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An Interface Designer Interfaces With Recorders – Jef Raskin, the „father of the Macintosh“

20 years ago Apple produced the Macintosh, the first affordable personal computer equipped with a graphic operating surface and a mouse. Who would have thought that one of the most important developers of this new digital lifestyle initially had his roots in the recorder culture and still plays the instrument with enthusiasm! In 2004, Nik Tarasov spoke with the American ‘Mozart of the microprocessor’ Jef Raskin (1943–2005) about his contact with the recorder.
Windkanal: Being in steady touch with fascinating science and technology, what was leading you to an instrument like the recorder?

Jef Raskin: My interest in the recorder has nothing to do with science or technology, but is due to an accident.
When I was about 11 or 12 years old, a salesman left a wooden instrument in my father's general store. The instrument was left "on consignment". This was a common practice in those days, we paid nothing for it until it was sold. It was about the size and shape of a baseball bat, made of wood, and not an instrument that anybody recognized. It is not surprising that nobody bought it. After it sat among the other instruments for a few years, my father decided that the salesman would never come back (he never did), so my father gave the instrument to me. I was about 15 years old, and aside from the piano had also played clarinet, trombone, and drums in the high school band. I was a fast learner and a good sight-reader and so the band leader put me on whatever instrument he happened to be short of at the time.
Along with the strange instrument was a fingering chart that was headed "Alto Recorder". The way it worked seemed not unlike a clarinet, and I taught myself the fingerings. The instrument had a soft timbre that I liked, and I played it more and more and the band instruments less and less.
I have always been curious, and I decided that I would find some music that was intended for the recorder. In the phone book I found a company called "Terminal Music" in New York City, which was less than an hour away by train from where I lived. At the music store, I told the owner that I needed some music for an alto recorder. He sold me some Vivaldi and Telemann sonatas which were marked "for alto recorder and piano" or "alto recorder and continuo" which, as far as I could tell from the score, was the same thing (I didn't know much about early music back then, nor did my band teacher or my piano teacher).
I did have some incidental instruction from Ralph and Flori Lorr; they were both in the NY Philharmonic in the days of Toscanini; he on bassoon, she on flute. Friends of my parents, they visited us every few months, and their son became a friend of mine. When they first heard me playing the recorder (about which they, too, knew little) Flori said that my "breath control was lousy". They were never people to mince words. She taught me how to play with steady breath and how to develop a fully-controlled vibrato, from absolutely none to flute-like and at any speed. A year later, Ralph said that my ability to play at speed was lousy. He insisted I practice until sixteenth notes at quarter note = 116 were clean. He would demonstrate how "easy" that was on his bassoon. I learned double- and triple-tonguing. And they insisted that I could sight-read pretty much anything they put in front of me, shifting octaves if necessary to fit flute music onto the range of my instrument. It was all a valuable education.
Eventually, I tried to find some recorder players in New York City, and starting by asking at Terminal Music, where I went often enough to be recognized. I was given some phone numbers and the use of their phone in back, and one of the people I spoke to invited me to come by right then. With my alto recorder in a cloth case, I took the subway there.
I was asked to play something for them. When I started to play one of the Telemann sonatas, they all laughed. I was embarrassed and figured out that perhaps I had gotten everything all wrong.
But that was not it at all. Unknown to me, my instrument was a bass recorder (I still have it). It just happened to come with an alto fingering chart. They did not expect that a bass recorder player would start with a difficult solo sonata for the alto. Then they told me that I was very good at the bass recorder to play such music; by luck the bass I happened to have had the full range up to high "g" (with the double forked fingering). Knowing piano, I could read bass clef easily, and soon was playing with ensembles.
Like most young piano students at that time, I had not heard of any early music besides Bach, and knew nothing of performance practice or the instruments of his time and earlier.
Thereafter, my life as a recorder player was, I guess, more or less typical. I kept on playing the recorder, often walking around playing on a plastic soprano so that I could learn to play steadily even when moving. I read Dolmetsch and Dart on early music performance practices. The recorder was my major instrument when I studied for a Ph.D. in music at the University of California, where I learned about musicology. I also studied composition with Raymond Erikson and Pauline Oliveros and conducting with Thomas Nee of the Minneapolis Symphony. Earlier I had studied composition and conducting with Leonard Bernstein of the N.Y. Philharmonic.

