Not long ago, we featured software engineer and master of music visualization Stephen Malinowski’s graphical rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Earlier this year, we also offered up a video of the piano-roll recording that captured not just the music but the playing of Claude Debussy. It so happens that, if you peruse Malinkowski’s Youtube archive of music-visualization videos, you’ll find more Debussy therein: a graphically scored version of Clair de lune. You see above a high-resolution remake, but do note that the original has by now racked up very nearly 22 million views, which, even for such a well-known piece of music (not just the most famous movement of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque which contains it, but surely one of the most famous works of 19th-century French music in existence) must count as something of a high score.
You’ll almost certainly recognize the piece itself. But what have we on the screen? Clearly each block represents a sound from the piano, but what do their colors signify? “Each pitch class (C, C-sharp, D, D-sharp, etc.) has its own color, and the colors are chosen by mapping the musician’s ‘circle of fifths’ to the artist’s ‘color wheel,’” Malinowski writes in the FAQ below the video, linking to a more detailed explanation of the process on his site. He also recommends watching not just the Youtube version, improved its resolution though he has, but the newer iPad version: “Because the iPad can support 60 frames per second (instead of the usual 30), the scrolling is silky smooth (the way it’s supposed to be), and you can watch it at night, in the dark, in bed. You can get the video here.” The Music Animation Machine creator also addresses perhaps the most important question about this piece, originally titled Promenade Sentimentale, which has both signified and elicited so much emotion over the past century: “Is it just me, or does this piece make everyone cry?” Malinowski’s reply: “Maybe not everyone, but lots of people…”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.