Perhaps no man has done more for automatic music than Emmanuel Ghent. With his pioneering work in Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1960s and 70s, his engaging synchronized music and light shows were a testament to the power of computing in the future of art and entertainment. A successful psychologist in his own right, Ghent deserves more credit as one of the founding fathers of ambient music.
Born Emmanuel Robert Ghent in Montreal on May 15, 1925, he spent his undergraduate years at McGill University, eventually earning a master's in psychology and finally a psychiatric license from the state of New York. He spent most of his adult life trying to expand psychology outside of the medical realm, and helped develop and extend many now-commonplace techniques in his field that dealt with psychological issues in more conversational and therapeutic ways.
An amateur oboist, Ghent was a wonderful paper composer in his own right, and his adventures in the early days of the computer age earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966 to further study the applications of computers and music in tandem. His grant led him to the Bell Lab, where he was introduced to the GROOVE real-time computer music system. Ghent must've been amazed at this massive machine which could not only synthesize speech, but could reproduce tunes and generate its own. With a little tweaking, Ghent composed nearly 200 pieces for the machines over the years, the most famous being "Phosphones," which has since been performed over 100 times.
By the early 1970s Ghent had perfected a system to generate and synchronize lights to his compositions, and he sent the machine out on tour along with the release of several albums. It must've been a sight to see, a giant machine producing a huge spectacle of light and sound. Highly advanced for the decade, Ghent was a master of tempo and atmosphere - emerging at the same time as our favored son of ambient, Brian Eno. All the while he maintained his practice in New York, and headed the postdoctoral studies at New York University until his retirement.
Sadly, Emmanuel Ghent passed away March 31, 2003 of a heart attack. He was 77.