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  • Thom Holmes

When Computer Music was Experimental, 1951-1971

Early Recordings of Music Synthesis by Computers


Author: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music



Electronic music is often called computer music. But there was a time when the practice of synthesizing music directly from a computer was a new technique and experimental. Early computer music required large scale computers made by such companies as IBM, Olivetti, Honeywell, and DEC, plus the invention of music programming languages suited specifically for these computers. These factors made computer music largely out of the reach of established electronic musicians and only available to those associated with institutional computer centers. In this episode, we’ll explore the first two decades of computer music. This was a period of transition from the experiments of computer technicians to the more fully formed works of composers.



CSIRAC and Turing

1. The world's first undisputed computer to play music was the CSIR Mark 1 at the University of Melbourne’s radio-physics division in Sydney, Australia. This was in the spring of 1951. The computer had a speaker—or hooter—to signal when operations were completed. Mathematician Geoff Hill programmed the unit to produce simply melodies using the signal tones. This recording is about a minute long and feature four short melodies.


2. The famous British mathematician Alan Turing was also working on primeval computer music in the summer of 1951. I am going to play a recording made of tones generated by the mainframe computer at the Computing Machine Laboratory in Manchester, England. Snippets of the tunes God Save the King, Baa, Baa Black Sheep, and Glenn Miller’s swing classic In the Mood are all heard, plus the voices of computer lab members of the BBC outside-broadcast unit while listening to the sound as it was recorded. These original acetate recordings were from 1951 restored by University of Canterbury composer Jason Long and Prof Jack Copeland. The recording is about two minutes long.


3. After a short interlude by a Bell Labs narrator we’ll hear several works from this revered institution located in America. In the late 1950s, Max Mathews was the computer scientist running the Behavioral and Acoustical Research departments at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. His boss was John Pierce and it was his opinion that the experimental work they did there was more about sound than about the creation of good music. Max himself was not so much a composer as a keen engineer, although he did play the violin and understood many of the challenges of creating musical sounds digitally. They worked primarily with mainframe computers made by IBM such as the system 7090. Mathews brought in analog to digital and digital to analog converters to transform the digital representation of sound directly from a computer. Mathews had a top-notch programmer on his staff named Joan Miller who collaborated with him on several series of their MUSIC X program, a musical programming language that was upgraded over the next twenty years and also converted to other computer operating systems. As the computational aspects of making computer music became more manageable, Mathews hired some actual composers to his staff, the first was James Tenney and in 1968 Jean-Claude Risset (Jean-Claude RISS-say).


4. First we’ll hear Beat Canon (1960) by Dr. J. R. Pierce. From the album Music From Mathematics, Bell Telephone Laboratories. The record came with 2 black and white photographs of the IBM 7090 computer, and a 24 page booklet.


5. Next, we will hear Numerology (1960) by Max Mathews. From the album Music From Mathematics, Bell Telephone Laboratories. From the album Music From Mathematics, Bell Telephone Laboratories. This was an early experiment in using a general-purpose computer to program music and digitally synthesize musical sound. His programming language Music I allowed composers to design their own virtual instruments, a breakthrough during those pioneering days of computer music. Numerology was composed to demonstrate the various parameters, or building blocks, available to the composer using this programming language: vibrato (frequency modulation), attack and decay characteristics, glissando, tremolo (amplitude modulation), and the creation of new waveshapes.


6. The third track in this set is Noise Study (1961) by James Tenney, from Music for Mathematics, Bell Labs, 1961 expanded edition, who was a composer, sounds quite contemporary by today’s standards.


7. The final track in this set will be Bicycle Built For Two (Accompanied) (1963) From the demonstration record Computer Speech - Hee Saw Dhuh Kaet (He Saw The Cat), produced by Bell Laboratories. This recording contains samples of synthesized speech - speech artificially constructed from the basic building blocks of the English language. Something like this was used in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1969.


After that first era of computer music, which lasted until around 1963, the next stage became much more sophisticated as musicians and engineers alike began to collaborate more on the making of music with computers. The computers were the same, hulking models housed in air-cooled computer centers, but the programming was branching out and engineers began to collaborate more with composers.


In addition to Bell Labs, there were several other companies and universities involved in computer music during this time. We will hear from several of them.


8. The first track in this set is Computer Cantata, Prologue to Strophe III (1963) was composer by Learn Hiller. From the album Computer Music From The University Of Illinois (1963). This work employed direct computer synthesis using an IBM 7094 mainframe computer and the Musicomp programming language developed by Hiller.


9. The second track in this set is Lyric Variations For Violin And Computer (1965-1968) by J. K. Randall. From the record A Mitzvah For The Dead For Violin And Tape / Lyric Variations For Violin And Computer on Vanguard Records. J. K. Randall’s piece had a complex section that pushed the limits of computer processing power at the time. The section consisted of only 12 notes. Each note was 20 seconds long. Each note overlapped with the next for 10 seconds, making the total length of the section only about 2 minutes. But this required 9 hours to process on one of the fastest computers of the day. Listen for these long, drawn out notes.


