Monday, May 11, 2015

Rekengeluiden van PASCAL - The Oldest Dutch Computer Music Recording

(c) Philips 1962
On my quest of documenting the beginnings of computer music history, I've come across another gem from the early days. Here's the story behind this amazing time capsule in audio form, whose significance has been largely overlooked so far.

We are writing the year 1960. After a somewhat sluggish start the computer revolution is getting into full swing in the Netherlands. At the Natuurkundig Laboratorium in Eindhoven, Philips just completed their second computer, the Philips Akelig Snelle Calculator (Philips Frighteningly Fast Calculator), or short PASCAL.

The head of the NatLab at the time, a certain W. Nijenhuis, had the idea of installing a small amplifier and loudspeaker on the PASCAL, which would pick up radio frequency interference generated by the machine. Unsurprisingly, the usual course of events unfolds: While actually intended for diagnostic purposes, people quickly discovered that they could abuse the speaker to make simple music. But Mr Nijenhuis, rather than scolding his staff for the waste of precious calculation time, actually decides to record those rekengeluiden (computing noises) on a 45 rpm vinyl.

Thus, "Rekengeluiden van PASCAL" was born. Side A of the record contains recordings of the computer during regular operation, including some of the mechanical noises the machine would make. Likewise, the first track on the B-side is a recording of a prime number calculation. Listening to these recordings may already give us an idea of how the whole radio frequency interference music business came about: These algorithms don't just produce random bleeps and bops, they actually sound quite beautiful themselves, and are remniscent of some modern day bytebeat compositions.

Track number two on the B-side is a nice rendition of a Mozart minuet. But Nijenhuis doesn't stop there. The last track on the B-side, "Stochastische melodie", takes things one step further - it's not just performed by the computer, but the machine also composed it.

The record was distributed as bonus material with Philips' in-house magazine, the "Technisch Tijdschrift" in Spring 1962. Chances of finding a copy nowadays are probably close to zilch, but fortunately a kind soul has uploaded an mp3 version. So, I hope you'll all enjoy this one-of-a-kind piece of computer history!

discogs entry for "Rekengeluiden van PASCAL"
Alberts, Gerard: Een halve eeuw computers in Nederland. In: de Nieuwe Wiskrant, issue 22-3. Univ. of Utrecht, March 2003. Online at

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