Playing Free of the Box

What follows is what I wrote in response to some remarks by Stephen Malinowski in reference to issues that surfaced by way of my participation in a day long gathering of music visualizers at Dennis Keefe's video facility in Alameda, California on July 11, 1999. My first response addresses the following issues:

The follow-up response addresses these additional issues:

To: Stephen Malinowski <>,,,,,,,,,
Subject: feedback loop?
Date: 7/18/99

Hi Folks:

I figured the group would be interested in my response to Stephen's remarks directed to me.

Malinowski - Ron, when you first showed me your laser art in your home studio, I asked about videotape, and you said something which I've since recalled as "never" (I'm not known for my memory, though). I was so happy to see you'd changed your stance a little on this. It's true that the videotape is a pale reproduction of the purity, intensity, and perfection of the original, but so what? An audio CD is likewise a pale reproduction of a live performance. But with both, the reproduction is still a viable thing, and I thought they looked very good. My only disappointment was that you didn't show the piece which has the two (or was it three) sine (or were they?) tones that slide around continuously. You know the one I mean, don't you? If you EVER, EVER, EVER get that piece videotape, could I PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE have a copy? When you were talking, I wrote down the phrase "dynamic structures and feelings," with the plan of talking to you about it. But I've already forgotten the context. If you remember, could you remind me so I can pick up the thread? (I'm enjoying the new stuff on your website, BTW.)

Pellegrino - What I love about music driven laser animation is that it plays free of the box with a light quality that is inimitable. With video, computer animation, and film (I made a series of five music synthesizer generated visual music films in the early 70s that I used in my shows for a decade as dynamic graphic scores that I taught musicians to realize or sonify), I always feel awfully restricted by the set window, the size, the aspect ratio, the light quality, and, especially with video, the resolution. When I work with those media, one of my favorite games is to suggest the space beyond the confines by having visual objects move in and out the space beyond the edges of the window and by using imagery that breathes in such a way that when it expands, parts of it move in and out of the space beyond. The solution for my performance-multimedia work includes using a large video projection screen (at least 12' x 9') flanked by multiple (four or more) video monitors of at least 27" and setting up my performance work station in the pit or on the floor just below the stage so the audience can also see me working with the video camera, the computer digitizing and processing system, and the three small video monitors that I use to make editing decisions on the fly. Plus when I work with those media I always include live performers of all persuasions. The upshot is that the audience can choose what to attend to and when to attend to it - the projection screen, the monitors, the process unfolding at my workstation, the musicians, the dancers, the real-time theatre lighting action, and roving video camera people all function as visual variables. So for my work, video and computer animation become modules in a large complex system that definitely lives outside the box.

One of my goals in composing laser imagery is to give it a sense of being alive and freeing it from as many confines as possible. My conceptual models for the laser imagery are life forms and processes, especially those that resonate with the humans in the audience. Those life forms and processes do not exist in low resolution boxes with fixed aspect ratios. At best, our standard visual displays always strike me as being peep shows on the processes that lie behind the creation of the imagery. Meanwhile the music is out there in multidimensional space bouncing and curving and mixing and having a great free time of it until it dies of exhaustion or escapes to become part of life's background. And, of course, live performers play their games in their own multidimensional spaces.

The raw video tape I showed of laser imagery and sound emerging from the same synthesized wavetrains (in effect, the imagery and sound were flip sides of a set of coins (composed/performed stereo wavetrains)) was composed for a number of purposes including self education (meditation) and compositional studies. I titled the tape Visual Music Meditations because it's part of the process that I'm using to educate myself on the various paths leading to the visual music holy grail (from my perspective) which is visual music work that demonstrates the principle of "what you see is what you hear and what you hear is what you see" - flip sides of the same coin (the wavetrains) or different facets of a fundamental yet complex dynamical process. I'm also composing pieces that use the material on that tape as the conductor of the MIDI orchestras that I love designing; that particular MIDI facility is also completely integrated with the video digitizing/processing/mixing wing of one of my studios.

"Glasssongs", the laser piece that Stephen is referring to, is actually one of my early attempts in the realm of "what you see is what you hear and what you hear is what you see." It was composed in 1983 on an Apple IIe running an alphaSyntauri, the first affordable stereo digital audio synthesizer, an instrument that predated MIDI but conceptually incorporated much of what we now know as MIDI. For that piece I designed an orchestra modeled on a huge glass harmonica which is why Stephen refers to it as "the piece which has the two (or was it three) sine (or were they?) tones that slide around continuously." I've been programming that piece in concerts since it was composed in 1983 and it still is an audience favorite. A few years ago when I started the music driven laser animation recording project, "Glasssongs" was at the top of my recording list. Conceived to be free it refused to be forced into a box; so no video recording. Far better that it exists in an exalted form in Stephen's memory than in a pale distorted form on a videotape.

