The Unison

Ron Pellegrino, March 2001

The Unison is from Visual Music Meditations, a set of video pieces with my music and music synthesizer generated laser animations that have their roots in my earliest explorations of music synthesizers dating back to 1967. From 1967-1975 I hung an oscilloscope on the ends of music synthesizer wavetrains as a vehicle for exploring the nature of the synthesizer and eventually, in 1971/72, for composing a series of films called the Lissajous Lives Film Series. In effect during those years I was seeing what I was hearing and I was hearing what I was seeing since both the imagery and the sound were derived from the same source, namely the electronically generated wavetrains. During those years the oscilloscope was one of my most important tools for music visualization; since there was virtually no instructional material on music synthesizers at that time, the oscilloscope was my teacher. Eventually in 1975 I built a portable laser animation/projection system to use in addition to the oscilloscope for my electro-acoustic research and in place of oscillographically generated imagery in my performances. That combined approach continues to this day.

So both the music and the imagery in The Unison are generated by the same source - stereo wavetrains I massaged in real-time with my Synthi AKS, an analog music synthesizer. The musical "interval" of a unison is created by a 1:1 frequency ratio. In The Unison excerpt one of the ones in the 1:1 ratio is more complex than the other one. It's composed of additional harmonically related frequencies (multiples of the fundamental) that give rise to the curls and loops in the imagery and the richness in the sound. The original form of the imagery was projected laser animations captured by a video camera and recorded to videotape along with audio signals generated by the music synthesizer. The stereo output of the music synthesizer was split so one stereo leg was fed to the audio inputs of the video recorder while the other stereo set was simultaneously used to drive my laser animation projection system that created the imagery also captured to videotape. For more detail on that process use this link.

The music in The Unison excerpt was processed and polished in MetaSynth (currently my favorite software synthesizer) so it would be accessible beyond the inner circle of Pythagorean enthusiasts. The imagery was treated similarly in Premiere (video processing and editing software) so its appeal might go a bit beyond the sphere of the purists. The fact is that I love the raw tapes as I love raw unprocessed food - they're closest to the living process - but there's also as much to be said for the art of cooking electronic sound and light as there is for cooking food. Cooked food also carries the spirit of the cook blended with the spirit of the food.

What I've always especially liked about the laser animation/projection system is that it behaves very much like a music instrument. Its personality is defined by very serious idiosyncratic nonlinearity, limits to its frequency range, predictable resonant frequency bands, and limits on how much driving force it can survive. In other words, it has a visual voice just as a music instrument has a sonic voice.

Beginning in 1975 I spent countless hours designing laser animation performance systems that I thought of as ragas and talas, collections of visual melodies, scales, tunings, and rhythms to be used in a real-time compositional mode. Which designs I used and how I used them were determined by the particular performance requirements of the engagement or the session. Well into the late 1990s I was still fine tuning and extending old designs and creating new ones.

Performance technique for creating laser animations requires a very soft touch to the point where I will conceptually lean on a control with my mind to make extremely small changes in phase, frequency, amplitude, and waveshape. In the first decade of my life as a music composer I studied all the acoustic instruments from the four principal families often taking private instruction for years at a time to discover the idiosyncratic nature of every acoustic instrument. In all those years I never encountered an instrument that required a touch as subtle as a music synthesizer especially when I was creating visual music. By far my favorite synthesizer remains an analog instrument that arrived on the scene in the early 70s called the Synthi AKS. Its five-turn potentiometers for frequency control are as sweet as pots get - you just touch the pot with your fingertips, think its rotational direction, and it moves every so slightly in response to your thought.

Laser animations do not lend themselves to being captured very well by a video camera, so despite the urgings of some of my close colleagues, I resisted the idea of committing them to video for many years. For more of my thinking on that subject see the essay I wrote a few years ago called Playing Free of the Box.

Nevertheless, late in the 1990s I decided to set apart a week to record to videotape the laser animations that would best fit the serious limitations of a video monitor - fixed aspect ration, low resolution, miniscule window, among others. Visual Music Meditations is composed of the recordings I made during that week. Much of what I've done since 1975 in the realm of laser animations is impossible to capture on videotape so it remains in the sphere of my live performances, what I do as part of my residency engagements. However, I was somewhat surprised by how many designs I could adapt to work reasonably well on video.

