See this. Be amazed. Commentary follows.
A recurring theme of this blog is me worrying about my culture’s long-term estrangement from serious composed music. Never mind the reasons behind or scope of the problem. My constructive side (he’s smaller than my righteously indignant side, but he’s there) wonders how the craft and genius of composing might be made vivid and relatable to more people, especially those who haven’t had formal music training.
Reading music notation is obviously not a prerequisite for feeling overwhelmed by great music. But I sympathize with those who dismiss or ignore composed music because they don’t know what’s happening or what to focus on. My player’s orientation in classical music shaped the way I hear composed music so profoundly that I can’t guess what it’s like to experience it as a complete civilian. I have to assume it would sound pleasing and evoke feelings, but wouldn't it be like watching a hockey game with no concept of the rules? You’d see the speed and strength, but you’d miss 90 percent of the story of the game. I believe most of the rush of composed music comes from apprehending as clearly as possible how the pitches, timbres and rhythms were arranged, distributed, organized and sculpted. Part of that sensation is intuitive and part of it must be cultivated. Could it be possible to demonstrate to a listener in real time the simultaneous factors at work in a piece - the parts and the coherent whole?
Enter Stephen Malinowski. This composer and computer scientist has spent a long career focused on this question, and I can not fathom why his work isn’t widely known and deployed. His “Music Animation Machine” is helping me pieces with a clarity I’ve never known, including my time as a staff-reading violinist. Here's his homepage and here's a fascinating timeline showing how long this has been in the works. I've done a bit of research into visual representation in music and I've found plenty of vague and artistic computer-generated images (think the iTunes visualizer) but as far as I can tell, Malinowski is the ground-breaker in showing the actual quantitative, composed information in a piece in a way that enlarges on and demystifies the written score.
The Kreutzer Sonata above is the first MIM video that really dazzled and seduced me. The piano notes are represented with parallelograms, the violin with ovals. Early editions of the MAM produced blocky pong-like animations that didn’t offer much insight beyond pitch and duration. But this movie shows dynamics, attack and decay vividly represented. We can see interesting stuff like the fact that Beethoven almost never calls for a piano note to decay all the way on its own. Instead, they have crisp endings. We can see when the violin is used in the foreground and when it’s subordinated to the piano, playing delicate arpeggios as the piano plays the “top” line. We can see when piano and violin are asked to play lines in parallel or in counterpoint (moving in different directions). The entire musical staff is represented bottom to top so that we can really feel when the music is spread out wide from deep bass to high treble and when it’s restrained to a narrow part of the spectrum. The shifts between such passages can be “read” by the layperson as they happen in real time even has we hear it happen. I can’t think of any way other than a dry lecture to even begin to reveal to curious listeners what’s happening, how and when.
Discoveries in neuroscience reveal why the MIM is so vivid and penetrating. A huge part of our emotional involvement in music comes from the manipulation of our capacity to predict the tensions and resolutions in music. Our brains in a sense sit on the edge of their seats as lines evolve and approach harmonic home base. If we hear a big dominant chord, our minds desire to hear its related one chord. But like a good seduction, the climax is hinted at, delayed, proposed and withdrawn, until our whole being is wired and giddy. The weird thing about music is that knowing something is coming doesn’t ruin it, as if somebody’s whispered “he’s about to die” at a key moment in a movie. In fact, like a favorite novel read for the 20th time, the awareness of the plot in advance actually engages the mind and heart. The MIM literally shows you every move the music’s going to make before it happens, in this case five to six measures. And that very thing heightens the whole experience. Anybody watching this can put himself in the shoes of the violinist or piano player and sort of internally mimic the music in real time. I found myself physically conducting and viscerally experiencing the piece via the graphical musical code Malinowski has developed.
To animate literally means to bring life to, and composed music ceratinly need a new lease on life in 2013. Malinowski’s work is as exciting and life-bringing as anything I’ve seen since my parents took me to live performances when I was a kid. How do we mainstream this guy’s amazing innovations?