Whether you think it’s one of the greatest novels of the 20th century or proof positive that twentysomethings were as vapid, foolhardy, and mawkish a century ago as they are today, there are few works of literature that are as evocative of a particular moment in musical history than The Great Gatsby. Somehow captured in the white space of the text, the music of the Jazz Age seems to pulse from every word. The Generative Gatsby takes this music and puts it on the page where it belongs, allowing Fitzgerald’s words to rhythmically dance to the beat of a swinging big-band soundtrack.
A design project in generative typography by 35-year-old Russian designer Vladimir Kuchinov, The Generative Gatsby uses nine songs from swing-era musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, Jelly Roll Morton, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and more to influence the typographic layout of Fitzgerald’s text. Using the authentic scores of these artists’ most danceable songs, Kuchinov examined each note for qualities like pitch, duration, and length. This data was then used to lay out each word of Gatsby‘s nine chapters as an XY coordinate on the page.
“The algorithm I used transposes The Great Gatsby‘s content according to the attributes of the notes,” Kuchinov says. “It’s actually quite similar to the way old MIDI sequencers represented notes not as classic music notation but on a virtual piano keyboard.”
The Generative Gatsby also uses fonts that were either authentic to or inspired by the Roaring Twenties to capture the feel of the era. In fact, a different typeface represents each unique instrument.
“For drums, I used Remington Typewriter, because using a typewriter produces rhythmic percussion sounds,” Kuchinov tells Co.Design. “For the brass section, I used a modern Somatype font, because it has shapes that are very similar to the pipe bends of horns and trumpets. And for string instruments like jazz guitar and bass, I used Brandon Grotesque Thin and Brandon Grotesque Bold to contrast the difference in thickness of these instruments’ strings. And for vocals, I used Century Schoolbook because it was widely used in songbook publishing during the early 20th century.”
The Generative Gatsby does take some creative license in the selection of songs it uses to lay out each chapter. Many of the musical choices, in fact, are anachronisms: Ella Fitzgerald, for example, would only have been five years old when Gatsby and Daisy raced by the enormous blue retinas of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg in the summer of 1922. These aren’t songs the Buchanans would have danced to, but they are songs that are historically intertwined with dance styles that the vile bodies and bright young things of Gatsby’s parties would have known. That might seem like a bit of a cheat, but let’s face it: These are the songs our minds head to when we read Fitzgerald, and you probably wouldn’t recognize The Great Gatsby‘s real soundtrack anyway.
Sadly, there are only three copies of The Generative Gatsby, so you can’t buy a copy for yourself, but Kuchinov is thinking of launching a Kickstarter to bring the book to market. Fingers crossed it gets off the ground: It sure beats the dog-eared paperback copy they tossed you in ninth-grade English class.