“Music from EDSAC” (circa 1960)

Today is the first day of my 5-year project MUSAiC – Music at the Frontiers of Artificial Creativity and Criticism (ERC-2019-COG No. 864189). To mark the occasion I am posting recordings of a unique music composition: “Music from EDSAC” (c. 1960). This is one of the first human-machine music collaborations, but very little is known about it.

I first learned about this work from a chapter in the 1970 book, The Computer and Music, H. B. Lincoln (ed.), (Cornell University Press). The chapter, “Music composed with computers – A historical survey”, is written by Lejaren A. Hiller, who in 1957 worked with the ILLIAC supercomputer to compose the string quartet, The Illiac Suite. In this chapter, Hiller refers to a technical report he wrote in 1961 about his trip to Europe to learn about the state of contemporary music there, and to discuss the state of contemporary music in America. The librarian of the University at Buffalo Music Library, where the Hiller estate is archived, helped me locate this technical report: “Report on Contemporary Experimental Music, 1961” (Tech. Report No. 4, 1962). At the very end (pg. 84-85), Hiller writes of meeting a Professor of economics at Cambridge University (UK) who is working on programming a computer to generate music:

Mr. D. G. Champernowne, Trinity College, Cambridge, is a member of the faculty of economics who has used the computer at Cambridge University for problems in economics. He has also become intrigued, as a side interest, in programming musical composition. In his spare time, he has developed two programs for musical composition that are quite sophisticated and effective within their sharply prescribed limitations. These are as follows:

(a) Synthesis of Victorian hymn tunes. After an inspection of typical hymn tunes, Champernowne developed a set of empirical rules for composition of such music. He then wrote a computer program that consists of four distinct parts: (1) The generation of random numbers. (2) The generation of the top melodic line. (3) The generation of harmonic support. (4) Printout in alphanumeric notation. He has provision for rhythmic variety, passing notes, neighbor notes, and appoggiaturas. Moreover, the program could also be used to harmonize given tunes, since part (2) of the program can be by-passed and independent melodic data could be used instead. Thus far, however, he can only generate one phrase at a time, so awkward transitions sometimes occurred between the end of the one phrase and the beginning of the next phrase. Mr. Champernowne gave me several representative examples of the computer output he obtains. These disclose that this programming has thus far been very successful in solving this highly restricted musical problem.

(b) Synthesis of Serial Music. Mr Champernowne has also written a program for the synthesis of a species of twelve-tone serial music in which a systematic permutation scheme permitted the production of a composition about 200 measures long. He applies some arbitrary rules that eliminate, I believe, certain dissonances. It is thus interesting to note that this music superficially, at least, bears a resemblance to that of Barbaud and Blanchard. This composition is scored for string quartet. Mr. Champernowne has promised to send us a copy of the score. It will be probably worthwhile to tape a performance of this music for documentation purposes.

Writing almost ten years later in his chapter for Lincoln’s book, Hiller echoes what he had written in his technical report, but adds that “Champernowne, apparently, has not yet written an article for publication describing his programming. This is too bad, since it would seem that what he did worked out quite successfully within the specified constraints on the compositional process.” He also writes that Champernowne:

… arranged a three-movement “composition” for string quartet out of these materials consisting of (a) a set of “Victorian [hymn] tunes,” (b) the serial piece that serves as a sort of middle-movement scherzo, and (c) a series of harmonization of well-known tunes like “Rule Britannia.” Because Champernowne was unable to induce a string quartet at Cambridge to play his music, we asked him to send us a set of performance parts from which we assembled a score and prepared a tape recording of a performance by a string quartet at the University of Illinois. I find sections of this Music from Edsac quite entertaining, particular the harmonizations in the last movement.

The score that Hiller assembled is in his estate at the University at Buffalo Music Library, but his recording is lost. So I obtained a copy of the score, and with permission from the Champernowne family hired a string quartet to perform and record “Music from EDSAC”. Below are the three movements.

A little extra information comes from Dr. Andrew Herbert (OBE, FREng) Chairman of Trustees, The National Museum of Computing, Manager,  The EDSAC Replica Project. Dr. Herbert has told me that the computer Champernowne used was actually the second version, EDSAC 2. “[The two versions] were quite distinct and very different in construction despite sharing a name.  The sort of computing required by Champernowne was beyond what the original EDSAC could have accomplished. His work on EDSAC 2 is consistent with the kind of algorithms that people working in the Cambridge Language Research Unit (CLRU) would have been familiar with and are in fact early examples of the kind of statistical machine learning which has lead the recent resurgence in AI.”

Gentilia Pop Kårfors, 1st violin
Kent Carlsson, 2nd violin
Ulf Larsson, viola
Per-Ola Claesson, violoncello
Sofia Winiarski, conductor

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