I was wondering that you gave up such resonant band instruments for relatively quiet low recorders. Many times I hear people complaining that they would rather be playing a loud bass instrument like the basson or trombone instead of getting lost quiet bass recorders. What kind of low recorder do you prefer?
Am I right that they are not made from plastic but that they are high priced wooden recorders?

I have a wooden great bass in rosewood in F, two wooden great basses in C one in rosewood and one in maple, and a number of basses in F, in both wood and plastic.
I like the sound of recorders especially with large instruments in small ensembles. Their sound does not get lost as can happen in a mixed instrumental group. I especially like the low recorders, and often double tenor and bass parts an octave lower on the C and F great basses. The big ones are also fun for silly music, overblown, they sound like a calliope.

Right now, my best baroque tenor is a plastic one. Some people think that the material of which a recorder is made is a key feature: it is in fact irrelevant. The only things that matter in a musical instrument are how it sounds and how it plays. I do like the freedom from worry about cracking and cleaning with plastic instruments. My best alto for baroque or more modern music is a Hopf metal-and-wood, very untraditional instrument. Its intonation and facility are unparalleled, with clean upper and strong lower registers. It is a joy except that some people are annoyed at the way it looks. An old rosewood soprano still serves well. My sopranino and gar klein are plastics. I do have a wooden sopranino, but it is neither better nor worse than the plastic in sound.

I still have the bass I started with, but the baroque-fingered bass I play now is a Roessler, as are my great bass and contra bass. Where Roessler found a piece of rosewood large enough for the contra is a puzzle, and as a result, the instrument is extremely heavy (I've gotten a wheeled carrier for it when it's in its case) -- and takes four people to assemble or disassemble.

You keep on specifying "baroque". Do you have other recorders?
Yes. The best baroque recorders have a smooth gradation of sound from top to bottom, and you cannot hear a change of timbre at the break. But there is an imbalance between the loud high and soft low registers (although it is much less pronounced on my odd Hopf alto). In playing the solo literature, this is not much of a problem and the composers used the high register to advantage, but when playing the earlier music of the medieval and renaissance periods, the polyphony does not work. The low notes drop out and the high notes are too prominent, distorting the music. I found that playing consort music in even a professional ensemble with baroque instruments was unsatisfactory.
Adrian Brown was very helpful in increasing my understanding of the problem and I was soon convinced that what was required were true renaissance instruments, ones that play with the old fingerings given in recorder tutors from the 1500s, and ones where the loudness is well balanced between the registers.
In his writings and our discussions I found support for my preference for playing on lower instruments. I had already rearranged a lot of my music (or just read it) for combinations such as alto, tenor, tenor, basset; or tenor, basset, bass, great bass and so on. I especially like trios: tenor, basset, basset for example.
I sometimes play recorders with my pipe organ (with its renaissance style chiffy pipes), or even with other modern instruments. So that stuck me at a = 440.

Is it the more intimate musical atmosphere in recorder groups what you like, or have you tried to transfer orchestral atmosphere to your recorder ensembles?
I am happy to try a wide range of things. I have even transcribed Wagner's luscious harmonies for recorder ensemble, though the effect is as risible as it is musical. I have always preferred chamber to orchestral music, whether as a listener or as a player. A few clear lines please my ear best. That's probably why I love to play fugues on the organ -- and recorder ensembles.

