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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

IBM Proto-Chiptune Pop MP3, Circa 1962

It’s difficult to not picture trim young lab techs pogo’ing amid bunsen burners and microscopes when you listen to the synthesized pop music collected on Music from Mathematics: Played by I.B.M. 7090 Computer and Digital to Sound Transducer. A file posted by the freeform radio station WFMU back in 2003 compiles several tracks from the album, which was released in 1962 on the Brunswick label. And like the so-called “chip-tune” music of today that these experiments pre-figured, the ancient I.B.M. recordings have a certain nuance that comes from a certain lack of nuance (MP3). Chip-tune musicians eke melodies and rhythms out of out-of-date technology; the only difference with Music from Mathematics was that, at the time, the machine in question, the I.B.M. 7090, was state-of-the-art. In addition to familiar melodies, including a timely Christmas favorite (“Joy to the World”), the WFMU MP3 features numerous blippy sine-wave ditties.

The WFMU commentary helpfully identifies the cover’s designer as legendary Columbia Records art director Alex Steinweiss. It also playfully dismisses as “boffins” the people responsible for having programmed Music from Mathematics, but in fact contributors to the album included experimental composers James Tenney and Max Matthews. Just for reference, it is Matthews for whom the graphic-interface music environment Max/MSP is named, and according to additional information posted at the great record-cover gallery 317x.com, Matthews was responsible for the “Joy to World” transcription, among others heard here. The 316x.com site reproduces the album’s complete liner notes, which open dramatically:

The course of human development has always been marked by man’s striving for new techniques and tools in pursuance of a better life. This is most dramatically manifested in the fields of science and technology. But this dissatisfaction with available materials and methods and the corresponding search for new ones is also evident in the arts, and artists have continually sought to improve the tools of their trade.

Original WFMU post at the great ubu.com website.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • about

  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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