What is it?

Fantasia Apocalyptica is a multimedia work (in progress) for pipe organ, accompanied by four video tracks. It can be regarded as a somewhat literal translation of the Biblical book of Revelation into music.

Why did you write it?

‘Revelation’, also known as ‘Apocalypse’ (‘Uncovering’), is a mystical book that's filled with symbolism. It consists chiefly of a dream, recorded in the first century A.D. by Saint John the Divine. The dramatic events in his famous dream highlight crucial aspects of life, death, and spirituality. They run the gamut of human emotions.

I was introduced to Revelation by a faculty colleague at Caltech in the early 60s, and was especially fascinated by the ways in which many different numbers (2, 3, 3.5, 4, 7, 12, 24, …) were emphasized and given symbolic significance. At about the same time, as a member of the choir at my church, I happened to learn Paul Manz's wonderful anthem ‘E'en so, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come’, which is based on the book of Revelation.

An intriguing notion was soon planted in my head, namely that it might be possible to create a pleasing piece of music that incorporates Revelation's numbers and other mystical symbols in essentially their original order. (Paul Manz happens to be one of my shirt-tail relatives. I asked him early on if he would allow me to quote from his anthem, if I should ever write such a piece, and he happily encouraged me to pursue the idea.)

In 1969 I audited a music theory class at Westminster Choir College in Princeton. One of the assignments was to set a short text to music, and I chose to experiment with the phrase “I am Alpha and Omega” found in Revelation 1:8 and 21:6. The teacher told me that his favorite setting of those words was by Sir John Stainer, and he gleefully sang Stainer's melody. Thus I began to learn of the vast number of musical compositions that have been inspired by John the Divine's dream, and my vague plan of going further was reinforced.

“I want to write some music for organ with computer help. If I live long enough, I would like to write a rather long work that would be based on the book of Revelation. The musical themes would correspond to the symbolism in the book.” -- from an interview by Donald Albers and Lynn Steen, 12 January 1981

Many years went by, as I was consumed by other projects. Yet the notion of Revelation-in-music stayed with me, and I finally began to realize that I had better get started, if I'm ever going to finish. Therefore I started to make plans in earnest. On the day before Thanksgiving in 2011 — when I was nearly 74 years old, and after I'd spent much of the day working as usual on The Art of Computer Programming — I took a blank notebook out of storage and wrote the following:

In this book I plan to jot down thoughts for a project that may be crazy, but a “muse” has been encouraging me to embark upon it for more than 40 years. … I should mention that I consider [the book of Revelation] to be totally mystical and spiritual rather than literal or prophetical. It probably was written to provide an underground movement (early Christianity) with some coded messages of hope. But I'm intrigued by the fact that so many artists and writers have been inspired by these words, for nearly 2000 years by now; thus I can't resist the thought that perhaps I too might be led by this ancient text to create something that may be newly meaningful to people of the 21st century. Of course I may fail totally, and any music I write might be basically worthless. But, as I said, something has been urging me to do this for a long time, and I find that I cannot resist trying.

I learned a bit later that Victorinus of Poetovio, who wrote the first full-length commentary on Revelation (c. 270 A.D.), had already remarked with admiration that Revelation is organized rather like a piece of music, in that its repetitions of symbols and themes don't simply unfold in straight lines.

In what style did you write it?

Fantasia Apocalyptica doesn't conform to any fixed style. It's basically a 21st-century mashup of many styles that have appeared in previous centuries. Indeed, the book of Revelation ranges over many different moods; hence a single style can't do justice to them all. Elements of at least the following styles can be found within this piece, in addition to styles that are specific to pipe organ classics:

  1. ancient Greek music
  2. medieval chants
  3. changeringing
  4. Baroque counterpoint
  5. near-Eastern folk music
  6. shape note singing
  7. Romantic chorales and oratorios
  8. Romantic combinatorial patterns
  9. atonal “12-tone” music
  10. close harmony and jazz
  11. Broadway musical comedy
  12. rock music and rap music

And of course a musical work on the Apocalypse should also contain calypso.

I consciously tried to avoid constructing a mere ‘pastiche’, and emphatically not a ‘hodge-podge’! The result that I came up with does have its own characteristic flavor, rather different from most other music that I've ever heard. I think of it as having “high bandwidth”, in the sense that the musical ideas change somewhat rapidly (although they do recur in patterns). I don't pause to wait until the listener “gets it”; instead, I hope that the listener will appreciate a bit more every time the piece is heard.

I was delighted to find that a pipe organ is ideally suited to the varied elements of this composition. Conversely, the themes of Revelation provide an ideal vehicle for demonstrating an organ's unique qualities. I fantasize that people who are unfamiliar with organ music will be able to understand why I love the instrument so much, after hearing this piece.

Have you written much music before?