How did you get into the computer industry?
I have a graduate degree in computer science, but it was at a time when I thought computing to be dull, with huge mainframes and lugubrious operating systems. So I became the conductor of the San Francisco Chamber Opera in the early 70s. I was also teaching recorder at the San Francisco Community Music Centre. I found I did not like the organizational duties of a conductor.
In 1974, along came the microprocessor, and that, I thought, was going to make computing interesting. So I dropped out of professional music (gradually) and jumped into the microcomputer revolution. It was not a bad move, as I could work in industry and still play and even perform music professionally. But I did not have time to conduct. I did a lot of writing for the various magazines, and in 1978 joined Apple Computer. In 1979 I proposed a new way of using microcomputers, designed a computer around my interface ideas, and called it "Macintosh". The rest, as they say, is history.

Where did your knowledge of technology came from? (So that it became even stronger than music!) During your school time, did you grew up with music and both activities in technology side by side?
I have always done both technology and music since I was a child. At home I had a lab where I did chemistry and electronics, repaired clocks, built radios, made rockets. In high school I had an oscilloscope and other electronic gear. But I also had my piano and my recorder. I have a quite nice machine shop in our house today, equipped to make almost anything, mechanical or electronic -- including parts for instruments. My brother played clarinet and, later, oboe and classical guitar (he still plays the latter). My father played the mandolin, but did not read music, and played mainly popular tunes, though our parents loved classical music and encouraged us to study it. My father also managed a concert series, and so I was always attending concerts and got to talk with the musicians afterward, often at our home. We had wonderful times, the Julliard string quartet played in our living room, as did other famous musicians and ensembles.

While on family matters, my wife is a cello beginner; my son is a very expert horn player who has played and soloed with various orchestras around the world (but he, too, is a math and physics major, presently in college); my older daughter plays cello but is majoring in voice at the S.F. Conservatory prep division (she is of high school age); my younger daughter (12) is the only person in the family studying recorder.

You say that you have some odd prejudices for a recorder player, can you be more specific?

I almost hate to say this, but I must admit that I do not enjoy listening to the majority of music for solo recorder and continuo. It's fun to play. The same goes for much of the music that has been transcribed for SATB recorder quartet. Fun to play, deadly to listen to (with very few exceptions). Recorder orchestras, or even large groups of recorders (large means more than 10 or so) are rarely (OK, never) musical. Doubling any upper line is a sonic disaster. I dread playing with groups that have a three or more beginners playing sopranos. I welcome beginners and I understand that they do not want to invest in, say, a tenor and take the time to let their hands accommodate to the larger instruments, but it would be musically better if they did so. I do not let beginners know of my feelings in this matter, but if beginners have normal or large hands and is not troubled financially, I do steer them to the larger instruments.
 I wish there were some good plastic renaissance instruments available; their evenness of loudness and limited range would make them a much better beginner's instrument, and there is much lovely music they could play.
The recorder is uninteresting to my ear as a solo instrument, and a delight in ensemble.
Another prejudice is that I do not like playing recorder along with buzzies. Small recorder ensembles with the lines doubled on citterns or lutes can be very pleasant. The plucked strings give a clear attack and the recorder sustains the tone. Otherwise, it's closed consorts for me.
I am very happy playing these days with a few good players (all recorder teachers), performing trios and quartets, mostly composed before 1700, on good renaissance instruments.

I know that you are now a full professor of Computer Science at the University of Chicago, what is your academic background? And how do you do that living in California?

I am an adjunct full professor there, but I have taught at the University of California and Stanford as well. I commute (by plane) to Chicago.
I completed a B.A. in mathematics and a B.S. degree in physics, with minors in philosophy and music. I started a Ph. D. in philosophy (mostly mathematical logic, which I still teach), then switched to a M.S. in computer science, which I was awarded. It was supposed to be a Ph.D., but the school didn't get accredited for a Ph.D. in computer science so I had to settle for a master's even though I had completed my thesis.
 I then worked toward a Ph.D. in music but became a professor of art instead. Now that's an interesting story ... which would take too long to explain. Especially as I have already been too long-winded.


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