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  • Two Pioneering Projects from the Early History of Computer-Aided Algorithmic Composition
  • Christopher Ariza

Lejaren Hiller’s 1970 chapter, “Music Composed with Computers: An Historical Survey” (Hiller 1970) contains numerous descriptions of projects in the computer generation of musical structures. By then, just over ten years after the publication of Hiller’s and Leonard Isaacson’s seminal book Experimental Music (Hiller and Isaacson 1959), a startling number of experiments in generative music with early computers had been completed. Hiller’s early research, compositions, and publications established him as a leader in the then-emerging field of computer-aided algorithmic composition (CAAC). Some researchers, likely inspired by Hiller and Isaacson’s 1956 Illiac Suite string quartet, even duplicated their instrumentation: in an amusing footnote, Hiller writes that “it is curious to note how many computer pieces have been written for string quartet . . . particularly since string-quartet performers seem to be among the least receptive to newer compositional ideas such as computer music” (Hiller 1970, p. 70).

Hiller’s prominence in a young and decentralized field led many independent researchers to contact him directly. He became, it seems, a repository of information (often obtained only through direct correspondence). Although Hiller’s chapter reports on numerous projects that are now well known and independently documented, buried in the historical survey are a few remarkable endeavors of significant historical importance that have not hitherto been fully documented, corroborated, or heard. This article brings forth two of these projects, the work of David Caplin and Dietrich Prinz, and the work of Sister (then Mother) Harriet Padberg. In his chapter, Hiller describes both of these projects primarily through letters he received from the authors.

Both projects were pioneering: they began with little or no knowledge of other applications of computers to music generation, and they explored new techniques. Further, each was likely a historical first. The work of Caplin and Prinz in 1955 may be the first use of a computer to generate not just sound (as was done as early as 1950 or 1951; see Doornbusch 2004), but new musical structures. The work of Padberg in the early 1960s may be the first academic dissertation in CAAC, as well as the first research and software in CAAC published by a woman.

This article not only details the historical context and implementation of these projects for the first time, but offers original recordings and new realizations of these early computer-aided compositions. These audio materials are available on-line at, and will also be included on the Computer Music Journal Sound and Video Anthology DVD accompanying the next issue (35:4, Winter 2011).

This research would not have been possible without the continuing contributions of the original authors; numerous personal correspondences with both Caplin and Padberg have provided critical details on their projects. It is a great fortune that, through Hiller’s desire to document the work completed in the field, and through the willingness of Caplin and Padberg to revisit and discuss work they completed a half-century ago, we can today listen to some of the earliest attempts at composing music with a computer.

The First Ten Years of Computer-Aided Algorithmic Composition

The work of Hiller and Isaacson, leading to the completion of the Illiac Suite string quartet, is often credited as the first extensive use of a computer to create music with algorithms (Dodge and Jerse 1997, p. 373). As Hiller frequently notes, however, there were earlier experiments. The most well-documented of these experiments is the song Push [End Page 40] Button Bertha. This piece was the result of programming by Douglas Bolitho and Martin L. Klein, with lyrics written by Jack Owens (Anonymous 1956a, 1956b, 1956c; Darreg 1957; Klein 1957; Pierce 1961; Hiller 1970; Ames 1987). On 15 July 1956, Push Button Bertha aired on the television program “Adventure Tomorrow,” less than one month before 9 August 1956, the date Hiller staged a performance of an incomplete Illiac Suite at the University of Illinois (Hiller and Isaacson 1959). The Illiac Suite was not completed until November, three months later. The work of Caplin and Prinz in 1955 thus preceded both the Illiac Suite...


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