Below is an interview with composer Matt Parker and choreographer Katharine Hawthorne on computers, artistic creation, and the embodied emotive throughlines in their work. Parker’s 2015 album The Imitation Archive is a series of musical compositions based on his 126 sound recordings from the historic computers at Bletchley Park, the site where British mathematicians, scientists and spies broke German’s military codes during World War II. Hawthorne’s new dance Mainframe, which premieres at ODC Theater December 3-5, uses Parker’s compositions in its score.
Megan Wright: Matt, hearing the analog sounds of these digital machines at Bletchley Park is the literal crunch of numbers, as you put it. Can you describe how those sounds get made by Colossus, for example, used in WWII code-breaking?
Matt Parker: The Imitation Archive is a collection of over 100 sound recordings taken from a large number of different machines at Bletchley Park and The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC). Colossus, the world’s first digital programmable computer, operates as tube technology. Several hundred valve tubes are used in its design and they get very hot when in use, so part of the noise of Colossus is the fans being used to cool it down. The unique sonic characteristics of Colossus are of course the rhythmic rotations of the key-wheels, which make up the programmable aspect of the device, and the tape-reel feeder which makes up the data source of the device. These objects are on larger mechanical scale than in our small present-day computers, and create a huge amount of noise when in operation.
MW: Did the history of use assigned to individual computers (mathematical calculation, code-breaking, etc.) influence the final compositions made from those computers?
MP: I wasn’t so much influenced by the mathematical uses of the machines when developing the final compositions of The Imitation Archive as much as I was interested in the human interaction with these devices. Something I was keen to try and explore was how human interaction with these devices has always been a contentious issue, whether it being the top secret, stifling and silent operative conditions of the WRENS (all-women cryptography intelligence personnel that operated the Colossus and Bombe machines) or the alienation experienced when interacting with remote servers. The connection between humans and computers is a fascinating area for me.
MW: Katharine, the score for Mainframe uses Matt’s compositions alongside solo piano and other sounds from the digital age. Can you talk about the process of putting the score together, how you came across Matt’s work, and what role Siri plays in all of this?
Katharine Hawthorne: In making Mainframe, I asked myself, “how can I theatrically create a mainframe onstage, using just the five dancers and minimal set/props?” After workshopping a number of movement ideas in the spring, it became clear to me that the only way to effectively suggest these incredibly large and powerful computers was through sound. I originally planned to make my own audio recordings and then edit them together, but while researching existing recordings of old computers (particularly mainframes), I came across The Imitation Archive. I had an immediate, physical response to Matt’s compositions, and then when I read his artist statement, I recognized a like mind and intention. Although we work in different media, our interests overlap and complement each other.
The dance production revolves around the performers’ interactions with six old Macintosh monitors. I wanted to contrast the mechanical computer sounds of Matt’s score with something more melodic and immediately recognizable as “music,” that would also contain the possibility of humor. The Beethoven piano sonata contains structure, rhythm and repetition that are very human and heroic. I intentionally limited the sound palette to solo piano music to highlight the use of the hands – when we interact with computers we primarily use our hands, and there is of course the literal keyboard (typing) to keyboard (piano) connection. When I first learned to code in high school (as one of two girls in the AP CS class), one of my classmates used to sit in the back of the classroom and blast Beethoven from his computer speakers while we all worked. Perhaps in some part of my mind I had made this association (Beethoven – computers), but I did not recall the memory until part of the way through the process of creating this piece.
Mainframe looks at how computers are like us humans and how we are also like computers. Using voice and language became a natural way to humanize computers. After experimenting with a number of computerized voices (including Fred, the voice in which the original 1984 Macintosh says “Hello”), I decided on Siri. Her voice appears in a number of places throughout the score.
MW: Matt, you’ve talked about how the experience of being alone in a museum at night to make these recordings lent a “brooding” quality to the work. Can you talk about the process of documentation?
MP: I tried to explore each device in any and every way which I could, be it capturing an ambient recording of it in the space, working with vibrations using contact mics’, taking it apart and getting ‘under the hood’ with coil tap microphones that pick up electromagnetic frequencies. I aimed to get as comprehensive a collection of sounds as possible and tried to be quite objective in my approach. This isn’t entirely possible as the time of day, the weather and my personal interpretation all need to be considered in the final documentation. Moreover, with almost all of the devices on display, I had no idea how to operate them initially so the time spent with engineers/volunteers who could demonstrate the machines was vital to my knowledge and understanding of the machines and also to my perceptions of what each machine ‘stood for’ within the collection.
MW: Do you consider yourselves digital visitors or digital residents? Has this influenced your art making, and if so, how?
KH: I would say both, or neither. I guess I’m more of a digital nomad, in that I like to explore and wander the web but I don’t necessarily feel like I have roots there. As a dancer my richest experiences are still the ones in the studio and on stage, when I am fully in my body, seeing and feeling other people in real time. I also commute on my bicycle which forces me to be totally present and in the moment. Most of my good thinking and imagining occurs while riding my bicycle or walking my dog. I relish these experiences precisely because they contrast with my digital life. My creative work comes from my instinct to move. At least for now, being a digital resident requires too much sitting still and looking at a screen to fully engage me.
MP: I’m very materialist in my process. I am interested in the noises of computers as something that represents emotive connections between technologies and people. Some people I have heard even describe the humming of computer fans to be calming, soporific even! The unintended byproducts of sound from computers represent this kind of connection but also a waste or byproduct of the energy required to power computers. This ‘noise’ of computers is aligned to materialist ideas of ecology and so I am reminded of rare earth minerals and other mined resources that go into powering these machines which grow in sophistication constantly. I guess I am a digital resident as the digital for me is therefore a product of materials from the earth as much as the non-digital.
MW: Katharine, in making The Imitation Archive, Matt has created a catalog of sounds from old computers. If you were to create a catalog of movement from the history of computing, what would you want to save? Matt, are there any that you’d encourage Katharine to consider?
KH: In dance there is not a distinction between hardware and software, i.e. between movement and the body performing it. Imagine what a true movement archive would be: a dancer who never learns or ages, sitting in a glass box, performing a movement at the tap of a button. It’s a hardware problem – the only way to create an archive of movement would be to disembody it.
MP: I saw the Babbage Difference Engine at the London Science Museum and it is just cased inside a glass box. The one made at the Computer Museum in California is a working device. I hope to visit it at some point. I could imagine it could encourage a fascinating movement piece. I think that perhaps there is a really interesting set of movements to be taken from the ‘Heath Robinson’ codebreaking machine that is being reconstructed at The National Museum of Computing which runs two lines of tape data simultaneously. The whole idea of the tape is that each line runs in synchronicity and one acts as a codex and the other as the script, but each tape roll falls out of sync with the other as the tape becomes stretched from use and it creates all these imperfections in the data it produces (a failure in its design, but also a necessary precursor to Colossus). I like the idea of two tapes trying to communicate with each other but falling out of sync constantly.
Megan Wright is a contemporary dancer based in San Francisco. She is a current member of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, a founding member of Maurya Kerr’s tinypistol, and a frequent collaborator with Katharine Hawthorne. Megan has toured both nationally and internationally as a member of the MJDC and with other work. In 2014 she served as choreographic assistant to Katharine Hawthorne at Springboard Danse Montréal, and assisted the New York-based collective I AM A BOYS CHOIR with their production at La MaMa Experimental Theatre. In 2015 she was awarded an ODC Administrative Fellowship to work with Hope Mohr Dance. Megan graduated cum laude from the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and is also a graduate of the Lines Ballet Training Program.