Undergraduate Alum Profile: Ge Wang

From the Spring 2010 issue of Threads

Ge Wang

Ge Wang played the accordion at age seven and guitar by age thirteen. When he arrived at Duke in 1996, the music-loving undergraduate packed his schedule with music classes. But he also added a surprising yet complementary group of courses that would ultimately guide his career.

Ge Wang

“I fell in love with computer science,” says Wang, now an assistant professor at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University. “It was the perfect outlet to express ideas.” Wang filled his time with CS classes, from data structures to software design to artificial intelligence. The more classes he took, the more Wang developed a sense of both the theoretical underpinnings of computation and how to build systems. To this day, Wang still recalls assignments he completed in COMPSCI 100E: Program Design and Analysis II with Professor Owen Astrachan. “Starting in that class, I really honed things that I do every day, that are now second nature,” says Wang.

After graduating in 2000, Wang did a brief stint with a software consulting company in Washington, DC, then took off to pursue a PhD at Princeton University with Perry Cook, a professor of CS and Music. It was there that Wang wrote ChucK, a general purpose programming language for music and sound. ChucK became the primary software platform for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), which Wang co-directed for several years, conducting more than fifteen software symphonies for an orchestra of laptopists. When Wang left Princeton in 2007 to take a position at Stanford, he founded the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) and later the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra (MoPhO).

But in addition to bringing electronic music to campuses, Wang wanted to share music-making around the world. In 2008, Wang founded Smule, a start-up company that encourages anyone with an iPhone to be a musician. The company’s smash-hit iPhone application Ocarina, for example, allows a user to blow on an iPhone as if it were an ancient melodic flute. “The goal is to change the way people think about how music and technology can work together,” says Wang. In 2009, Wang’s company secured an additional $8 million in funding to develop new iPhone applications, and Wang was named one of Silicon Valley’s forty under forty and one of Creativity Magazine’s fifty most creative people in media, technology, and culture.

But the fame hasn’t gone to his head. A devoted musician and professor, Wang continues to teach the next generation of computer scientists and musicians, often giving them the same advice Astrachan once gave him at Duke: “There are two things that are almost always good answers—'It depends’ and ‘I don’t know,’” he says. “We don’t know what music software will look like in the future, and we really have to keep our minds open to what it can be. We have to be ready to adapt.”

See the New York Times article about Ge Wang (December 4, 2009) and the Duke Magazine article (July-August 2011)