Feature left bracketright bracket Winter 2023

Music and Science in Harmony

For Sergio Salvatore ’02, coding is just a form of composing.

Sergio Salvatore at his grand piano

The piano was Sergio Salvatore’s first passion. The son of a successful music teacher and singer, he was performing publicly by the age of 4, and he recorded his first album at 11. But while it may have surprised observers when the talented teen went from touring jazz clubs to majoring in computer science at WPI, Salvatore says the leap has turned out to be far more logical than it first appeared.

“I think that being a musician, especially being a composer or an improviser, is very akin to software engineering,” asserts Salvatore, who is now senior director of engineering with the video hosting platform Vimeo. “It’s not all that different a process. If you zoom out far enough, you have a certain set of tools, a certain language that you can express yourself in. With music, it’s harmony, melody, and rhythm—those are the ingredients, and you manipulate them in order to tell a story. And then when you’re designing a piece of software, you have a programming language, you have set of inputs, and you’re trying to make it do something. Coding is just a form of composing.”

For most of Salvatore’s career, he has kept one foot in each of his passions, alternating between coding and composing, between his love of music and his fascination with computer science. It’s a sort of dance that, over time, he has learned works best when the two sides are in harmony.

A Musical Destiny

Salvatore was destined for a life in music, from even before he was born. His mother, Carla, trained as a singer, and his father, Luciano, majored in classical piano at Boston University and went on to study and then teach jazz piano at Berklee College of Music. In 1980, he started his own music school in New Jersey. Sergio was born the following year, and music fills his earliest memories.

“It’s hard to think of that not being a part of my life,” he says. “Music was just in the house all the time. My mom loved the Great American Songbook and Broadway and show tunes. My dad would have students come to the house, and he practiced a lot himself. There was music playing all the time. I guess all kids want to do what their dad’s doing, and my dad played piano.”

Salvatore soon discovered that he had a natural ability with the keys and a flare for public performance. He also fell in love with jazz, thrilling at the opportunity for improvisation, the way jazz let him follow his musical imagination wherever it led. Luciano soon came to think of the boy as his star pupil and, in 1992, he helped Salvatore secure the opportunity of his young life.

The internet was in its infancy then, and no one had yet dreamed of YouTube, SoundCloud, or any of the other online platforms that performers use to promote themselves today. What ambitious musicians did have, however, was videotape.

“My dad’s friend Larry had a camcorder,” Salvatore remembers, “and he called a couple of his friends who were session musicians, and they went over to his house and set up in the living room, and we played some tunes that he recorded. And then we copied that tape as many times as we could and mailed it to everyone we knew who maybe had a cousin whose uncle’s wife was in the music business. It ultimately ended up in the hands of the director of A&R for a major jazz label. And that’s what started the whole train rolling.”

Sergio Salvatore at his piano

Over the next few years, Salvatore would record four albums and go on several tours, performing with the American Jazz Philharmonic, at Carnegie Hall, and in Japan, Italy, and Canada. He played and recorded with more seasoned jazz musicians and won critical acclaim. In 1996, his third album, Always a Beginning, landed on JazzTimes magazine’s list of the year’s best albums. All that, and he hadn’t yet graduated from high school.

“It was a lot of fun for me,” Salvatore says. “I got to play with these really good musicians. I didn’t have a sense of the gravity of the situation. Now I realize that just to be talking to these musicians was a real privilege.”

But as he looked toward adulthood, Salvatore faced a dilemma. Would he continue on the path he had chosen at 11, alternating tours and albums as he worked to make a living in an industry that, with the advent of digital technology, was about to be upended? Or would he try something new, exploring a different side of his personality, a different set of talents—and a field that, for better or worse, was poised to change both music and the world?

Two Worlds Converging

As Salvatore considered college, he knew it would have been logical to apply to music conservatories. But that step now felt less necessary—after all, he had already achieved a successful career as a musician, and cultivated a network of fellow musicians and industry connections, a critical component of performing arts education. Meanwhile, he’d long been interested in computer programming, and it occurred to him that studying computer science might be more useful than pursuing a formal credential in music.

“I remember my dad bringing an Apple IIe home in the ’80s,” he says, recalling the 8-bit green-screen classic, with its 64 kilobytes of RAM. “He would use it to do his taxes, but you could also play games on it. And I got to asking, ‘What else can you do?’ and “How does that work?’

Sergio Salvatore's hands on the keys of his grand piano

“This was when there was no internet—you had to go to the library, you got a book or you talked to a friend who knew how to do something on the computer. I got really into that. And then technology was becoming more a part of music, with specialized computers and synthesizers, and as computers evolved there was more that became possible. So those two worlds were converging.”

Salvatore set out to find a school where he could study computer science while maintaining a rigorous practice schedule. He wanted to be close to New York City, the center of his musical universe, but not too close—having grown up in New Jersey, he was ready to venture beyond the Tri-State Area. Searching for institutions online—a relatively new approach in the late 1990s—led him to WPI.

“My concern at first was, how am I going to practice?” Salvatore says, “because I’m obviously not going to have a piano in my dorm room.”

When he and his family headed to WPI for a visit, school officials connected them with Doug Weeks, WPI’s longtime coordinator of music. Weeks, who retired in 2021 after spending more than 40 years building WPI’s music program from a single brass band to a full-fledged department, assured Salvatore that there would always be a piano and a practice room available to him. That pledge effectively sealed the deal.

“I left knowing I would be able to do what I wanted with both music and computer science,” Salvatore says. “So Doug Weeks is one of the significant reasons why I ended up at WPI.”

In fact, the entire music department was excited to have Salvatore at WPI. Professor Rich Falco, director of jazz studies, remembered seeing him perform before an audience of 3,000 jazz teachers at the International Association for Jazz Education several years prior, when Salvatore was just 12.

