ArtPrize 2012: the math behind the music


ArtPrize 2012: the math behind the music

By Sam Stryke

September 17, 2012

ArtPrize 2012 is upon us and I am very proud of my submission, "Grand: A Musical Celebration of a City". It is an orchestral composition that tells the history of Grand Rapids through music (watch the video here).

Last spring, as I considered composing a new musical piece to enter in ArtPrize 2012, I decided on something ambitious, mathematical, and significant to the city of Grand Rapids in a way that was integral to the composition.

With the help of the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections at the Grand Rapids Public Library, I assembled a timeline of significant dates in Grand Rapids history. I selected both dates that had formal importance, such as when Grand Rapids officially became a city, as well as more whimsical moments such as when the Ringling Brothers Circus first came to town.

I converted the dates to musical intervals based on the mathematical system where any note could represent the first number of a given year. The following 3 numbers of that year would then be based on their relationship to the first number. If the first number was a 1 and the second number in the year was an 8 (like the year 1837), I would need to leap up or down 7 notes from my first note (the difference between 1 and 8).

For example, the year 1826 becomes:

or the inverse:

It was a challenge to try to keep the music fresh and forward-moving with so many musical shapes beginning with 1-8 (for the 1800's), or 1-9 (for the 1900's). To create more interest and variety, I allowed myself to insert the quoted year within a musical phrase and not handcuff myself to the idea that the quoted year had to always be at the start of a phrase.

I also tried to "score" the years when appropriate. For example, when street lights were first introduced in Grand Rapids I gave that moment an extra twinkle. When the worst flood in Grand Rapids history occurred, I created a more somber tone.

See below for the full list of years selected for my timeline, their significance, and the instrumentation I used to quote each year. The times listed refer to the audio recording time, not the video time.

ArtPrize 2012 takes place in Grand Rapids, MI from September 19 to October 7. You can vote for my submission with the code 52478.


1826 Louis Campau arrived and settled in what is now Grand Rapids. (0:01 violins)

1831 Kent County established. (0:16 violas)

1835 First Grand Rapids school district created. (0:32 violins)

1837 Publication of first Grand Rapids newspaper, the Grand River Times. (0:39 violins)

1838 Grand Rapids incorporated into village with population of 600. (0:54 cellos inverted)

1838 Construction of first courthouse in public square. (Veterans Memorial Park) (0:58 cellos inverted)

1845 First bridge constructed across Grand River at Bridge Street. (1:02 cellos inverted)

1847 Formation of Female Union Charitable Association, which later became Blodgett. (1:10 violins inverted)

1849 Creation of first local labor union, Mechanics Mutual Protective Organization. (1:26 high woodwinds)

1850 Grand Rapids incorporated into city with population of 2,686. (1:29 low woodwinds inverted)

1857 Streets and stores lit with gas lighting for the first time. (1:33 celesta and glockenspiel)

1858 First railroad connected to Grand Rapids. (1:36 cellos)

1858 Formation of Grand Rapids Library Association. (1:46 violins)

1862 First class of 9 girls graduated from GR High School (now Central High). The boys left early to fight in the Civil War. (1:54 flutes and celesta)

1868 Opening of Sweet's Hotel, built on the site of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. (2:01 basses)

1883 St. Cecilia Society created. (2:13 trumpet)

1884 John Ball bequeathed the first 40 acres of John Ball Park. (2:17 Tuba)

1890 First publication of the Grand Rapids Press. (2:23 French horns and bassoons inverted)

1891 Creation of John Ball Park Zoo. (2:26 low brass)

1893 The Ringling Brothers Circus visited Grand Rapids for the first time. (2:30 trumpets inverted)

1904 Worst flood in GR history, crested at 20.4 feet over flood stage. (2:38 strings and woodwinds inverted)

1926 City Centennial celebrated. (2:53 violins)

1930 Grand Rapids Symphony organized. (3:01 flutes)

1933 Dedication of Civic Auditorium. (3:05 muted trumpet)

1936 Grand Rapids Public Museum constructed. (3:08 French horns inverted)

1945 Grand Rapids became first city to fluoridate water supply. (3:15 celesta and glockenspiel inverted)

1949 Hendrick Meijer and son, Fred, opened their first supermarket in Grand Rapids. (3:17 flutes and clarinets inverted)

1949 Grand Rapids received first of 3 All-American City awards. (3:22 violins)

1959 Downtown renewal project launched. (3:25 flutes and clarinets)

1959 Amway founded. (3:29 French horns)

1961 US 131 opened as first Grand Rapids freeway. (3:33 flutes)

1963 Kent County Airport opened. (3:34 oboe and clarinet)

1969 Alexander Calder's sculpture, La Grand Vitesse, arrived in Grand Rapids. It was the first work funded by the new National Endowment for the Arts. (3:37 violins)

1970 First Festival of the Arts (3:42 basses)

1971 Rev. Lyman Parks became first African American mayor (3:46 trumpet)

1974 Gerald R. Ford became the 38th president of the United States. (3:47 French horn)

1980 Grand Center opened. (3:51 high woodwinds inverted)

1981 First Celebration on the Grand, opening of Ford Museum, Grand Plaza Hotel, and Grand Rapids Art Museum. (3:54 French horns inverted)

1994 Public Museum of GR and new Van Andel Museum Center opened. (3:57 trumpets)

1994 West Michigan Whitecaps brought pro baseball to Grand Rapids. (4:00 violins inverted)

1995 Frederik Meijer Gardens opened. (4:03 tuba inverted)

1996 Van Andel Arena opened. (4:06 trumpets and French horns)

2000 Sesquicentennial of Grand Rapids city charter. (4:10 woodwinds and strings)

2009 First ArtPrize competition. (4:17 trumpets)

2012 Imagine the possibilities... (4:23 full orchestra)

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