Charles Dodge: The Computer Sings December 21, 1972

Some of the people at Bell Labs are trying to synthesize naturalistic human speech with the use of the computer. They feed the necessary information into the computer, which then computes the statistical properties of the actual sound waves, and puts the information on a piece of tape, all ready to play on a tape recorder. Fortunately, the many inflections which we give in different contexts are complex enough that it will be a long time before a crooked cop will be able to synthesize someone’s confession statement, for example. But already the computer sounds more human than Hal did in 2001, provided it is limited to short phrases and provided it doesn’t make too much difference exactly whose voice the results sound like. Now Charles Dodge has even managed to get the computer to sing a little.

In Dodge’s three short ‘Speech Songs,’ a very natural sounding male voice delivers short phrases quite intelligibly. The voice also sings with more exact intonation than any human singer I have ever heard. As you might expect, it can also sing for a very long time without taking a breath. Unfortunately, this computer-created voice lacks the expressive range of the human singer, and tends to go off on electronic tangents, but it is rather lovable just the same, and Dodge has explored its limited possibilities inventively and amusingly.

Dodge’s ‘Earth’s Magnetic Field’ was also presented on this program of computer music at the Kitchen Friday night. It’s expecting a lot to ask you to imagine a virtuoso sitar player whose instrument plays only white notes and has a quality something like a car horn. But that’s the best way I can find of describing the piece. Dissonant electronic notes occasionally fade in in the upper register, while this bizarre sitar line drifts rhapsodically through variations of its white note melodies, occasionally inserting virtuoso arpeggios. It is not a particularly pleasant piece, but it has a compelling personality. One has the feeling that the piece is not simply a result of something the composer wanted to do, but that it worked itself out.