Pi Fight


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Lars Erickson, Michael Blake
26 Tuesday 26th April 2011

Taken down midway through Pi Day, Blake's video was restored on April 4th, then taken down again on April 14th. We spoke both men to see what all the fuss was about.

Michael Blake
Michael Blake

Where did your inspiration for the pi project come from?

Michael Blake: Well I've always been fascinated by the role of maths in music. In some of my earlier work, I did a lot of experimentation with time signatures. There were a few years where I almost never wrote in 4/4. I liked how the feel of a riff or line of music could change completely just by adding an extra bar or taking one away.

When I studied music theory, I was fascinated by the circle of fifths (system showing how keys are related), initially by its resemblance to a clock (12 notes/12 hours) and then by how the notes and chords were mapped out mathematically. Recently I started thinking about how I might be able to take numbers that originally had no musical association, and interpret them musically. So Pi was one of the first things I thought of.

Michael Blake's Pi song

Lars Erickson: In 1990, I was working as a composer for television music, but always regretted not studying higher math. I had made melodies from phone numbers, but pi sounded interesting up to the first 6 digits or so. I was intrigued enough to go further with it. Interestingly, the first 32 digits sounded 'composed' when mapped in the simplest way.

And so, I could have made many different short 'songs' with the pi melody, but I really wanted to write something more 'important'. Something more along the lines of a symphony. As I worked with the melody, it occurred to me that the sequence not only made a good melody, but also accompanied itself flawlessly. Tying in the Circle of Fifths conceptually into the 2nd movement really gave me a more clear picture of the message I wanted to convey with Pi Symphony.

Lars, where do you see music composition and mathematical logic colliding? At which point do you think the creative nature of writing music crosses over to a hard-wired mathematical process?  

LE: Writing music is a process, but not particularly on a path to 'hard wired mathematical'. In the case of the digits of pi, it just so happened to be the most obvious base, and a fairly obvious process, but there are many other 'mathematical processes' which result in dramatically different music. I do not really see a collision of math and music at all. Music is emotive and rhythmic. Maths, of course, is able to model many natural phenomena, including some aspects of music.

But I think music is more in line with computer science when it comes to form, and creativity actually kind of breaks the bounds of either one of those subjects. There are computer programs nowadays that will crank out any song in any style. Is this 'real' music? I don't know. I guess if someone were to get a particular instance of this phenomenon, work with it, and develop it into a song, then, perhaps.

Lars on how to put pi to music

And Michael, would you describe yourself as more mathematically or creatively inclined?

MB: Definitely more creative. I was a pretty average maths student. I never really liked maths that much until now!

How do you think balancing those two thought processes works for making something like a pi symphony?

MB: I can't speak for how Lars' processes were, but I imagine they were pretty similar to mine seeing as how both our works are based on the same number and we both chose to assign the numbers to the key of C. The Pi project was just something I decided to do in between band practices and recording sessions. 

In fact I think it was born out of a feeling that I needed to be more proactive with my music and not just wait around for the next gig. As much as I love playing with other people, there was something exciting about coming up with this idea, recording the music, editing the video and then releasing this thing entirely on my own.

Viral videos are a huge part of this kind of idea gaining momentum. So Lars, how much do you feel you could pursue a following for your Pi symphony without the openness of music online?  

LE: The openness of music online is kind of a double edged sword. It's fantastic to be able to easily share, but as people get more adept at taking, copying, and re-distributing music to one another, a whole generation is getting the idea that everything is free, and nothing can be protected.  

Lars Erickson
Lars Erickson

Interesting. Michael, when you heard about Lars Erickson's symphony, did you consider a possible collaboration?

MB: Not really, I was surprised that there was a symphony based on the same number as my song, though I shouldn't have been. Composers have been using math constants in their music for hundreds of years.

How soon was your video flagged for copyright infringement after you posted it? What was your initial reaction?

MB: The video was only up for a couple of weeks before March 14th (pi day) when it was removed. I was just so happy that my video was going viral and that all these news agencies (NPR, CNN, CBS etc) had picked up the story, so when it was taken down right on the day of its celebration I was devastated. Although I understand that Mr. Erickson felt I was getting the credit that he deserved, I didn't believe it was right or legally defendable to have the video removed. If I had known about his work, copied his actual symphony and made a video of that, he would've had a point. But, I had never heard of Mr. Erickson or his symphony. I didn’t take anything from Mr. Erickson.

Michael updates on the copyright issues, March 16th

In that vein, Lars, how do you feel about Michael's pi project?  

LE: I am fully supportive of the arts and the creative process for everyone, but Mr. Blake's 'work' infringes on my copyright. The very act of referring to his video as 'Pi Symphony' belies the crux of the problem. 'Pi Symphony' is definitely my own. The melody is documented and on file in the US Library of Congress. I know I am not the first to write a piece using the digits of pi, and I will not be the last. Some similar to mine, some completely different. I do not want to squelch anyone's creativity. 

But, when someone uses a melody that is protected by copyright - and then refuses to comply with a reasonable and fair mechanical agreement, it not only takes from the project, it renders the protection against future plagiarism difficult.

We noticed that Michael's YouTube video was briefly up and running again, after your copyright request to have it removed. What happened there?

LE: YouTube acted quickly upon my complaint of copyright infringement. Mr. Blake decided to 'counter claim'. When he did this, YouTube gave us only 10 days to either make a deal, or bring a law suit. At first, he and I agreed to honour the copyright and work together. I worked hard to offer an equitable (industry standard) mechanicals deal.

I was dismayed to experience a rejection of that. While the 'ratio' of pi is universal, and can be expressed in many numerical and graphical forms, the melody of pi in base 10 has NOT been around for centuries and is quite unique. I copyrighted it in 1992. I have licensed it to Random House Audio, made it available for many years to people worldwide. Once you hear 'Pi Symphony', the digits themselves become like 'sheet music'.  

Since the interviews took place, Blake's video has been taken down due to a second claim by Erickson. Looks like the pi drama isn't quite over, but you can stay tuned to how it pans out on Blake's YouTube channel here. Find out more about Erickson's Pi Symphony on his site.

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  • Guest: wolf
    Thu 28 - Apr - 2011, 06:29
    they should do a pee contest
  • Guest: genewellsemail
    Wed 27 - Apr - 2011, 14:38
    There is one huge difference for sure, Erickson's version isn't good as it is lacking life, where Blake's version is great...and inspiring! I wish Mr Blake the best because all versions should be available for the public to decide...and enjoy!