You may have seen it already as it makes its viral rounds, but an advertising video for Japanese mobile giant NTT Docomo is a poetic model of how musical events are encoded, whether through means tangible or digital.
A track of pitches makes a wooden ball into a mallet, traversing a track as it is driven by gravity. The keys of that track become a xylophone, the traversal of space sequencing notes in time, and you hear Bach Cantata 147, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” While there’s a clever take on a trill, the only disappointment is that we don’t get polyphony – I’ll let you work out the Rube Goldberg-style machination necessary to make that happen. This being Bach, though, a single line itself contains contrapuntal motion and sounds just beautiful on its own.
But it’s also remarkable how the idea of Bach, the essence of the musical information, can be so neatly encoded in a simple machine. Computing, after all, owes its very existence to tangible, mechanical constructions first developed for textile manufacture. We get punchcards because these devices were built for automated clothing makers, containing logic in mechanical form. MIDI is often derided for being simplistic, but in that same simplicity is the elegance with which we can store a musical idea – a simple representation of relative pitch in time is often enough. And whatever the source, there is a relationship, as in this video, between the simple stored event and the complex sound that can result once triggered by that event.
As you watch the track extended through the forest, you also see the way in which a single melody line is spatial. There, against a forest, there’s a wonderful sense of the conceptual against the organic, artificial thought against a deeper universe.
Oh, and, uh, you’re supposed to by a phone or something, but I’ll ignore that part since most of us aren’t even in a part of the world that’s getting the phone.
It is, however, all real. Filmed in Kyushu, Japan, it’s the work of acclaimed director Morihiro Harano, who insisted on doing all of this record in the field. In fact, it’s too bad we don’t know more about the recording, as that in itself is a story — and requires careful balancing of natural sounds to create the final mix. There’s more information in a lovely blog post by Lia Miller, for The New York Times:
Doe, Xylophone, Cellphone
Also, great headline. A doe’s a deer, a female deer, right?
While not the intent of the ad, I know I’ll return to this image the next time I’m reflecting on encoding music, scores, time, and space. And maybe I’ll be fortunate to do so in the woods.
Thanks to Liz McLean Knight (Quantazelle) for the inspiration.