What Impossible Music Looks And Sounds Like

"Black MIDI" packs notes so densely that the musical score, if written out, would look like a smear of black ink.

From the moment human beings decided to make art that involved something more than their own voices or bodies, technology has channelled creativity. New tools beget new art forms beget new tools, and around and around it goes. "Black MIDI," a subculture of electronic music remixing that mutated into existence in Japan five years ago, is an aesthetic snapshot of the early 21st century if there ever was one. It's digital, viral, and truly "multimedia"--because it's music, data visualization, and software demonstration at once. Here's an example of the form (you might want to use headphones for this):

The stuff is called black MIDI because the idea is to pack as many notes as possible--the above example contains 4.5 million--into a short musical arrangement. If you attempted to transcribe these arrangements in classic musical notation, it'd be impossible to read (much less play by hand) because the written notes would fuse into an impenetrable black tangle.

Obviously, this is a form of music that couldn't be created or even conceived without digital tools--starting with MIDI itself, the three-decade-old technical standard for linking and controlling electronic instruments. But what's fascinating about black MIDI isn't the rather trivial gamesmanship of stacking notes. It's how the art form draws its meaning from fusing graphic, aural, and technical design together into something that's more than the sum of those primitive parts. Is the clip above a graphic pattern set to music, a sequence of notes animated in time and space, or a UI demo as performance art? Yes.

Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't want to experience black MIDI on a regular basis. But I can't deny that there is a legitimate and fascinating design challenge in arranging a musico-visual-interactive pattern like this. It sounds surprisingly melodic; the visualizations are mesmerizing; and the software being demonstrated (often an app called Synthesia) is familiar, legible, and evident. Subtract any one of these dimensions, and black MIDI loses an essential part of its aesthetic meaning. (You can see what I mean if you click on this piece, which preserves the aural component sans the graphic and software-demo aspects.)

I have no idea what the process is for designing a piece of black MIDI, and I don't necessarily like it. But one thing's for sure: In an age where the phrase "new media" has become an empty cliché, this is the real thing.

[Read more about black MIDI]

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  • Marc Higgs

    what a pile of crap it would be phisically impossible for 1 person to play this and so it would be broken down into several scores if you took any major orchestral piece and put it on one score it would be the same . complete and utter shite !!!!

  • Reginald Tulk

    As someone who's used MIDI and sequencing software since the 80's, I have a hard time getting excited about this. It looks to me like somebody got their settings wrong and took an entire orchestral composition and smashed it down into playing on a single piano keyboard, essentially turning the conductor score into a single staff. "Turn OMNI mode OFF you idiot! " Frank Zappa composed "the black page"; I'd much rather get excited about that.