The Dawn of Computer Music: A PBS Segment from 1986
A brief history of MIDI, or what the dawn of digital sampling has to do with air pressure.
By Maria Popova
The question of whether technology dehumanizes people, as MoMA’s Paola Antonelli convincingly argues, humanizes objects isn’t new. In fact, it’s at the heart of this vintage PBS segment (I II III) on computer music recorded in 1986, at the dawn of CDs, synthesizers and other “new” music-making machines, voicing the inevitable question that every technological innovation brings:
Is high technology depersonalizing music or, instead, is music serving to humanize the machine?”
From how computers must recreate the complex waveforms of physical instruments to what role the composer’s choice plays in technology-assisted music to the intricacies of the then-emergent art of digital sampling, the segment, featuring legendary music historian Max Matthews, encompasses some early concerns about man and machine as collaborative creators, many of which have endured through waves of technological innovation to remain at the forefront of our philosophical and practical concerns today.
It’s been predicted that the personal computer will soon replace the piano as the primary instrument on which children learn music.”
Sound is a series of vibrations transmitted by air pressure. A computer hooked up to an amplifier and speaker can create sound merely by switching on and off, causing a vibration in the form of an electrical current. If these on-off vibrations are frequent enough, they sound like musical notes.”
Published the following year and of equal fascination is Foundations of Computer Music — an excellent primer on the profound shifts in music consumption and production that took place in that era, mixed in with a healthy dose of paleofuture amusement.
Published July 7, 2011