A musical composition capturing 70 years of computing has been created by a British composer

70 years of computing captured in musical composition

A musical composition comprising the sounds of old computers from the 1940’s first digital computer Colossus to early 1980s desktops has been released by composer Matt Parker.

The composition, called the Imitation Archive, has taken advantage of the vast collection of computers in the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. It contains recordings of about 43 machines. In addition to the Colossus, which was only available as a rebuilt machine, the artist used the sound of the Harwell Dekatron, the oldest original working digital computer, aka WITCH.

“It was fascinating to discover how some of the fundamental frequencies of the machines harmonised with themselves,” Parker said. “Some of the machines such as WITCH, Bombe and Colossus have very distinctive mechanical rhythms. Their repetitive rhythms would occasionally break from the cycle and create a surprise extra half-beat or micro-beat,” he said adding that he hoped to provide the listeners with a sense what it might be like to work with these historic computers.

The musical work, along with the related archive of recordings, provides a glimpse into the phenomenal evolution in computing the world has witnessed for the past 70 years.

“The Imitation Archive is an electro-acoustic soundscape influenced by R Murray Schafer’s ideas about acoustic ecology and the need for us to listen to our environments,” Parker said. “It’s a contemporary approach to composition that works, ironically, with heritage source recordings. The piece focuses on working machines designed to run 24/7 performing repetitive cycles, so I decided to make the composition seamless; a never ending cycle of computing.”

The composition will be premiered on radio this month, but selections from it are already available on Soundcloud.

The archive has been produced with the support of the Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts Scheme and will be made available to visitors at the museum as well as through The British Library Sound and Vision Archive.

“The Imitation Archive is a remarkable collection of recordings which encapsulate, through the medium of sound, some of the most significant technological achievements in the history of modern computing,” said Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds at The British Library. “The compositional element of the archive also demonstrates the versatility of sound and will surely encourage others to experiment with field recordings in a musical context.”

Birmingham-based Matt Parker has previously gained attention with his project the People’s Cloud investigating the ecology of the Internet. The project won the Deutsche Bank Creative Prize in Music in 2014.

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