Stephen Malinowski has cultivated his own patch of YouTube ground over the years with the Music Animation Machine, slowly scrolling visual representations of classical music. The videos, like the one above, use shape and color to interpret pitch, duration, and more recently dynamics and intervals in a hypnotic style that references both Oskar Fischinger and Guitar Hero.
Personally, I’ve been a fan for years and watched his style evolve from the basics of a “piano roll” scroll to these much more complex animations, just as smalin (his YouTube name) has gone from working with solo piano works to the density of Beethoven’s symphony scores or the chaos of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
Many music lovers who are not musicians but understand enough about composition will often follow a printed score when listening to classical music; I would suggest that this is one better than the traditional notation, as smalin’s method makes individual instruments in a quartet easy to follow; or show the interplay between left and right hands in a Debussy piece; or lay out in visual terms the variations on a theme or pattern (especially in Bach). For those who love but “don’t get” classical music, these videos are a step towards clarity.
The Music Animation Machine started long before the Internet. Malinowski (a graduate of my alma maters SBCC and UCSB!) dates the beginning to 1982, and the inspiration came from a “hallucination” he had while listening to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin.
“As I listened to the music, the notes on the page were dancing to the music — but at the same time, they were the music. It was so charming and graceful — the flag of an eighth note extending like a ballet dancer’s arm; pairs of notes, moving in parallel thirds and sixths, like dancers stepping hand-in-hand … I was delighted!”
The idea to animate was suggested by a friend and dovetailed into the technology of the time, especially the birth of MIDI. Too self-critical to be a performer and too forgetful to be a composer, Malinowski turned to computer programming and visualizing scores as the listener, not the performer, understands them. It’s been his life’s work. Explore his big collection of animations and also his animation techniques.
Be wary, though. Watching one isn’t enough–writing this article was a continual struggle between the deadline and animated bliss. You just may find yourself similarly and pleasantly lost.
Note: Here’s a list of Malinowski favorite and most popular videos:
Grainger, Children’s March
Mozart, Sonata for Two Pianos, K 448, first movement
Bach, “Little” Fugue in G minor, Organ
Debussy, First Arabesque
Rimsky-Korsakov, Flight of the Bumblebee
Debussy, Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’
Beethoven, Symphony 7, Allegretto, mvt. 2
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Sousa, Semper Fidelis
Ligeti, 6 Bagatelles, III. Allegro grazioso
Bach, Brandenburg Concerto 4, 3rd mvt.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.