Compressing and massaging the videos so they can be viewed on the Internet presented an entirely new set of limitations and distortions. Before I posted The Unison I spent the better part of a week running tests to abstract principles I could apply to creating the best possible Internet experience (given the current Web conditions) for those interested in downloading the excerpts from Visual Music Meditations. So bear in mind when you playback the video excerpts that you're looking through a peephole. Only a few of my laser animation designs were appropriate for recording to DV videotape (720 x 480 at 30 frames/sec, dropframe). The impact of many of those was significantly reduced by the compression process and reducing the screen size to 180 x 120 and the frame rate to 15 frames/sec, steps necessary to keep the file size in a reasonable download range. But bear in mind that I would only post material on my web site if I thought it was worth seeing and hearing, so I hope you find these excerpts worth the download.

Laser Animations and Pythagorean Thought

In 1959 while a sophomore in a philosophy class at Lawrence University I was introduced to the work of Pythagoras of Samos, a mystical, mathematical, and acoustical philosopher, who along with his followers in the 6th century BC and beyond set the stage for the development of psychophysics in the present day, 2600 years later. My work with laser animations is rooted in Pythagorean thought.

For example, through my oscillographic and laser animation work I've been searching for a common ground for the ear and the eye, for sound and sight. In effect I've been working to combine Pythagorean contraries in the context of a harmonic process, one of their main concerns. What I discovered was that when tuned appropriately a highly selected single stereo wavetrain will produce harmonious sound and imagery that provides insight into the natural order of things. Human contrivance comes into play when I note and study the conditions for returning to my personal preferences and playing with whatever it takes to get from one place to another in an aesthetically effective way; this noting, studying, and playing process is what I'm referring to when I call these pieces Visual Music Meditations.

From one perspective it would be just as accurate to call them studies. But I prefer meditations because of the state of mind this work tends to cultivate. Commonly when I do this sort of work I find myself in a state where the soul seems freed from the body so that rational apprehension takes on the character of immediate perception, intuition in its most fundamental form. The fact is that for me this process has served educational functions from the most elementary to the most elevated levels. To document my meditations I have to bootstrap myself to enter a disciplined linear state of mind to write notes, make flowcharts, configure recording equipment, etc. I view the necessity of documenting meditations as a form of harmonizing Pythagorean contraries.

The Pythagoreans considered numbers as being represented in concrete physical forms including geometrical figures. What I create with my laser animations are not concrete physical forms, rather they're ephemeral forms that create the illusion of fluid physical forms often reminiscent of natural concrete physical forms. Technically the imagery belongs in the realm of Lissajous figures, the expression named after Jules A. Lissajous, a 19th century French physicist credited with the concept of creating curves in one plane traced by a point (the laser or the electron beam) moving under the influence of two separate harmonic motions (stereo wavetrains in my work).

Anyone who's taken a physics class has probably seen common examples of Lissajous figures generated by simple harmonic motions, perpendicular to each other with a simple frequency ratio; you won't find those images in my work. My laser animation work tends toward the farther reaches of the Lissajous figure realm and my emphasis is on musical movement and metaphorical forms rather than measure. All the imagery and sounds are created by continuous streams of numbers but my preferred approach to the process is to feel the streaming numbers rather than calculate them. Like most processes in the arts the streams and relationships of numbers that create my laser animations can be calculated and analyzed after the fact. And, from time to time when I'm in a linear mode, I'll stop to do some calculations and analysis mainly because it provides another perspective on the designs, a view that might lead to the discovery of one or more wrinkles for improving the design or leading off into unexplored territory.

Please note that video on the internet in September of 2000 (when I started posting video excerpts) and in March of 2001 (when this excerpt was posted) still has a long way to go for great image and sound quality. Nevertheless, even under current conditions there are ways of optimizing the internet video experience.

