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In 1964, a computer - the IBM 1401 Data Processing System - arrived in Iceland, one of the very first computers to be imported into the country. The 1401 has been called the "Model T" of the computer industry - the first affordable, mass produced digital business computer . The chief maintenance engineer for this machine was Jóhann Gunnarsson, my father. A keen musician, he learned of an obscure method of making music on this computer - a purpose for which this business machine was not at all designed. The method was simple. The computer's memory emitted strong electromagnetic waves and by programming the memory in a certain way and by placing a radio receiver next to it, melodies could be coaxed out - captured by the receiver as a delicate, melancholy sine-wave tone.
When the IBM 1401 was taken out of service in 1971, it wasn't simply thrown away like an old refrigerator, but was given a little farewell ceremony, almost a funeral, when its melodies were played for one last time. This "performance" was documented on tape along with recordings of the sound of the machine in operation.
When my father told me about this in the year 2001, I felt that, besides being a nice, touching story, it reflected many things that I was interested in. Man-machine interaction, old, discarded technology, the nostalgia for old computers, human and artificial intelligence, technological progress and human evolution, the "spirit" and the machine. I started to write music using those themes, basing it on those 30 year old recordings of the IBM 1401 computer.
Later that year, I met the choreographer Erna Ómarsdottir in Amsterdam. I told her my father´s story and she told me her father worked at IBM also. I went home, finished the music and sent it to her. We spent a year reading and sending each other our thoughts about the cyborg, body fluids and machine oil, "anima" and electricity, about whether one can - as some have claimed - simulate anything in a computer, including a "soul", provided the storage capacity is large enough. The only conclusion we reached was that we should not fear the machines, but care for them, embrace them with the same sense of wonder as we do our own children. For if we do not, they might, like neglected children, turn against us. We found that sooner or later, we have to learn to read the User Manual.
A year later Erna showed me the movements she had made to my music. I´m unable to describe the effect this had on me, but the people who have seen her dance will know how I felt. Since then we have showed our piece all around Europe, in more than 40 cities. Now the music has been recorded and the Last Song of the IBM 1401 can be preserved.