Photo: Lara Sobel plays with naturally-synthesized fractals by burning into wood via high voltage.

Fractals, those wacky self-similar, rough geometries that resemble so many patterns in nature, were once all the rage. Ravers and digital artists embraced them, only to get bored with them, apparently. To billions of years of evolution and natural phenomena, they’re still cool. And to me, there’s still plenty to talk about when it comes to thinking how fractals might be all the rage.

Composer Terran Olson, a musician with a long resume that includes work with the Ives Quartet and Quartet San Francisco, takes on the idea of fractals in a new article. Writing for our friends at Rain Pro – makers of music and visual pro PC laptops – Terran explores how fractal patterns could be applied to sound.

Exploring Audio Fractals

The results are fascinating: they’re a kind of fractal synthesis. Of course, that gets at the heart of the question: just how do you map a visual pattern like a fractal – or anything else visual – to music? The answers aren’t always intuitive. The biggest question is whether to work at the scale of sound (Terran focuses on individual samples and impulses), or to deal with musical patterns. I knew I had read a fractal article in Electronic Musician; sure enough, in 1999 EM did a story on fractals that focused instead on pitch mappings. (Bonus: Bach even comes up.)

Fractals and Music

Composer Gustavo Diaz-Jerez penned that story, and the results tend toward algorithmic music. Many of the tools are now gone, though some survive (Csound) and other tools (Max/MSP, Pd, SuperCollider, Reaktor, ChucK) could certainly fill in.

And, of course, for a truly high-level musical approach to fractals, skip the individual sounds or individual notes and write a whole song, like Jonathan Coulton’s brilliant fractal ode, “Mandelbrot Set.” (It should also help anyone needing to, erm, brush up on their fractal theory.)

Sadly, neither of these articles is especially useful as how-to – great on theory, but not so practical if you haven’t tried these things before. That begs for a new tutorial. Are you working with fractals these days? I’d love to hear what you’re doing.