The Music of José Oscar Marques

Decorated image of the Julia set. (C)1993 by J. Marques

The Strange Beauty of Fractal Music

Fractals are abstract mathematical objects which, as such, cannot be seen or heard, but their structure can be used to model computer generation of images that may be visually very attractive. Fractal images have been popular for more than a decade, but I think we are just scratching the surface of the possibilities of fractal music. The compositions on this page aim to explore some of these possibilities, showing that recursive algorithms can be employed to create music of the same strange beauty as the richly decorated fractal picture at the side .

The Music           General Info           Links          About me

The Music

The pieces are listed newest first. They cover a variety of styles, since "fractal music" doesn't mean a musical genre but rather a method at the composer's disposal for his or her own expressive purposes. In the end, as it happens with any other method of composition, only the musical merits of the result should actually count.

Three Canons (March 1998)

Old Stones (October 1997)

"Up the Beat", for jazz ensemble (September 1997)

Movement for wind quintet (September 1997)

Sonatina for flute, clarinet and piano (August 1997)

Allegro for strings in F major (July 1997)

Set no. 1 (Five short pieces) (May 1997)

Rhapsody for strings (April 1997)

Mood Music II and III (April 1997)



Three canons

  • Canon no. 1
  • Canon no. 2
  • Canon no. 3
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    Old Stones

  • Old Stones
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    "Up the Beat"

  • "Up the Beat"
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    Movement for Wind Quintet

  • Movement for Wind Quintet
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    Sonatine pour flûte, clarinette et piano

  • I. Moderato
  • II. Lent expressif
  • III. Très vif
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    Allegro for strings in F major

  • Allegro for strings in F major
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    Set no. 1

  • 1. Lydian Pastorale
  • 2. Little Toccata for cello and piano
  • 3. Ice Cream Landscape
  • 4. Whirlwoodwind
  • 5. Ghost Caravan
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    Rhapsody for strings

  • Rhapsody for strings
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    Mood Music II and III

  • Mood Music II
  • Mood Music III
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    Tech Info on the software employed:

    Unless otherwise indicated, all pieces were composed with the help of FMusic, by David Singer, a program able to control rather complex structures and with which I am more familiar. FMusic is currently in version 1.9. A new version (2.0) is on the way.

    Mandelbrot Music produces music following the sinuosities of the Mandelbrot "mountains" along straight lines. It also allows the mapping of the numeric data onto a wide variety of musical scales. I used it in "Three Canons", my most recent fractal composition.

    MusiNum is a cute and intuitive program, ideal for beginners but also very versatile. I used it to compose the five pieces of Set no. 1.

    Rhapsody for Strings is the only piece I composed with Art Song. This program is full of resources and I certainly intend to explore it more deeply.

    You can find these programs following the links below:

    FMusic 1.9   ©1996-1999 by David H. Singer

    Mandelbrot Music    ©1997 by Yo Kubota

    MusiNum: The Music in the Numbers    ©1995-1998 by Lars Kindermann

    Art Song 2.3    ©1995-1996 by David T. Strohbeen

    All MIDI files on this page are in GM format and optimally balanced for the SB AWE32 sound card with the 8MB GM E-Mu sound fon. Full copyright of the compositions is retained by me and by the authors of the software employed.


    About Fractals and Fractal Music (and a few links):

    Fractal geometry is a relatively new and complex branch of mathematics, which has many applications in science and art. A good introductory reading is The Beauty of Fractals, by H. O. Peitgen and P. H. Richter (Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 1986), with 100+ fractal images and an accessible technical  exposition.

    The sci.fractals FAQ  is a good reference for people interested in the subject, and a useful guide to the ever growing amount of informations about fractals available on the Internet.

    The best practical way to learn about fractals is to get Fractint, an awesome freeware program for creating fractal images such as the one at the top of this page.

    For a wealth of specific information about fractal music, and a large number of interesting links, visit David Strohbeen's Fractal Music Lab.

    Fractal Vibes is another important site dedicated to fractals and fractal music, put together by Phil Jackson (formerly "Phil's Fractal Pages"), It has many fractal compositions by Phil Jackson, several galleries of fractal images and a lot of interesting links. It also hosts a mailing list for people interested in the subject.

