Recently I’ve become obsessed with the Banu Musa brothers, who worked at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the 9th century. Among other things, they designed and created the first known programmable musical sequencer (which is also the earliest known programmable machine), an automatic flute player that could record a guest’s pattern, and then play it back. Even though we only know a little about them, their story is fascinating.
I’ve been really interested in what happens when we conceive of or acknowledge computation or machine-based music/art as ancient arts. So I’d love to know if any of you have any other historical threads, technologies, artworks, or stories that you have become excited by? What’s something that excites you that is, to put it colloquially, really fucking old? How does it make you feel?
I think I’m obsessed with the Banu Musa because-
Automatic instruments had existed for centuries before the Banu Musa brothers ever built their flute, most notably the great Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse had designed automatic wind instruments a thousand years before, but these were all designed to repeat an initial setting. The Banu Musa flute was specifically built so that guests could come and encode a tune, only then to hear it played back at them. It was designed to impress and entertain travellers and visiting friends. The interaction was an invitation, a proof that they were not being tricked by a player hiding in a box or behind a curtain. Unlike many of the Banu Musa’s trick vessels and designs, the flute’s mechanism was visible. It was live. It showed its secrets. It allowed itself to be open to your programming, and transparent in execution. There’s a part of me that wants to say: we’ve been live coding for 1100 years…