Fossils Of Technology: ‘The Imitation Archive’ Turns Near-Extinct Machines Into Music

The Harwell Dekatron Computer in Bletchley Park is one of the massive machines used by Matt Parker in his Imitation Archive music.

Computers are part of the everyday sounds of our times — for a while. But as each new digital device slips into inevitable obsolescence, so do their signature sounds. Composer Matt Parker thought that meant losing touch with some of our history — so, he’s has created an archive of 126 sound recordings from the historic computers of Bletchley Park, the site where British mathematicians, scientists and spies broke German’s military codes during World War II. And he’s worked those sounds into a new series of musical compositions on an album called The Imitation Archive.

Parker is no stranger to computers: He’s used modern ones plenty of times to make his music in the past. But the Bletchley Park machines, like one he recorded named Colossus, are ancient beasts compared to today’s laptops.

“It’s the size of a large hall, and there were several of these in use during the second World War,” he says of Colossus, the first-ever programmable digital computer, which was kept a secret while in use. “It’s amazing that no one wanted to make music out of them before, really, because they make such distinctive rhythmic patterns that I just had to work with.”

For Parker, The Imitation Archive represents more than a new set of tools for his own compositions: It’s also an attempt to hold onto the memory of the computers’ functions and the unique place in history they occupy. Without preservation, he says, the machines could be forgotten over time.

“You can look at an object that’s inside a Perspex box in a museum in the future, but you will never be able to hear what it sounds like,” he says. “I think it’s really important to be able to bring some of the reality of what some of these machines were like — to listen to as much as to see — in the future.”

Hear the full conversation with NPR’s Scott Simon in the audio link.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Computers are among the sounds of our times for a while, but as each new digital device slips into inevitable obsolescence…

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTER BEEPING)

SIMON: So do their signature sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTER TURNING ON)

SIMON: Matt Parker thought that meant losing touch with some of our history. He’s created an archive of sound recordings from the historic computers of Bletchley Park, the site where British mathematician scientist spies broke Germany’s military codes during World War II. He’s worked those sounds into a new series of musical compositions on an album called “The Imitation Archive.” Matt Parker joins us from Birmingham, Great Britain. Thanks so much for being with us.

MATT PARKER: Thanks for inviting me onto the show.

SIMON: Tell us about some of these machines and their sounds that struck you.

PARKER: I suppose the – probably one of the most famous machines that’s at the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park is a machine call Colossus.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLOSSUS COMPUTER)

PARKER: Colossus is recognized as being the first-ever fully programmable digital computer. It’s amazing that it was kept a secret given that it’s a massive machine. It’s the size of a large hall. And there were several of these in use during the Second World War. They make incredibly loud mechanical sort of crunching sounds with incredibly rhythmic cadence is to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLOSSUS COMPUTERS)

PARKER: And it’s amazing that no one ever wanted to make music out of them before, really, because they make such distinctive rhythmic patterns that I just had to work with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIMON: How would you react to someone who says that these songs seem to have a kind of brooding quality?

PARKER: Well, I suppose it’s the way in which that I choose to interpret it. And it’s probably a fair enough comment, I suppose. When I thought about the time that I’d spent late at night when the museum was closed, where I sort of could get, you know, good quality clean recordings, it was a very brooding and moody place. And some of the particular machines – particularly these Second World War Heritage machines that are there, you know, they were used in quite moody and broody environments. And so I think it’s a fitting way to reflect the experiences that one has inside an early computer hall. So I suppose it’s the way I want to interpret these spaces. I think they are a bit menacing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIMON: Do you hope that by putting these sounds into music, it’ll maybe preserve some of our historical appreciation for those sounds and what they mean?

PARKER: Yeah, I think it’s really important to keep sound archives like this. So “The Imitation Archive” is a series of compositions. But it’s also – in addition to that, I recorded – I think it’s 126 original recordings from the museum, which were then deposited into the British Library sound and vision archive. And so that archive of sounds is there to stay forever in high-resolution audio. When these sorts of machines become obsolete and defunct, over time, the people that are working to keep them running in museum scenarios, they’re becoming few and far between. It’s a very specialist area. And it’s a shame to think that these machines that were designed to perform in a certain way and to deliver a certain function will never be heard again. I kind of think it’s really important to be able to kind of bring some of the reality of what these machines were like, to listen to as much as to see in the future.

SIMON: Matt Parker, his new musical work is “The Imitation Archive.” Thanks so much for being with us.

PARKER: Thank you for having me. Cheers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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