IBM 1401 – a user’s manual (in memoriam)

IBM 1401 – A User´s Manual (in memoriam) is a meditation on the complex relationship between man and the machines he creates.

The music is performed live on a laptop and a Hammond B3 electric organ with electronic treatments.

The Hammond organ and the distinctive Lesley speaker is used not only to perform the music, but as an integral part of the decor, the Lesley's rotary speakers providing a hypnotic counterpoint to the dancer's movements.

The music is based on a looped passage from an old Icelandic hymn which the IBM 1401 computer was programmed to play.

The composer then weaves melodic textures in counterpoint to the computer's melody, creating a hypnotic and melancholic atmosphere which slowly builds and evolves as new melodies surface and are interwoven with treated computer and printer noises.

It´s no longer possible to separate man from the machines he uses. We are now completely dependent on our machines and life without them is almost inconceivable. The human race has in fact become a race of cyborgs (cybernetic organisms), inseparable from the machines around, and sometimes inside us (pacemakers, artificial nerve-connected limbs).

Computers will soon have the required power to simulate most of the properties of the human brain, Soon computers will completely surpass this organ in every capacity. This begs the question whether we´re witnessing a new form of life, whether we´re in fact creating our own mechanical descendants that will replace us as the ruling species.

Many will react to questions like this with horror, reflecting man´s fear of being toppled from the apex of things. What will our relationship with such beings be like?

We believe that we should replace fear with nurture and caring, and horror with awe and wonder.

We believe that only by regarding these mechanical offspring as we would our biological children will we avoid disaster, because all neglected children will eventually turn against their parents.

We believe that in order to co-exist with the machines we will have to learn to read the user´s manual.

IBM 1401 - A User´s Manual (im memoriam) is based around the story of the first computer to come to Iceland, in 1964. IBM 1401 was not designed to play music, yet by placing a radio receiver close to it and by programming its memory in a certain way, simple melodies could be produced. IBM 1401 was taught  to "sing", and its operators gave it  a very human ability that it wasn´t "supposed" to have. Then, when a new model arrived that made it redundant, it wasn´t simply thrown away, but was given a little funeral ceremony where its operators expressed their gratitude and their sorrow.

This was documented on tape with recordings of the sound of the machine in operation and also of music played by the computer.

The music in the piece is based on these recordings.

The piece seeks to explore the above themes using this simple fairy-tale like story as a frame. It blends dance movements with a set-design and music that reflects themes of techno-nostalgia/discarded technology, nurture (programming computers/raising children), body/machine, human and artificial intelligence, machines and sexuality, technological progress/human evolution. The choreography uses elements of the body as machine and dance as a mysterious, uncanny and intangible energy, much like electricity. The choreography explores both mechanical movements and organic movements and juxtaposes the two, seeking to find the link between them.

In 2017 Erna and Jóhann started talking about the possibility of reviving this much acclaimed piece. Both artists were very excited about revisiting a successful co-operation, wheels were brought into motion and performances had already been scheduled when, sadly, Jóhann Jóhannsson passed away in February 2018.

A couple of Jóhannsson’s friends and colleagues now have stepped in for the musical part of the piece.

With her re-working of the piece, Erna Ómarsdóttir commemorates a longtime collaborator and a dear friend.

Choreography and performer: Erna Ómarsdóttir

Music composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson

Orchestrated by Jóhann Jóhannsson and Arnar Bjarnason

Music performed by Ólafur Björn Ólafsson aka ÓBÓ / Úlfur Eldjárn (alternating)

Strings performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by

Mario Klemens.

Recorded in Prague, September 2005.

Lights: Sylvain Rausa

Production and distribution: LÓKAL – Performing Arts Reykjavík (Bjarni Jónsson)

Music contains a fragment of "Ísland Ögrum Skorið" by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns, performed by the IBM 1401 Computer, programmed by Jóhann Gunnarsson and Elías Davíðsson, recorded in 1971.