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Any Sound You Can Imagine: the 50th Anniversary of RCA's Electronic Music Synthesizer withMilton Babbitt

Thursday, April 14, 2005
7:30 p.m.

Sponsored by . . .
The David Sarnoff Library
and the Princeton chapter of the ACM/IEEE-CS


This year Princeton marks the centenary of the revolutionary theories of its favorite adopted son, Albert Einstein, but it also takes pride in pioneering the synthesis of electronic music.

On Thursday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m., in Sarnoff Corporation's Auditorium, come hear and see an evening devoted to the invention and sounds of the world's first electronic music synthesizer using binary sequencing, the technique used in synthesizers today. Highlighting the occasion will be Princeton University Professor Emeritus Milton Babbitt. Babbitt has won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship for his pioneering work in serial composition and continues to teach at the Juilliard School. He will discuss his experiences working with RCA's staff in composing and recording music on the synthesizer. Throughout the evening, recordings of music composed on and for the synthesizer by Professor Babbitt and members of the RCA Labs will be played.

With the Mark I, a composer programmed a series of notes on paper tape through a keyboard that defined the different characteristics of a tone. This enabled the electronic replication of the sound of any instrument or the fabrication of musical sounds impossible to produce otherwise. A series of notes was then generated electronically and recorded on a phonograph disc for remixing. RCA chairman David Sarnoff announced the Mark I on January 31, 1955, where he encouraged "the engineer and the artist [to] join forces and seek to understand the terminology and problems of each other in order to advance together." Designed and built at RCA's Laboratories on Route 1, the Mark I was intended to reduce costs for recording mood, lounge, and soundtrack music. It is now preserved by the Smithsonian Institution.

The Mark II featured magnetic tape recording and was intended for the world's largest record manufacturer, RCA Victor. When RCA Victor balked, the company donated the three-ton instrument to the Electronic Music Center of Columbia and Princeton Universities in 1959. Princeton University professor Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, and other serial composers used the Mark II not for the production of pop music but to realize their theories of modern composition.

In addition to Professor Babbitt's recollections, Alexander Magoun, executive director of the David Sarnoff Library, will illustrate the background to RCA's musical invention, and Radcliffe Fellow Rebecca Mercuri will explain its operation.

This event is co-sponsored by the David Sarnoff Library with the Princeton chapters of the Association of Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers-Computer Science (ACM/IEEE-CS).

Doors open at 7:30 pm. There is no admission fee and refreshments will be served. For more information, visit the website of the Princeton chapter of the Association of Computing Machinery, or call (609) 734-2636.


Harry F. Olson, back, and Herbert Belar, front, pose with the RCA Mark I electronic music synthesizer at the David Sarnoff Research Center in 1955.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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