Recreating Christmas carols from Alan Turing's computer

18 December 2017

New Zealand researchers have recreated what is thought to be the first computer-generated Christmas music – exactly as it would have sounded on Alan Turing’s computer.

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    In a world-first reported internationally in 2016, University of Canterbury (UC) Distinguished Professor Jack Copeland FRS NZ (pictured right) and composer Jason Long restored a historic 66-year-old recording believed to be the earliest surviving computer music, and they have now recreated two historic computer-generated Christmas carols.

New Zealand researchers have recreated what is thought to be the first computer-generated Christmas music – exactly as it would have sounded on Alan Turing’s computer.

In a world-first reported internationally in 2016, University of Canterbury (UC) Distinguished Professor Jack Copeland FRS NZ and composer Jason Long restored a historic 66-year-old recording believed to be the earliest surviving computer music, and they have now recreated two historic computer-generated Christmas carols.

The University of Canterbury researchers recreated the computer-generated Yuletide music by using notes from the 66-year-old recording, which was generated in the Manchester computer lab run by the British computer scientist famous for breaking the Enigma code in World War 2, Alan Turing.

“The idea started when I found a reference in old material to the BBC doing a Christmas broadcast in 1951 containing some carols played by Turing's computer in Manchester,” Prof Copeland says.

The carols were Good King Wenceslas and Jingle Bells (click the links to hear them).

“Jason and I decided to recreate these. I found it amazing to hear that long-lost – and so historic – sound source belting out enjoyable festive music. It will be great if our recreations find their way onto the Christmas playlists of some radio stations internationally.”

Following the viral response the researcher’s 2016 British Library blog concerning their restoration of the world's earliest surviving computer music recording, the pair write in their latest British Library blog Christmas carols from Turing’s computer: “Listeners to BBC radio heard an utterly new sound in 1951 — a computer playing music. Among its Christmas fare the BBC broadcast two melodies that, although instantly recognisable, sounded like nothing else on earth. They were Jingle Bells and Good King Wenceslas, played by the mammoth Ferranti Mark I computer that stood in Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory, in Manchester.

“According to Ferranti’s marketing supremo, Vivian Bowden, it was ‘the most expensive and most elaborate method of playing a tune that has ever been devised’. Bowden may have kicked himself for predicting, at this seminal moment, that computer-generated music had no future.”  

The researchers advise there are a few ‘dud notes’ in the recreated carols: “Because the computer chugged along at a sedate 4 kilohertz or so, hitting the right frequency was not always possible. It's a charming feature of this early music — even if it does in places make your ears cringe.”

About the researchers

Jack Copeland FRS NZ is Distinguished Professor in Arts at the University of Canterbury, where he is Director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing. Born in London, Prof Copeland earned a D.Phil. in mathematical logic from the University of Oxford, studying under Turing's great friend Robin Gandy. His recent book The Turing Guide is a comprehensive and easy-to-understand guide to Turing and his work, and it contains further information about the Manchester computer and its music (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Jason Long is a New Zealand composer and performer, focusing on musical robotics and electro-acoustic music. He has carried out musical research at the University of Canterbury, the Victoria University of Wellington, Tokyo University of the Arts, and the Utrecht Higher School of the Arts.

For further information please contact:

Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3631 | Mobile: +64 275 030 168margaret.agnew@canterbury.ac.nz
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