Signal Strength

Music from the Earliest and Rarest Computers Including Colossus

Ada Lovelace (aka Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace) once predicted computers would one day be used to create music as well as scientific calculation. Not bad considering she made this prediction in the early 1800s before the computer even existed.

Inspired by this, Matthew Applegate (aka Pixelh8) set about creating a concept piece using some of the earliest and rarest computers in existence. His 'Obsolete' project used untreated sounds from the fabulous collection of early computers at Bletchley Park and wove them into an original piece. Bletchley is famous for cracking the Enigma and Fish codes during World War II and is credited with shortening the war by months, possibly years. Towering over all the machines at Bletchley is the Colossus, rebuilt by ex-spy Tony Sale and his team. Matthew sampled the whirring of its paper input tape and the clunking of its electric relays which played out a surprisingly hypnotic rhythm. The Colossus teleprinter - with its slow and surprisingly rhythmic quality with a regular beat every one or two seconds punctuated with the clunk of its relays - added even more rhythmic elements. Matthew also programmed the date of the performance into an old mechanical adding machine, turned the handle, and sampled the clunking of its inner works. Again the result was a remarkably effective rhythm. Morse code and encryption cyphers were also used for both rhythmic elements and also visuals in a multimedia performance. Over this, he layered sounds from early eight-bit computers including an Atari 800, BBC Micro, Dragon, and other greats from the golden days of the fledgling micro industry.

The LA803 computing machine presented its own sampling problems as its large fan and power supply generated so much background noise. Matthew dealt with this by surrounding himself with bubble wrap and using a precisely directional mic to capture just the sounds he wanted.

As well as an amazingly avant garde nostalgia romp, 'Obsolete' has had other positive results. The performance inspired the Bletchley staff to renovate a number of their old computing machines to now take their place alongside the other machines of the earliest days of computing.

'Obsolete' was commissioned by the National Museum of Computing and funded by the PRS Foundation. It was performed at the Bletchley Park Mansion on March 20+21, 2009.

See it and hear it (courtesy of Future Music) at: Pixelh8 at Bletchley Park


Date: 07/02/2009


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