Computer connection inspires composer


An album by Jóhann Jóhannsson celebrates the legacy of the IBM 1401, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

ALBUMS OFTEN end up with odd titles, but calling your work IBM 1401: A User’s Manualis, by any measure, quirky. That’s the name of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal, haunting work from 2006, performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

If the title is odd, the story behind the composition in five parts, which started out as the music for a dance performance, is even quirkier. Jóhannsson’s father was a maintenance engineer and programmer for IBM in Iceland and worked on the country’s first big mainframe, a 1401, as well as other IBM “big iron” computers.

“I went to work with him several times when he was working on these machines, and drew on the punchcards,” recalls Jóhannsson.

The 1401, he says, “was the first computer to arrive in Iceland”.

Over dinner in 2000, Jóhannsson’s father, a musician himself, mentioned that he had created music using the 1401, having learned the method while on an engineering course in Germany. “It was basically done by putting a radio next to the computer. The coil memory was badly shielded so it emitted electromagnetic radiation that could be picked up by the radio,” says Jóhannsson.

“The radio would pick it up as a steady tone. If you programmed the memory, it would make it modulate this tone. You basically programmed nonsense commands that had no purpose except to get the radio to emit tones on a scale.”

His father told him that when the 1401 was finally retired in 1971, he and his co-workers decided to document the sounds by making reel-to-reel recordings. They also held a mock retirement party – complete with retirement speeches – at which the 1401’s own music played in the background. “It was clear that they had this emotional attachment to the machine. It was much more than just an appliance,” he says.

Jóhannsson knew he had to hear the recordings and, sure enough, IBM in Iceland still had them in storage. In addition, he found a rather solemn recording of someone reading the 1401’s user manual in Icelandic-accented English. “It was likely a lecture of some sort. A bell rings out at one point – maybe to signal to turn the page or the slide.

“When I heard this, it really had almost this mystical quality to me – this voice, reciting these ancient technical terms. It felt almost like an oracle to me.”

And that created the spark for the dance piece, which turned into the album. A careful listener can hear the odd, simple tones of the 1401 playing its own music. Jóhannsson has also placed readings from the manual (including the bell) in sections of the composition.

He has a strong interest in early electronic music and is sure the 1401 tapes are the first example of digital music in Iceland.

“Using it as a found object was very interesting to me,” he adds.

After Jóhannsson had written the first part of the music, he approached a dancer whose performances he admired to discuss turning it into a performance piece. “It turned out her father also worked for IBM,” he laughs.

The performance toured for a couple of years and the music has been performed by a string quartet and a symphony, but Jóhannsson says it is at heart a dance.

He says he had a vague sense that the 1401 computer was seen as “the Model T of the computing world; I knew it was important”, but he notes with amusement that he wasn’t “a connoisseur of vintage computers or anything like that”. He knows, however, that the work appeals in a special way to those who are. “I gave a performance once in Geneva and had an audience full of people from Cern [the European particle physics laboratory where the world wide web was born]. They came basically because of the title.”