Alda was bound to happen.
For five years, Dave Yarwood worked a generic state government office job in Raleigh. He had studied music at UNC-Chapel Hill, with a concentration in composition and bassoon performance. And for more than a decade, he'd played in a score of local rock bands—The Drowsies, Devour, Future Kings of Nowhere, Antibubbles, Last Words and No Love among them. Music was never far from his mind. So when he sat at his day-job desk, Yarwood scribbled the sounds he would imagine.
"I've always had the urge to compose in my head. I would have a big thing of sheet music or manuscript paper at my disposal by my desk. If I had any ideas I could just quickly jot them down on paper," he says."The idea occurred to me, 'I'm on a computer all day. I could easily just open up Notepad or whatever and compose while I'm at my computer.'"
To do that, though, Yarwood would need to translate the standard musical notation system—with its arrays of symbols for notes and rests laid out on a five-bar staff—into plain text and play it back.
"It took a very long time, and I tried to grab little pockets of time when I could," says Yarwood. "If I finished all my work for the day and I had a couple hours to spare, I might secretly work on Alda on my computer, and at night, after work or on weekends."
Yarwood left state government late last year to work as a software developer at the Durham online advertising start-up Adzerk. The other programmers at his new gig spurred him on and offered advice.
Though generally shy, Yarwood becomes animated when talking about the project. Today, sitting in a bar in Durham, his eyes light up and his pace increases as he gets into the details of the system. He finally types a few lines of text into his computer and pauses. The McDonald's jingle plays in a canned keyboard timbre. He laughs.
This is what Alda does: turn text into sound without proper musical notation.
When the program debuted on the open-source community and code repository GitHub in early September, accompanied by a 3,000-word manifesto and user guide, it gained instant traction. Web trendspotters The Verge and The Next Web published articles. More than a thousand GitHub users gave Alda a "star," tantamount to a Facebook "like." Yarwood hopes it's just the beginning for his highly functional program, which finally merges his interests in music and computers in a public way.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
The interests and ideas that led Yarwood to Alda took root well before he wrote a single line of code.
"My mom would put me in the baby swing in front of the TV, and she would always have MTV on," Yarwood, now 29, remembers of his childhood. "At an early age, I wanted to be a rock star and play the guitar and drums. I used to get out plastic bins and things from the kitchen and bang on them like drums, or make up bands in my head that I was in and come up with stupid lyrics for songs, well before I could play guitar."
He eventually graduated from imaginary rock bands to the school band, where he tried clarinet, tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone before finding the bassoon. He played timpani in the marching band and formed his first real-life rock group, Nostalgia, in high school. After arriving at UNC in 2004, Yarwood entered the area punk scene through the hook-friendly outfit The Drowsies.
But he had offstage, on-screen interests: In middle school, he discovered that people used programs of their own design to pull pranks on America Online, from obnoxious chat room behavior to credit card theft. The concept fascinated him. Later, he learned enough HTML and CSS to design websites for his bands. His first serious introduction to programming came with a Java class in college.
"If I weren't already studying music, I definitely could have majored in computer science instead," he says. "I was too far into the music program at that point, so I kind of put that aside."
The two interests inevitably intersected, anyway. He began writing music that explored the differences between how computers made music and how humans made it—and how those systems could interact. He developed an application, for instance, that would create a random sequence of numbers between zero and 12. Each number had a corresponding pitch on the chromatic scale, which Yarwood would then arrange in a manner that might appeal to listeners.
After The Drowsies dissolved, Yarwood joined the ambitious hardcore band Devour, where he began to incorporate elements of modern classical music into a punk-rock context. A song written near the end of that band's existence drew heavily from Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. He realized, too, that unique applications of music theory, intentional or not, had a precedent in hardcore.
"When I got into Poison Idea, I was studying music in college," he says of the essential hardcore band. "I started looking at the chord progressions that they played. Almost every Poison Idea song, all the notes fit into this type of scale called the octatonic scale. I kind of doubt any of those guys studied music. I think they just played notes that sounded really badass or metal or something, and they just happened to find it."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
Antibubbles, the grungy power pop band Yarwood formed in 2008, proved to be an even more fertile testing ground for his musical ambitions. Keyboardist Anne Tomasevich called it "cerebral," though not entirely as a compliment.
"I don't want to hide it," Yarwood says, referring to his propensity for experimenting with music theory in the context of rock music. "I want to do genuinely interesting things, and I just happen to want to play music that motivates me physically too, and makes me really excited."
Yarwood's musical exploits now include drumming in the sharp punk band No Love and leading the band for Durham's Flash Chorus. But he's also kept up his composition, creating electroacoustic pieces occasionally as a backdrop for the modern dance performances of his wife, Renay Aumiller. Rock band gigs typically overshadow that side of his creative output, much like his programming.
"Composing is more of a private matter," he says. "It's more mentally stimulating."
But with Alda, he's created a public tool to make it easier. Alda's main objectives are to facilitate quick composing and provide an immediate feedback loop by playing the music. Those features differentiate the program from more cumbersome graphical programs that create a traditional score.
And since it's an open-source program, the successful first iteration is only the start. Users are already developing ways to operate Alda in a browser and to expand the pitch palette to include non-Western scales and microtonal pitches. One user emailed Yarwood from China requesting permission to translate Alda's manifesto and to let Yarwood know he was using the program to transcribe a Haydn piece.
"The advantage of making things as simple as possible is people can definitely build things on top of it," Yarwood says. "The surge in popularity of Alda has really gotten me to realize how much work there is to be done. It's made me start working harder on it because people are asking for features, and I don't want to disappoint people."
Alda is already the most popular thing Yarwood has ever done. And he intends to keep building from here, to keep the project alive beyond its initial spark of inspiration. It's not uncommon, he says, for open source projects to come out with grand designs that are quickly abandoned when the creators simply move on to the next thing.
"I don't want that to happen with Alda," he says. "I have a very strong vision and I'm motivated to work on it, and it's fun to work on it, so I don't mind too much."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Keyboard solo"