Making Bach The Hottest App

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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John Carlin, creator of the Red Hot and Blue series of music compilations has just released the free Red Hot + Bach as an app . I wanted to know why.


What is your “mission” with the Red Hot + Bach App?I’m frustrated that people still consume and record music the same way they did 100 years ago. An MP3 isn’t really different from a wax cylinder or a vinyl LP. They’re all based on mechanical reproduction — copying something as many times as possible with the greatest possible fidelity. But the digital paradigm is fundamentally different. Today music is a file that exists in a networked processing environment. But we aren’t doing enough with that from a creative perspective.

Red Hot + Bach is a baby step to see how music might change in the 21st century when artists can create work that changes based on context and user input. I envision music (or other art forms) being ‘programmed’ to transform based on a user’s profile, mood, location, time of day, weather, etc.; basically a variety of things that can make recorded music an ever-changing and delightful experience, while still being “composed” by an artist’s creative design.

RHBach Album Cover Art

How did this come together?This project came about as a collaboration between two companies I co-founded (Red Hot and Funny Garbage) focusing on what each of them do best — content creation and interface design.

Red Hot + Bach was more esoteric and experimental than most Red Hot projects (like Dark Was The Night, Red Hot + Rio or Red Hot + Blue) or Funny Garbage client work, so we applied for (and got) a modest NEA grant that funded part of the app design and development.

It was important to have the best possible old and new Bach recordings, so I approached Sony to get licenses to use Glenn Gould, Yo-Yo Ma, Leopold Stokowski and others in the App. The head of Sony Masterworks, Chuck Mitchell, was a friend and he offered another budget to record more new music and release it as a conventional music album. We eventually recorded 30 new tracks and over two hours of music inspired by Bach in a way that’s more diverse and experimental than anyone has ever done in the classical music world.

How does the APP work?The App is designed for kids and open-minded adults — ideally both at the same time! There are three sections. The first, “Play,” lets you fingerpaint with Bach. There’s a track listing of eight new and eight classic recordings. You can let them play passively with visuals that change based on the music, or you can touch the screen and make abstract designs while you listen. There is also a control panel that lets you customize the brushes and colors like a typical digital drawing tool.

The second section, “Perform,” lets you change the music by touching radiant dots on the screen (loosely inspired by the George Nelson Ball Clock). Your interaction lets you explore layers in the music and change its character through interaction. If you don’t do anything, it takes over and changes randomly like a mad player piano.

Basically “Perform” lets people who don’t play an instrument make great music and “Play” let’s people who can’t draw make great visuals.

The final section, “Discover,” has some cool extras. We created an illustrated video that tells Bach’s life story. And a video tribute to Paul Jacobs, a great pianist who sadly was among the first people to die from AIDS in 1983. There’s also a video of the Kronos Quartet recording in the first professional music studio in the world at Thomas Edison’s factory in West Orange, NJ onto his original wax cylinder recording machine from 1887. While the video plays, you can select and listen to four different recordings we made simultaneously: digital, analogue tape, 78rpm lathe and wax.


Is an APP for music the next big thing?It’s hard to tell what the fate of the mobile app will be in the history of media. I get the feeling that they won’t be accessible to anyone in a few years, just like all the cool CD-ROMS made in the 1990s or some of the best work Funny Garbage and other studios did over the past decade because they lived on clients’ servers as part of active communities for millions of young people in real time.

But the idea of interactive or intrinsically digital music (as opposed to music digitized and distributed via the internet or cloud) is the future. I’m convinced that we’re finally at the end of the pre-history of digital media, just like a hundred years ago when movies started to shake off their roots in technology and become a great medium for creative expression. The important thing is for young creative artists and coders to collaborate and dream up things people like me, born in the 20th century, can only dream of. I’m proud that Red Hot + Bach kicked off some of those collaborations as well as produced some cool visual experiences and enjoyable music that’s never been heard before.

[Red Hot + Bach App – download free from the Apple App Store; album available via iTunes and everywhere music is stolen or sold.]

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian
National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →