Perhaps More Conceptual Art than Anything Else, Except That The Music Sounds So Engaging
Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 4:03PM

A lot of my composing work over the past year has been using data from various mathematical things as a source for making music. Finding a clever way of realizing those numbers into sound is part of the fun of composing like this. Is there some kind of unique gestural activity hidden away in this sequence of numbers, and is the music I'm realizing with this able to show that uniqueness? These are the kind of questions that usually occupy me.


When I'm using, for example, a chaos equation, or the digits of pi, or other kinds of generated material for data, the implication is that the equation could generate new data forever, and the length of the piece is simply a matter of where I chose to hit the "stop" button. But there are some sequences that do have a finite length - they're just very very long. For example, these days mathematicians are continually discovering prime numbers which are longer than any discovered before. The current longest prime, as of today - 3 January 2010, is 2^ 43112609 - 1, discovered on 23 August 2009. It's 12, 978,189 digits long. So, although long, it's not infinite. Here's the website for those of you interested:


Another source of information is strings of letters - these can make very interesting patterns. As Chris Mann points out, we call these patterns "words." If one could turn a text into a string of letters and read those letters out one at a time, converting them into numbers, this would be another source of information with its own unique probability distribution, that of the distribution of letters in the language you're using. (The old nonsense phrase "etaoin shrdlu" is a list of the frequencies of the 12 most used letters in English. Google it for a lot of fascinating trivia.) One of the things added to ArtWonk version 4, was the ability to do just that, in a number of different ways.Many people have done letters to numbers to notes conversion in the past, not just the BACH or DSCH or ASCH of classical German composers, but more extensive use by composers such as Jackson MacLow and others. But I don't think it's been possible to do this with a large text, easily and in real time, before. As a source text, it occurred to me that an ideal one would be James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. After all, it's a very long text, and it's on-line (, and it's got just about all of human history contained within it. Plus, Joyce's continual use of puns and neologisms sort of guaranteed that the string of letters would have something other than the usual English "etaoin shrdlu" distribution. (Although I haven't investigated that - I'll leave that to the Joyce scholars!) I converted the first 60 pages of the Wake into a string of letters (no punctuation or spaces). It was just over 100,000 letters long. On the basis of this I can estimate that the full 645 pages of the Wake would be just over a million letters long. Not quite as long as the world's largest prime, but enough to keep life interesting for a while.


Then it occurred to me - why not do both a once? Back in 1997, I'd done a couple of pieces with the digits of Pi and the digits of the square root of 2 - Pi controlled music in one channel and Root 2 controlled music in the other. I could do this again, but here, my two sources of information would be very different - so why not have different kinds of music for them?


And so, Ladeez and Hermorphrodites, for your entertainment and amusement, a brief excerpt from





Warren Burt: Finnegans Wave Vs. The World's Longest Prime - first 5 minutes


This might be more of an excursion into conceptual art than anything else, except that the music here sounds so engaging. The stately bell like sounds in the left channel are produced by the digits of the worlds longest prime controlling the Alchemy softsynth which is playing an additive synthesis timbre made up of the first 10 prime numbered harmonics (and no fundamental) on a just-intonation scale of the first 10 prime numbered harmonics. Pitch (each harmonic in its proper octave), duration, loudness are all controlled by the digits of the world's longest prime, appropriately scaled.


The demented pseudo-folk music in the right part of the stereo space consists of accordion, ocarina, viola and tabla (substituting for bodhran) samples in the Wusik sampler playing in a 13 note scale which is prime numbers 3, 5, 11, 17, 31 and 41 treated as harmonics and subharmonics (with 1/1 left in for good measure). The data source here is the first 60 pages of Finnegans Waken each letter being interpreted as a number between 0 and 25. Each instrument plays over 2 octaves in the 13 note scale, with durations and loudnesses also controlled by the numbers produced by sequencing through the letters of the Wake. Each line starts the sequence at a slightly different place, so the right channel music is also a kind of pseudo canon.


The left channel music, slow and stately, also exists in a kind of stasis - its type of activity doesn't change a lot. This is to be expected - the digits of a prime number in the long term are very close to an evenly distributed series of random numbers - in the long term, there's probably an equal chance of any of the specified durations, pitches, etc. happening. The right channel pseudo-folk music, however, is produced by a decidedly non-random series of letters - the letters of Finnegans Wake - and there will be all sorts of surprises, as Joyce repeats, puns, and collides words together.


(And as a smart-alecky musicological note - of course, some mathematician is going to discover a new longest prime any day now.  In that case, the title of this piece will become "Finnegans Wake Versus the World's Second (Third, Fourth, etc) Longest Prime."  I'm not going to make even more work for myself by trying to keep up with every advance in mathematics!)


The excerpt here is only 5 minutes long. My crude guestimate of how long it would take to play the entire piece was originally just over 25 days. However, that was before I slowed down the tempo of the left-channel music. So now, I guess the total length would be several months. In the interests of good taste, and download bandwidth, I'm limiting this excerpt to 5 minutes. However, if any museum curator is reading this, and would like to have the piece installed as a sound installation, just get in touch. For an appropriately large fee, I can manufacture as much of this as is required.


Article originally appeared on WARREN BURT (
See website for complete article licensing information.