Visual Music Flavors

Chapter 15 of Emergent Music And Visual Music: Inside Studies
Ronald A. Pellegrino

Visual Music is an integrated multimedia approach to music based on the principle that there are both natural visual manifestations and invented visual representations of all sonic musical elements, structures, and processes. Visual music forms emerge from the integration of the physics, psychophysics, and metaphysics of sound, light, form, and movement as well as the marriage of current and emerging art technology with the long rich tradition of the art of performance. Flavors of visual music are the outcome of the various approaches to realizing this principle according to various applications in performance art, entertainment, visual art, and education.

The popularization and accessibility of multimedia tools are two of a number of forces driving the growing interest in visual music and the desire by artists, scientists, and educators of all stripes and ranks to be associated with the idea of visual music. Visual music is just one facet of many in the ongoing visualization revolution in education, communications, the sciences, and the arts. Visualization tools such as the current crop of sound and image generators and recorders, specialized AV microcomputers, test equipment, and relatively inexpensive yet powerful software for doing high quality multimedia are commonplace today in homes, artist studios, science laboratories, business places, and classrooms. Add to that technology mix the genre called "creativity" software (algorithms and generative systems that make it relatively easy for the any user to produce the illusion of a work of art) and a genuinely joyful creative attitude that seems to be picking up steam in many segments of society, and the upshot is that conditions are ripe for a bountiful visual music harvest.

Once you begin to examine what people are calling visual music, it becomes abundantly clear from the rich variety of approaches that there must be a corresponding variety of notions of what people believe belongs in the sphere of music. The following visual music flavors grow out of those notions.

Visual Music Flavors

1. Literal visualizations of music are generated directly from channelized musical wavetrains.

2. Imagery and music emerge from one and the same algorithmic process.

3. Visualization systems are mapped to some of the symbols used in traditional music scores.

4. Scrolling scores in software MIDI sequencers bring the look of the traditional piano roll to the digital age.

5. Software for the creation, animation, and sequencing of graphics that spins out musical gestures is modeled on the principles of MIDI sequencers.

6. Interpretive visualizations emerge from dance and theater traditions that undoubtedly extend back to the dawn of human religious and celebratory rituals.

7. Object oriented programming environments are endowed with flowcharting procedures that represent instruments or orchestras that can virtually play themselves or be performed by artists.

8. Appropriately dramatic, humorous, or lyrical music closely synchronized with natural or invented moving imagery is now a mainstay of the popular media scene especially in advertising, but also in commercial television and films.

9. Musical materials and/or gestures are mapped to imagery to create visual instruments that are meant to be played by a variety of input devices.

10. Using their shallow understanding of the collaborative philosophies of John Cage and Merce Cunningham as an argument for just about anything goes, some music visualizers combine photos or paintings or drawings or the outputs of algorithmic/generative animation systems with live or recorded music and rely entirely on coincidence and the natural predisposition of the minds of the audience/spectators to create implicit order out of exactly or nearly simultaneous sensory events.

11. Landing somewhat closer to the Cage/Cunningham target are two related approaches; the first is based on simultaneous realtime composition by sound, image, and body movement collaborators; the second involves performances by an individual creating music with self-precomposed imagery or creating realtime imagery with self-precomposed music.

12. Some performing musicians are so at one with their music that they move their bodies in ways that articulate every nuance of the music they're creating, as well as articulating the thought process that lead to the music they're creating. Not so long ago I was in an audience that was treated by Steve Williams, the drummer with The Shirley Horn Trio, to a transcendental evening of visual music drumming; his movements were one with the sounds he created. Choreographers and dancers would do well to study the drama and lyricism of the organic movement of musicians like Steve Williams. No posturing. No affectations. No waste. All one—movement and music.

13. Audio software manufacturers rely heavily on analytical routines to visualize audio recording, editing, processing, and mixing. Many of their software programs are so highly evolved that they make excellent resources for multi-modal learning and teaching of music fundamentals based on the physical nature of sound, human perception of sound, how music instruments work, auditorium acoustics, and music recording and playback systems.
14. Any good book, article, film, video, or DVD on the science of sound should be packed with charts, diagrams, and illustrations that serve to clarify the basic principles that con-nect music with the fields of physics, psychology, physiology, mathematics, speech, engi-neering, audiology, architecture, and other related fields.

15. Sonification of visual forms and natural events is a sphere of activity that intersects with music visualization, enough so to be consider a candidate for another visual music flavor even though a flip is required. Sonifying or translating into music natural dynamical systems such as weather, ocean currents, planetary or celestial movement, solar storms, and the like has gained currency and momentum since its beginnings in the early 1970s.

16. Rude and crude. The use of sound and light forms that use levels, rhythms, and effects
that are psychophysically painful and possibly injurious. Commonly the perpetrators of this flavor, for legal reasons, include a disclaimer. Be forewarned; carry earplugs and be prepared to close your eyes. Despite those precautions, high intensity percussive events or strobe light effects at just the right (wrong!) tempo (pulse rate) can negatively affect the heart and nervous system; and loud, low sound near the sub-audio threshold can do the same sort of damage to your digestive system. At one of the finest concert venues in Berkeley, CA I was forced to inform the audio tech who was working the board that if he insisted on overdriving the low frequencies and my stomach decided to rebel, it's output would be over his board. He wisely and kindly backed off the low frequencies and all ended well.

As the internet grew exponentially during the 1990s I came across increasing numbers of artists who wanted their work to be associated with the notion of visual music. It was during that time that I gradually became ever more uneasy with the "flavor" metaphor as descriptive of the various approaches taken to visual music. Just imagine it's possible that ice cream could be flavored with garlic, artichoke, potato, basil, or even unmentionables and still be considered an ice cream treat by some folks with strange inclinations; but common sense says that those incongruent flavors seriously digress from the notion of the sweet desert that comes to most minds when the object is said to be ice cream. Similarly the essence of visual music grows out of the principle stated above—there are both natural visual manifestations and invented visual representations of all sonic musical elements, structures, and processes—and the more congruent the flavors are with that notion, the closer the works are to the core of what's meant by the expression, visual music. Contrary to the desires of so many who want to be associated with the field of visual music because it has a certain cachet in the avant-garde, there's far more to the field than simply combining any sound with any dynamic imagery willy-nilly. To put it precisely, to be included in the visual music field, a work's dynamic imagery should be variously informed by the music, integrated with the music, embody the music, and/or grow out of the music.

©1996-2010 Ron Pellegrino and Electronic Arts Productions. All rights reserved.

To view selected sections of Emergent Music And Visual Music: Inside Studies, Part 1: The Book, click on one of the following:
Chapter 1, Emergent Music

To view visual music video samples click here.

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