Counting Narayana’s Cows

Tom Johnson composes pieces that are mathematical almost to the point of parody. The most extreme example is The Chord Catalogue, consisting of literally every possible chord in a particular octave. As I’ve noted before, he plays the chords in order, and the result, depending on your mood, is either amusing or maddening.

“Narayana’s Crows” tilts more toward the amusing side. It’s still a math piece, but it can be presented with some humor, and it builds a melody that’s dynamic and engaging.

I found this one on the Soundcloud page of Splinter Reeds, the all-reed quintet I wrote about a little while ago. The composition is based on an algebra problem credited to 14th-century Indian mathematician Narayana, and it has to do with the number of cows in a herd after successive generations of breeding. It’s a modified Fibonacci series, essentially.

The piece itself consists of a narrative (a little hard to hear in this recording) explaining the setup of the problem. The music itself consists of long and short notes representing each adult and calf in the herd — Morse code for cows. You get the idea pretty quickly.

 
As with all of Johnson’s compositions, the structure is clever and is a big part of the fun. I love his ideas, even the simple ones like The Chord Catalogue. In this case, though, there’s enough rhythmic and tonal variety to produce some interesting music as well — although I’m glad they didn’t do the 20 generations of Narayana’s original problem. The 17th generation alone consists of 872 notes and takes 3 minutes to play.

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