The Iota Exchanges - Set 2

iota, founded in 1999, is an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the art of light and movement by constructing a database of information about artists (biographies) and their works (films, videos, performances, instruments, etc.) as well as bibliographic references (books, articles, exhibition catalogs, etc.). It's emphasis on dynamic media such as film and video animation represents another flavor of visual music.

The following exchanges were taken from the early days of iota's discussion group. Due to HTML limitations on page length, links to additional exchanges are found at the end of this page. One approach to accessing the information in these exchanges is to read them from beginning to end. Given that many (but not all) subjects in the iota Exchanges can be found in list below, another approach is to use the links in the list. Most of the items in the subject list relate in one way or another to visual music and compositional thinking.

Issues addressed:

This message was written in response to issues raised in the two posts that follow it.

From: Ron Pellegrino <>
Subject: visual music: the name
Date: 8/10/99

The value of the name, visual music, lies in its function as a pointer to an historical phenomenon, a set of related work processes, and the body of work that emerges from those processes. What I like about the name is that it seems to have emerged on its own in a number of places simultaneously and in a natural way that makes its roots very difficult to trace. After working with music visualization processes for research and teaching purposes beginning in 1967, I did a series of five music synthesizer generated films in 1971/72 that I used throughout the 70s as dynamic graphic scores. I referred to those films as visual music scores and taught musicians how to read (interpret) them in performance as one facet of my residencies around the USA. I know that Laurie Spiegel also used the expression visual music to refer to the work she was doing in music research and composition in the early 70s. And though there were others at work in the field, mainstream music definitely considered the visual music movement as part of the lunatic fringe. During the late 60s/early 70s in the leading edge music world, the expression, visual music, was not considered odd because graphic scores were already a staple of the musical avant-garde in the 60s and, of course, light shows, especially as part of the US west coast rock scene, were more or less integrated into the rock movement.

The name, visual music, also has a strong descriptive resonance. The order of the words can be changed (music visuals or music visualization) and it still works as one of the stronger visual music flavors. Folks in the world of music television recognized that quality in the 80s and capitalized on it big time with no end in sight. ICAD , the International Community for Auditory Display (sound/music visuals), is one of the scientific research arms of the visual music movement and some of their members target commercial applications in the worlds of Virtual Reality and immersive environments. Lately I´ve been playing with idea of considering the name, visual music, as in the same class of names as ice cream. Flavors. Gourmet. Gelato. Homemade. Commercial. Fake. Etc.

In September of 1996 at the Exploratorium (the seminal hands-on art and science museum) in San Francisco I produced a public Visual Music Forum as one of my periodic field tests to gauge the then current level of visual music interest and awareness on the part of the news media and the performance arts community in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the publicity package that was sent out to promote the event I used the following descriptive language regarding visual music: "Visual Music is a focused multimedia genre of natural and invented visual embodiments of music. It includes direct visual translations of music and the materials of music; it also includes mappings of dynamic visuals to music either directly, coincidentally, or in a form that is technologically or humanly mediated. Visual music finds its applications in performance, entertainment, art, business, and education. Lasers, computers, synthesizers, and video merge with dance, voice, nature, wildlife, dynamic visual art, and acoustic and electronic music to create unparalleled sensory experiences. These experiences are created by multimedia forms born of the marriage of current and emerging technology and the rich tradition of global performance art." That´s a relatively nonexclusive description with plenty of elbow room for edgy individualists as well as artistic/scientific stretcher types.

On Iota´s home page you´ll find the following text: "Welcome to iota. Here we are building the foundation for an international community of artists, scholars, and anyone else interested in the art of light and movement. If you´re interested in this genre, please join us." Visual music is actually a broader field with leading practitioners working toward an integrated art of sound, light, and movement with "integrated" being a key word.

