Bicycle Built for Two Thousand from Aaron on Vimeo.

The song “Daisy Bell” has a special place in computer history. Max Mathews, who had by the late 50s pioneered digital synthesis using IBM 704 mainframe, arranged the tune in 1961 for vocoder-derived vocal synthesis technology on technology developed by John Larry Kelly, Jr.. Kelly himself is better known for applying number theory to investing in the markets — an unfortunate achievement in the wake of a financial collapse brought down by misuse of mathematical theory.

In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke happened to hear the 704 singing the Mathews/Kelly “Daisy Bell,” and the rest is (fictional) history – the HAL computer in the book and movie sings the song as he is being disconnected, as though the computer had learned this song as a “child.”

Here’s Max himself (namesake for Max, the patching language), overseeing a rendition of his arrangement:

Today, basic vocal synthesis has become part of the fabric of taken-for-granted tech, and the legendary rendition by a singing robotic voice part of our culture. These things are no longer futuristic or strange. Apple this week even launched a music player that announces its own tracks in the form of the new iPod shuffle.

But what happens when those same human beings imitate the computer? That’s the question asked by artists Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey, crowdsourcing human input by inviting thousands of participants to contribute their voice using custom recording software built in Processing. The basic technique is something Koblin has used before: his Sheep Market massed an Internet labor market, paid two cents on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, to draw walls full of thousands of sheep. Those sheep proved at once massive in quantity and unique in individual quality, and, if you squinted at them, presented a critique of global labor practice.

Koblin has also done various seminal pieces with the Processing coding language that change our perception of data and technology, like his now oft-cited “Flight Patterns,” tracing the paths of overhead planes.

This time, the computer/human relationship is truly inverted. Each singer participant imitates a sound component from the robot singing. The humans are then combined to synthesize the robot sound instead of the other way around. The result: organic technology combined into a cyborg, online chorus. No one singer knows what it is they’re singing in whole. It’s perhaps the first mass-human synthesis of sound, and the results are truly unusual.

And strange synthesis seems to be what Koblin’s work is fundamentally about. Perhaps it’s not Mathews’ sound experiments, but Kelly’s ideas about quantifying global markets that are most relevant. (For an extra dose of irony, Google HAL – you’ll get stock ticker HAL, for Haliburton, one of the few stocks that has grown in this economy.) In our reality, the University of Illinois didn’t create a super-smart, spaceship-controlling robotic brain – but they did create the Web browser.

And after all, all of us are now living in the aftermath of many crowds of people behaving collectively without genuine larger knowledge of what they were doing. Robots were envisioned at the beginning of the 20th Century as out-of-control automatons, crushing civilization, and were often then appropriated as metaphors for fascist government. Now, the vision can be equally apocalyptic, but the meaning is inverted. It’s human beings acting as automatons – without contact with human scale – that threaten to crush the Earth. And this time, they’re capitalists.

On the other hand, the beauty of art is its ability to mean many things at once. Koblin’s sheep and now his singers never cease to be whimsical. And in their beauty, they suggest that perhaps even massed crowds of Internet-connected people can sing in harmony.

For the future of humanity, I hope so. But then, if we fail, we’ll always have the robots.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”

Bicycle Built for 2000: Info

  • Sounds kinda like me singing in the shower…

  • I was in the audience during that clip of Max at the Computer History Museum. Come to think of it, I recorded a clip the following night of Max telling how HAL came to sing Daisy Bell in 2001.

    Max Mathews: About H.A.L.

  • Polite

    That sounds terrifying. Like something from a horror movie. :/

  • For when the metal ones come for you… and they will.

  • Wow, Jacob, that's great.

    I'm actually a little unclear on the history. This is Max's arrangement, of course, but what Max's contribution was to the software I don't know. I gather it was John Larry Kelly's work, but it may have been indebted to some of Max's 704 code, too.

    I also don't know if this was the first digital vocal synthesis; I believe it was.

    Humans imitating it, of course, becomes something else altogether.

  • Cool, sounds like the Borg from Star Trek are singing the tune 🙂

  • I had no idea the song was called "Daisy Bell" rather than just "Daisy" or "Bicycle Built For Two." Huh.

  • Damon

    The Kenton IBM 704 Mainframe to Midi Retrofit should be available by the time you read this. You save 25% if you purchase it in kit form.

  • DaNni

    12 monkeys anyone?

  • I am a capitalist and here to improve the earth. Think of where all our wonderful toys and innovations come from.

  • Damon

    That was funny…

  • JOn

    Sounds like someone was trying to flex their geek muscle.

    Sounded garbled and eh.

    At least the one from the olden days sounded musical.

  • Jeez, too much spare time in your hands results into that.

  • Pingback: KULTURTECHNO » Elektronische Musik für Chor komponieren()

  • on singing foot switch how would you go about changing cyborg singing sound into a human singing sound i know a person can change chip munch singing sound into a more human singing sound becouse i did that with a footswitch but i do not know how to change a cyborg singing sound into amore human singing sound my phone number to call me if a person come up with answer to what i ask please call 1-406-234-1855 or toll free 1-888-300-8811

  • Pingback: Create Digital Music » Visual Music: Aaron Koblin and Meyers’ Visual Compositions, Eyebeam Call Due Today()

  • Pingback: Create Digital Motion » Matching Visuals to Music: Round-up of Inspiration, Eyebeam Call Due Today()