Richard Savery

Harriet Padberg: Computer-Composed Canon and Free-Fugue Renascence

Richard Savery, Benjamin Genchel, Jason Smith, and Molly Jones

Society for Music Theory 42nd Annual Meeting, Ohio, USA, 2019

Abstract: Harriet Padberg: Computer-Composed Canon and Free-Fugue Renascence Sister Harriet Padberg’s 1964 dissertation, “Computer-Composed Canon and Free-Fugue,” may be the first on computerized algorithmic composition. In this work, Padberg combined traditional fugue style and 20th century serialism with a novel text-to-music algorithm contrasting largely used stochastic methods. Padberg’s dissertation can be seen today as having pioneered modern text-to-music approaches - processing text into features used to define sounds, rhythms, and structures which form the basis for composition.

While the original code is made available in the dissertation, the ability to run it, experiment with it, or sonify its outputs is inaccessible; it was written for the IBM 1620 and 7072, machines which can most likely only be found in museums. The authors have thus recreated the software in Python and are releasing it as an open-source, stand-alone program. The purpose of this renascence​ ​is to allow anyone to use and interact with Padberg’s system, providing a window into music technology history and the ability to reimagine the system’s potential uses for new work.

Despite its originality and relevance to the work of more prominent algorithmic composition figures such as Lejaren Hiller and Max Matthews, Padberg’s work remains obscure and rarely referenced. With the exception of one survey by Hiller, her dissertation is not mentioned in any of Hiller’s or Mathews’ papers about computer music despite both of them communicating with her and learning from her approach. Nevertheless, this piece remains a vital example of algorithmic composition research and a significant part of the history of early computer music.