Definite Articles

Here’s a slice of David Byrne’s book How Music Works:

“I heard computer scientist Jaron Lanier speak at a symposium recently. After playing some pieces on a shen, a Chinese mouth organ, he said that it had a surprising and prodigious heritage. He claimed that this instrument was maybe the first in which then notes to be played were chosen by a mechanism, a mechanism that was a precursor to binary theory and thus to all computers.

That ancient bit of gear found its way to Rome via the Silk Road, and the Empire had a giant version built – as Empires are wont to do. This larger instrument required an assistant to pump the air, – it was too big to play by mouth anymore – and, more significantly, a series of levers that selected the notes. This system was the inspiration for what we now know as the keyboard – the series of levers that are used to play the notes of organs (which is also a large wind instrument) and pianos. It was also inspirational to the Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard, who in 1801 made a weaving loom whose complicated patterns were guided by punch cards. One could control the design of a fabric by stringing the cards together.

Decades later Jacquard’s loom was inspirational to Charles Babbage, who owned one of Jacquard’s self portraits, in which he used these cards to make an image of himself woven in silk. Babbage designed his Analytical Engine – a computational machine that, were it ever built, would also have been controlled by punch cards. In Babbage’s version the cards no longer controlled threads, but made the leap to binary abstraction – making pure calculations. Babbage’s young friend Ada Byron (daughter of the poet) was fascinated by the device, and many years alter became celebrated as the first computer programmer. So, according to Lanier, our present computer-saturated world owes something of its lineage to a musical instrument. And computer technology, not too long after it came into being, affected music as well.”

This is all very interesting, but it suggests a single line of development, over many centuries, which just isn’t that likely.

Throughout human history, humans have been inventing things, or stumbling upon them and improving them. I recall seeing an archeologist playing The Star Spangled Banner on a hollow bone, I think from a large bird, dating from the Ice Age. Which shows how far back our ancestors were playing music. It was in a pentatonic scale, which most historians claim is a modern invention. There is also some memory rattling around in my addled brain of an instrument played by the ancient Greeks, ie long before the Romans, of an aeolian harp, that was an instrument played by the wind.

As for the links with computer programming, the Belgian inventor and theatre designer, J J Merlin was way  ahead of Jaquard; in the 1770s he was recording the music he played onto a continuous roll of paper, showing not just the notes, but their volume. How many more were there tinkering with such technology not just in England, but anywhere there were keyboards?

The story of Ada Byron is a fascinating one. Women in 18th century England were famous for their genteel pursuits like music, painting, and reading, but they were also encouraged to learn mathematics, astronomy and even navigation as a means of calming their excitable natures. As a result of the sad end that Lord Byron came to, Ada’s mother banned her from reading poetry, so she went in the other direction, into maths.

I’m sure there are many many more like this, as science and technology are littered with moments of brilliance that have vanished for whatever reason. I’m not saying that Lanier’s line of descent is wrong, I’m saying it’s a line, not necessarily the line of descent. 

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