Ways to get the best results from this video file:

  1. Setting your monitor to a resolution of 640 x 480 will provide the largest image with no distortion. Finer resolutions will also work; the screen will just be smaller and the image compromised somewhat.
  2. With some browsers, Internet Explorer 5 for example, you can resize the the video by grabbing its window in the lower right hand corner and pushing and pulling it. If you resize the image adust your viewing distance to the monitor accordingly.
  3. Be sure you play the music on a good sound system; the speaker built into your computer is as bad as audio systems get. For less than $100 you can get a decent stereo sound system to connect to your computer and your listening pleasure will be greatly enhanced. For less than $50 you can buy decent stereo headphones. Never listen to music over the speakers built into your computer; they should be illegal.
  4. Video files are long, which means downloads are long. Let the file download in the background while you're doing something else with your computer. Or while the file is downloading take a walk and see what birds are playing in your yard or out on the street. If your sound system is turned on, the music will begin playing as soon as the video file is finished downloading. That's a good way to remind yourself you started a long download especially if you start working on something else in the meantime.
  5. To play the video you should have QuickTime installed. If you don't, download it at no cost from Apple.

To download the video excerpt from The Unison (10.6 MB) click here. Be sure to download long video files in the background while you're doing other tasks with your computer or away from your computer.

Eight hours after I posted an announcement of the availability of the excerpt The Unison I received the following email message. I'm including it here because I was so pleased to hear from someone who so quickly dialed up the resonant frequency for this work:

From: Diana Slattery <>
Subject: Re: UILIST: MS: The Unison
Date: Mon, 26 Mar 2001 04:23:51 -0800


Strange thing to be doing at 7 in the morning, but what a treat. Saw an essay in generation of dimensionality. The one becoming the two; the two becoming three, and the three, moving to knot itself (illusionary) in four dimensional or higher space. Generation from primal tones. And the generation being fluid, not of discrete number-states, continuous.

If this can transmit the state of mind through the multiple mediations of computer, screen, small size--relative to the immersion of live performance, etc. -- the essential message penetrating layer upon layer of potential noise and translation, well--that's something else. In-deed.

The universe as a vast signaling system, built up from simple elements, which can always be recaptured, always underlie the greatest complexity of criss-crossing waves within waves.

Many thanks.

Diana Slattery

----- Original Message -----
From: "Ron Pellegrino" <>
To: <>
Sent: Monday, March 26, 2001 3:18 AM
Subject: UILIST: MS: The Unison

>Fans of Pythagoras, that mystical, mathematical, and philosophical
>seminator from the 6th century BC, and those on the list who enjoy
>checking out music visualizations might find the latest post to my
>site of interest. I just posted The Unison, a video excerpt from a
>project of mine called Visual Music Meditations. Both the imagery
>and sound are derived from the same stereo wavetrain which in this
>excerpt is a unison finely tuned to create small but intimately
>coordinated sonically and visually significant changes in frequency,
>phase, amplitude, and waveshape. I used MetaSynth to polish and
>flesh out the audio leg of the wavetrains. You can find it at the
>following URL:

>You'll notice from the address that I'm using iDisk as an extension
>to my main site. Figuring out how to do it was not a bagatelle. I
>searched but I couldn't find any help in avoiding Apple's templates
>so it took more than little experimentation to accomplish the task.
>Apple's marketing motto may be to "Think Different" but they often
>end up forcing everyone to wear the same clothes (those templates in
>this case). That's not to say that I'm ungrateful for the 20 MB
>extension to my site. But it really is a very good marketing tool
>for Apple and I'm sure I'll be paying them for additional storage in
>the not too distant future.

>I'm sure everyone on this list knows that large files should be
>downloaded in the background while you're doing other things with
>your computer - just a reminder.

>Ron Pellegrino

Nine days after the announcement I received another response that I like just as much for different reasons:

From: Bob Seiple <>
Subject: Re: UILIST: MS: The Unison
Date:Wed, 4 April 2001 04:23:51 -0800


I experienced Unison several times last night. I tried to enter into it, because I felt it would help me better know, if I could be a part of its unfolding. There was something large within its subtle changes which invited me to meet it. The next morning, I had a series of dreams, lucid dreams--probably at the edge of alpha. These dreams were successive small shifts--approximations about a basic theme: there was a charcoal colored fish or lip shaped object, disc-like and containing hints of colors within its charcoal--a dull sheen of little rainbows. Actions or frequencies were streaming into this disc and different frequencies or harmonics were emanating out. I was "told" to come to know the process. It felt more than just a diminution of amplitude or change in frequencies. Something more dynamic and very sublime and perhaps magical was happening within this slender orb or Kleinfish. I felt that I was treated to experiencing some kind of learning to learn to learn to learn. Thanks, Your Fellow In Alchemy, Squidpop

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