In 1983, a young concert pianist named Diana Dabby took a break from practicing for a solo piano concert and found herself absorbed by a journal she stumbled on in the library at Lincoln Center in New York. Written by physicists and engineers, the articles were devoted to the future of music. Dabby, who had two degrees in music and thought constantly about the topic, found that she could barely make sense of its predictions.
Most people would have shrugged their shoulders and gone back to doing what they were good at. Dabby decided to put herself through college—again—by playing concerts and giving music lessons while she earned a second bachelor’s degree, in engineering, at the City College of New York. She went on to graduate school for electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dabby dreamed of a future in which musicians would acquire the skills of mathematicians, engineers, and physicists and use their artistic intuitions to, as she puts it, “come up with something for music in our time.”
The idea that science and art have something important to teach one another has been trotted out so often that it has become a truism, yet it often falls short of the truth. More often, one field seems to borrow the jargon or aesthetics of the other without bringing over the substance. Dabby, however, wanted to bring science to bear on music directly—and eventually she found a way to do just that, by using math to generate new musical ideas. Late last year, she launched a Web app called CantoVario that uses ideas from chaos theory to generate variations from any music file. (Listen to some variations of notable pieces of music here.)
By design, it’s not necessary to know much about math or music to use CantoVario. A would-be chaotic composer need only click on a particular effect, choose a spot on a color wheel to set how close or distant they want the new version to be to the original, and—like magic—the program generates a new audio version of any song. Some variations sound almost unaltered, while others are unrecognizably minced up. A Scott Joplin rag may jag off in unexpected ways. A Franz Liszt piece can evolve so many times that it may become hard to remember which is the original and which merely a computational riff. In effect, it’s using math to generate inspiration.
Dabby’s work has begun to capture the imagination of people drawn to its novel use of mathematical ideas or to its musical potential; the South Korean pianist JongSun Lee, for instance, recently commissioned and performed an original piece and a variation. But it is hardly well known. Dabby, who is now a professor at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, has kept a low profile in the math world, focusing more on her work’s creative potential.
In fact, though, Dabby’s project touches on a much larger theme: Variation is at the heart of all kinds of creation, and she has invented a new way of generating it. Dabby sees herself following in a musical tradition that stretches from Bach to John Cage. But variation is far more pervasive than that, showing up in all kinds of art and in each of us—down to the slight tweaks in our DNA that make us all recognizably different, though identifiably human. Accordingly, some people are beginning to borrow Dabby’s ideas to generate chaotic variations beyond music. The principles of her work have now been used to create new dance “chaography,” computer-generated variations on rock climbing routes, and even a chaotic remix of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
“When I first started dreaming of something new for music, what I really wanted to do was reach the man and woman in the street,” said Dabby, who speaks in a light, dreamy voice with the earnest conviction of a character in a Victorian novel. “This is not meant to just generate music; it’s meant to take a piece that you or your band or someone has written and allow the composer or the musician or the listener to go on a journey with that piece, into uncharted domains.”
Steven Strogatz , a mathematician known for his work in nonlinear dynamics, was just developing his class on chaos at MIT when Dabby showed up in his classroom. She had been given a journal on chaos by another professor, and had read it cover to cover.
“I understood enough to sense there was something there for music,” Dabby said. “It was as if the artistic side of me—every corpuscle of that side—was resonating with what I was reading. So I decided I would find out more about chaos science.”Continued...