Scattering apocalyptic scenes gathered from present-day natural disaster, war and technological breakdown into the standard pop-rock 4 minutes formula, almost ten years after its original release, Radiohead’s Idioteque may have acquired the status of a classic, a work which just stopped defining a period, to stand for lasting and timeless values.
Fragments of decades’ worth of information age hysteria, alienation and chill are packed and recontextualized in this one period-defining song, capable of convincing the last guitar oriented hardcore listeners that artificiality and electronics may sound humanly real.
Generally considered as the first big representative song of the online age, a decade which drowns under waves of petabytes’ worth of informations while nostalgically looking back for an idealized tradition of retro imagery and lost crafts, it is equally reassuring and astonishing, to discover that Idioteque’s main chord progression is a credited sample from one of the first experimental computer-generated musical pieces.
According to its creator Paul Lansky, “Mild und Leise” (watch the video below) was composed in 1973 using the Music360 computer language on a big IBM 360/91 mainframe, which occupied a large room in the Princeton University at the time and boosted a whole megabyte of memory.
“At that point, we were actually using punch cards to communicate with the machine, and writing the output to a 1600 BPI digital tape which we then had to carry over to a lab in the basement of the engineering quadrangle in order to listen to it.”
“The piece came out on a Columbia/Odyssey LP in 1975 or so as a result of a contest run by the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). It was called Electronic Music Winners (I’ve occasionally seen it for sale on eBay), and Johnny Greenwood came across it in a used record shop when the band was on tour in the United States recently (…)”
Adding meat: The “Mild und Leise” chord progression Radiohead used was itself “sampled” by Lansky from a leitmotif of the Richard Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde. Idioteque contains a further sample from the “Short piece” by Arthur Kreiger. (We would gladly thank anybody who can find and link some mp3 or video evidence of these two references).
More information on the original “Mild und Leise” piece here, on its author here and some more on Idioteque’s Wikipedia page.
The music and art of Radiohead, a collection of academic essays on Radiohead, containing a short piece written by Paul Lansky.
“What’s especially cute, and also occurred to Johnny Greenwood, is that I was about his current age when I wrote the piece-sort of a musical time warp.”
A time warp, indeed.