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.

And, via Nick Inhofe, a making-of video is available for viewing!

  • I wonder how long that took!  Amazing what can be done if you put your mind to it.

  • This 'making of' vid was posted in the comments on the NY times site but I figured I'd relay it here –

  • Just one comment – – this work by Bach is not really so 'polyphonic', is it? It's got the nice melodic line (which is a killer on the oboe, I've tried it!), and the usual harmonic background which at times hints on countermelody. But, like, compared to 'Contrapunctus X' from the 'Art of the Fugue', I mean, really, Peter! (or, one of my favorites, #24 from St. Matthew's Passion, 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu Wachen'. Remember, Bach is once rumored to have IMPROVISED a four-part fugue for some member of the European royalty of his day. Oh, and, the '4-part fugue' feature in Abelton Live – – where is that, anyway? (Polyphony is sadly not such a priority in contemporary music, it seems. I don't know – – prove me wrong.)

  • I love the video, and appreciate the tranquility and peace the joyful little ball brought bouncing through the forest. I'd just read an article about the austerity protests in Athens though, up on the Guardian (I'll post the link at the bottom), and thought that, in a different way this ad reflected our current economic reality. Bach's one of the standard-bearing signs of the Enlightenment, and while I'm not familiar enough with the piece in question to go much deeper with this Exegesis, here we see (and hear) the religion and humanism of his work as a fragile toy, a Rube Goldberg contraption, and a slightly smug gimmick. I'm not attacking the concept, or its value as a think-piece for questions of musical representation, but presenting a counterpoint:

  • Peter Kirn

    @SkyRon: Well, the chorale orchestration is certainly polyphonic! Yes, it's not quite the Art of the Fugue. I think I mostly want to imagine more than one of these wooden tracks. Something to ponder. 🙂

    @zeroreference: I wasn't terribly interested in the phone that funded this ad – such is the nature of advertising. Beyond that, I can't for the life of me imagine the connection of Bach to Greek austerity protests, but maybe you can expand on that idea? What's the Enlightenment got to do with anything?

  • Damon

    Oddly enough, I noted the phone and liked it. So, despite the add being creatively brilliant, it did in fact promote the product at least to me. Course, that is not the point of this article, but oh well.

  • @Peter: Well, I hope I'm not jumping the semiotic shark completely, but here goes….we have high-cost, intensely researched advertising (i.e. expensive TV and web ads) because they're required in order for capitalism and consumption, as they are now, to function. Capitalism and consumption, as they are now, is dealing with the aftermath of their own disaster from 2008. The EU austerity measures are a part of that, and the protests in Athens are a response to that. The ad and the protest are, in different ways, different products of the system, but they're occurring at the same time. Bach and the nature of the ad itself I see more as an opportunity for relevant cultural criticism. I don't know too much about Bach, but I think the composer and his music are often referenced as symbols of rational humanism or enlightenment culture, an ideology which under neo-liberalism or whatever there is now is collapsing and transforming into something else. In the ad, I hear and see the complex, heartfelt, highly ordered and religious music of Bach made fragile, fantastic, and toylike. Not only is the musical device itself constantly at risk of collapse (which is part of what makes the ad so great), but the very reason for its existence taunts us. Why on Earth would anyone make a device like that in the middle of the empty, pristine woods? It can only exist as a novelty, and thus represents the primarily symbolic nature of our humanistic (or Enlightenment, I'm unsure and don't want to belabor the difference, which I hope is OK) values under corporatism, or capitalism, or whatever it is we have now. 

    OK. I hope that made some sense. I'm not trying to be snarky or anything like that. And I apologize for speaking so much on some issues where my own knowledge is lacking. My aim isn't to talk shit about the ad or its production, but to subject it (for my own understanding and pleasure) to creative analysis. Peace.

    P.S. I did a tiny bit of web research on Bach and culture and did find this:&nbsp ;

  • …or now that I've written all that garbletygook, maybe this:

    The fragility of Bach in the ad (via the height of the track and the bouncing ball at risk of falling off it) mirrors the fragility of the humanistic values (which Bach is often called upon to represent) under current economic pressures. We can also see this fragility in the protests in Athens, and in Greece's precarious economic situation in general.

    Of course, the bouncing ball could also be the joyful celebration of the human spirit, a glorification of God, or man becoming over-man via the embrace of risk, a la Nietzsche. ; )

  • Jamsire Ernoir

    Contrapunctus X – my new rap name.

  • I see where you coming from @zerofreference, was thinking along similar lines myself recently. Big brands have become experts, through the use of smaller "hipster" agencies at appealing to the zeitgeist of youth culture. I'd go so far as to say that the marketing agencies are even defining the zeitgeist itself. 

    So what is the perceived zeitgeist? Reckon its ruffly that the youth have nothing to rebel against anymore, are conservative, think they lack authenticity because of their online lives and are fearful of the future and change…this all manifests itself in looking at ourselves through retro camera filters, analog vs digital, environmentalism, shallow one line online communication, adverts that dress up technology in nature to make it more palatable ;)…the list goes on.

    Yet we are in the midst of the biggest transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the super rich in history. And what are we doing? Sticking our heads in some retro sand and hoping the people in those grainy super 8 videos who brought us into the world will fix it. But thats not going to happen. 

    I think we are just on the edge of some massive fundamental cultural changes, as our generation realize the mess we are in, stop clinging to some fake past and start to grabble with the problems we are all going to have to face pretty soon. But I have upmost faith that we will work it out…

  • greg

    @peter Counterpoint literally requires at least 2 melodies, even for first species.
    You must have a _Gradus_Ad_Parnassum_ floating around somewhere, yes?
    There's no "essence" here to distill, only the much more worthwhile, timely discussion of what Bach would think of step (ha!) sequencing, considering the central role that improvisation played in his ideas about music performance.

  • @Gavin: thanks gavin. And thanks peter for being a discussion enabler 😉

  • TJ

    "MIDI is often derided for being simplistic…."

    If so, then it's the derisive person's concept of MIDI that's simplistic. Between the instant a 'single event' is sent, and one second later, MIDI is capable of a minimum of 1000 changes in a sound (to about 100 different parameters) … PER CHANNEL. I suspect no musician can effect anywhere near that much control in a second. Since the ear can't discriminate events closer than 20milliseconds apart, that's fast enough to change the timbre to equal the complexity of any acoustic instrument. And given the hardware to send each channel on a different circuit, that degree of control can be extended to all desired instruments. If 7 bits of levels is too limiting, pitchbend has 14 bits that can be re-mapped to any desired parameter.

    In short … instrument makers may fall short of adequate implementations, but that's not MIDI's fault; it's capable of doing as much as the most demanding musician could desire.

  • @peter Hi peter, Thanks for your great article of this project. I and Hiroshi (from&nbsp ; were cooperate in making some parts of this wooden instrument with invisible designs lab. (
    I've just heard this project won a golden prize of Sound Design/ Cyber Categories at Cannes Lions. : )