Fugue machine is how Bach would have made a sequencer


I have two words for you: multiple playheads.

Oh sure, you’ve got your piano rolls and your step sequencers and your arpeggiators. But can you roll like Johann Sebastian (or Arnold… as in Schoenberg)? Can you take a single melody, and make more complex patterns by echoing them, turning them upside down?

That’s the idea behind Fugue Machine.

The app is the work of Alexandernaut, aka developer and musician Alexander Randon. (You may know him from such apps as the wonderful Arpeggionome or Android’s Arpio.) The design ought to please music theory nuts and newcomers alike, because it satisfies both with tune gymnastics that are immediately visual and audible. It’s really what melodic sequencers in the computer age ought to be – not primitive imitations of what you can do with melodies, but accessible automatons, treating the melody as fluidly as it appears on a displays.

And yes, you can imagine you’re Bach:

Tap in a melody, and then let up to four playheads go at once, changing speed, direction, and pitch. The results can range from baroque to ambient, based on the parameters, but you can in fact set up some smart polyphony – check the videos.

It’s clear the iPad is becoming the platform of choice for innovative sequencers, and perhaps a must-have companion for MIDI mavens. Watch for ModStep, too.

The story behind the app is interesting, too. This is San Francisco in its old, more artistic guise, blending technology and art without the Silicon Valley pastiche. The app was born on Alexander’s desk in the Tenderloin district, in the historic Hyde Street Studios. It’s also the first output of Gray Area Foundation for the Arts’ incubator. And while “incubator” and “app” have come to be associated with the Almighty Dollar, this is a non-profit initiative – and as such privileges creativity before cash. (Useless trivia: in the very distant past, CDM was part of an event or two there, some time before I made a run for the German border.)

Gray Area’s head Josette Melchor is a community organizer and curator, not just a director, and has created a fulcrum of some of the world’s leading creative tech while keeping ties to social impact at a time when that conscience is sorely needed.

Even TechCrunch is taking notice.

For more:

Looking forward to playing with this one. Let us know what you make with it, iPad users.

Now, for anyone who says it’s just about the music, and not about the tech, that’s the whole point. Sure enough, Alexandernaut has released a lovely album made with the app. The compositional and development process are here really one and the same:

I have no doubt that composers like Bach would have developed apps. Indeed, you could argue that the mechanisms they created were the apps of the time – just written down. Mozart had his famed card and dice game, Musikalisches Würfelspiel, if you believe the attribution, but you could easily see the same devices in Bach and others.

By Peter Kirn