Day 1, Stream 2

Alternative History of Computer Music (panel)


Andres Burbano, Universidad de los Andes, Colombia


Paul Doornbusch: Australian College of the Arts, Australia

Ricardo Dal Farra: Concordia University, Argentina/Canada

Andres Cabrera: University of California Santa Barbara, US

Andres Burbano: Universidad de los Andes, Colombia


Panel inspired by the book “The Music of CSIRAC, Australia’s First Computer Music” by Australian composer Paul Doornbusch. This book had a crucial impact in the understanding of computer music history. In Latin America the contributions to computer music history are not as early as the one described by Doornbusch, however composers like José Vicente Asuar in Chile or Cesar Bolaños in Peru and Argentina, made several important and early aesthetic and technical contributions to the Computer Music field. Participants: Paul Doornbusch (Australia), Ricardo Dal Farra (Argentina, Canada), and Andres Cabrera (Colombia/USA), Andres Burbano (Colombia).

Paul Doornbusch: Alternative Histories of Computer Music: CSIRAC

Computer music is the great musical adventure of the 20th and 21st centuries, even if it has always been a rather poorly-defined concept. Obviously it has something to do with computers and it has something to do with music. The question of why someone would want to use a computer for music was first asked (in print) in 1959 by Lejaren Hiller. Now, the use of computers for music production and reproduction is ubiquitous, for artists and consumers, so many others must have asked that question. For artists, computer music may still retain the aura of a separate field of academic or artistic endeavour. For consumers, the use of computers in music is a daily fact of life.

The path that led to this usage is the result of many very small steps that were neither coordinated nor goal-oriented – steps that were not labelled as scientific, consumer-oriented, or artistic. Ideas concerning timbre creation, experimental music, complex compositional systems, musical instrument design, and the enthralling power of a computation machine all contributed to a climate where something called “computer music” was created.

Based on these ideas, an historical narrative could be produced, joining all of these activities in a compelling story of inevitable advances. Perhaps an equally viable narrative would be the chronicle of engineering achievements that accidentally became musically useful. Digital computers are another example. In the case of CSIRAC, the hooter circuit could be added to this list, as having a loudspeaker driven by pulses allowed people with skill and imagination to make musical experiments.

The technical challenges faced by all pioneers of computer music were enormous and difficult to comprehend today. Surmounting these challenges was a contribution to what is now a dominant musical activity. An artistic history might discount some of the initial ‘buzzes and squawks’ as musically irrelevant. But a history cognisant of the current artistic, scientific, and consumer-oriented reality, should take note of the effort and dedication that now can be seen as a piece of the overall puzzle, part of the grand musical adventure of the Twentieth Century: the use of computers in music.

Ricardo Dal Farra: Who tells history?

Who tells history: Who knows about it or who has the opportunity to do it?
We can find several versions on the development of electronic musical instruments during the past century but it is unusual to find a reference to devices coming from non first-world countries. Why is this happening?

Juan Blanco registered the description and design of a new musical instrument at the Patent and Trademark Office of Cuba in 1942. He called his creation the “Multiórgano” (Multiorgan). The Multiorgan concept predated the Mellotron by several years.
Raúl Pavón, a Mexican engineer interested both in electronics and music, developed in 1960 a small electronic musical instrument that featured an oscillator with multiple waveform outputs, a variety of filters, an envelope generator, a white noise generator and a keyboard, among other materials. Pavón named the instrument the “Omnifón”. It was among the firsts voltage-controlled electronic sound synthesizers built.
In Argentina, Fernando von Reichenbach invented the Analog Graphic Converter (a.k.a. Catalina) in the 60s. It was used to transform graphic scores -from drawings done on a paper roll- into electronic control signals adapted to work with analog equipment in producing electroacoustic music.

If you know about the history of the electronic arts -in general- or the history of electroacoustic music and its associated technologies -in particular- but never heard about these persons, it is clear that something has not been said. It has been lost (in translation?) or for some reason didn’t show up in the official history (story?)

If history is written by the winners: Are those persons some of the losers of the electronic-arts history? And why is that still happening?

Andres Cabrera & Andres Burbano: Computer Music in Chile 1970-1980: COMDASUAR

This presentation focuses on experiments in computer music by engineer and composer José Vicente Asuar (1933) in Chile between 1970 and 1980; special attention is paid to the development of his own computational system for music composition: the Asuar Analog Digital Computer COMDASUAR around 1978. The work done by Asuar is contextualized in view of other developments in computer music and computer technology. Asuar’s case can be regarded as exemplary, since he was very active between the decades of the nineteen fifties and the nineteen eighties in the electro- acoustic musical scene in Chile as well as in Europe, the United States and other Latin American countries, and his work can be seen as a constant and continuous development of musical ideas materialized in a series of papers, compositions, albums and technological solutions.


followed by:


Stephen Jones: Cybernetics, Conversation and Interactive Art

Introduced by

Andres Burbano: Universidad de los Andes, Colombia


I am going to argue that Cybernetics, when all is said and done, is about the conversation: that is, about systems ‘talking’ to each other, which itself is a process of communicating or exchanging information between each system. A crucial point is that that information has to change something within the ‘receiver’ while the response or the ‘feedback’ they provide has to change something in the original ‘sender’, thus modulating/moderating their response. So cybernetics is about change and adaptability within some process and one of these processes is, to use Roy Ascott’s phrase “art that behaves”. Cybernetics is the operating process in most interactive art, and I will look at several important Australian interactive art works produced over the period from the early 1970s.


Stephen Jones is an Australian video artist, curator, video engineer and conservator of long standing. Since 1976 he has provided technical support for many artists and major exhibitions including the Biennale of Sydney (1976) and Australian Perspecta (1981). Over the period 1975 – 1978 he was technical producer at Paddington Video Access, and made several video art works of his own. In 1977 he presented “Open Processes” in which he installed a temporary studio in Watters Gallery as a place where the performance community and other video makers could experiment and record works. Then in 1978 he curated the exhibition VideOzone. Between 1982 and 1990 he ran the post-production facility Heuristic Video. He built several video synthesisers around 1979-1980. Then from 1983 to 1992 he was the video-maker for the electronic music band Severed Heads, using one of the video synthesisers for regular live performances.

From 1990 he worked in the commercial post-production industry as an engineer and after 1996 returned to artist and gallery technical support for the next decade or so. He worked in Japan in 1999-2000 building large-screen interactive devices for artists there, after which he returned to similar technical development work for artists in Australia.

Jones wrote his PhD in the history of Electronic art in Australia at UTS from 2002–2006. He was assistant curator of Mathematical Instruments for the Powerhouse Museum between 2008 and 2011. Currently he works in the conservation of electronic art and is further researching the history of the electronic arts in Australia. His book Synthetics: Aspects of Art and Technology in Australia, 1956-1975 was published by MIT Press in March 2011. [see]