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How to engineer a song

We discuss musical mathematics, modularity, computation, and Ada Lovelace in our September Second Saturdays workshop.

What does a member of the 19th century English nobility have to do with the development of computation technology? And why would we spend an hour on a Saturday morning discussing either of these topics in a workshop about music composition? There are surprisingly many parallels, in ways that ultimately dovetail to illustrate foundational principles that underpin the philosophies of Hyperscore. In the Second Saturdays composition workshop on September 9th, we explored the themes of engineering, structure, repetition, and functionality as they apply both to mechanical computation and to musical composition. To guide our conversation, we looked to a composition written in Hyperscore in 2007 by New Harmony Line CTO Peter Torpey, titled “Countess of Lovelace”.

The Countess’ Legacy

When we look to the history of computation, we can see that musical composition and computation share more lineage than one might expect. The title of Peter’s composition refers to Lady Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. Daughter of the famed English poet Lord Byron, she was widely known for her instrumental work with Charles Babbage on the analysis and programming of various computing engines – these engines are popularly seen as precursors to modern computers. She presciently envisioned the many scientific and creative applications that computing machines could have, well beyond simple mathematical analysis. In 1842, she wrote that “the engine might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine…. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

Put more briefly, she saw that there was a potential for these machines to use their computational power to express not just numerical statements, but all kinds of things that could be represented by these numbers – including, for example, certain systems of musical harmony. This inventive foresight, in essence, has paved the way for applications like Hyperscore itself. When we sit down with Hyperscore, we create melodies, listen back to what we did, and respond according to our preferences and desires. In this process, we collaborate with our devices as they use their numerical language to translate our tactile and visual expressions (the notes we drop in Hyperscore) into series of sounds, which we then respond to to build something that we find pleasing. It is a creative dance, actively working with a machine to make music interposing multiple systems of understanding and structure. When spelled out, it can feel truly wondrous – and it was the vision of people like Ada Lovelace that laid the foundation for the form it takes today.

A tribute to a machine, and a person

Peter became inspired in 2007 to write a song in Hyperscore dedicated to Lovelace after seeing a video of Tim Robinson’s Meccano implementation of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine – modeled on the Difference Engine that Lovelace and Babbage collaborated to design. Peter took compositional cues from the mechanical interlocking structure of the machine and the whirring and clicking sounds made as it completes its algorithmic tasks. What results is a piece that has its own thematic motives that weave closely in and out, mirroring the mechanical movement of the Engine’s cylinders, alongside intermittent methodical clicks and a consistent, stable harmonic backbone that reflect the physical structure and actual sound produced by the machine.

Peter’s composition, alongside the recording of the engine that inspired it

In the Second Saturdays workshop where Peter showcases his composition, we discuss how the process of composition, particularly the motive-based composition that Hyperscore facilitates, can echo the use of modular units in fields of engineering and computer science. Using the Difference Engine as inspiration and metaphor, we talk about the many different ways that structure, repetition, and thematic interplay can be present in a musical composition – and admire the beauty that can result.

Watch the full workshop below, and sign up to attend future workshops here.

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