I found this record, snappily entitled A Small Computer Plays Some Samples Of Mozart’s Dice-Composition Music, in Oxfam Music on Byres Road, Glasgow, in late 2012. The sleeve suggested it was produced in Glasgow, in 1967.
In 1962, Bell Laboratories had released the landmark Music From Mathematics album, using the IBM 7090 computer to produce a selection of weird sounds, classical arrangements and HAL-style ditties. In fact, their recording of Bicycle Built For Two is said to have directly inspired Arthur C Clarke and 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968). In 1967, while Kubrick was nearing the end of 2001‘s four-year production, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the best-selling record in the UK and the Incredible String Band released The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion. I basically had no idea anybody was making electronic music in Glasgow then.
Anyway, intrigued, I dug around a bit and found some more information. The following is from the presentation “The Small Computer that Played Tunes” given by Tacye Phillipson (National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh) at the 2011 Scientific Instrument Commission Symposium in Kassel, Germany:
“In the early 1960s most computers were behemoths, and their time was precious and sparingly dolled out. In this atmosphere Glasgow University took the unusual step of designing a small computer for teaching and student use. This computer, called SOLIDAC, is only the size of a desk. It was built by Barr and Stroud, a local firm who were keen to expand their reputation from optics into electronics. In 1967 T. H. O’Beirne of Barr and Stroud released an LP of Mozart’s dice music, tunes where each bar is chosen at random from a selection, both calculated and played by SOLIDAC. This early example of computer music was reviewed in the magazine Gramophone: ‘Not something one can listen right through a side to; but quite ingenious.’ Fittingly for a Scottish computer, it also played bagpipe tunes of its own devising…”
Bill Findlay, who taught at the University of Glasgow, provides a great selection of material on SOLIDAC on his website, including portions of SOLIDAC’s operating manual. You can also find a short essay by Paul A.V. Thomas, the principle designer of SOLIDAC, here.
From the record’s sleeve notes, by T.H. O’Beirne:
“These recordings demonstrate how a small digital computer has been used to produce music – of some interest – which is more often discussed than actually heard. The scores concerned allow the computer to be programmed for continuous play of something like a million different variations on a basic pattern. A few dozen typical specimens are played, with a change of tuning of the scale after each group of four. Listeners can judge the merits of the just-intonation tuning of medieval music, and of other scales which make use of exactly-tuned consonant intervals. They can compare these with the more familiar equal-temperament compromise used in modern-keyed instruments. Rectangular-wave computer pulses are appropriately generated, to produce the notes. The sound is not unlike that of a clarinet.”
Thanks to Stewart Christmas for additional research.
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I worked with T.H.O’Beirne in the 1970s, when he was still a lecturer in the Computing Science Department of Glasgow University. When, in 1975, one of his fellow academics and I created an early microcomputer, Tom asked me to amplify a single-bit output from a Parallel Interface Adaptor and he made it play Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. He was a master of machine-code bit-banging. More controversially amongst his colleagues, he rescued Solidac, then already a museum piece, and had it craned into the basement of the Computing Science Department. He got it working and used it as a teaching aid. The lamps on the front panel had filaments and you could adjust the clock speed with a big black knob. The gates used discrete transistors and they were stacked as sub-PCBs in drawers you could pull out like those on an old filing cabinet.