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Computer Science, Sound and Music 07/03/2013 23:42 #63

Computer Science, Sound and Music
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Computer music dates since more than 50 years: in the 60thies, when enormous progress in electronic technologies, computer and communications started new application fields, following the deep innovation produced in the 40thies by new disciplines as Cybernetics, Information Theory, Computability and Recursiveness.
Max Mathews and his "Radio-Baton"
Image Computer History Museum
At that times, following an optimistic view of science and future, which didn't foresee any limitation in future developments, Max Mathews (see An appreciation by Zicarelli or The First Computer Musician ) at Bell Telephone began experiments on sound synthesis by computer. He wrote programs in a purposely created language that allowed controlling “virtual oscillators“, and thus producing sound samples in a digital format. The data tapes were brought to Bell Telephone, where the sound samples were converted into sounds by means of a costly device, at that times available only at the Bell laboratories.

Even before that time, another researcher, Lejaren Hiller , in an University campus in Illinois used a computer for another task of a musician: the composition of music ( Computer Cantata and Illiac Suite for String Quartet ).

The figure shows Max Mathews and his " Radio-Baton ". The Radio-Baton, developed by Mathews in the late 1980s, tracked the movements of the performer using two radio-transmitting batons. The performer's movements could be used to remotely control musical instruments.

See the video with Max Mathews and John Chowning , two leading icons of Computer Music interviewed by Curtis Roads, founder of the Computer Music Journal and smart computer music composer.


In the following years Europe had and has even now an important role. An important role was played by Italy thanks to the work of pioneering researchers in such new field, profiting of a very strong and old musical tradition. Among these Maestro Pietro Grossi at CNR-Cnuce in Pisa and Giuseppe (Peppino) Di Giugno , a physicist who worked in Naples at the Institute of Physics (now Physics Department of the Federico II University), and then at IRCAM in Paris. This also thanks to musicians that promoted these researches enriching them with creative contents, such as in particular Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono.

Around the year 1970 Luciano Berio came to visit the Institute of Physics in Naples and listened to the sounds from the first real time digital oscillator bank realized by Di Giugno. Luciano Berio at that times, after the important experience in the Studio di Fonologia at RAI in Milan, was in touch with Pierre Boulez in Paris, who a few years before had founded the IRCAM research center in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The innovative digital instruments realized by Peppino Di Giugno promised to allow unlimited freedom to the musician. The dream of a one thousand oscillators bank was becoming reality, thanks to the use of wholly digital techniques bringing important advantages. The control by computer promised the possibility of realizing any complex sound atmosphere; much more the few oscillators of the study in Milan.

Di Giugno moved then hired to IRCAM where, using his phantasy and thanks to large financing, devoted his research to the realization of purposely designed digital machinery, large in complexity and powerful in performance. These computers, very innovative in the international panorama, followed always the innovative paradigm of real time synthesis and control. The Naples group was confined to the periphery of the empire - together with other researchers who joined it - staying always in touch with Di Giugno. The Naples group carried out some interesting activities (see ACEL ) in different directions, such as the design of special purpose computers for sound synthesis (precursors of modern DSP chips) and the more theoretical work of devising algorithms, transformations and representations for analysis and synthesis of acoustical signals, as well as the design of digital systems for large physics experiments. A remarkable experience was that of setting up a sort of cybernetic theatre in the Spoleto “ Festival dei due mondi ” in 1981.

Other achievements of Di Giugno were the design and the realization of a VLSI chip devoted to sound synthesis and the MARS workstation built on this chip, carried out in collaboration with the group of Naples. The workstation was successfully used for years in many University Laboratories and research groups all over the world as an high level standard in the field, before becoming obsolete as a consequence of the advances in the microprocessor technology.


Several decades have elapsed since the pioneering times when Computer Music was born. Its techniques now days are widespread; a large amount of music is produced or at least broadcast over the Internet by using digital techniques derived by the long lasting research in the field: its achievements are part of our daily experience, for example when we are listening to music with our computer; most of music is created or modified or enriched by means of computer techniques, both for expressive reasons and for better listening, such as it happens for sound spazialization or better for deeper fruition by means of new brand techniques for multimedia listening experience.