“Sergio’s connection to the piano was immediately evident,” Falco says. “It was clear that he was not simply executing a piece, but was channeling directly to the keyboard what he heard internally, in the same way experienced professional jazz musicians play. I was very pleased when he chose to come to WPI, because I thought WPI would offer him an opportunity to explore deeply his obvious creativity.”

Sergio’s connection to the piano was immediately evident. It was clear that he was not simply executing a piece, but was channeling directly to the keyboard what he heard internally, in the same way experienced professional jazz musicians play.

Professor Rich Falco

Salvatore arrived on campus in 1999, at a time when seismic changes were taking place in the tech industry. Already accustomed to an intense schedule of practicing, touring, and recording on top of his high school classes, he realized if he worked even harder and compressed his education into three years, he could get out into the world sooner, positioning himself to seize new opportunities.

“I saw what was going on in the business world,” Salvatore says. “Friends were out with jobs, making money and doing stuff. I wanted to get out there, too.”

Naveen Selvadurai ’02, MS ’03, a freshman year neighbor who would become a lifelong friend, remembers sharing that eagerness. It was a heady time to be studying computer science, and the friends bonded over their love of Apple products and their dreams of getting in on the digital revolution.

“It was all about telecom companies and software companies and dot-coms changing the world,” says Selvadurai, who also compressed his bachelor’s degree into three years and is now an entrepreneur and venture capitalist based in Southern California. “The dot-coms proved that anybody could make something—you know, this whole trope of two guys in a garage. I think we had that mindset as well. We both wanted to do things our own way, build things for ourselves.”

Making Cell Phones Sing

Even as he was working to graduate as soon as possible, a part-time job the summer before his sophomore year offered Salvatore a toehold in tech—one that, at least tangentially, called upon his skills as a musician. Through music industry connections, he met the founders of a New York-based start-up called RunTones, which created ringtones and wallpapers for mobile phones. They offered him a gig, and soon he was figuring out how to make those early cell phones sing.

“I’m under no illusions that a ringtone is a highly artistic sort of thing,” he says with a laugh, “but we tried to apply that kind of thinking as much as possible to get the best quality ringtones. And it was an interesting challenge, because the early phones were so primitive. They kept getting a little bit better and a little bit better, but it felt like the Wild West, because there wasn’t any sort of commonality among the different models. A lot of the time we were just exploiting bugs to make it work the way we wanted to.”

In 2002, the year Salvatore graduated, RunTones was acquired by Sony Music Entertainment, which made it the foundation of the division’s mobile products group. Salvatore would spend 10 years with Sony, first managing the development of mobile products, then branching out into the nascent technology of direct-to-consumer music sales. All the while, he was watching digital technology transform the business he had grown up in.

“The music industry has generally been at the forefront of technological change,” Salvatore says. “If you look at media evolution, it was music that embraced digital technology first, and then it sort of filtered on down to movies and publishing. But that cuts both ways, because if music gets the benefit of being first, it’s also often the industry that ends up making all the mistakes at the beginning.”

The music industry has generally been at the forefront of technological change. If you look at media evolution, it was music that embraced digital technology first, and then it sort of filtered on down to movies and publishing.

Sergio Salvatore

Over the early 2000s, it became at once easier for musical talents to find an audience—no more mailing videotapes to friends in the era of YouTube and Vimeo—but also more difficult to make a living the traditional way, by recording albums with the support of a record label.

“In the 1990s, when I was doing records for major labels, the problem was getting shelf space,” Salvatore explains. “People still went to stores to buy CDs, and if you had a 2,000-square-foot store, how many square feet are dedicated to the jazz aisle?” And within the jazz aisle, Salvatore notes, the shelves were dominated by best-selling artists, all of which resulted in a high barrier for a new musical act to reach the wider public. The internet eliminated that physical limitation, making it possible—at least in theory—for any audience to find any media. But soon it became difficult to break out amid a sea of artists and content creators.

“So I don’t have to compete with Miles Davis anymore,” Salvatore says. “But now I’m competing for attention with cat videos, or a parakeet pecking away at a song on YouTube. What I didn’t realize then was if you open those floodgates, then you’re opening them to everyone.”

Finding the Fun Again

As the music industry was in upheaval, Salvatore’s media technology career was soaring, and for a time it became his primary focus. From Sony, he moved on to lead engineering teams at Barnes & Noble and then Steinway & Sons before joining Vimeo in 2017. Eventually, he realized that entire years had gone by in which he hadn’t given a single performance.

“And soon I realized that I was unhappy, because I was not exercising that part of my brain or that part of my life,” Salvatore says. “So I said, ‘Okay, enough with this, I’m going to just produce my own concert. I’ll get my friends, whoever I can find to play. I’ll produce it myself, try to get some people to show up—and for no other reason than I want to, it’s going to be fun for me.’”

In the years since, Salvatore has recorded two more albums, this time promoting them on digital platforms like Spotify. He also reconnected with WPI, joining the School of Arts & Sciences Advisory Board in 2012 (he is currently co-chair). That’s provided opportunities to meet a diverse array of WPI alumni, as well as to support the music department and the university in general.

Inside Serio Salvatore's grand piano

An especially fulfilling experience came in 2018, when the threads of Salvatore’s life as a musician, technologist, and WPI alum came together in a performance at the Rubin Campus Center Odeum for the launch of WPI’s neuroscience program. The appearance was part of a symposium called “Music and the Brain,” which explored the potential for music as a treatment for neurological disorders. It was also an opportunity for WPI researchers to consider the ways in which creativity can work across disciplines. That’s something that makes perfect sense to Salvatore, whose original jazz piece, composed for the occasion, was titled “That Goes Without Saying.”

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