Bach is easy. If she brings him up, you just smile and you say: “Ahh, Bach.”
November 4, 2011 5:01 AM   Subscribe

Bach as graph. -- An interactive visualization of the Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude.
posted by crunchland (51 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm no music theorist, but it doesn't seem like this is unique to Bach. The circles are just the beat and since you change the notes (by changing the lengths of the strings) in between beats you can play pretty much any piece of music that keeps time.
posted by DU at 5:10 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm no music theorist, but it seems to me that this is cool and beautiful.
posted by Elmore at 5:15 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm no music theorist.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:19 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


By way of apology for that, here's another, somewhat silly, visualisation of some Bach.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:23 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many thanks--passed this on to a professional cellist who also enjoys technology.
posted by rmhsinc at 5:24 AM on November 4, 2011


I guess my computer's not fast enough to play Bach, because the timing was atrocious, I guess my computer needs to practice more or something.

Speaking of neat Bach animations, I like this thing: Canon. It start's off a little slow and ordinary seeming, but it builds up.
posted by smcameron at 5:25 AM on November 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


How exactly is this interactive?
posted by greatgefilte at 5:30 AM on November 4, 2011


This was created by Alexander Chen - who was featured previously for his visualization of the MTA. He also worked on the Les Paul Google Doodle.
posted by avoision at 5:32 AM on November 4, 2011


Here's a non-interactive version of the same thing for the computer-speed impared.
posted by crunchland at 5:33 AM on November 4, 2011


I like this thing: Canon.

Nice.
posted by Elmore at 5:34 AM on November 4, 2011


This is not a movement of a cello suite, it's the prelude to the first fugue (C-major) of the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier (WTC 1).
posted by Dr. Fetish at 5:42 AM on November 4, 2011


How exactly is this interactive?

You can hover your mouse pointer over one of the circles and affect how it hits the strings, but I can't figure out why I would want to.
posted by straight at 5:43 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


greatgefilte: "How exactly is this interactive?"

You can drag the balls with your mouse and use them to pluck the strings.

This isn't groundbreaking or anything, but I always enjoy seeing visualizations of the relationship between music and geometry so thanks for posting it.

This piece has always made me happy, and it's cool how differently it's approached by various cellists. For example, Yo Yo Ma plays it much as you'd expect - all slurred and groovy. OTOH, Rostropovich played it like he was going to war.
posted by vanar sena at 5:47 AM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Uh, sorry, no coffee yet. This is indeed the first movement of the G-major cello suite.
posted by Dr. Fetish at 5:48 AM on November 4, 2011


This is not a movement of a cello suite, it's the prelude to the first fugue (C-major) of the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier (WTC 1).

It is, as advertised, the Prelude of the Cello Suite No. 1 in G. There is a family resemblance, though; they are both based on 8-note arpeggiation patterns.
posted by dfan at 5:48 AM on November 4, 2011


Apologies for this...

Metafilter: You can drag the balls with your mouse and use them to pluck the strings.
posted by Elmore at 5:50 AM on November 4, 2011


Anybody notice how the circular paths put the notes just slightly out of rhythm? Especially the first and last of each eight note sequence.

Also, if we're talking performances, I'm partial to Janos Starker for this piece.
posted by Wemmick at 5:54 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


No apologies necessary, I mentally went hyuk hyuk as I clicked the post button too.
posted by vanar sena at 5:55 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Listening to the difference between the way Yo Yo Ma and Rostropovich played the Cello Suites was was a big eye-opener (ear-opener?) for me when I was first starting to pay attention to classical music.
posted by straight at 5:57 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have to give props to the submitter for the title.
posted by MrGuilt at 6:10 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anybody notice how the circular paths put the notes just slightly out of rhythm?

Yes, was driving me crazy, but I thought it was because my computer was too slow. Bach needs strict timing.
posted by smcameron at 6:29 AM on November 4, 2011


Bach needs strict timing.

