Princeton engineers explore computer music history in new podcast

Serious music composers who took the plunge into computer programming, alongside computer engineers who threw themselves into supporting their work with technological innovations, is the subject of a new historical podcast from the Princeton University School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The five-part podcast, “Composers & Computers,” premieres on May 6. It explores how Princeton musicians went looking for a machine capable of playing some of the most complex music ever written. That search led to the creation of some of the earliest, most consequential digital music synthesis tools, with the help of some engineers who happened to know exactly what they needed to realize their visions, according to information provided by the school.

The podcast, which spans six decades up to the present day, focuses on the human drama of what happened when artists and engineers teamed up to try and coax sound out of a previously silent, room-sized machine.

Filled with samples of vintage electronic and computer music, “Composers & Computers” includes 20 interviews with composers and computer engineers. The story begins with the work of Princeton music faculty at a Manhattan-based analog synthesizer shared with Columbia University in the 1950s. In 1962, composers entered the new campus Computer Center in the Princeton Engineering Quadrangle, and soon challenged themselves to use the new IBM 7090 to synthesize music. Then they worked to improve that music.

Along the way, Princeton composers and computer engineers programmed some of the earliest music composition software; invented a device to hear the music they were creating; synthesized some of the earliest computer-generated speech for use in music; and more, according to the statement.

This story illuminates the work of engineers at RCA in Princeton in the 1950s, and Bell Labs in Murray Hill in the 1960s, in addition to Princeton.

The podcast will be available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, as well as the Princeton Engineering website.

The first two episodes will drop on May 6, and one episode will run each week for the following three weeks.

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