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Johann Johannsson: Computer on the Radio

Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson pits the string orchestra against the computer.
Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson pits the string orchestra against the computer.

Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson pits the string orchestra against the computer, a struggle also known as "man vs. machine." In 1971, Johannsson's father recorded the sound of the IBM 1401 mainframe computer, using a radio receiver and a reel-to-reel tape machine to capture the electromagnetic waves emitted by different computer functions. Thirty years later, the younger Johannsson rearranged the tape for choreographer Erna Omarsdottir, adding a string orchestra and a recording of the IBM instruction tape he'd found in his father's attic. Late last year, Johannsson released the result on CD — as IBM 1401, A User's Manual — with conductor Mario Klemens and the City of Prague Philharmonic.

"Part II - IBM 1403 Printer" sounds barren at first, propelled by no more than the glacial sounds of the radio frequencies and the monotone voice of the instructor. Then, three minutes in, the string orchestra flourishes and builds to a wall of sound, a la Benjamin Britten. Meanwhile, the instructor gives archaic and cryptic maintenance advice, like "Put oil on the belt of the starting device." Just as the orchestra enters, the instructor sums up the man/machine juxtaposition: "The electric unit consists of cams and emitters," he says. The warm tone of the strings makes it clear that the orchestra, in contrast, consists of people.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

This column originally ran on Feb. 15, 2007.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tristan C. Kraft