Tell that to Pablo Casals.
posted by dfan at 6:36 AM on November 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, in bar-graph form. As a person who cannot read sheet music without an awful lot of effort, I actually quite like this sort of visualization to understand what is going on in a piece of music. And I'm always somewhat amazed that this can be played by a single person.
posted by FishBike at 6:58 AM on November 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


I watched that with the sound off, and I could tell see the dominant pedal building tension as a set of line lengths started holding steady. It would elucidate the work's richness better if they found some means to visualize the formal structure further.

That there are four nodes is interesting since there is a four phrase structure. They could maybe build on that. Eight might be better, though that breaks down. Sets of nodes in larger circles that intersect together would be neat. Interesting puzzle.

The circular path causes a speeding up and slowing down of each figure that sounds remarkably like a youth performer. I personally prefer a steadier pulse in a piece of this style. A vertically aligned ellipse would lessen this problem or a calculated, offsetting string spacing would even things out if they don't want to write a variable velocity. Distorted ellipse? Another interesting puzzle.
posted by zangpo at 7:04 AM on November 4, 2011


I'm no music theorist, but it doesn't seem like this is unique to Bach. The circles are just the beat and since you change the notes (by changing the lengths of the strings) in between beats you can play pretty much any piece of music that keeps time.

This could definitely handle generic MIDI files -- that's a great idea and someone should get on it.

You're right that this is just a way to represent music measure by measure as geometric shapes. It's very much like sheet music, but in a way that's easier to take in for people who don't read sheet music (like me). The reason to do that with Bach in particular is that he was very aware of the mathematical patterns he was forming with his compositions. Check out this bit from Godel, Escher, Bach:
The ten canons in the Musical Offering are among the most sophisticated canons Bach ever wrote. However, curiously enough, Bach himself never wrote them out in full. This was deliberate. They were posed as puzzles to King Frederick. It was a familiar musical game of the day to give a single theme, together with some more or less tricky hints, and to let the canon based on that theme be "discovered" by someone else.
(If you're interested you can pretty much read the whole chapter here, starting on page 3.)

So Bach is thinking of his compositions as mathematical games, and ones his audience is sophisticated enough to play. Pop music doesn't do that. If you put a modern pop song in this format, I would bet it's much less interesting to watch -- just the same few patterns repeated over and over. And if you put a different modern pop song in, it will use the same few patterns as the first one.

As someone who only really listens to that kind of music, Bach's patterns are totally lost on me. It's like I'm listening to Shakespeare in a foreign language, and judging the play based on whether the actors' voices sound pretty. Along with most of my society, I'm functionally illiterate from Bach's perspective.

This visualization seems like a way to give people like me some small idea of what it would be like to be literate in Bach's musical language. I think that's pretty neat.
posted by Honorable John at 7:05 AM on November 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


That's highly significant.
posted by davelog at 7:17 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Parent of a budding cellist here; it's been great fun learning about the different approaches to this suite taken by the variety of cellists. Rostroprovich "going to war" indeed. Casals is so swoony by comparison. When Casals "discovered" the cello suites, I wonder what influenced his style of playing them, since there was no precedent?
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 7:28 AM on November 4, 2011


And I'm always somewhat amazed that this can be played by a single person.

You want to be really amazed? Watch this. Skip ahead to about 5:30 to watch Richter play one voice of the fugue with his feet. Also recall that he is playing the entire thing with a slight lag -- nothing happens when he presses a key until the air has time to move through the pipes.

But he's not playing it entirely alone. He has a kid standing behind him to pull the stops.
posted by The Bellman at 7:45 AM on November 4, 2011


Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, in bar-graph form.

This needs to be a level in Mario.
posted by DU at 8:25 AM on November 4, 2011


Holy crap, that whole channel is awesome.
posted by DU at 8:34 AM on November 4, 2011


I'm no music theorist, but it doesn't seem like this is unique to Bach. The circles are just the beat and since you change the notes (by changing the lengths of the strings) in between beats you can play pretty much any piece of music that keeps time.