I spent a lot of time in high school reading books on orchestration, and I wrote a fairly good-sized work for symphonic band entitled Milton and the Rhinoceros. (It was a spoof of Peter and the Wolf, using a story by Roger Price that I didn't know was protected by copyright. I was blithely ignorant about intellectual property.) I proudly presented that piece to the band director, and he proceeded to lose it. As far as I know, no trace of that piece remains; and everybody, including me, is probably better off as a result.

I also wrote some short works in high school and in college, then a few occasionally as an adult. The best of these have been collected in Chapters 19–21 of my Selected Papers on Fun & Games. There also are some hymn arrangements, on pages 646–647 of that book and on page 88 of Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About.

In short, Fantasia Apocalyptica is far more extensive than anything else that I've ever attempted to write. I have, however, spent thousands of hours playing the works of other composers, hopefully learning a thing or two in the process.

Is Fantasia Apocalyptica ‘computer music’ — generated by algorithms?

At one point I thought I might have time to understand music theory well enough that I could try to teach that theory to a computer. But eventually I concluded that it would be better to create this piece almost entirely by hand, using my desktop machine only to help organize the work. Thus it's definitely not “computer music”, although I do profess to be a computer scientist.

On the other hand, I did apply some algorithms manually in a few places. For example, a haunting melody, taken from one of the earliest surviving instances of ancient Greek music, occurs ten times. I harmonized it differently each time, using the algorithm of David Kraehenbuehl that's described in Chapter 22 of Selected Papers on Fun & Games. (See “Randomness in Music”.)

Mathematical methods were also used to generate the changeringing patterns that appear briefly, as well as certain melodies used for the twelve tribes of Israel and for the twelve precious jewels below the “pearly gates” of the New Jerusalem. If those methods hadn't been successful, I would have changed the results by hand. Fortunately, I didn't have to do that; the algorithmic approach did give a pleasing result in those cases.

What compositional methods did you use?

First I prepared myself by reading several books about composition, by Stainer, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Piston, and others.

Then, instead of relying on algorithms, I did constraint-based composition, which is a methodology that I discussed in an hour-long lecture to Stanford's musicians on 07 May 2015. The basic idea was to study the Greek text carefully and to identify roughly 150 of the principal motifs that it contains. For every such textual motif, I then chose a corresponding musical motif to use as its translation. (Think of Wagner's “leitmotifs”.)

Some of these musical motifs are brief melodies; some are chords; some are rhythms; some are idioms like trills, arpeggios, appoggiaturas, contrary motion; some are effects possible only on a pipe organ; and so on. Eight of them are up-down patterns inspired by the I Ching. Several of them are much less specific: I simply told myself to think of a certain composer. (For ‘truth’ I thought of Bach; for ‘voice’ I thought of Borodin; etc.) People who are obsessively curious can find below the complete dictionary of motifs that I finally selected.

Then, for each of the 404 verses in the book of Revelation, I made a list of the textual motifs that they contain, and the order in which those motifs occur.

I also searched systematically for existing musical works that were inspired by passages in the book of Revelation. Franz Schmidt wrote the longest of these, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (1938), a major oratorio composed for choir, organ, and a rather large symphony orchestra. (Its reduced piano score has more than 200 pages; yet it covers less than half of Revelation's text.) Other major works include Johannes Brahms's Triumphlied (1872), Charles Gounod's Mors et Vita (1884), etc., and a great many shorter anthems. Altogether I collected about 70 such works, and crosslinked them into my verse-by-verse database. I was mindful of Johann Mattheson's advice from 1739:

A composer might make a collection of all the pleasing motives that he has encountered. … Even the greatest capitalists will borrow money if it is to their advantage or convenience. … But copied work should be returned with interest.

So now I was ready to compose music for any particular verse, based on a reasonably short list of constraints. Every constraint narrowed down the number of possibilities. My job, therefore, when translating a particular line of Revelation, was to come up with music that had a certain melody and/or rhythm and/or musical effect, etc. Of course I also had to keep the global context in mind, as well as those local constraints. The overriding goal was to create good music, without sacrificing too many of the constraints. (My principal model for this activity was the constraint-based literature produced by the Oulipo group, and especially by its brilliant contributor Georges Perec.)

I woke up one day with the music for the first few bars in my head. And I knew that I wanted to quote from Paul Manz near the end. But otherwise I worked inside out — here's an excerpt from my notebook entry for 21 March 2013:

At this point I've gathered more than enough music, and surveyed all of about 250 motifs that are potentially significant. So I guess the next step should be to plunge in, somewhere in the middle where my lack of experience won't stand out when all is complete. While biking home today I decided to start in verse 16:3, not knowing what it would be. So I just now looked at it: It's the second bowl of wrath, where sea turns to blood; and I guess it does make a decent test case for getting into the thick of things. (I found no previous music for chapters 16 or 17, so this doesn't impinge on many other decisions.) Verse 16:3 will need musical motifs for angel, bowl, sea, blood, and death.