Perspectives and developments will move from research institutions to daily life, and will then enrich our sensory, emotional and cultural experience, in the direction of a greatly enhanced fruition. Very developed for example are now days techniques for browsing audio and multimedia archives , allowing search of specific audio contents such as a phrase or an instrument or a musical phrase or even a style. This will allow taking advantage of the very large archives accumulated in decades of audio production and storage on magnetic support or others produced during the whole XX-th century This for radio, television, theater recording, all over the world will allow bulding up and preserving precious documents of the whole century onmany aspects of our culture the therefore will not be loosen as mostly happened for past centuries.

Sound synthesis is anyway always a core matter of research: more and more sofisticated techniques are provided to the musicians in order to build from the scratch his own sound material, his instrument, his performance eventually in a virtual listening space, purposely designed, often going beyond sounds allowed by traditional real world musical instruments; many more tools may enter in the expressive palette of the musician. Moreover, synthetic sounds become more close to music delivered by real instruments owing to the study of expressive parameters in the performance and new ways to reproduce them in a synthetic performance.

This is a by-product of the work which is being carried on cognitive aspect involved in the execution and interpretation of music, but also listening fruition. Very promising in this direction the realization by the LIM laboratory in Milano with interesting listening examples . Didactics of music, composition, fruition will take profit of this reaserch, which use new tecniques for the visualization of brain activity and new tools for man/machine interaction.

Another new field is cooperative execution among remote users by means of fast internet connections and protocols; useful for execution but also for distant learning. All these tools and innovative researches in the broad field of Computer Music promise many new results and tools in the direction of deepening and enriching musical experience and music fruition.

If you wish, now take fun watching and listening video on the topic. A choice is given below.

Sergio Cavaliere


Max Mathews & John Chowning - Music Meets the Computer
Max Mathews and John Chowning, two leading icons of Computer Music interviewed by Curtis Roads, founder of the Computer Music Journal and smart computer music composer.

Major developments in the history of Computer Music
A short description of the main phase of the development of Computer Music.

Computer Music (Synthesizers, Synclavier) 1986 Pt. 1/3
Introduction to Computer Music with a short talk by Max Mathews.

Boulez: "Repons" 1/5 , 2/5, 3/5, 4/5, 5/5.
Repons is an important arrival point of a relevant phase of IRCAM in Paris, during the period of the powerful machines built by Di Giugno, and the underlying principle of “real time” synthesis. These video provide the musical piece with an exhaustive description of how the physical space of the concert was organized. Also described is the interaction between real instruments and the score, created in real time for synthetic musical instruments; these replay in different ways to sounds from real instruments along an organization which recall the “responsorio” in ancient music. Real time synthesis was made by the 4X Machine by Di Giugno ( a picture of the machine ).

Pierre Boulez - Repons (1)
Film of a performance of Repons in a concert.

New Music XX ..
YouTube channel delivers electronic music by many composers such as Xenaxis, Stockausen, Berio and others.

Studio di Fonologia della RAI di Milano
Contains original recordings featuring Maderna, Berio and Nono.

Studio di Fonologia della RAI di Milano
Reconstituted in the Museo degli Strumenti Musicali del Castello Sforzesco di Milano.

The New Sound of Music 1979 (Part 1)
The New Sound of Music is a fascinating BBC historical documentary from the year 1979. It deals with the development of recorded music from the first barrel organs, pianolas, the phonograph, the magnetic tape recorder and the concepts of “musique concrete” and electronic music development with voltage-controlled oscillators making up the analogue synthesizers of the day.

Il Theremin di Leon Thermen
An electronic instrument delivering incredible and fascinating sounds.

The Origins of Electronic Music
The origins of analog electronic music.

Stockhausen: "Elektronische Musik Studie I"
A composition by Stockhausen in 1953.

Pierre Schaeffer - "Etude aux chemins de fer"
One of the first compositions of “Musique Concrete”.

First computer to sing - Daisy Bell
A experiment on voice synthesis by a computer in 1961.

1950 early electronic synthesizer: “This is music with a strictly electronic beat”

The IBM 7090 Computer sings "Bicycle built for two" in 2001 A Space Odyssey

Album "Music from mathematics played by I.B.M. 7090 Computer and Digital to Sounds Transducer”, Decca Records, DL 9103.
Prof. associato Architettura Elaboratori
Dipartimento di Scienze Fisiche
Università degli Studi Federico II
Complesso Univ. di Monte S.Angelo
via Cintia 80126, Napoli - Italy

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