To a certain extent yes, but Bach's music is so beautifully structured that I feel like it might not work as well for other composers. My knowledge of classical music theory and composers is embarrassingly limited, but J.S. Bach's compositions interface with my brain like nothing else I've heard. It was validating when I saw Oliver Sachs' brain on Bach.
posted by usonian at 8:42 AM on November 4, 2011


Holy crap, that whole channel is awesome

Yeah that program is the closest approximation to how I experience music. Except for me, pitches feel like they line up to heights on my head, so the highest notes are near the top of my forehead, middle C is about at eye-level (a little lower), and the low notes are at my lower jaw.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 8:44 AM on November 4, 2011


I'm no music theorist, but it doesn't seem like this is unique to Bach. The circles are just the beat and since you change the notes (by changing the lengths of the strings) in between beats you can play pretty much any piece of music that keeps time.

Not so much. They way it's set up now you need something that has a constant rhythm. Otherwise you'd need to change the distance between the strings every note. It also really only works as a visualization if the whole piece is based on a repeating pattern. The whole thing is watching Bach tweak the pattern from what it starts as to its most distant descendant. I'd guess the reason the balls do circles instead of just being dropped is it emphasize the fact that it's just one pattern being repeated and toyed with, rather than a series of unrelated phrases.

Bach needs strict timing.

Not in this case, Preludes were meant to have some ebb and flow. They balanced out the more formalized pieces that followed. You also find etudes and fantasias in front of fugues, etc. for the same reason.

My favorite visualization of Bach's music is actually a little doodle by Stravinsky I saw. It was one of several (I remember 3): Bach, Beethoven, and the Stravinsky's own music. Unfortunately I can't seem to find it online.

I love Huxley's description of Bach as "the music closest to silence." It's even better in the original temperament.
posted by Gygesringtone at 9:30 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


For example, Yo Yo Ma plays it much as you'd expect - all slurred and groovy. OTOH, Rostropovich played it like he was going to war.

Wow, really? I hear them completely differently than this. When I listen to Yo Yo Ma play this piece, it seems like he's fighting with it to play with precision as it's written. When I listen to Rostropovich playing it, I hear him finding (or making) more meaning in certain parts and less in others. To be honest I don't think the recording you linked to is his best. Often he had a very similar phrasing to that of Pau Casals, who taught the cello to Rostropovich's father.

I have spent some time trying to figure out this piece by ear on a bass guitar, so maybe that informs my hearing some - but I'm also not very good at it ;)

Edgar Meyer's recording on the double bass is also worth checking out, but I can't find it on youtube.
posted by atbash at 9:34 AM on November 4, 2011


What circles? What interactive? All I'm seeing are some white lines on a red background. is my computer broke?
posted by charlesminus at 9:42 AM on November 4, 2011


FishBike's bar graph link made me think I might actually get what "fugue" means for the first time. You can see the patterns repeating higher or lower, inverting so that the steady note is on the top or the bottom, etc. Extremely awesome.
posted by marginaliana at 9:46 AM on November 4, 2011


What circles? What interactive? All I'm seeing are some white lines on a red background. is my computer broke?

This may imply that your monitor's brightness is miscalibrated or that you've found a bug in this software or your web browser or something else entirely. There are some straight thick white lines that grow and shrink in length and some thinner white lines that are basically circles, and some biggish white dots that travel on the circles through the straight lines.
posted by atbash at 9:53 AM on November 4, 2011


Here's another bar-graph layout. Organ Hero anyone?
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:04 AM on November 4, 2011


So Bach is thinking of his compositions as mathematical games, and ones his audience is sophisticated enough to play. Pop music doesn't do that. If you put a modern pop song in this format, I would bet it's much less interesting to watch -- just the same few patterns repeated over and over. And if you put a different modern pop song in, it will use the same few patterns as the first one.

As someone who only really listens to that kind of music, Bach's patterns are totally lost on me. It's like I'm listening to Shakespeare in a foreign language, and judging the play based on whether the actors' voices sound pretty. Along with most of my society, I'm functionally illiterate from Bach's perspective.


