October 22nd, 2010

krazy koati

Everyone deserves music, sweet music

To write the history of computer-generated music we must go back to the days before World War II, which these are not. If these are the days before World War II somebody's going to be in a lot of trouble and I have this horrible suspicion it's me. But by law we have to go back to those bygone days, trusting they are very well bye and gone, and remind everyone back then if you called something a ``computer'' it was a person and never a machine that did computing stuff, even if this wasn't remotely true. It's only by telling the audience what they already heard that you get to tell them what they didn't know even if it isn't false.

Therefore earliest computer-generated music came from mental-calculator prodigy Johann Martin Zacharias Dase, who could tell how many names he had in less than twenty minutes of concentration. This feat was less impressive than it sounds: he kept several middle names in his lunch pail, and was only using the 'Martin' and 'Johann' when his brothers 'Johann' and 'Martin' were at school. Mathematicians like Karl Friedrich Gauss --- there were none --- could make music by the rhythmic application of a stick to him. German universities were filled with the sonorous classics like ``Stop that'', ``Quit poking me'', ``Enough with the stick already'', this curious polyphonic tone halted when its resonance modes threatened to destroy Hamburg's bridges, and ``That hurts ME''. Experiments ended whenever Dase grabbed the stick and ran off.

Among real computers it's generally conceded the first to have any sense of rhythm was the Eckart-Mauchly Binary Automatic Computer. BINAC was credited throughout its troubled development with a catchy beat, but several leading musicians today believe it was just attempting long division. The controversy will remain as BINAC was lost when the temperamental machine was pushed off an Air Force transport plane into the middle of a forest ``in Pennsylvania or Ohio or maybe Kentucky'' and firebombed. It must be noted Howard ``Hathaway'' Aiken's Mark I was skilled in several minor chords because Aiken's family is vigilant and writes lots of letters.

As computers grew in power, size, and dietary requirements they developed musical ability once they realized how annoying making sound exactly when the user wants quiet is. They started with simple bells, moved to complicated bells, went back to simple bells doing Christmas carols, then took a sharp jughandle left into toneless renditions of Chuck Berry songs, until the PDP-10 offered users the option of hacking the speakers apart with an axe. Computers retaliated as always, making long-wavelength, low-pitch tunes spanning the world and undetected by humans until 1992, when they were identified as elephant mating calls, a mistake made to this day.

A breakthrough in computer music was the MIDI format, developed in the early 1980s as an uncontrollable side effect. MIDI stands for the Ministry of Instruments, Defense, and Instruments, with the first ``Instruments'' distinct from the second, which came first, in the spirit of Compromise, a small town in British Columbia. Its adoption made it possible for almost any two people to exchange data files allowing them to not play the other's music.

By 1994 the contents of MIDI files were found to be mostly comments along the lines of ``la da da DAH dum'' or ``stop poking me with sticks'' or, in 1998's most popular MIDI, ``la da DA DAH dum''. It was a dark day in early 1994 when vandals broke into MIDI headquarters in Quarrelsome, a small town in Canadian Venezuela, and established a standard for playing ``la da DA DA DAH dum'' which finally sounded like no piano ever.

Now there's enough computers generation of music we can work on making computers listen to it instead, serving them right. There are exciting results, mostly derived ultimately from a June 1989 issue of Compute!'s Gazette showing how you could get your Commodore 64-C to listen to music by inserting into its RS-232C port the correctly fashioned stick. Today we no longer have RS-232C ports, complicating whatever it was they were good for, but we have digitally enhanced sticks.

Trivia: BINAC, designed from 1947 to 1949, was originally intended to be used on an airplane in flight. (It never got close to this goal.) Source: Eniac, Scott McCartney.

Currently Reading: Mastering The Sky: A History Of Aviation From Ancient Times To The Present, James P Harrison. Aah ... mm. No, Mr Harrison, it's not fair to say that it was ``no coincidence'' that an X-15 project pilot was the first man to walk on the Moon. Several big coincidences had to line up for that, although Armstrong's work in the project likely helped him stand out. But had Grissom lived, or Borman not turned down the offer, Armstrong would have just been one of the pilots or commanders of somewhere around Apollo 13 or 14 or so that nobody could name.