Visualizing Bach: Alexander Chen’s Impossible Harp

“Music,” Got­tfried Leib­niz famous­ly said, “is the plea­sure the human mind expe­ri­ences from count­ing with­out being aware that it is count­ing.” Com­put­er artist Alexan­der Chen makes this plea­sure vis­i­ble with Baroque.Me, his geo­met­ric com­put­er ani­ma­tion of the Pre­lude to Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach’s Cel­lo Suite No. 1 in G major.

Chen visu­al­ized the piece by imag­in­ing a harp with strings that would auto­mat­i­cal­ly morph into dif­fer­ent lengths accord­ing to the prin­ci­ples of Pythagore­an tun­ing. “It’s math based on the frac­tion 2/3,” writes Chen on his blog. “I start­ed with the longest string, set­ting it to a sym­bol­ic length of pix­els. When cut to 2/3 length, it goes up a fifth. Cut its length by 1/2 and it goes up an octave. 3/4 length, one fourth. From these sim­ple num­bers I cal­cu­lat­ed the rel­a­tive string lengths of all the notes in the piece.” He used eight strings because the Pre­lude’s phras­ing is in groups of eight notes. The strings are “plucked” by two sym­met­ri­cal pairs of nodes that revolve at a uni­form rate, rather like a dig­i­tal music box.

Chen, 30, lives in Brook­lyn, NY, and works in the Google Cre­ative Lab. One of his most pop­u­lar pieces for Google was the Les Paul Doo­dle, which allows users to dig­i­tal­ly strum the gui­tar strings. Chen grew up learn­ing music and com­put­er pro­gram­ming in par­al­lel. He plays the clas­si­cal vio­la, but with the Bach ani­ma­tion he want­ed to remove the per­former’s inter­pre­tive ele­ment from the music. “It’s a piece that I’ve heard a lot since I was a kid,” Chen told the BBC recent­ly. (See the “Math­e­mat­i­cal Music” pod­cast, Nov. 3.) “Peo­ple always bring dif­fer­ent lev­els of expres­sion to it. Peo­ple play to dif­fer­ent tem­pos and they add a lot of dynam­ics, or less dynam­ics. But what I want­ed to let the com­put­er do was just kind of to play in a real­ly neu­tral way, because what I real­ly want­ed to express was how much emo­tion and inten­si­ty is just in the data of the notes them­selves. I think that’s real­ly where the beau­ty of the piece at its core is.”

To hear the Pre­lude with the inter­pre­tive ele­ment back in, you can watch this video of Pablo Casals per­form­ing it in 1954:

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