A computing soundtrack for the history of British technology

Artist Matt Parker created a musical piece composed from the sounds made by vintage computers at The National Museum of Computing

Do you think of the computer sounds around you as music? Perhaps not – but for Matt Parker, they have provided a soundtrack to the history of British technology innovation that might make you change your mind.

Parker has been faithfully recording the sounds of seven decades of computing at The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) and the results are now available in the British Library Sound Archive.

But Parker has also taken the sounds a step further and created a musical composition, The Imitation Archive – named after the Imitation Game movie about Bletchley Park computer pioneer Alan Turing - by remixing the original recordings and producing a contemporary and striking “electroacoustic soundscape” with the museum’s working vintage computers.

The work started earlier this year when Parker was artist in residence at TNMOC. He meticulously made 123 recordings from 43 machines that had been expertly restored or rebuilt by the museum’s volunteers. His recordings ranged from famous machines such as the rebuilt Colossus, through the 1951 Harwell Dekatron (WITCH) computer, the ICL2966 mainframe, right up to and beyond the BBC Micro, Apple and IBM desktops of the 1980s. The individual machine recordings are now available online in The Imitation Archive in The British Library Archive Collection.

Next came the musical soundtrack. The first piece by Parker has just been released online - entitled Flowers, after Colossus creator Tommy Flowers, it uses the percussive and electronic rhythms of the rebuilt Colossus machine (pictured above) that daily mesmerises TNMOC visitors, to produce an incredibly atmospheric soundtrack - you can listen to it below.

Parker said: “Working on The Imitation Archive has been an opportunity for me to consider the impact of computing on culture and society, and how it has changed so dramatically in a relatively short period of time. My work has previously focused on the sounds associated with the contemporary moment and cloud computing, but the sounds of early computing turned out to be wide ranging and unique in ways I could never have imagined.

“The Imitation Archive is an electroacoustic soundscape influenced by R Murray Schafer ’s ideas about acoustic ecology and the need for us to listen to our environments. The piece focuses on working machines designed to run 24/7 performing repetitive cycles, so I decided to make the composition seamless; a never ending cycle of computing.”

The Imitation Archive will be premiered in its entirety on ABC Australia radio and will be released free to download in the near future. Keep an eye on the TNMOC website for more details.

Stephen Fleming works for The National Museum of Computing.

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