So it may help to clear some of the confusion if we view the sphere of visual music as intersecting with the sphere of "the art of light and movement" which includes film, video, computer animation, projected laser animation, light sculpture, pyrotechnics, water fountain design, dance, and any other medium that is composed with moving and changing light. There´s no reason to expect that all of the forms of the art of light and movement need to be closely informed by or even remotely related to music on a conscious level. For most musicians the notion of moving ideas through time is absolutely fundamental to the point of becoming embedded on a cellular level. For most visual artists, especially those emerging from traditional story-based backgrounds (film and video) or traditional studio backgrounds (paintings hung on walls and sculptures set in gardens), learning the fundamentals of movement (time-based concepts) is like learning a foreign language late in life - possible but difficult and true fluency is seldom achieved.

In a nutshell, the Iota list is dedicated to the art of light and movement, not visual music. As described above, visual music is a relative of the art of light and movement with more or less close ties to sonic music. I expect most people on this list do not have lengthy cultivated music backgrounds or a deep understanding of the materials of music composition, theory, and aesthetics. More likely, they know what they like in music and what they like they combine with their moving light creations. And, of course, either serendipitously or via some forethought, those combinations may be absolutely stunning and of special interest to those with visual music inclinations. So as the numbers of people involving themselves with the art of light and movement increases, the greater the number of works of special interest from a visual music perspective, and the greater the number of artists who might possibly explore the field of visual music.

When I put up my website in early 1996, typing "visual music" into any search engine would have taken you directly to my site. Try that in late 1999 and you´ll get hundreds of URLs including companies selling A/V gear, book and music production and instruction, recording and composition services and products, magazines, therapy, vodka, etc. It´s obvious that the commercial world loves the expression, visual music, but their appropriation of the name doesn´t detract one iota from the significance or the substance of the art of visual music. It just makes getting a handle on the field more confusing for newcomers.

Ron Pellegrino


>Date: Sat, 7 Aug 1999 12:09:40 -0500
>From: Fred Collopy
>Subject: [iota] Re: visual music: definition?

>Q: What is visual music?

>A: A bad name for a field of art. It puts music in the noun position,
>reducing visual to the role of a modifer. Of course this is just an
>opinion, but it is one that seems to have been shared by Thomas Wilfred,
>Richard Land, Frank Malina and others. My thoughts on this are further
>elaborated at

>P.S. I think "iota art" which was proposed in a later posting on a related
>thread world be worse, an iota is the smallest stroke that can be made and
>still seen).

>Fred Collopy
>Assoc Prof at Case Western Reserve University and
>Occassional Visiting Scientist at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center



>Date: Sun, 08 Aug 1999 12:33:51 -0700
>From: Aaron Ross
>Subject: [iota] Re: visual music: definition?

>Hello again,

>In my post about defining visual music, I was not attempting to codify the
>field. Really, I'm not trying to vivisect a living art form. I merely
>wished to begin some discussion by finding out what different views are
>held as to the nature of the subject at hand.

>Since my theoretical questions received no response, I'll try a more
>personal approach. What does "visual music" or "lumia" (or whatever you
>wish to call it) mean to you? How did you get involved in it, and how has
>your participation in this art form changed and progressed through time?

>And, what are your thoughts about the various "flavors" of lumia? Perhaps
>we can identify major distinctions within this field-- conceptual,
>technical, and aesthetic trends which can be observed even at this
>relatively early stage of development.

>look forward to reading your responses, but I will be at SIGGRAPH next
>week, so I won't be able to respond until I get back. Perhaps I will get to
>meet some of you there and have some face-to-face conversations.

>Thank you,

>Aaron Ross

Laurie Spiegel's working definition of visual music:

Date: Tue, 10 Aug 1999 20:10:28 -0400
From: Laurie Spiegel
Subject: [iota] Re: visual music: definition?

»Q: What is visual music?
»A: A bad name for a field of art. It puts music in the noun position,
»reducing visual to the role of a modifer....