I think that, in general, it's a little simpler than this. It probably requires a certain amount of music-theoretical ability to solve a riddle canon, but other pieces are not so insular. I like to get in fights with art students about the fact that the analytic machinery they use to pick apart abstract paintings -- where the language of proportion*, texture, and motif rules -- saw regular use centuries before anyone ever needed to apply it to the visual arts. "Understanding" abstract music is more a matter of developing a certain aural acuity that can be picked up with repeated listening, so that the structural significance of certain patterns becomes clear by how often they appear and where and how. It's like learning to drive stick: you don't really need a theoretical understanding of how the drivetrain works to get a feel for when the clutch is catching the flywheel.

And, for what it's worth, a lot of pop songs would be just as interesting when visualized if you chose different parameters to represent. It could show variations in timbre via some type of spectrum analysis, maybe.

* It's this part, specifically, that gets a lot of people thinking that Bach's music is basically a type of mathematical exercise. Even if the proportions of Bach's work are profitably described in mathematical terms (and they often are), it doesn't change the fact that those proportions are the vessels** for his musical content, which benefits much less from a quantitative analysis. If I seem like I'm being contrarian, it's only because I think that the mathematical framing of Bach's music is a bit of a distortion, and a pernicious one in that it encourages people to think that such music is an impenetrable, secret language of the divine or Platonic realms.

** This is not to say that musical content and form and proportion are not interdependent, rather that the music benefits from an understanding of form as an expression of musical content as opposed to musical content as an expression of form.
posted by invitapriore at 11:34 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's this part, specifically, that gets a lot of people thinking that Bach's music is basically a type of mathematical exercise.

It also doesn't help that the majority of Bach's work gets overlooked. He wrote cantatas, lots and lots and lots of cantatas. They were meant to be written quickly, put together quickly, and sung once and to deal with whatever the reading was for that week.

Things like the Brandenburg Concertos, the Crab Fugue, etc. were meant to be clever and show off his compositional skills.
posted by Gygesringtone at 11:48 AM on November 4, 2011


No kidding. His schedule in Leipzig sounded grueling as all hell to me, but I guess I'm not Bach.
posted by invitapriore at 12:00 PM on November 4, 2011


I'm convince (and I have no proof for this other than a hunch) that the reason Bach was consistent enough for us to base music theory on is because he wrote had to write so much so quickly. He flat out didn't have time to experiment or innovate.

That said, the man was the most brilliant of a family of brilliant musicians and composers. It stands as a testament to his skill that EVERYBODY studies his music, even those that set out to completely ignore it.
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:11 PM on November 4, 2011


Wow, that's just a whole mess of typos.
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:15 PM on November 4, 2011


It's this part, specifically, that gets a lot of people thinking that Bach's music is basically a type of mathematical exercise.

He's so much more. The Gavotte and Gigue from the 6th Cello Suite is stuffed full of catchy, delightful melodies.

The Chorale from Cantata 140 begins with one of my favorite melodies in all of music, and then you discover that the whole thing is "just" an accompaniment part to a hymn ("Sleepers Awake").

And if you listen to the last three minutes of the first movement of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, you'll discover that Bach invented the '80s heavy metal guitar solo. (But don't do that. Listen to the whole thing. It's beautiful and charming and has more of his catchy melodies.)
posted by straight at 12:22 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


One of the first recordings I purchased, as a teenager with his first cassette player, was Wendy Carlos' 'Switched-On Bach'.

I enjoyed the music very much, but for some reason the quality of recording was really disappointing. I could hear all these Bach pieces that I was already quite familiar with, but for some reason they were all very, very quiet, and I could only hear them clearly with the volume cranked up the the maximum. And even then, something seemed a bit 'off'. A couple of the tracks seemed so much less musical than the others.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and a school friend, also into vintage electronica, pointed out something that should have been obvious from the start - that my cassette had been assembled with the tape in upside-down. So whenever I played it, I was listening to the wrong side of the tape, which meant that it was running backwards.

Thus I acquired a deep and abiding appreciation for the very clever Herr. J.S. Bach.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:44 PM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


It was validating when I saw Oliver Sachs' brain on Bach yt .

