Robert Henke’s CBM 8032 AV performance at the Barbican

Posted February 8, 2020 in music  |  No Comments so far

A couple of weeks ago I went to see Robert Henke’s CBM 8032 AV performance.

The basic idea is that all audio and video is provided by an array of four Commodore CBM 8032 computers. These are old machines, older than the C64 or Vic 20, and weren’t made with graphics or audio in mind. So, to make these computers generate music and video, they’re running custom software developed by Robert Henke and his team.

The result is something that might have been technically possible when the machines were released in the early 1980s, but would have been a vast undertaking given the rudimentary nature of available software development tools at the time. (I’m assuming here that Henke & co didn’t actually write their custom software on the 8032s – if they did I’d be even more impressed!)

I like the idea of a computer or device being unwittingly controlled by technological forces from far beyond the time of its origination. It’s a similar concept to emulation, but in this case the newer technology isn’t playing host to its ancestor – it’s acting as a puppetmaster, holding strings that were always part of the ancestor’s design but moving and manipulating them at alien speeds. Robots that solve the Rubik’s Cube in less than a second are another example I guess.

There were loads of people at the performance which I was quite surprised by. I had thought it would be a too niche to draw a large crowd, but it seemed to be sold out. As soon as we arrived at the Barbican it was clearly packed. Also, I was probably among the older cohort among the crowd. It wasn’t like when I went to see Cybotron and there were a lot of grey hairs in the audience.

Robert Henke gave a short speech at the start about the project and about the Commodore CBM 8032. He suggested it was part of the final generation of computers to have been humanly comprehensible, or in other words simple enough in its design that a human being could expect to read and fully understand its specification. He got a laugh from the crowd when he popped open the computer – the monitor and keyboard folded back to reveal the internals, like the bonnet of a car.

Aesthetically, I had certain expectations of the sort of music that would be involved. If you tell me that someone is going to make electronic music with a bank of Commodore CBM computers I will have a clear idea of what it’ll sound like: either a chiptune ode to retro computer game soundtracks or, essentially, a Kraftwerk retread. And the first few tracks in the performance were definitely in the latter category.

I was captivated enough by the visuals not to mind so much the unsurprising nature of the music. The green pixels were really being stretched to their limit, doing things I haven’t seen on these sorts of displays. There certainly wasn’t anything retro, gamey or nostalgia-driven about the video part of the performance. It was almost sinister or uncanny, to see retro display technology being utilised in this sort of way.

As the performance went on the music also started to diverge from the Kraftwerk “Metal on Metal” template and took on a more abstract, ominous, challenging character. I wasn’t sure exactly how much external audio processing was needed to get these machines to make sounds like this, but can only assume it was a lot. There were a few points where the visuals and music combined to create genuinely chilling, almost dystopian, moments.

When the credits were shown at the end, I wasn’t surprised to see that a pretty large team of artists and technologists had been involved in the project. It was a big success with the audience and with me too. It’s a project that could, in different hands, have ended up as an interesting but creatively uninspired proof of concept, using the CBM machines to render the Arkanoid soundtrack and so on. But Robert Henke and his team approached both the creative and technological aspects of this project with full force, and the result was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

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