In a nutshell what I'm saying is that I'm not a fan of any current recording medium. As Stephen says "It's true that the videotape is a pale reproduction of the purity, intensity, and perfection of the original, but so what?" The answer to Stephen's "so what?" is that I personally prefer the depth, richness, and intensity of the actual primary experience to the secondary "pale reproduction" of that event. On average, in search of inspiration, I attend over 50 live performances in the arts annually and I seldom use recorded media except as modules to be mixed with real-time events in my performances. There's something extra special about the ephemeral nature of the primary experience when compared to the mechanical and determinate nature of the same event recorded. What I've just said should help to explain why my presentation won't be included on the videotape record of the gathering's presentations. I asked that it not be recorded because my business policy since the late 1970s has been to turn down all requests to present my work in any recorded form. That decision is equal parts quality control and business strategy. Although I've lost a few friends and colleagues along the way since that decision, my "no recording policy" has served the paid live presentation aspect of my work very well; plus when I'm there in the flesh I know my work will get the best possible presentation given the overall conditions.

I used the expression "dynamic structures and feelings" in reference to FEELING AND FORM, Susanne K. Langer's classic book on the theory of art which I studied as a doctoral student in a philosophy seminar. That study, plus undergraduate work focusing on her earlier book, PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, helped me clarify and articulate what I'd known intuitively since my early days in music. In her book she makes a beautiful case for the power of dynamical art structures to influence human feeling by way of morphological resonances. It boils down to the idea that the microstructural and macrostructural unfolding of time-based art (music, film, video, dance, etc.) evokes human feelings that have similar temporal structures. Any lover of dynamic art understands that notion intuitively when they say they've been moved by an art experience. Of course the idea of morphological resonances, like any good fundamental principle, goes beyond the bounds of dynamic art and applies across the spectrum of life.

Ron Pellegrino


Follow-up Exchange to Playing Free of the Box

To: Stephen Malinowski <>
From: Ron Pellegrino <>
Subject: Re: feedback loop?
Date: 8/2/99

Hi Stephen:

>Hi Ron,

Malinowski - Well, I can hardly take exception to your "quality control" justification for not circulating your work on videotape; video will never capture the intensity and purity of a laser light. (Nor am I any more a fan of any current recording medium than you are.) And while I think you may be mistaken about the business sense of preventing your work from circulating in pale reproductions (for a counterexample, consider the Greatful Dead´s policy about pirate tapes of their shows), it´s certainly possible you´re right and I´m wrong (and since your business has been what I would call a success, it´s hard for me to criticize your policy). However, when you say "Far better that it exists in Stephen's memory than in a pale distorted form on a videotape," you can´t possibly be taking into account how pale and distorted my memory is!

Pellegrino - I offer my views only as my views - not as the ultimate truth or a path for anyone else to follow. The Grateful Dead and I live in very different worlds; I definitely wouldn´t want any part of theirs and they probably wouldn't care much for mine either. I do a lot of experimentation to find what works best for me and when that stops working, I´m always ready to start experimenting again.

I don't expect anyone, regardless of the quality of their memory, to hold all the details of my work in their memory. But when anyone of your caliber says "If you EVER, EVER, EVER get that piece on videotape, could I PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE have a copy?" I figure that the ideas and feelings in my piece left the desired impact and that´s what I´d like people to remember, the impact.

Malinowski - I´m reading Susanne Langer´s _Feeling and Form_, now; thanks for the pointer. It doesn´t hold up very well as philosophy (IMHO, though I haven´t read it all yet, nor have I read _Philosophy in a New Key_ which she says is necessary preparation), but it has lots of good ideas nonetheless, and like you said, it puts words on things that musicians know intuitively. Although it doesn´t say anything one way or another about her, she seems to have a musicians´s knowledge of music (e.g. the book contains musical scores, so I presume she can read music), which takes her a great ways; too bad, though, that she wasn´t also a composer; her ideas about musical expression would have been better if she´d had more direct knowledge of what a composer actually does, and why.



Pellegrino - I'm not sure what you mean when you say that "It doesn't hold up very well as philosophy." Normally the function of philosophy is to investigate truths and principles and when the branch of philosophy is aesthetics, the truths and principles are anything but hard and fast. What I like about Langer's thinking is that it goes well beyond what people normally think of as music and includes the investigation of principles that work in all the time-based, dynamic arts. I think that "if she'd had more direct knowledge of what a composer actually does, and why" she'd only know what she was thinking as a composer. It seems to me that what all composers do and why they do it are completely personal matters that are different from composer to composer.



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