    Phil Thompson's Organised Chaos page has quickly become one of the most complete references on fractal music in the Web. Check also there the progress of the Strange Attractions CD, featuring compositions by ten fractal composers, including my "Old Stones" above.

    For all those interested in the general topic of music and mathematics, a  visit to  "The Sound of Mathematics" page by Daniel Cummerow is a real must.

    Very original and interesting fractal music based on the Mandelbrot set can be found at the Strange Music Archives, by Yo Kubota.


    Some Further Reflections

    These are some extracts from my postings on on the subject of fractal music composition.

    [About the "legitimacy" of generative music]

    This is a very interesting question. I myself was thinking of asking something of the sort here, because I am very curious about how composers consider this form of composition.

    I am definitely a bit uneasy about the status of this kind of music. Since I started writing "generative music" with the help of a few computer programs I carefully kept these pieces separated from my "regular" compositions, on a different Web page, and clearly identified them as such. So, in my mind, no matter how much I try to convince myself that this is just a compositional method like any other, I feel still unsure if this is really so (although I am certain that some of my fractal pieces - like the Sonatina for flute, clarinet and piano - could plausibly foil a Turing test anytime...).

    On the other hand, I don't follow the rule that "the whole idea behind generative music is that the composer sets some parameters and then starts a system that produces music without any further human intervention." It's true that I take a lot of time fine-tuning the parameters for a particular piece, but the final result isn't by any means sacred, and I don't hesitate to intervene whenever I think it is appropriate (the "artist's discernment" is the measure of this appropriateness...). I wouldn't go as far as to say that the output of the programs is treated just as raw material, or building blocks, since I always stick to its general outlines in terms of micro- and even macro-structure. But If something pleases me I may put it in evidence and even duplicate it in some other points for structure's sake. If some passages don't work well, I just cut them out. So, my pieces probably shouldn't be called "generative music" after all...


    [About generative music being the product of the "algorithm author", not of the person who tweaks the parameters]

    This is undoubtedly right in reference to "cool" commercial toys like SSEYO KOAN, which are explicitly advertised as "compose music without knowing anything about composition" (or something in that line). But there are other quite different kinds of programs.

    Lars Kindermann's MusiNum is an interesting case because it is simple enough to be used as an immediately entertaining toy by laypersons but has enough depth to allow exploration by more mathematically *and* musically endowed people. Quite impressive results can be obtained, but they demand time, work and brains.

    David Singer's FMusic goes one step further because it has so many possibilities to choose, employ and mix algorithms that the simple notion of "tweaking parameters" isn't faithful to what it demands from the user. You can organize and plan whole sections, link sections recursively to each other, in short, impose a chosen structure to the piece, both at the macro as at the micro levels. Further, it isn't planned to be easy to operate, and acceptable results will only appear after a lot of work dedicated to understand the capabilities of the program (which means acquiring notions of how L-systems and cellular automata work, and especially how to make use of these mathematical structures for expressive musical ends).

    On the farther end of the spectre there are programs like David Strobeehn's String Rewrite and Text2MIDI. The first acts just as an ambient for recursive generation of strings of characters starting from axioms and rules defined by the user. The strings then are loaded to the second program which has the capability to translate them into MIDI file, also according to user-defined rules. So, this is a clear case in which one can't speak at all of "parameter tweaking" but of plain invention and implementing of algorithms.

    Between KOAN-like toys and D. Strobeehn's Spartan tools there is a large gray area in which we can't say simply that the generated music is a product of, or "belongs" to the creator of the program. Consider that these very creators are frequently surprised at the results users extracted from their programs - they by no means were able to predict these results nor would (necessarily) be able to produce those results themselves. I propose that there is indeed a space for a real creative and musical effort from the user in these cases. There is, here, place for composing (sort of) and not just blind button-pushing.


    About myself

    Photo I'm an engineer turned philosopher. It's been a long way from electronics to the philosophy of logic and mathematics, but throughout it music remained a lifelong interest. I had classical training in theory and composition when young, but it was only recently that I went back to composing, after discovering MIDI and recursion based composition software.

    See also:

    My MIDI and music page, including my non-fractal compositions.

    My GeoCities page with the complete collection of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues opus 87 in MIDI format.


    Music and artwork ©1997 José Oscar Marques     Site Design©1995-99 MIDIWORLD