Stravinsky “Rite” with the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall; the Strauss “Frau” conducted by Böhm at the Met; the premier at Philharmonic Hall of the Bernstein “Chichester Psalms” conducted by Bernstein. I recall a concert conducted by Stravinsky that the entire audience stood from respect when he came to the podium. There are also great recordings: the Vaughan Williams “Fifth” conducted by Bryden Thomson; and many others – too many to mention. They all give me chills when I listen.

It seems my entire life and careers revolved around classical music – as a listener – and as a critic and reviewer. I never did learn music or how to play an instrument – and it is all still a mystery to me. Sometimes I slip verbally and call musicians - magicians. Indeed, classical music is magic to me – but such emotional and wonderful magic.