10-11. Next, we move on to Italy and the experiments being done by composer Pietro Grossi with an Olivetti computer. Both of the short works heard here are from a 7-inch record distributed by Olivetti in 1967 as a New Year’s gift. Permutation of Five Sounds followed by Mixed Paganini both from 1967 and by Pietro Grossi. These two tracks are from the album GE-115 - Computer Concerto on the Italian General Electric label. Realized at Studio di Fonologia musicale di Firenze (Italy).


The next set includes six tracks with even more variety.


12. Another work from the University of Illinois is HPSCHD by John Cage and Lejaren Hiller begun in 1967 and presented live in 1968. The piece was written for Harpsichords and Computer-Generated Sound Tapes. Hiller and Cage staged a lively public performance in 1968 at the University of Illinois in Urbana. The first 10,000 individual recordings came with an insert in the form of a computer printout insert designed to allow the listener to program their own performance. And I quote from the jacket: "The computer-output sheet included in this album is one of 10,000 different numbered solutions of the program KNOBS. It enables the listener who follows its instructions to become a performer of this recording of HPSCHD. Preparation of this material was made possible through the Computing Center of the State University of New York at Buffalo."


13. We go the UK for the next track, January Tensions (excerpt) by Peter Zinovieff. This was computer performed and composed in his private studio outside of London. With the goal of eliminating tape editing, Zinovieff believed that the best way was to jump head-first into the digital age. He purchased an American-made DEC PDP-8/S, the same kind of minicomputer used by industry in business and scientific applications. His was one of the first in a private residence and cost roughly £5,000 ($18,000), “the cost of a small house.” He and his engineer partner David Cockerell wrote programs with the computer for editing and sequencing sounds. What the two had accomplished was to introduce the computer as a control and memory device for storing and playing sounds. This was hardly an affordable solution for most artists because of the cost and training needed to operate a minicomputer. The electronic music industry didn’t really catch up with what this team had accomplished for another 10 or 12 years, once the cost of computing gear became much lower. It was with this kind of gear that January Tensions was created.


14. The third track takes us back to the Bell Labs connection. The track is Synthesism from 1970 by Barry Vercoe. From the album Computer Music released on Nonesuch. Realized in the Computer Centers of Columbia and Princeton Universities using MUSIC 360 for the IBM 360 mainframe computer, both the next generation of the MUSIC programming language to which Vercoe contributed.


15. The fourth track is Wishful Thinking About Winter (1970) by Wayne Slawson. From the album Voice of the Computer: New Musical Horizons (1970). Produced at Bell Telephone Laboratories.


16. The fifth track is an updated version of the canon piece by John Pierce heard earlier. Eight-Tone Canon was done in 1970. From the album Voice of the Computer: New Musical Horizons (1970). Produced at Bell Telephone Laboratories.


17. The next track is Computer Suite From "Little Boy" composed in 1970 by Jean Claude Risset. From the album Voice of the Computer: New Musical Horizons (1970). Produced at Bell Telephone Laboratories.


18. Next in this musical panorama of early computer music with an excerpt from The Earth’s Magnetic Field by Charles Dodge, which will bring us to the year 1971. This work was commissioned by and released by Nonesuch Records. Composer Charles Dodge helped close the gap between computer music and other electronic music practices in 1969– 70 by working on computer code at Princeton University and then traveling to Bell Labs to have the code synthesized by a mainframe computer. The work, Earth’s Magnetic Field (1970) was an outcome of this process. Dodge realized this piece by fusing computer composition with synthesis, one of the earliest examples of a practice that would become the norm many years later but which was quite difficult to achieve at the time. He used a “general- purpose sound synthesis program” written by Godfrey Winham at Princeton University. Every sound in the piece was computed into digital form using the IBM/ 360 model 91 at the Columbia University Computer Center, and then converted into analog form at the Bell Telephone Laboratories.


19. We’ll conclude with another short except from the album Music from Mathematics. The Computer says farewell (1960).

For more information about early computer music and these pioneers, see chapters 26 and 27 in my book, Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, published in 2020 by Routledge.


Next is the Archive Mix in which I play two additional tracks at the same time, to see what happens.

  • Capriccio N. 5 (1967) by Pietro Grossi. From the album GE-115 - Computer Concerto on the Italian General Electric label. Computer synthesized sound.

  • Pitch Variations (1960) by Newman Guttman. From the album Music From Mathematics, Bell Telephone Laboratories. From the album Music From Mathematics, Bell Telephone Laboratories. Played twice end to end because it is literally half as long as the Grossi piece.


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