UC Berkeley professor David Wessel dies at 73

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David Wessel, a UC Berkeley professor known for his work in music technology, died Monday at the age of 73.

Up until his death, Wessel co-directed the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies, a campus research facility in North Berkeley, where he studied auditory perception and created live-performance computer music. During his 26 years at UC Berkeley, Wessel helped design sound systems, including those at Memorial Stadium, and worked with instruments such as pressure-sensitive touchpads.

Wessel was teaching a class this semester about music perception and cognition. According to department chair Cindy Cox, a new professor has since been found to continue the course. She remembered Wessel demonstrating “contraptions” he invented and going to concerts where he played in major improvisational jazz groups.

“I really don’t have a lot of regrets about things I could have said to David when I had the chance, but I have a million things that I wish David was around to be involved in,” said Richard Andrews, associate director of the center. “Ninety percent of my to-do list involves David’s existence, and now that he is not here anymore, we are trying to figure out how to deal with that.”

Wessel began his pursuit of music by playing as a jazz drummer during his youth, according to his colleagues. After receiving his bachelor of science degree in mathematics from University of Illinois, Wessel graduated from Stanford University in 1972 with a doctorate in mathematical psychology.

“Music must be continually renewed and explored,” said Edmund Campion, co-director of the center. “It doesn’t stop, it never has and it never will. So CNMAT is really dedicated to that notion. And that is a memorial to David. It was his dream.”

Wessel followed his interests in technology and music to Paris, where he worked in the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique and pioneered interactive music software.

After arriving at UC Berkeley in 1988, Wessel helped start the center and began his professorship in the music department.

Campion said Wessel was the single most important figure in his life in the last 18 years, as they had worked together since CNMAT began to develop in the late 1980s.

According to Campion, Wessel was not only an active musician, performer and builder of his own instruments, but a major figure in cognition and psychoacoustics.

Andrews also said Wessel impacted him significantly since their first encounter after Andrews was hired more than 15 years ago.

“We would spend time, the conversation ranged from very specific work-related issues to different kinds of music we really liked to different people that were interesting in our orbit to plans for the future,” Andrews said. “So many of our conversations were improvisational, sort of like the way he made music.”

Contact Robert Tooke at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robertono_t.