Algorithmic Music
July 5, 2009 8:21 AM   Subscribe

The principles of Harmonics were discovered by Pythagoras c.587-c.507 B.C. during travels to Egypt and throughout the ancient world. Hans Kayser made a profound philosophic study of harmonics in the 20th century. Algorithmic composition is the technique of using harmonic algorithms to create music. Drew Lesso has been creating algorithmic music since 1975. Samples like Crystal, Constellations, or Planet Earth demonstrate the math behind the music. Over the years, Lesso has collaborated with many other musicians and poets to create an airy, evolutionary legacy.
posted by netbros (19 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting post, but the actual measurements chosen to develop the harmonics seem arbitrary.
posted by francesca too at 9:08 AM on July 5, 2009

francesca: How so?
posted by phrontist at 9:25 AM on July 5, 2009

Oh, you mean Lesso's measurements?
posted by phrontist at 9:29 AM on July 5, 2009

Wasn't 12-tone music algorithmic, with all sorts of rules in how to the music must be written? It is non-harmonic, however, so I never liked it. Then again, it reminds me Lesso's music in how uncomfortable it makes me feel.
posted by eye of newt at 9:34 AM on July 5, 2009

The principles of Harmonics were discovered by Pythagoras c.587-c.507 B.C. during travels to Egypt and throughout the ancient world.

Nope, false.

Does he even deserve credit for his most famous accomplishment, analysing the mathematical ratios that structure musical concordances? Possibly, but there is little reason to believe the stories about his being the first to discover them, and compelling reason not to believe the oft-told story about how he did it. Allegedly, as he was passing a smithy, he heard that the sounds made by the hammers exemplified the intervals of fourth, fifth and octave, so he measured their weights and found their ratios to be respectively 4:3, 3:2, 2:1. Unfortunately for this anecdote, recently rehashed in the article on Pythagoras in Grove Music Online, the sounds made by a blow do not vary proportionately with the weight of the instrument used.
posted by painquale at 10:16 AM on July 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

francesca: How so?

In Constellation, the measurements between stars are derived from flat projections, not actual distances between stars and very approximate.

In Planet Earth the measurements are based on approximate land masses.

In Crystal, the measurements totally ignore significant figures and seem to be based on an arbitrary weigh, switching from metric to non-metric units, having a rounded off 2.5 lb translated into a figure in grams carried to 4 decimal places.

I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with what Lesso is doing, I actually found the sounds pleasing, in a zennish way. I just was a little irritated by the not rigorous math basis. (I'm anal)
posted by francesca too at 10:40 AM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

not rigorous math basis.

In my mind, this is where the music + algorithm idea breaks down. Too rigorous and the musicality is lost, too loose and the philosophy of the thing disappears.
posted by sundri at 11:16 AM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

This all reminds me of Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land - starting at 2:40 especially. This was one of my favorite cartoons growing up, but we didn't own it, my neighbor did. They finally just let me borrow it, because I always wanted to watch it when they were babysitting me and my younger brother.
posted by Kimothy at 11:45 AM on July 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ooh, you always makes such cool posts netbros. A definite +fave. Seconding the zennish feeling. It reminded me of the Buddhist concept of shunyata, the spaciousness and the wave/particle theory of light, the paradoxical reality of matter and energy existing at the same time.

I love-hate the MeFite nitpicking and fuss-budgeting that goes on in threads. Hate it because it's missing the mountain for the mote in one's eye kind of thing. I want to yell, but did you listen to this amazing music that is part gamelan and part windchime?!! And then I love it because it's always an education to squint closely at something and really look at it, be exact, precisely accurate. Always do learn things in the damn nitpicking.

I love this music! Just right for this balmy July afternoon with a fire escape full of blossoming pots, the window wide open, getting ready to head outside.

Just the other day I was listening to this little rascal (aged 11) playing on the guitar and savoring his use of harmonics. It made me wonder about harmonics in general, how they work and why they are so beautiful.

Nice to learn about and enjoy Drew Lesso's creations.
posted by nickyskye at 12:37 PM on July 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've also seen the term "algorithmic computer music", which is usually a rather different thing. In that genre, researchers try to create computing algorithms that can generate "stylistically-appropriate" music automatically (usually with some sort of seed theme provided by a human). From what I can gather (I haven't read the literature in at least a decade), this tends to work better in genres that have well-defined style and form rules (e.g., "classical" music, folk dances, etc), but not so much in other genres.

