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Musical Chess

You’re looking at a hybrid music/chess system that I’ve created, in preparation for a concert of new and experimental music in late June. The chessboard on the left (a Novag Citrine) is wired to the computer via a serial/USB cable. When people play on the chessboard, the computer monitors their moves, and attempts to figure out the best possible response. As the computer does this, it produces music (by sending MIDI events to sampling software on the same computer). The music is (at the moment) a fairly literal translation of what the computer is thinking. The idea is to put the listener “inside the mind” of a chess computer. This project merges two of my great lifetime obsessions: Music and Computer Chess (I’m not much of a chess player, but I’ve been making computer chess software for years…).

For the concert, I have engaged the services of two performers who are going to reenact a famous match between Garry Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue computer (shown below). My piece is called:

Kasparov vs. Deep Blue, 1997, Game 6

As the performers play this historically significant chess game, the first match in which the world human champion lost to a machine under tournament conditions, my musical chess system will analyze the moves, and you will hear the analysis. Since my own chess software is not nearly as good as Deep Blue, I have named it “Shallow Brown” — you figure it out! Coincidentally, “Shallow Brown” is also the title of a sea chanty (perhaps inspired by the bilge water being pumped while it was sung…).

There have been an enormous number of challenges involved in making this system work, and much work remains. While solving the myriad technical issues, I haven’t had much time to work on the musicality of this piece – but I have a few more weeks to go yet! With that disclaimer out of the way, I offer a brief audio sample of my chess engine, as it thinks about a chess position.

Shallow Brown – The Musical Chess Engine

Here’s a longer sample – about a minute from the middle of the Kasparov/Deep Blue game, after I did a little work on assigning different instruments to the two opponents.

Kasparov vs. Deep Blue, Excerpt

Kasparov gets mostly string sounds, and is heard more from the left channel. Deep Blue gets more mallet instruments, and is heard more from the right. I play the Deep Blue analysis a little deeper into the look-ahead tree, which produces more rapid-fire (and robotic-sounding) ostinati.

This piece is just one of a number of interesting new works, all inspired by machines of different kinds, to be performed, Friday Evening, June 26th in Los Angeles.

NewTown Presents
Cranks, Cams and Computers
New Machines, New Music

Friday, June 26

GLAD (Greater L.A. Agency on Deafness)
2222 Laverna Avenue,
Eagle Rock, CA 90041

Installations open 6:00PM
Performances at 8:00PM

Admission $10.00
$5.00 NewTown and Eagle Rock Center for the Arts members

Installations by
    Jim Bumgardner
    Carl Burmeister
    Joe Cantrell
    Daniel Corral
Joe Potts
    Gary Raymond

Performances by
    Jim Bumgardner
Carl Burmeister
    The Crank Ensemble
    Frank Pahl
    Gary Raymond

NewTown House Band
    Joe Berardi
    Lewis Keller
    Jessica Catron
    William Roper

    (626) 398-9278

Made possible by grants from Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and NewTown Members’ donations.

Here’s a Facebook Event Page I’ve set up for the concert.

I should mention that in addition to the chess piece, I’m also working on an installation of a number of my Whitney Music Boxes for this show.

So… if machines, cranks, cams, pianolas, and strange musical machines turn you on, and you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area — keep the evening of June 26th open!



Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, there has been a last minute change of venue for Friday’s show, originally scheduled for Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock.

New Location:

GLAD (Greater L.A. Agency on Deafness)
2222 Laverna Avenue, Eagle Rock, CA 90041

This is just a few blocks away from the original location.


Video of the performance can be viewed here.

12 Responses to “Musical Chess”

  1. John Says:

    That’s fascinating. Listening to it “think,” I can’t help but attach some emotion to the music. I think it would be really neat to use this type of thing as a training system for learning chess. Playing against the computer, I could get “hints” about the position through the overall mood, tempo, etc. of the music. It’d be a more interesting real-time hint system than the computer simply suggesting a move or offering a take back after the fact. I can imagine neutral music filled with tension suddenly turning ominous and confident as it hits the analysis on the 12th ply.

  2. lino Says:

    i am outta town, darn. This is way cool, wish I could see it happen.

  3. Sully Says:

    Sounds like a Frank Zappa composition! I’d love to hear longer pieces if you have the inclination to post them.

  4. jbum Says:

    I agree with you John. I’ve also found the music quite helpful for debugging my chess software, for similar reasons.

    At the same time, the music in the audio sample is relatively mellow compared to what happens later in the piece… I’ve designed a big build-up of tension at the climax of the game, and it would likely be quite distracting for serious players to listen to just at the time when they most need their wits.

  5. jbum Says:

    Here’s a longer sample – about 80 seconds from the middle of the Kasparov / Deep Blue game.

    Kasparov vs. Deep Blue, 1997, Game 6, Excerpt

  6. KrazyDad » Blog Archive » Musical Chess Details Says:

    […] recap a previous post, I’m working on a performance piece for the June 26 Cranks, Cams and Computers concert in […]

  7. Cranks, Cams and Computers: tonight!! | Los Angeles Metblogs Says:

    […] music making taking place. Jim Bumgardner tipped me off to this as he’ll be showing off his musical chess set up along with a handful of other folks. There will be installations and performances and […]

  8. KrazyDad » Blog Archive » Wheel of Stars Says:

    […] was a natural progression from some previous projects of mine, like the Whitney Music Box, and Musical Chess, which you might also […]

  9. sean williams Says:

    I too am struck by the Zappa-ish sound of these compositions (there might be something in that). Anyway, they are awesome. Thanks for sharing!

  10. ne Says:

    so very cool – wish I had such a machine myself!

  11. James Says:

    I wonder if there would be a way to program a similar thing that would broadcast, in musical form, the thoughts of your personal computer, just as it thinks about the processing you are telling it to do….

  12. jbum Says:

    It’s definitely possible, and I imagine there are a huge number of ways to do it (just as there are many ways to interpret chess, musically). An interesting one I heard recently is a musical rendition of computer sorting algorithms. There are a number of these on YouTube, if you search for them.