Citizen DJ and its creator Brian Foo’s earlier poetry project

Officially launching later this summer, the Library of Congress’s Citizen DJ project is an innovative, elegantly designed cultural Cuisinart that encourages the playful remixing and re-imagining of culture.

Mashing up early sound recording and film-era culture with post-modern hip hop and pop music production techniques, Citizen DJ offers a combination sampler and sequencer (based on a variety of classic drum machines) on a user-friendly web page that is astounding in scope and potential. And its a godsend for artists who work with public domain sources.

I tried it out on the “Inventing Entertainment” section with a 1902 Thomas Edison, Inc. piece called “Fun in a bakery shop.” With a few mouse clicks, the original transformed into a sort of “Funk in a bakery shop,” ha ha.

This source file:

Fun in a bakery shop

Became this remix in about a minute:

Funk in a bakery shop

This example/sample, mostly a default settings pressing of “play,” barely scratches the surface of a single source (out of thousands, maybe millions) and of what the Citizen DJ site promises. So much fun!

The Citizen DJ project is the vision of artist and computer scientist Brian Foo, who is also a 2020 Innovator in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Wanting to know more about the mastermind behind Citizen DJ, I explored Foo’s website, and, lo and behold, a few years ago he had explored the link between poetry and music. In “Still I Rise: From Spoken Word to Sheet Music,” Foo developed a method for analyzing the melodic nature of poetic speech. Using Maya Angelou‘s “Still I Rise” poem as the test source, Foo used a forced aligner computer program to “align the audio to the words of the poem.” Then, for pitch and dynamics detection, he used a speech analyzer program. This step took a lot of tweaking (!). Finally, Foo made sheet music of the poem using a music notation program. The next step, left untaken, would be to have a musician who can read music play the poem, and perhaps record the piece.

Foo’s Still I Rise project is an obvious cousin and fellow traveler to Poetry DNA. Whereas the method I am using here uses musical software–Ableton Live–to extract MIDI data from audio recordings of poems, and then applies virtual instruments to that data, Foo’s method produces an actual musical text–sheet music.

Interestingly, in the process of working with his poem, Foo found precursors to the music-poetry quest, including Béla Bartók and Steve Reich, whose initial attempt at arranging a William Carlos Williams poem to music disappointed the composer. [I wonder what he would have made of this Poetry DNA example?!]

Reflecting on his experiment, Foo asks, “What happens if we can make history that is embedded in the melodies of spoken word as infectious and influential as a Beyoncé single?” I’ll second that question and quest.


  • This post contains samples of “Fun in a bakery shop” by Porter, Edwin S., production, camera., Thomas A. Edison, Inc., and Paper Print Collection (Library of Congress). Retrieved from Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.

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