On another angle completely, Heinrich Schenker, the creator of Schenkerian analysis, use a "natural law" interpretation of natural harmonics to give weight to his analytic system. Mind you, he also wandered into metaphysical and religious territory to justify his claims and tended to focus primarily on proving that only Bach, Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven were any good and that popular music (esp. jazz) was the devil pinch of salt, YMMV, etc. (note: the post-war "Americanization" of Schenkerian analysis has done a lot to scrub away these bits.)
posted by LMGM at 1:35 PM on July 5, 2009

hey you guys? On the front page of the artists' site, for Crystal, the little cube picture starts moving if you look at it long enough.


why, yes - my middle name is Woah Dude. What a polite inquiry!
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 2:52 PM on July 5, 2009

Algorithmic composition is the technique of using harmonic algorithms to create music.

This is wrong. The link the statement goes to directly contradicts it. There is atonal algorithmic composition, and serial algorithmic composition, as well as process compositions, which are created with an algorithm that includes steps influenced by a human's aesthetic or creative judgment.
posted by idiopath at 3:34 PM on July 5, 2009

To elaborate, the wikipedia page cites John Cage and Iannis Xenakis as algorithmic composers, and while both have written a small number of tonal pieces, neither have written anything notable that is both tonal and algorithmic (while I am an avid listener of both composers I am not enough of an expert to say such a composition does not exist - let me just say I would be surprised if I heard of one).
posted by idiopath at 3:40 PM on July 5, 2009

Algorithmic composition is the technique of using harmonic algorithms to create music.

This is wrong.

Sorry idiopath. Thank you for the correction. Make that:

Algorithmic composition is the technique of using harmonic algorithms to create music.
posted by netbros at 3:58 PM on July 5, 2009

Getting past my experimental-music-geek terminology and definition hangups to actually listen to Lesso's stuff, the algorithms he is using are not harmonic.

In Constellations, the distances between stars on a star chart end up determining the frequencies. Given a regular distribution of visible stars, this would produce atonal music (unless of course you mapped to a particular scale and never modulated keys). Also, I would call this more of a process piece than an algorithmic one, given that he gets his melody from the star charts and then writes the accompanying chords by hand.

OK, really leaving behind the geeky technical quibbles now, this is enjoyable music that stands in that uncanny valley of composition, where I sometimes am sure that I am hearing random notes and sometimes am sure I hear the traces of human creative judgment. I am sometimes suspicious of the motive to use numbers that come from things like stars and crystals for this kind of composition. I am pretty sure that the data regarding the content and distribution of sewer line sludge would sound similarly interesting, and the source of the data is just a superficial "gee-whiz" for a less educated audience.

Some guy on the supercollider list serve made a program that interpreted a computer's network activity and rendered it into gong sounds in real time, with each port sounding a different gong, giving a sort of gamelan effect depending what you do with your computer.
posted by idiopath at 4:01 PM on July 5, 2009

Hey, 12-tone music does too include harmonies! (Usually.) Just not the harmonies you'd expect.
posted by No-sword at 4:22 PM on July 5, 2009

That's a tricky claim No-sword, because you kind of need to start bending and breaking current main stream definitions of the word harmony. Of course when listening to 12-tone music, or atonal music, I listen for patterns in combinations of pitches, but to call that harmony brings up a whole boatload of annoying and distracting semantic quibbles I would rather avoid.

While I could argue against mainstream composers and listeners that their theories of harmony are needlessly limited and over-generalize egregiously it is easier to just not call what I compose or prefer to listen to harmonic, and let them have their silly over-generalizations and embarrassingly sweeping claims.

Of course this makes it ironic that I would go all pedantic composer nerd on this post, but I had to destroy the village to save the the country or something like that.
posted by idiopath at 4:39 PM on July 5, 2009

Thanks. Especially intriguing is the stuff at the Kayser site. I imagine all those people spending all those years for all those centuries contemplating the interrelationships of the Kosmos in the never-ending struggle to *make it all work*.

Danks zu himmel, now there's Palin and Oprah to help us avoid such odium.
posted by Twang at 4:59 PM on July 5, 2009

@idiopath: I can't detect any inharmoniousness in chromatic music any more. Not even any jar in a tritone.

However, when it comes to 12-tone serials, *that* you can keep. I lean to the French school on that one.
posted by Twang at 5:02 PM on July 5, 2009

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