Warren Burt: John Dunn Remembered

I first encountered John Dunn in the late 80s, I think it was. I was working on the PC platform and most of the algorithmic software I knew of was then on the Mac -- things like Max, or the Intelligent Music programs. This is in the days of DOS -- PCs hadn't even developed GUIs yet. Imagine my delight when I found out, somehow, about Music Box, which was John's first algorithmic program for MIDI control, which worked in DOS on the PC. The fact that all the modules were columns of Hex numbers didn't deter me. And, it turned out, it was actually developed before Max! Eventually, I began corresponding with John about the program. A correspondence relationship (this is even before I had email!) developed as we exchanged ideas. In 1990-91, I wrote a very big piece, "Some Kind of Seasoning," which consisted of 16 pieces for live performance, each one of which was potentially an hour long. The last pieces of this series used Music Box extensively. I was hooked on John's software then. When Windows developed a graphic user interface, John developed SoftStep and BankStep, which I corresponded with him about, making suggestions here and there. Then, finally, John began developing MusicWonk and ArtWonk, which took all those programs, and integrated them into a much more programmable form. It was at this point that I became very involved with collaborating with John in the development of this program. I especially remember in 2006, I think it was -- I helped develop a lot of the chaos equations and the probability distributions for the program. My knowledge of the mathematics to do this was minimal, and I remember a lot of train rides from Wollongong (where I lived at the time) to Sydney. On these train ride, I would study the math necessary to make these functions, and attempt to implement them. Eventually, with the help of some more math literate friends, we succeeded in getting them to work.

I remember in the early days of working together, John was quite clear about the method he would like to use for working together. I was very impressed by his clarity. Over the years of emailing, a friendship developed. I was very impressed with John's gentleness, openness and generosity. And he seemed to be without self-pity. Even when things were going badly, at least in emails, he simply described what he needed to do to overcome his current problems. Our work together took me into areas I probably wouldn't have explored otherwise -- my work with DNA Protein patterns, for example. John developed those tools for Mary Anne, his wife, and eventually, I taught myself enough about them to begin to use the DNA tools in ArtWonk with some amount of comprehension. I very much enjoyed when John took some of the patches for my Nightshade Etudes, and using them, reorchestrated them. For a number of years I played these examples -- my original orchestration and his reorchestration -- to students to show them how a single algorithmic process could have radically different outcomes, depending on who was realizing them.

We never met in person, alas. There were two occasions, in 2010 and 2014, when it might have been possible -- my wife, Catherine's, parents live near Austin, Texas. John and Mary Anne live in Fort Worth. If plane flights had been routed slightly differently on those two trips, we could have stopped through Fort Worth and finally met, but such was not to be. John seemed ok with that -- having a long-distance email-centered working relationship seemed quite fine to him. It might have been nice to augment that with personal contact, but not this time, as a Buddhist might say.

When John's eyesight began to fail, I was most upset, but was most impressed with the way he kept trying to work. When, finally, he had to give up programming, I felt his pain and disappointment, but admired the way he kept on trying to work. When his eyesight had mostly failed, and he expressed his desire to have the programs he developed be public domain, I tried to find some younger programmers somewhere who would be willing to take on that task. It was, alas, unsuccessful. His programs, ArtWonk and MusicWonk now remain as they are -- very powerful tools for cross disciplinary musical, verbal and visual exploration, but, like all programs, threatened with extinction because of the fast pace of computer operating system development. Still, they stand as a testament to years of hard programming and deep conceptual thought, and hopefully, the ideas embodied in them will flow out into other programs and systems, as well as being taken up by new generations of composers, poets and visual artists.

I miss John, and our correspondence. For more than two and a half decades, we corresponded and developed ideas together, bouncing thoughts off each other. Getting an email from John was always a pleasure, as ideas began to grow in our back and forths. Now that he's gone, I, and many of us, will just have to carry on as best as we can, remembering the bright shining spirit that he embodied in his communications, and in his compositional and programming work.