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Hex & plugs & ROM & roll: Computer music stars rock Bletchley

Seven decades of electronica at code-breaking park museum

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Are programmers the new rock stars? That may be a bit of a stretch, but it hasn't stopped one IT engineer staging a computer music exhibition at Blighty's Bletchley Park.

The new hands-on display at The National Museum of Computing, located in the grounds of the wartime code-breaking nerve-centre, focusses on the story of electronic music.

The gallery covers electronica's primitive beginnings in the 1950s, when the sound was little better than a few buzzes and beeps, to the modern day, when the sound is little better than a few buzzes and beeps created using advanced algorithms that mimic the analogue synthesisers of yore to make more refined buzzes and beeps.

It will also explore the first generation of computer-powered synthesisers that emerged in the 1980s and were used by the likes of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush; a Yamaha CX5M music computer will be on show to play with. The exhibition will also walk through the melody-making software used on Apple to Acorn machines.

On his Twitter feed, the exhibition's curator Ben Trethowan described himself as a “systems engineering techno geek” interested in “synthesisers, theatre, 1980s music and Blackadder”. He is also a volunteer at the museum.

“Computer music has come a very long way from the first challenges of making noises using computers, resulting in beeping renditions of Baa Baa Black Sheep in the early 1950s, to the computer-aided algorithmic compositions, improvised live coding, and the Music By Programmers album of today," he said.

“The National Museum of Computing's display follows the development of computer music from its origins on the earliest stored-program computers, through the software that gave consumers the ability to create their own music on home desktops of the 1970s and 1980s, to the professional dedicated music systems commonly in use today."

As well as listening to the sounds of generations gone by, visitors to the museum will be treated to samples of the fundraising album Music By Programmers, which aims to raise £5,000 to pay for maths workshop and a programming club at the museum. The album was influenced by computer game tunes of the 1980s and proto-techno bands such as Kraftwerk.

The digital album apparently entered the Amazon top 40 charts in the week of its release at the end of April. It’s now sitting at number 2,004 on the web bazaar's sales rankings.

The first computer to play music was the CSIRAC, which was Australia's first digital computer and was built in the late 1940s. It made a public performance of the Colonel Bogey March, but no recording has survived. Britain’s first computer music recording was a rendition of God Save The King, produced in 1951 using a Ferranti Mark I computer with software created by computer scientist Christopher Strachey. ®

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