The Well-Sequenced Synthesizer


Exploring theory though technology

Luisa Pereira’s project uses synthesizer technology to get inside the rules of Baroque counterpoint

JS Bach is one of the most celebrated composers in the history of Western music. A great figurehead of the Baroque period, his music – which set the rules for most, if not all the composers who came after him – is among the most-loved, most-performed and most reinterpreted in the classical canon.

Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe – Douglas Adams

Artist and programmer Luisa Pereira is one of the latest to explore Bach’s music using modern technology. A musician herself, Pereira initially set out to discover whether computers could be taught to react to musical signals as well as musicians can.

Presenting her work at NYU, she said: ‘Rules can be coded. And when I started thinking about the rules of music, the first thing that came to mind was the rules of counterpoint. The fugues, especially, are like clockwork. And how that clockwork works is very intriguing to me.’

Watch this animation of Bach’s first Prelude and Fugue in beautiful HD on Classical Music Reimagined’s Apple TV app

Pereira’s challenge was to use technology to better understand the mechanisms of Bach’s fugues, which are governed by the strict rules of Baroque counterpoint. The result was the Well-Sequenced Synthesizer, a series of electronic sequencers which allow users to ‘play with the rules of music’.

The name riffs on Bach’s well-known collection of Preludes and Fugues for keyboard, The Well-Tempered Clavier. It’s also a reference to the American composer Wendy Carlos, whose 1968/9 albums Switched On Bach and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer used a modular Moog synthesizer to play works by composers including Bach, Handel and Monteverdi.

Pereira’s Well-Sequenced Synthesizer, meanwhile, is a series of three devices:

1. The Counterpointer

Users can program this device to play an eight note cantus firmus (a sequence of notes that forms the basis of a polyphonic composition) by using a series of sliders at the bottom of the module. Switches at the top enable the user to add up to two additional voices that are programmed to follow the rules of Baroque counterpoint as they interact with the main tune. The pitch (higher or lower), tonality (major or minor) and tempo (fast or slow) can all be altered here, too.

2. El Ordenador (‘The computer’)

Separate to The Counterpointer, this device ‘carves chaos into order’ by allowing the user to apply a series of constraints to randomly generated chord progressions. Each constraint can be turned on or off with a switch, either defining the key of the music or setting it to random.

3. La Mecánica (‘The mechanics’)

The third module in the series incorporates a traditional, hand-operated music box mechanism – complete with punch-card paper strip – that plays back the chord progressions generated by El Ordenador.

The resulting trio of sequencers let users tinker with the rules of Baroque counterpoint in a tactile, responsive way, enabling understanding to become more intuitive. The results aren’t exactly concert-ready, but that’s not the point. Pereira’s instructions are simple: ‘Look into music theory. Program rules. Design control interface. Play with them. Repeat.’