During March 2013 I was mainly working on a difficult program for Section of The Art of Computer Programming. But on 23 March I was able to write

OK! I'm working on SAT13, but in odd moments the music for 16:3 “came to me” and I like it! First, an excellent angel motif is an 8-note upward arpeggio (as at beginning of Waltz of Flowers, which goes 16 up then 16 down, so I can dwell on it differently for different angels in different contexts). Second, a bowl is represented by two notes on one manual that “confine” the notes in another manual between them; these boundary notes get closer and closer as the bowl tips, and the contents then spill out. Third, wrath in the bowl is indicated by a lively jumping/gurgling theme (although confined to only two notes when it's inside the bowl). Fourth, blood coagulates/curdles and gets heavy, so notes can be clotted in clusters. Fifth, there's room for just about any four-note motif in the pedal, in the last bars of this verse, so I can put in whatever pattern I eventually decide on for the sea and/or death. …

In May of 2013 I happened to be in Vienna. So I asked my hosts where Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms had purchased the blank staff paper on which they wrote their music. I was referred to Musikhaus Doblinger, where I purchased a beautiful, handbound Notenschreibbuch in quarto format. And indeed, I believe that the opportunity to write out my fantasy in such a book has been advantageous. (Of course I wrote in pencil, and made frequent erasures. Real musicians use pen and ink.)

Little by little I was able to assign musical motifs to textual motifs, always trying to keep maximum flexibility for any decisions that could be postponed. After drafting part of chapter 16, I planned some of the key excerpts that appear in other chapters. Then I finally was ready to work more systematically and to complete entire chapters, working sporadically over a period of many months. I drafted roughly every third chapter before working on the chapters between them, so that I could keep the overall structure more clearly in mind.

The last thing I wrote was chapter 1. (That's typical. Years ago I'd written Chapter 1 of The Art of Computer Programming only after having completed a 3000-page pencil draft of all the other planned chapters.) Chapter 1 of Fantasia Apocalyptica was finished, hooray, on 20 August 2016.

During this process I often felt as if I were “channelling” —, as if the music had already been written. Somehow the notes were already out there; I simply had to listen for them and to write them down.

Sometimes the music did indeed essentially write itself. But at other times I had to listen very hard before I could hear it. I often worked backward from a musical destination that I wanted to reach, as well as forward from previously written sections. Of course I'd often have to go back and start over, when the results didn't jell.

The whole process was quite exhilarating as well as exhausting. Unfortunately, it turned out to be very hard on my wife, because she had to hear all the false starts. Hence I did most of the work when she was out of the house.

How long is this piece?

According to the metronome markings in the score, a mechanical performance should take roughly 70 minutes. But when played with appropriate emotions, I think the total time will be about 90 minutes. (For comparison, the time to play all 18 movements of Messiaen's Livre de Saint Sacrement is 114 minutes.)

The piece is, however, divided into 22 chapters, corresponding to the 22 chapters in the book of Revelation. Many of these chapters stand alone, so they can meaningfully be performed as organ voluntaries, lasting four or five minutes each.

When the entire piece is performed, the accompanying video tracks will make it easy for listeners to know what part of the story is currently being played.

What are the four video tracks mentioned above?

Track #1 shows Stephen Malinowski's animation of the music, created with his brilliant Music Animation Machine;
Track #2 shows Duane Bibby's superb illustrations of the Revelation story, especially commissioned for this work;
Track #3 shows the original Greek text of Revelation as well as an English translation;
Track #4 shows the organ score, more-or-less as seen by the performer.

(Well, those tracks actually still need to be created. I've presently got mockups for portions of #2 and #3.)

Is the work copyrighted?

I've chosen to use the Creative Commons ‘CC0’ tool (“no rights reserved”), thereby essentially putting the music of this work into the public domain. This means that you can copy it and modify it and remix it, etc., without feelings of guilt. If you want to acknowledge my role in its creation, that's great; but I created it only because I figured that somebody ought to do so. Links for downloading the music can be found below.

On the other hand, the information on the video tracks may well be copyrighted separately. These video tracks are still being developed. (For example, I hope to get official permission to use Today's English Version of the Bible in Track #3. That translation was copyrighted by the American Bible Society in 1992. I'm also encouraging Duane Bibby to publish the images in Track #2 as a separate book.)

When will the entire work be complete?

My goal, God willing, is to celebrate the world premiere of Fantasia Apocalyptica at approximately the same time as I celebrate my 80th birthday — 10 January 2018. If all goes as planned, this happy event will take place on the magnificent new Woehl organ, and in the magnificent performance space, at Studio Acusticum in Piteå, Sweden. An outstanding Canadian organist, Jan Overduin, has agreed to be the soloist. (The concert itself will mostly likely take place on Sunday, 14 January, in the afternoon, rather than on Wednesday the 10th.)

