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t e l e m e t r y


t e l e m e t r y

transmissions from the galores

archive for July of 2007

requiem for a mainframe

posted by janet on July 06, 2007

I fell in love with a new piece of music (well, new to me):
IBM 1401: A User's Manual, by Jˇhann Jˇhannsson. Jˇhannsson is an Icelandic composer, who, like others from that land, has an uncanny ability to summon a deep but beautiful bleakness that somehow expresses the human condition.

The piece is a requiem for the first computer installed in Iceland in 1964--the IBM 1401. Jˇhannsson's father, Jˇhann Gunnarsson, was the chief maintenance engineer on the computer, and discovered that a radio placed near the machine audibly picked up electromagnetic waves coming from the computer. He was able to program the memory to modulate the waves and produce melodies. When the computer was decomissioned in 1971, the engineers made a reel-to-reel tape recording of the melodies, and said a few words, like a funeral ceremony. Thirty years later, Jˇhannsson's father told him the story, and Jˇhannsson asked to hear the tapes. This inspired first a string quartet, then a piece in five movements for 60-piece string orchestra using the original sounds from the IBM 1401.

IBM 1401

It also includes recitation of some sections of the User Manual, which sound like loving maintenance instructions for a car or large factory machine: "Every 6 months check the oil level of the drive housing, and if necessary, top off with IBM 15 to the level of the inspection hold. Do not forget to check that the cap nut of the draining port is properly tightened... Make sure that the adjusting hub nut of the running drive gear is not loose."

Jˇhannsson says, "When my father told me about this in the year 2001, I felt that, besides being a nice, touching story, it reflected many things that I was interested in. Man-machine interaction, old discarded technology, the nostalgia for old computers, human and artificial intelligence, technological progress and human evolution, the 'spirit' and the machine." He also references JG Ballard, Duchamp, Bladerunner, and other cyborgian foundations.

The final movement is entitled "The sun's gone dim and the sky's turned black." Jˇhannsson said he had in mind Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the decommisioning of HAL, but this seems to be about more than just HAL.

This is going on my list of music for my funeral, along with Eno's Apollo Atmospheres & Soundtracks and probably some Sigur Rˇs.

IBM 1401 Central Processing Unit, directed by Magnus Helgason

Get the CD or download from 4AD.com
Video interview with Jˇhann Jˇhannsson
IBM 1401 restoration project
Videos and more info at johannjohannsson.com