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This Is What 70 Years of Computing Sounds Like

Sound artist and composer Matt Parker makes music out of technological obsolescence.

by Emiko Jozuka
Jul 6 2015, 3:55pm

Colossus. Image: The National Museum of Computing

Sound artist and composer Matt Parker is making music from the computer sounds that most people block out. Everything from the whirring of a computer fan to the clickety-clack of an obsolete mainframe computer has been reimagined in Parker's latest composition.

Released today, "Flowers" is one track from the Imitation Archive—a 34-minute electroacoustic composition that features the glitches, hisses, and whirrs from the world's earliest computers. These machines are housed at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking centre where cryptographers such as Alan Turing operated during WWII.

Listen carefully and you might just make out the crunching of Colossus, the world's first electronic computer, or the noise of mainframes from the 1970s.

"I wanted to try and give a sense of time and space, and create certain sounds that people try and switch off in their minds," Parker told me. "I wanted to raise awareness that these things [old computers] exist, and that there is only going to be an increase in these types of objects existing," he added. "We've developed into a digital society in just 70 years—we've come a long way in a really short time."

"You go from a clickety-clackety noise to much more high frequency, harmonic characteristics."

Since January 2015, Parker has been holed up at the Computer Museum archiving 70 years-worth of computer history. He's amassed 123 recordings from 43 machines, which are now part of the British Library's Sound and Vision Archive. The feature track—which samples some of these raw computer sounds—will have its premier this Friday (July 10) on ABC Australia's Soundproof.

In the Imitation Archive, Parker evokes the sense of time and space associated with the production and use of these computers. For starters, the evolutions of the cadences and rhythms of the different machines reflects just how much our computer tech has evolved over the decade.

"The early mechanical-based computers working off of vacuum tubes and relay switches reflect a very mechanical world. You hear pieces of metal contacting each other and cogs and wheels crunching and making loud clickety-clackety noises—a slow rhythmic cadence," said Parker. "Some people describe them as sounding almost tribal in the cadences that they have."

Parker said that the differences in the noises were down to how quickly things operated. "Today, the speed of things is becoming quicker and quicker—not just in terms of processing. The fans are becoming quicker and you replace relays with electronic switches so you go from a clickety-clackety noise to much more high frequency, harmonic characteristics," he said.

Along with the changing soundscape, Parker is also exploring the history and contexts associated with the now-obsolete machines. He described how the museum was operated by an aging population of volunteers who come in once a week to tend their exhibits and make sure they're still running.

"We are looking at archive heritage of machines that are obsolete, and the only people who know how to use them are the ones who have grown up using them in a properly operational situations," said Parker. While the exhibits at the museum currently show these vintage machines in motion, it's poignant that with the population of volunteers who know how to operate them shrinking, there might not be anyone left to keep them in working order in the future. With the Imitation Archive, their sounds, at least, will remain.

Next up, Parker is working on The People's Cloud—a feature-length audiovisual art documentary that explores the people and physical spaces attached to internet infrastructures, as well as the impact of cloud computing on our lives.

"Most people generally think of the internet as what's on your computer screen, but this project looks at the huge industry of the internet—we looked at the data centres, the stations that the fibre optic centres come from, we interviewed the people that work in the industry," said Parker.

With these projects, Parker is weaving subtle narratives from the sounds, objects, and infrastructures that we often overlook. "My job as a composer is to try and tease out some of the subtle noises of the everyday world that we maybe take for granted," he said.