Hear the First Musical Composition Created by a Computer: The Illiac Suite (1956)

Think “Gen­er­a­tive Music” and what may come to mind is Bri­an Eno, push­ing a but­ton and let­ting music flow from his stu­dio com­put­er. But the idea is much old­er than that.

The “Illi­ac Suite” from 1952 is named after the cash-reg­is­ter-look­ing ILLIAC com­put­er on which it was com­posed, and is one of the first exam­ples of bring­ing com­put­er pro­gram­ming into the task of cre­at­ing music with­in some well defined para­me­ters. The result­ing score was then played by humans. You can hear the first exper­i­ment above.

The pro­gram­mers were Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaac­son, who met at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­pagne, where the ILLIAC com­put­er was built. Inter­est­ing­ly, Hiller con­sid­ered him­self a chemist first, a com­pos­er sec­ond. He had stud­ied clas­si­cal com­po­si­tion under Mil­ton Bab­bitt and, even while work­ing at DuPont labs in Vir­ginia, was com­pos­ing string quar­tets and vocal works. Bab­bitt and oth­er teach­ers had encour­aged him to keep com­pos­ing even while he turned to chem­istry. Per­haps they knew that the art and the sci­ence would dove­tail?

Because indeed they did. While work­ing on the ILLIAC, Hiller real­ized that the method­ol­o­gy he was using in chem­istry prob­lems were the same as those used by com­posers, and decid­ed to exper­i­ment. Isaac­son would help pro­gram the new com­put­er.

The first exper­i­ment sounds the most tra­di­tion­al, the most like Bach. The two cre­at­ed sim­ple rules: a melody that only used notes with­in an octave, har­monies that tend­ed towards the major and the minor with no dis­so­nance, and a few oth­er para­me­ters.

The sec­ond exper­i­ment fea­tured four-voice polypho­ny with slight­ly more com­plex rules. The third exper­i­ment is where it gets inter­est­ing, and starts to sound very “mod­ern,” very Pen­derec­ki. Here Hiller and Isaac­son tried to intro­duce rhythm and dynam­ics, although admit­ted­ly they had to shape a lot of the deci­sions out­side the pro­gram and intro­duce some cor­rec­tive algo­rithms.

The fourth and final exper­i­ment was to then replace the “musi­cal” rules of the first three with rules from non-musi­cal dis­ci­plines, and to show that a score could be cre­at­ed from pret­ty much any­thing. Hiller and Isaac­son used Markov Chains to com­pose the final more repet­i­tive and puls­ing piece. (Markov Chains are beyond the scope of this arti­cle, but we encounter them when Google ranks search results or when our iPhones pre­dict what we are going to type next.)

The first three scores were then per­formed by mem­bers of the University’s stu­dent orches­tra in August of 1956 while the fourth was being com­plet­ed. The fin­ished works caught the inter­est of Vladimir Ussachevsky, who would set up the influ­en­tial Colum­bia-Prince­ton Elec­tron­ic Music Cen­ter in New York City and begin releas­ing his own com­po­si­tions the fol­low­ing year.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Christ­mas Car­ols Made by Alan Turing’s Com­put­er: Cut­ting-Edge Ver­sions of “Jin­gle Bells” and “Good King Wences­las” (1951)

Hear the First Record­ing of Com­put­er Gen­er­at­ed Music: Researchers Restore Music Pro­grammed on Alan Turing’s Com­put­er (1951)

An Impres­sive Audio Archive of John Cage Lec­tures & Inter­views: Hear Record­ings from 1963–1991

A Huge Anthol­o­gy of Noise & Elec­tron­ic Music (1920–2007) Fea­tur­ing John Cage, Sun Ra, Cap­tain Beef­heart & More

Peefeey­atko: A Look Inside the Cre­ative World of Frank Zap­pa

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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