The Imitation Archive

  |  Published: Jul 6th 2015
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The Imitation Archive

The sounds of 70 years of computing archived and remixed into music

Feature track, Flowers, now available online

Radio premiere this Saturday


The Imitation Archive, a musical composition using the world’s earliest computers as instruments, has been created by award-winning sound artist and composer Matt Parker at The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) on Bletchley Park. The entire work will be premiered on radio this month and an audio archive of 123 recordings taken from 43 machines now forms part of the British Library Sound and Vision Archive.

The work includes HD recordings of the rebuild of Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer, the Harwell Dekatron (WITCH), the oldest original working digital computer, 1970’s mainframes, desktops from the 1980s, and even calculators from pre-computing times. The archive, the first of its kind, represents the phenomenal progress of computing over the past 70 years and is lodged in the British Library as well as TNMOC.

Parker has now remixed these recordings to produce an extraordinary musical composition, giving centre stage to many of the famous machines through a series of movements that reveal the UK’s rich history in computing.

Matt Parker explained: “Working on The Imitation Archive has been an opportunity for me to consider the impact of computing on culture and society, and how it has changed so dramatically in a relatively short period of time. My work has previously focussed on the sounds associated with the contemporary moment and cloud computing, but the sounds of early computing turned out to be wide ranging and unique in ways I could never have imagined.

The Imitation Archive is an electroacoustic soundscape influenced by R Murray Schafer’s ideas about acoustic ecology and the need for us to listen to our environments. It’s a contemporary approach to composition that works, ironically, with heritage source recordings. The piece focuses on working machines designed to run 24/7 performing repetitive cycles, so I decided to make the composition seamless; a never ending cycle of computing. I’m thrilled that it is to be played in its entirety on the radio.”

Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds at The British Library, said: “The Imitation Archive is a remarkable collection of recordings which encapsulate, through the medium of sound, some of the most significant technological achievements in the history of modern computing. The compositional element of the archive also demonstrates the versatility of sound and will surely encourage others to experiment with field recordings in a musical context.”

Tim Reynolds, Chairman of TNMOC, said: “Matt Parker’s work is intriguing. His take on Colossus, which he has entitled Flowers in honour of Tommy Flowers the designer of the world’s first electronic computer, is mesmeric. This highly creative interpretation of what the Museum represents is something we very much encourage. We’ve had some fun playing with the archive already, asking the public if they recognise the sounds of some early PCs. To my astonishment some can!”

The archive has been produced with the support of Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts Scheme and will be made available to visitors at the museum as well as through The British Library Sound and Vision Archive ensuring the global dissemination and conservation of the hugely significant heritage working machines at the Museum.

The Imitation Archive musical composition can be heard on Soundproof presented by the Creative Audio Unit on ABC Australia on 10 July 2015. 

A feature track, Flowers, is now available online:

The full musical composition will also be released online and announced on in the near future.

The individual machine recordings are now available online:

The Imitation Archive – individual machines -- in The British Library Archive Collection C1679


The Imitation Archive – musical composition

I was very much drawn into the historical narratives of machines at Bletchley. It was fascinating to discover how some of the fundamental frequencies of the machines harmonised with themselves. Some of the machines such as WITCH, Bombe and Colossus have very distinctive mechanical rhythms. Their repetitive rhythms would occasionally break from the cycle and create a surprise extra half-beat or micro-beat. I hope I have given a sense of what it might be like to work with these machines day in day out, in different environments, as well as draw on their relationships with the space in the museum as it is today.


Mechanical Calculators – an audio-visual composition:

“The manual tools used by accountants the world over from the 1930s to the 1970s before digital computing technologies took over. These devices look incredible to me; as someone who has only ever used a digital calculator or my fingers to count. So many different methods of invention, all with the aim of achieving basic arithmetic with large numbers. I found the idea of grinding, punching and literally 'crunching' the numbers to be something to explore as I placed each item within the vast collection of The Imitation Archive.” 

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