Sunday, June 22, 2008

BPN 1136 Computer music from 1951

When I got introduced to personal computers, I got a bonus with an introduction to computer music. At Christmas time 1980, I had an Apple IIe, which had a demonstration bundle of music songs, amongst other the songs of Switched-on Bach. I knew the songs as in 1969 I had bought the record with songs performed on a Moog synthesizer. Although I had worked with mini computers before, I had no idea before the personal computer, that computers could be used for making music. Of course I had one excuse; working for a business information publisher, music was not exactly a daily gadget.

Yet there was computer music from early on. So far a historic listing of computer recordings has been established. The honour for the oldest computer machine, rendering music, goes to CSIRAC, Australia's first digital computer, which rendered the Colonel Bogey. But no one has yet unearthed a recording of CSIRAC in action. Until that time the UK can claim to have the oldest recording of computer music. In June 2008 a recording of a computer music rendition has been unveiled in the UK as part of the 60th Anniversary of "Baby" (see illustration), the forerunner of all modern computers. The songs, God saves the queen, Baa Baa Black Sheep and a part of In the Mood, were captured by the BBC in the Autumn of 1951 during a visit to the University of Manchester, which was a hotbed for computing in those days. The tunes were played on a Ferranti Mark 1 computer, a commercial version of the Baby Machine.

The music program is ascribed to Christopher Strachey, a maths master at Harrow, a friend of the computing legend Alan Turing. However there are two versions about the music program. One says that Mr Strachey wrote a program for playing draughts, but which also could be used as a music program playing God Save the King. Others contend this version and say that the program was solely for playing music. Now the recording has been unearthed and is available on internet.

Computer music really established itself from 1957 onwards, when music was made on an IBM mainframe computer at Bell Labs, of which still recordings exist. Making music on computers was not easy as computer music programs typically did not run in real-time. Programs would run for hours or days, on multi-million dollar computers, in order to generate a few minutes of music. It is only in the early 90s, that the performance of microprocessor-based computers reached the point of real-time generation of computer music.

Blog Posting Number: 1136

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