Aleatoric Tetris: Jonas Versus Joseph

For the past several years, I have been an avid watcher of Classic Tetris World Championship matches on YouTube. For me, there is no better match than the 2018 Final between newcomer Joseph Saelee and 7-time world champion Jonas Neubauer. It’s art. It’s acrobatics. It’s music…

For this composition, certain elements are determined by chance — the randomly generated Tetris pieces, the players’ placement of the piece. For both players, each and every piece is given:

  • a note value (based on its shape and on the players’ current game level),
  • a velocity (based on which row the piece lands on),
  • a placement in the stereo pan (based on which column the piece lands in), and
  • a duration (based on how long the piece is on the screen before being completely removed by a “line clear”)
Each of the seven Tetris shapes have been assigned to a pitch in the diatonic major scale.

I started working on this project in December of 2020 and spent a lot of time painstakingly dragging MIDI notes around in GarageBand, placing them exactly where they need to go for exactly as long as they need to last. While this is a “fixed media” composition, I’m sure a program could be developed that would allow Tetris players to assign whatever pitch classes they’d like, choose their own timbres (I wanted this version to sound space-y and futuristic), and create music like this in real time, simply by playing the game. Basically, the Tetris board itself would act as a MIDI controller.

My work on this project came to a stop in January of 2021 when Jonas Neubauer unexpectedly passed away. Honestly, other than maybe Harris Wittels, no celebrity death has stunned me like Jonas Neubauer, partly because it was so unexpected, partly because, after a few weeks of staring at his face while making this, I felt like I knew him. Although, spoiler alert, Jonas is not the winner of this match, his graciousness in defeat is extremely admirable. He is happy to pass the torch to a new generation, and it’s so sad that he’s not around anymore to see that torch continue to burn.

The original video of the 2018 Finals.

Eventually, I did get around to putting the finishing touches on this piece. I’ll never be able to play Tetris like these guys, but this high-concept, experimental music is my small, humble contribution to the thrilling world of Classic Tetris.

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