»Fred Collopy


»Since my theoretical questions received no response, I´ll try a more
»personal approach. What does "visual music" or "lumia" (or whatever you
»wish to call it) mean to you?...

»Aaron Ross


Laurie Spiegel - I can give my own working definition:

"Visual music" does not necessarily underplay the visual. To date we have had predominantly "sonic music", so the adjective "sonic" is generally assumed. Ultimately there may be "music" as a general set, comprised of "sonic music", "visual music" and "audiovisual music". To get to such a change of usage, however, we may to need to churn out quite a lot of very high quality repetoire.

("Sonic music" keeps the syllable count down, but the proper matched pair would be "auditory" and "visual", and other matched pairs might be sonic-optic, aural-ocular, etc.)

I posed a definition above which may or may not fit anyone else´s work in this group besides mine, but I´d like to explain it a bit: "self-referential temporal art".

By "self-referential", I mean that the content is internal to the work, integrated into its structure, inherent in its form, and not dependent on symbolic or associative references to images outside of itself or to any meanings its images might have in another context. I don´t mean to altogether exclude extra-referential content, though. Auditory music uses sampled sounds much like visual music might use captured images, and cameras and microphones are functionally analogous. The nature of such signals could be seen just as a characteristics of specific instruments on which the music is played.

But the essence of the art, common to both media, as I see it anyway, is the shape of change over time and the relationships among such changes and patterns of change. Within a piece of music, these might be simultaneous, sequential, or otherwise interrelated or juxtaposed. In either sensory modality, image or sound, the process is the same: light and/or audio both act as carrier signals onto which the form and shape of the music are modulated, and the forms and shapes encoded in this way are composed so as to be meaningfully decoded by the human mind at a level above the individual senses.

This is not the only way I conceive of music, as pure abstracted structure unfolding through time, and I don´t mean to deny at all the pleasure and intensity of sensory stimula specific to hearing and sight. The above is a conceptual model that I´ve found useful.

- Laurie

>From: Fred Collopy <>
>Subject: [iota] Re: visual music: definition?
>Date: Thu, 12 Aug 1999 10:07:57 -0500

>I looked up "music" in the dictionary. The first three definitions all use
>the word "sounds" as an integral part of the definition-"1. the art and
>science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds or tones...", "2. the
>sounds or tones so arranged...", "3. any rhythmic sequence of pleasing
>sounds...". The remaining definitions do not explicitly use "sounds" but do
>use the adjective "musical" which sends us back to "music" which puts us
>back in the domain of "sounds". I am afaid that moving from sonic or
>auditory music to some other kind of music is going to take more than a lot
>of good output from us. In fact as I stared at the definitions, I came to
>see "visual music" as an oxymoron, a clever play on words.

>There is a lot of debate about social construction these days. But it seems
>pretty clear that one arena in which its basic tenets hold relates to the
>creation of language. Rarely does a group get to define itself. "Visual
>music" privledges the kind of composition that musicians have done at the
>expense of the kind that visual artists have done. While I am certain that
>the phrase "visual music", particularly when broadly conceived as in Ron´s
>"Flavors of Visual Music"[Visual Music Flavors] piece, has utility, I do not think that it is
>useful for naming what many of us on this list are doing.

>Again, I´ll refer anyone interested in this problem to my page on naming:
> and for the moment I´ll sign myself...

>Fred Collopy
>imagist and lumianist


(Pellegrino's response to preceding message)

From: Ron Pellegrino <>
Subject: Re: [iota] Re: visual music: definition?
Date: August 14, 1999

Pellegrino - The meaning of the word music is far deeper, richer, and more complex than what any single source, especially a dictionary, which deals in the outer layers of surface meanings, could possibly define or describe. If you trace the etymology of music you´ll discover that early in human history it meant "the art of the muses" which covered in Classical Mythology nine of the bases in the performance arts including astronomy (music of the spheres). Spend some time with thinkers and teachers like Hazrat Inayat Khan (THE MYSTICISM OF SOUND AND MUSIC) and you´ll discover that for millenia enlightened folks have realized that the essence of music is the same as that of life, namely movement (remember Iota is dedicated to the art of light and movement). Dig into the thinking of 20th century philosopher Susanne K. Langer (PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY and FEELING AND FORM) and you´ll discover that she develops the idea that the dynamic structures (articulated movement) of the performance arts directly engage human feelings by way of morphological resonances; and that´s the foundation for what is means when we say we´re moved by the performance arts.