Thanks for that link. Thanks to a kind YouTube commenter, I finally know what piece of music he was listening to.
posted by homunculus at 3:37 PM on November 4, 2011


FishBike: “And I'm always somewhat amazed that this can be played by a single person.”

The organ stuff is incredible, and I'm always enthralled by great organists, from Karl Richter to Jimmy Smith.

However, that brings me back to the piece at hand, and Bach's fantastic and soaringly beautiful Cello Suites. It should be noted that Bach's Cello Suites are actually impossible to play on a modern cello. See, nowadays the bows people use on cellos are strung tight and built to stay that way; but in Bach's time, cellos were bowed with these odd loose bows that the player could pull tight if she or he wanted. The effect of this was that, while on modern cellos the bow can't touch more than two strings at once (since it's in a straight line, and the strings are along a curve - a straight line can only touch a curve at two points, right?) – on these old baroque cellos, you could play all four strings at once if you wanted. And in Bach's Cello Suites, you're often supposed to.

Up above, dfan mentioned Pau Casals. Pau Casals ("Pablo" in Spanish, but he was Catalan, and Pau was his given name) is notable in this because, not only is he arguably the greatest cellist ever recorded, but he was the one who invented the method for playing Bach's Cello Suites on a modern cello. Before him, they were consigned to the dustbin of history as just another outmoded piece for a defunct instrument. I think we owe Casals a massive debt of gratitude for digging these up, recording them, and largely making them what they are today.
posted by koeselitz at 9:52 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


he was the one who invented the method for playing Bach's Cello Suites on a modern cello

What exactly is that method? Are you talking about the way players will do a sort of quick arpeggio beginning just ahead of the beat to sort of get the feeling of 3 or 4 notes at a time?
posted by straight at 12:19 AM on November 5, 2011


With all this talk of Bachmaths, I happened to come across this TEDx talk on pattern-free music on slashdot today.

paging idiopath

atbash: Wow, really? I hear them completely differently than this. When I listen to Yo Yo Ma play this piece, it seems like he's fighting with it to play with precision as it's written. When I listen to Rostropovich playing it, I hear him finding (or making) more meaning in certain parts and less in others.

Not saying Rostropovich's rendition is lacking in expressiveness as such, it's more a comment on the tempo, aggression and the precision with which he sticks to the rhythm. Then again I'm hardly a trained ear in this sort of music.
posted by vanar sena at 2:35 AM on November 5, 2011


...In Bach's time, cellos were bowed with these odd loose bows that the player could pull tight if she or he wanted...

I fear you're bringing the Viola da Gamba in the mix here, which is also a stringed, bowed bass instrument, but in ways of stringing, tuning and bowing, a pretty different beast than the Cello. Here, the bow (link above, skip to "viol bows") is indeed played with the hand below (instead of above), making it possible for the player to control the tension of the hair (with the thrd and fourth finger, if I'm not mistaken). Bach's suites aren't for Gamba, though.

Baroque Cello bows did have a somewhat lower tension than modern ones; the change to higher tension (in combination with a higher string tension) took place in the early 19th century. But that has little effect on how the chords are broken (arpeggiated, would be the baroque manner; modern Cellists often play first two notes together, and then the two other ones); this is predominantly a question of deciding about your technique.

[Then, there are a few chords in Bach's suites that can't be played no matter what. There used to be a video by cellist Job ter Haar out there where he demonstrates how he stops a string using his chin, but I can't find it now.]

...commenting on DU's comment, the first of the thread: the trick displayed here does indeed work well for pretty much any piece that is made up of regular broken chords, or runs, within a relatively small range of tones, so that has indeed little to do with the piece being by Bach specifically. But t is a neat visual effect nonetheless.
posted by Namlit at 6:53 AM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bach's suites aren't for Gamba, though.

If you want to hear Bach on the Gamba, I recommend Hille Perl's Per la viola da gamba.
posted by homunculus at 10:00 AM on November 5, 2011


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