Alumni Profile: Jacob Joaquin '98
Parents who worry that their teenager should learn computer science instead of playing guitar can take heart from the example of Jacob Joaquin '98: He came to Berklee a rock guitarist and left an electronic musician and programmer. In Joaquin's mind, music and computers go together like peanut butter and jelly—and, in fact, programming has tapped new wells of creativity for him. He credits his electronic production and design major (then called music synthesis) and particularly his relationship with pioneering professor Richard Boulanger ("Dr. B.") for opening up opportunities.
After Berklee, Joaquin earned a master's degree in composition/new media/integrated media at CalArts. Now he's a software engineer for video startup Blip.TV, a home for original web series. (Alumnus Eric Mortensen is also part of the team.) He also creates his own music and installations. This is a condensed and edited account of our conversation.
What's your current job?
I work with the content team to design and create software for producers of original web series to help build better a experience for their audience.
I ran the Csound blog online, for a time. It has recently become codehop.com, which is a online space for me to feature creative projects, whether it's music, visuals, or computer code. Programming has opened up a new fields in the world of art. Codehop is my public space to explore the relationship between technology and art.
What were your goals when you came to Berklee?
I went in as a guitar major thinking I was going to become a rock star—the next Slash or something. I showed up for my first semester at Berklee and I began to realize that guitar wasn't the right fit for me. I discovered that I had a talent for computers and synthesizers that I had never really developed. I got into the music synthesis program, where I got heavily involved with learning sound design and a bit of audio production, and I realized that computers and synthesizers were my thing.
I basically started computer programming while I was at Berklee and exploring computer music composition under the guidance of Dr. Boulanger. I was never a great guitar player, but I found I had a natural instinct for synthesis and computer music. Much of my time was consumed reading any books or articles I could find on the subject. I discovered a passion I had lacked with my primary instrument.
Dr. B. is known as a primary force in developing the computer music programming language Csound. What was your involvement with that?
Dr. Boulanger was one of my professors, and I started working as his TA. I worked closely with him as he was finishing The Csound Book. I spent about nine months, a lot of hours and weekends, at his house editing and working on the CD-ROM material. I was given the opportunity to create the Csound website at MIT Press.
When Dr. B was working on the One Laptop per Child project, he invited me to participate. I was one of the contributors to the OLPC sound library that was assembled a few years ago. A bunch of his former students all contributed music and audio samples from their personal libraries.
Working with Dr. B. has provided me with many great opportunities. Thanks to him I was able to serve as an assistant to Max Mathews for two weeks. Dr. Mathews recently passed away, but he is known as the father of computer music—among quite a few other achievements, he was the first person to actually generate a digital sound. To have had the opportunity to work with him was an amazing experience, and one I wouldn't have had without Dr. Boulanger.
How did Dr. B. help your career beyond academics?
Dr. B. has always been great at fostering creativity and friendly competition. It was a very welcoming environment in the music synthesis labs, but also competitive in a way—everyone was trying to impress one another. People responded to that and tried to improve. It pushed all of us to excel.
I learned some valuable life lessons, too. Dr. B. is such a hard worker; I learned I had to put in long hours in order to be successful. When I worked with him, I'd get up first thing in the morning and sometimes I wouldn't go to bed until well past midnight with just a quick break for lunch and dinner—and that's what it took to get things done. I also learned that those long hours are worth it when you are passionate about what you're doing. I recently met with him in Palo Alto and we trade emails frequently. He has been an incredible mentor to me.
How did you become involved in visual art?
It's something I picked up separately. During my time at CalArts I started experimenting more with programming outside of computer music. I started by learning the Perl programming language to write general applications, and I got into web design a little bit more. Then I got into writing programs for creating visuals. The medium of programming is actually wonderful for creativity, and I wanted to see if some of the skills I had learned as a computer musician would apply to visuals. I discovered that there is quite a bit of overlap; someone working in one field could easily move into the other.
About six years ago another programmer and I put together an art piece called Cobosoda. People could create these little robots on the computer screen and then watch as they evolved and their evolution created a generative soundscape. I still do pure computer music and pure analog synthesis music, but I'm starting to cast a wider net.
Do you think it makes sense to talk about laptops as musical instruments?
In many ways, even though I was a guitar principal at Berklee, when I left I felt that my one true principal instrument was indeed the computer. I worked at the Learning Center and I even did some tutoring on these various music software programs that were available at the time. The place was always packed. This was the first time that many of us were exposed to what software can do for music. Today, software musical instruments are everywhere. On our phones, web browsers, laptops, iPads, et cetera. Computers are no longer just high-tech recording studios. They are highly expressive musical instruments.