Eye To Eyebeam: A Conversation With Alexander Chen

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Trained as a string musician, Alexander Chen uses HTML5 and Flash to build interactive virtual string instruments from source material as diverse as a Gibson Les Paul, the New York subway system and, most recently, a classical cello. Baroque.me visualizes the notes of the first Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suites as continuously shifting strings, and is the first part in a planned series of graphical representations of baroque music. By utilizing the mathematics behind string length and pitch, Alexander spotlights the underlying structure and subtle shifts in the musical piece. While at Eyebeam, he's part of a collaboration with New Visions to develop strategies for maximizing digital learning as a member of Digital Teacher Corps. After noodling with the Les Paul Google doodle, Eyebeam intern Katherine DiPierro spent some time with Alexander to talk about interactive musical design.

Katherine DiPierro: MTA.me, which interprets Massimo Vignelli's subway map as a living string instrument, interprets train routes in a way that can only be described as transfixing. How is baroque.me similar or dissimilar to MTA.me?

Alexander Chen: I just launched baroque.me as the first project in my Eyebeam residency. It visualizes the Prelude from the first Bach Cello Suite. I started thinking about this idea after the launch of MTA.me, which generated a melody from the New York subway map. That project generated music from a visual source. The Bach project was the reverse of that, generating visuals from a musical source. The MTA.me project was also designed to seem creator-less, as if the subway was authoring its own melody. Here, I wanted to explore the beautifully, intricately structure that Bach authored.

The piece came from the simple, mathematical relationship between string length and pitch. It simply asks, "What if all the notes were generated as lengths of string?" I used a group of 8 strings, following the musical phrasing. So at any given time, you are seeing a visual snapshot of a musical phrase. I set out to create a new way of visualizing the notes in the piece. But in the end, I was surprised at how the end piece, with its shifting strings, felt more like watching a performer.

KD: A portion of your projects seem to feature ways of rethinking the way information’s displayed - using the sound of plucked strings to represent objects or composing soundtracks to represent people. Would it be fair to describe a site like MTA.me (or even your current work at Eyebeam) as an infographic?

AC: Sure. I like infographics. Although I think infographics' success should be measured by their clarity to communicate information. But on projects like MTA.me, I've sacrificed clarity for playfulness and aesthetic value. Instead of communicating accurate data, I'm trying to communicate more emotional qualities. With MTA.me, it's reframing chaotic, mundane data as something emotional.

The Bach project was kind of the reverse. Everyone hears that piece as very emotional, but I wanted to approach it from a completely non-emotional way, working only with the note data.

KD: From Crayong to the Les Paul Google Doodle, the bulk of the projects you’ve worked on feature virtual string instruments. How do you produce a virtual string instrument?

AC: I started coding a simple prototype for making virtual strings instruments with Crayong, in 2010. I approached it more like making a toy, not from a more scientific string modeling approach. I've been playing classical viola since the 4th grade, and I really just wrote a little interaction model that felt the way I feel when I pluck a string on the viola. I have a bit of science'ish aspects built in, with longer oscillating more slowly than higher strings. I also give the longer ones a bit more slack. But in the end, I think of my creations more as toys. I wrote the prototype in Flash, then later ported it into HTML5 Canvas for MTA.ME and the Les Paul Doodle. I also brought it into Processing for the collaborative project Stringer on Music Hackday.

KD: In addition to translating string instruments to the web, how do you negotiate being both a musician/composer and an interactive design engineer?

AC: I've always enjoyed jumped around a lot, from doing commercial design work at places like Google, to being a musician and recording albums (under the names Boy in Static and The Consulate General). I do feel different parts of my brain working when I'm wearing various hats. Sometimes it's been hard to juggle. But I think recent projects like Baroque.me and MTA.ME come from an area of intersection. Both instincts as a musician and as a commercial designer feed into these kinds of projects.

Thanks so much for the interview, Alexander! For the latest on Alexander Chen's current and future projects, be sure to visit his Eyebeam profile, personal site, and musical sites (as Boy in Static and The Consulate General).