John Q. Walker II
WHAT HE DOES
Develops technology to re-create musical performances.
Zenph Sound Innovations
where he doeS It
Brings great musicians back to life—almost.
This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2011.
When John Q. Walker was a teenager, his parents had him take piano lessons from one of their friends, a middle-aged woman who lived down the street.
That was a fortunate arrangement.
Ruth Slenczynska was no run-of-the-mill piano teacher. As a child prodigy, she had studied under Sergei Rachmaninoff, the famous Russian pianist, composer, and conductor, who died in 1943.
During lessons, the young Walker often heard Slenczynska say, "Now, that’s not how Mr. Rachmaninoff would have played it." That got him thinking: Could he figure out, in full quantitative detail, how Rachmaninoff would have played a piece? Decades later, Walker is still on that quest. And he’s having a blast.
Exploring his dual interests, he earned bachelor’s degrees in music and mathematics, and later he added a master’s degree in computer science, all from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, where Slenczynska was an artist in residence. He eventually received a doctorate, too, in software engineering, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By that point, though, piano was more of a sideline than a possible vocation. "I was a natural who never practiced, so I was never very good," he says.
Walker spent 17 years working at IBM, principally in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, before starting a company called Ganymede Software with his colleague Peter Schwaller and two other engineers in 1995. Their software measured how fast computer networks pass data around. It was good timing: The following year the International Telecommunication Union began drawing up the first standards for voice communications over Internet Protocol. Because Ganymede’s software could help telecom providers determine how well their networks handled VoIP calls, the new company quickly took off. Its founders had equally good timing when they sold Ganymede, on 10 March 2000—the very day NASDAQ hit its peak.
Flush with cash and optimism, Walker could now pursue his teenage dream of reproducing the musical style of Rachmaninoff. Partnering with Schwaller again, he invested in a Yamaha Disklavier Pro, a robotic concert grand piano that can precisely play music fed to it in digital form. The two spent a year reverse engineering this exquisitely built but poorly documented machine. Then they turned to the even harder task of translating old musical recordings into digitized descriptions of exactly how each of the notes was played. Along the way, they hired a handful of other accomplished computer scientists with musical backgrounds for their new company, Zenph Sound Innovations.