A Tracker From the 1960s?

lejaren hiller knobs 1970


Lejaren Hiller was one of the first people to generate music with a computer. He was doing it already in the 1950s, just like for example Douglas Bolitho and Martin Klein (info).

The picture above though, shows something else. It’s a dot matrix print-out with instructions for how to operate the volume and EQ knobs on your hi-fi system while playing the record “Program (Knobs) for the Listener”, released in 1970.

While others would surely salivate over the random (?) numbers and the interaction/remixism that this presents, I’m more interested in seeing it as a tracker. A primitive tracker, but nevertheless:

  • It’s a text-mode list of instructions that runs vertically.
  • There are discrete steps fixed in time and all the instructions are locked to these steps, like a soundtracker.
  • The instructions are not absolute, but relative to whatever sound is coming from “under the hood” like a hypertracker.
  • It’s divided into tracks, and the tracks affect eachother just like they do on many old soundchips.

Sure, you could see this as an analogue step sequencer, combined with the ideas of John Cage (who Hiller worked with). It’s only the print out that makes it seem like a tracker. Makes sense. But then again, it is the level of interface that is the most defining part of trackers. Trackers could use analogue synthesis and generative features. They just never do. :–)

Btw – some people claim that Lejaren Hiller did the first computer music, but that is not true. In Australia and the UK people made computer compositions and audio as early as 1951. See here.

But could we say that this is the first example of a tracker interface? Yeah, of course we can. This is Chipflip, where dreams come true. So who’s up for the challenge of finding something older that looks like a tracker? I’m sure it exists, right?

7 Responses to “A Tracker From the 1960s?”

  1. David Lindecrantz Says:

    Nice find! Are the instructions supposed to be parsed by a machine or a (trio of?) human knob-twiddler(s)?

    Hmm, I won’t say there’s too much trackerness about these (no text-mode!), but anyway; The punch rolls for player pianos and orchestrions used vertical tracks to encode different musical data, and the machine automatically decoded the data at a constant rate.

    • goto80 Says:

      I’ve been looking for trackeroids among early mechanical instruments, which has made me a bit confused about what constitutes a tracker interface. It seems like music boxes, pianolas and other old mechanical audio devices are usually different from trackers in two ways:

      1) there are separate tracks for each note
      2) the duration of the note has to be specified

      So essentially, they work like a modern piano roll sequencer. There are trackers with explicit note duration (2) too, but it’s not really the norm, so they could be seen as a subgroup to trackers (monitors, editors).

      Text-based instructions seem to be a defining feature of trackers. And those instructions should be interpreted and executed by a machine, to relate to your question. In this case, I think the instructions are for humans to operate their recently purchased hi-fi systems. And in that sense this is not a tracker.

      There should be more examples of human-operated tracker-style notation around. But as for text-based machine-readable notation, eh, that is vertical, I’m not sure when that started to happen.

  2. A Fluxus Tracker from 1961 (sort of) | CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] a previous post I suggested that a print-out by Lejaren Hiller as the first example of a tracker. Now I came across […]

  3. Ancient Trackers | CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] list of instructions, and the palette is much bigger than in traditional notation. In the 1960s, Lejaren Hiller (almost the inventor of computer music) and a Japanese Fluxus-guy made musical instructions that […]

  4. Trackers from 1981 and 1983 | CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] the 1960’s computer scientists and Fluxus artists made things that were rather tracker-like (here, here) and there are probably precursors from hundreds of years […]

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