North American premieres are also being planned, of course. For example, Overduin will perform the complete work on the 44-stop Kney tracker organ at First United Church in Waterloo, Ontario, on Sunday, 4 November 2018.

Are parts of the work available for beta-watching or beta-listening?

Most of the music has only recently been typeset, and not yet refined or performed. But a few preliminary fragments are currently available:

YouTube preview of Chapter 6
part of Jin Kyung Lim's recital at Stanford's Memorial Church (04 November 2015)

I also made some lo-fi recordings with an iPad, in order to provide a rough indication of the tempi and tonalities that I initially had in mind. Although the quality isn't great, they might be useful reference points, and as temporary placeholders while I'm getting familiar with the melodic framework:

Audio file fant01.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 1 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (02 November 2016)
Audio file fantac1.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 1 on the organ at Studio Acusticum, Piteå (08 January 2017)
Audio file fant02.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 2 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (19 December 2016)
Audio file fant03.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 3 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (19 December 2016)
Audio file fant04.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 4 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (21 December 2016)
Audio file fant05.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 5 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (23 December 2016)
Audio file fant06.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 6 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (06 February 2017)
Audio file fant07.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 7 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (23 December 2016)
Audio file fant08.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 8 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (26 December 2016)
Audio file fant09.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 9 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (26 December 2016)
Audio file fant10.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 10 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (26 December 2016)
Audio file fant11.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 11 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (28 December 2016)
Audio file fant12.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 12 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (28 December 2016)
Audio file fant13.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 13 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (30 December 2016)
Audio file fant14.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 14 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (30 December 2016)
Audio file fant15.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 15 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (30 January 2017)
Audio file fant16.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 16 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (31 January 2017)
Audio file fant17.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 17 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (01 February 2017)
Audio file fant18.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 18 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (02 February 2017)
Audio file fant19.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 19 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (02 February 2017)
Audio file fant20.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 20 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (02 February 2017)
Audio file fant21.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 21 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (03 February 2017)
Audio file fant22.aiff
My first attempt to play chapter 22 on the organ at First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto (03 February 2017)


I've received fantastic help on this fantasy from so many people that, alas, I can't remember all of their names. I do want to give special thanks here to individuals who have voluntarily contributed truly extraordinary amounts of their own time:
Anders Björner, who orchestrated several trips to Sweden related to this project;
Carson Cooman, who gave encouragement and good advice at an early stage;
Jin Kyung Lim, who gave the first performances and provided me with critical feedback, beginning when I'd written only about 1/3 of the music;
Svante Linusson and Arnfinn Röste, who flew with me to the Music College in Piteå, Sweden;
Stephen Malinowski, who converted my handwritten manuscript into a beautifully typeset document, and provided video track #1;
Jan Overduin, an “early adopter” who immediately understood my goals and has become my partner in refining the score;
Craig Sapp, who has been teaching me everything that I need to know about music software and hardware.


Music scores to download

Although the music is still being refined, here are the latest performance-oriented scores for the complete work, as of 08 February 2017. I've also included scans of my original handwritten manuscript, as it existed on 16 September 2016, in case you want to psych out what I had in mind as I was formulating the music.

Page 1 (title, and registration hints)
(the opening page)
Chapter 1: Introduction
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 2: Letters to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 3: Letters to Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 4: The heavenly throne
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 5: The scroll and the Lamb
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 6: Four horsemen; open seals
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 7: Saints marching in
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 8: Four trumpets
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 9: Trumpets and woes
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 10: The sweet and sour little scroll
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 11: Seventh trumpet; open temple
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 12: The woman and the dragon
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 13: The blasphemous beast; 666
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 14: God's harvest
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 15: Preparing seven plagues
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 16: Bowls of wrath; Armageddon
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 17: The prostitute
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 18: Babylon is fallen
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 19: Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 20: The thousand years
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 21: The new Jerusalem
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)
Chapter 22: The coming Messiah
(typeset score) (handwritten MS)

Some tentative registrations

When I prepared the experimental audio recordings above, on the two-manual Casavant organ at First Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, I used general pistons on eight levels of that organ's memory. Here are complete details of the Casavant registrations.

Here also are complete details of the Woehl registrations that I used when recording Chapter 1 at Studio Acusticum, as well as some ideas for Woehl registrations in the other chapters.

Dictionary of motifs

Here's a complete dictionary of the Greek textual motifs used and the musical equivalents that I chose.

And here's an inverse dictionary, showing verse-by-verse which textual motifs were translated.

Also a list of special effects.

Allusions to existing music

Fantasia Apocalyptica pays homage to dozens of other musical works, enumerated here.

Don Knuth's home page

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