A Music Machine That Acts Like A Circuit Diagram

Diodes buzz and resistors twang in this synesthesia-inducing visual sequencer.

Music is usually about what you hear, not what you see. But beginning in the early 20th century, musicians and artists began questioning the division of sight and sound–a transition John Cage described by saying, “If this word music is sacred and reserved for 18th- and 19thh-century instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.”


Cube With Magic Ribbons, a visual sequencer for live performances, induces synesthesia by charting rhythms and harmonies in a 2-D paper space that pivots and changes with the music. Developed by the U.K. musician and programmer Simon Katan, the app shows us the evolution of a single tape-head (the square) into a layered composition. He built the whole thing using SoundCircuit and, in case the reference wasn’t clear, named it after an M.C. Escher painting that shows a series of surfaces within a polygonal cubic framework.

The Escher influence is obvious, but Cube With Magic Ribbons is also a visual takeoff on the circuit diagrams of middle-school physics classes. Each new effect takes the form of a different diode or resistor–the fuzzy, crackling sounds mirror the reference. “As the piece unfolds, the nature of this already confusing space reveals itself to be increasingly elastic and complex, yet inexorably intertwined with the musical form,” Katan says. “As the tape-heads travel through the resultant network, the topological layout of the tracks comes to directly influence the macro form of the music.”

Right now, Cube With Magic Ribbons is Katan’s personal creation–but he’s contemplating developing it for public consumption after the response he received online. His hesitation stems from the ambiguity between sight and sound–he’s not sure whether it’s a tool or a piece of his own art. “Everybody keeps asking me the same thing,” he explains over email. “I’m undecided as to whether the interface is the music or not. If I release the app, will I be selling a new tool or an interactive version of my music?”

Check out Katan’s website for more info.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.