Artist, programmer and tech genius Alexander Chen makes music online
by Janice Chou
A multi-instrumentalist, artist and programmer, Alexander Chen works as an interactive designer for New York’s Google Creative Labs — a roundtable of filmmakers, writers and artists who churn out inspired Google-related projects. With a loose job description, Chen personally focuses on the musical and visual arenas, conceiving a sort of neo-Fantasia wonderland for 2012: creating video interpretations of music, designing computer simulated and interactive digital string instruments.
Chen is perhaps best recognized as the mastermind behind the exceedingly popular Google page takeover honoring musician Les Paul’s birthday. The “Les Paul Google Doodle” converted the Google logo into a guitar for users to create, record and share their own riffs and melodies. During the doodle’s reign, users recorded 40 million songs — over five years worth of music.
The phenomenon stemmed from a computer code Chen wrote during weekends and nights. Dubbed “CrayonG,” the program takes scribbled lines and turning them into instrument strings users could pluck and strum. Chen built upon this foundational code for his ambitious “MTA.ME” project. Adopting graphic designer Massimo Vignelli’s iconic New York City subway map from 1972, Chen’s “MTA.ME” turned the map into an interactive string instrument. In only two weeks “MTA.ME” garnered nearly 100,000 visits and, in time, evolved into the “Les Paul Doodle”.
Nearly a year after the Les Paul Doodle captivated the world, Chen reflects on iPad ukuleles, tempering his creativity, and how he chooses to visually capture the abstract: music.
As you’re conceptualizing a project, where does your focus lie: the video and visuals or the music and the sound?
I think it’s really both, especially with “MTA.ME.” The whole point was to turn something visual, that’s not inherently musical, into something musical. The visuals were a straight homage to the [Mario] Vignelli’s 1978 subway map. I left that part deliberately under designed because I wanted it to be as closely tied to that as possible. It was really introducing the musical element to it that brought it to life...
"The whole point was to turn something visual, that’s not inherently musical, into something musical." -- Alexander Chen, on designing 'MTA.ME'
As you were designing “MTA.ME,” you set up parameters for yourself to follow: trains leave their end station every minute; routes fade over time; and only so many lines run at once. Do you always set up those rules for yourself?
I like to give myself reasons for the decisions that I make. For example, on the “BAROQUE.ME” project, I had to decide on the background color for the piece and I didn't want to arbitrarily pick a favorite color. I looked up some old codes other people had come up with to translate a musical scale into the color spectrum. […] I found it neat that people correlated the two (the rainbow spectrum with the musical scale) and landed at the note G as red. Because the Bach piece is in the key of G, I chose the background color as red. I like to have rules like that. With the “MTA.ME,” I wanted to have it as closely replicate the actual subway experience as possible. The rules were designed to help me get [it] that way.
You’re designing interactive platforms that the general public has never imagined and yet have an intuition of how it should work, for example, longer string should resonate lower tones. How do you consider the user experience when you’re designing these projects?
I didn't want to replicate a viola or replicate a guitar. I don’t want computers to remove the need for real instruments, but I wanted the computer to do something that instruments can’t do. I found the with “CrayonG” the unpredictability was fun because I couldn’t draw the lines the precise length that I wanted so I would just scribble lines and I’d pluck over them and have to work with those scribbles to find melodies. As I just start to play with it, I try to find the little nuggets of charm in the user experience that I would like to play with.
Why do you think people have such a fascination with physically interacting with intangible music?
[laughs] I kind of wonder the same thing. If a kid is sitting down with a real ukulele next to him and has an iPad version of a ukulele, I wonder which one he would actually be more drawn to. Maybe it’s like our fascination with “new,” with “what’s newer” and “right now.” With the invention of computers, simulations are the things that are new, so maybe it’s a simple as that.
Do you consider music to be a more social or private experience?
I actually gave this a lot of thought when the “Les Paul Doodle” went up. It was the song sharing experience in that had actually really made that special; it really made it a social experience. [The sharing] was not a new invention; it was just like writing musical notes on a page […] I guess it’s just part of the human experience to want to share the music that you make.