The idea of visual music is not at all new. All that´s changed today is that we´re playing those ancient games with different tools (emerging technology), plus many more of us have access to the playing field. Visual music is no longer an inner circle activity. With the spread of generative art software it´s now an art form being explored by increasing numbers of people, and that being the case, a fair amount of confusion about what visual music is and how to do it is bound to follow.

I´ve been playing with Fred's vision of ""visual music" as an oxymoron", oxymoron being a word normally defined as a contradiction in terms. (There´s no question that the mental exercise of reconciling opposites is one of the great engines for intellectual as well as social growth.) The expressive value of an oxymoron is that it stops you in your tracks and makes you pay closer attention to what is being communicated in terms of the frame of reference - the context. Of course visual music is definitely not an oxymoron, but if you view it that way it turns out to be a good linguistic tool for encouraging double takes and a tighter focus on its meaning. In fact the notion of visual music is based on a fruitful marriage of the senses for sight and sound; as such it can be viewed as an integrated multimodal approach to communication in the arts based on the psychophysics of movement.

There´s absolutely no pressure on anyone to use the expression visual music to name their work. In fact during the past few years there are increasing numbers of people going out of their way to be identified with the visual music movement; why that´s true would make an interesting story. One of the reasons may be that visual artists newly entering the realm of time-based art processes seem to be at a loss for finding their place in the art world including identifying themselves with other like-minded people. Of course, anyone can name their work whatever pleases them. David Tristram's recent post giving the rationale for his name, Viviography, was especially interesting. We should hear the rationales from more people who´ve coined special names for their work.

Ron Pellegrino

From: Ron Pellegrino <>
Subject: Re: [iota] Re: visual music: definition?
Date: 8/15/99

SXA - I believe, regrettably, that no visual equivalent or analog to music is possible because there is no visual equivalent or analog to the OCTAVE, where we perceive an illusory cyclic movement even when the intervals are descending or ascending only. Music would not exist without the octave, which is a human perception peculiar to sound.

Pellegrino - Belief and fact are often separate realities. The figure eight is the visual equivalent of the octave and, in fact, every interval in music has a fixed natural visual equivalent. I always begin my public Visual Music presentations with a short "fundamentals of visual music" demonstration. As part of that demonstration I use an X-Y laser projection system driven by a stereo analog audio synthesizer to show people the natural visual forms produced by all the music intervals in various tuning systems. I also show the visual equivalents for consonance and dissonance, tremolo (amplitude modulation), vibrato (frequency modulation), spectral shaping (timbral and phase modulation), attack and decay, crescendo and decrescendo, various articulations, cadence, pulse, tempo, meter, etc. Everything in music has a visual equivalent. Since 1967 I´ve made it my business, literally, to demonstrate that fact to audiences around the world.

SXA - In addition, analogies made on the basis of synesthetic experience cannot have universal application, because the particulars of synesthesia have been proven to be entirely idiosyncratic to the person who experiences it, and do not generalize to others.


Pellegrino - Because research tends to support what you´re saying about the idiosyncratic nature of synesthetic responses, my view has always been that, although relatively popular, work based on synesthesia is probably the weakest of the visual music flavors. But it´s fascinating and valuable as a point of departure nevertheless because the idea of mapping color to pitch (or other music variables) has inspired many to explore the art possibilities in making connections between the eye and the ear. An additional liability is that the traditional medical world tends to view synesthesia as an illness.

Ron Pellegrino

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