Early Electronic Music on WNYC

Hubert S. Howe, Jr. and the SDS Sigma 7

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - 01:36 PM


In this 1974 episode of Musicale, Hubert S. Howe, Jr., selects a few original electronic music compositions synthesized at Queens College. Howe was one of the earliest progenitors of computer music.

Creating a musical composition on a computer in the 1960s was a cumbersome task.  Mainframes were large, slow, costly, and often could not operate in real time.  Programs would run for weeks before spitting out a few minutes of music.  Yet in spite of these hurdles, by the mid-1960s a small group of composers began to enthusiastically explore the potential of computer composition.  Hubert Howe, a professor and composer featured in this episode of Musicale, was among them. 

At Princeton in 1963, Howe, along with James Godfrey and Winham Randall, developed Music IVB, a programming language that was part of a family of “Music” languages dating back to the early Bell Lab experiments of the late 1950s.  Music IVB was written using an assembly language specifically for the IBM mainframe then housed at Princeton. 

In 1969, Howe moved from Princeton to Queens College where he became director of the electronic music studio.  It was here where Howe developed the Music 7 sound synthesis software.  Music 7 was adopted from FORTRAN, a programming language most often associated with scientific and numeric computations for physics, chemistry, and weather prediction.  

The Music N language lineage

The new language updated Howe’s previous efforts and was meant to work in conjunction with the colleges’ newly acquired Sigma SDS-7, a machine that was part of a class of mid-sized computers built by Scientific Data Systems.  In 1969, Queens College was one of only a handful of universities that possessed one of these machines and one of the very few that used it for creating music.  The compositions in this January 4, 1974 episode were born during a class in electronic music at Queens College that Howe had taught between 1973-1974.  


1. A New Friend, by Don Muro
2. Descriptive Pieces Illustrating Three Novels, by Arnold Gamson
3. Automated Blues: What Two Can Do, by Steven Tintweiss (vocalist Rosalie Harmon)
4. Third Study in Timbre, by Hubert S. Howe, Jr.

Note: The history of the show Musicale on WNYC is a bit obscure. WNYC has only a handful of these shows on tape, and aside from this episode, the program aired primarily student performances of the works of Brahms, Mozart, Vivaldi, and Rachmaninoff.  Musicale's host was David Barnes, the then audio technician for the Queens College music department.


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Comments [1]

Steve Tintweiss from Fresh Meadows, NY City

"Automated Blues: What Two Can Do" was one of my computer generated/voice compositions composed for Hubert S. Howe's Graduate course in Computer Music at Queens College Music Department (now the Aaron Copland School). There may have been another WNYC radio broadcast of Queens College Electronic Synthesis and Computer Music works developed in Dr. Howe's Analog and Digital Graduate courses and Electronic Music Studio that included a version of "The Purple Why", my avant-garde jazz instrumental that I performed acoustically as my theme song during that period. Programming it for Sigma 7 stereo audio output was a musical and computer science challenge that I enjoyed thoroughly.

Aug. 18 2013 08:45 PM

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