Alternative Histories of Computer Music: CSIRAC


Session Title:

  • Latin American Forum #1: Alternative History of Computer Music

Presentation Title:

  • Alternative Histories of Computer Music: CSIRAC




  • Panel: Latin American Forum #1: Alternative History of Computer Music

    Computer music is the great musical adventure of the 20th and 21st centuries, even if it has always been a rather poorly-defined concept. Obviously it has something to do with computers and it has something to do with music. The question of why someone would want to use a computer for music was first asked (in print) in 1959 by Lejaren Hiller. Now, the use of computers for music production and reproduction is ubiquitous, for artists and consumers, so many others must have asked that question. For artists, computer music may still retain the aura of a separate field of academic or artistic endeavour. For consumers, the use of computers in music is a daily fact of life. The path that led to this usage is the result of many very small steps that were neither coordinated nor goal-oriented – steps that were not labelled as scientific, consumer-oriented, or artistic. Ideas concerning timbre creation, experimental music, complex compositional systems, musical instrument design, and the enthralling power of a computation machine all contributed to a climate where something called “computer music” was created. Based on these ideas, an historical narrative could be produced, joining all of these activities in a compelling story of inevitable advances. Perhaps an equally viable narrative would be the chronicle of engineering achievements that accidentally became musically useful. Digital computers are another example. In the case of CSIRAC, the hooter circuit could be added to this list, as having a loudspeaker driven by pulses allowed people with skill and imagination to make musical experiments. The technical challenges faced by all pioneers of computer music were enormous and difficult to comprehend today. Surmounting these challenges was a contribution to what is now a dominant musical activity. An artistic history might discount some of the initial ‘buzzes and squawks’ as musically irrelevant. But a history cognisant of the current artistic, scientific, and consumer-oriented reality, should take note of the effort and dedication that now can be seen as a piece of the overall puzzle, part of the grand musical adventure of the Twentieth Century: the use of computers in music.