Visual Music and the iota List

Ron Pellegrino, November 2000

(Within days after this essay was posted, responses to it (mainly from current or former iota List subscribers) began hitting my email in-box. Although the respondents were split evenly in favor or against the tenor of the essay their messages contained precious little discussion of the issues involved. What follows are some of those issues:

That lack of in-depth thinking was characteristic of what I'd experience during the 18 months I researched the iota List. The respondents to the essay either nodded in agreement or hurled typical undergraduate vitriolic personal insults, the sort reserved for people not lock-step with the current politically correct view of the world. The fact is that I always find those who disagree with me far more stimulating and informative than those who agree so you're apt to find more of those negative responses if you take the time to check out the link to Visual Music and the iota List Feedback.) Before heading out to that link, do read the essay below.

Visual Music and the iota List

Ron Pellegrino, November 2000

Visual Music

The expression, visual music, has arrived in the parlance of the visual art world but the field of visual music isn't necessarily any better for it. Today more and more people who combine visual imagery with music in even the most superficial ways want to be identified with the visual music field - it's sexy and it's trendy. The iota list, one of the functions of the iota Center, includes many who want their work to be identified with the visual music field.

People and arts organizations, just a short time ago, put the expression "visual music" in quotation marks as if they didn't quite buy into the idea of dynamic imagery deeply informed by music. It's also evident that many who want to be identified with visual music often don't know enough about music to understand the fundamental differences between superficially combining visuals with music as compared to integrating dynamic visuals and music. Nevertheless, today those people and arts organizations use the expression, visual music, in full confidence and without the quotation marks. Among others I'm referring to William Moritz (a California Institute for the Arts film historian who specializes in abstract animation and collects film related materials), the curators at UC Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archives (they sponsored several Moritz presentations and a retrospective of the National Center for Experiments in Television (NCET) in September of 2000), and the iota Center (a group initially organized around the idea of dynamic art and more recently includes the appropriated name of visual music and its relatives to describe its activities). Even video artists like Stephen Beck (connected with the NCET in the early 1970s) who, in giving a presentation as part of the Pacific Film Archives NCET retrospective, referred to the video work he did in the early 1970s as visual music.


The point is that today in late 2000 the expression, visual music, is full bore trendy. A few years back, in 1995, when I launched the visual music section of my web site on The Electronic Arts of Sound and Light, typing visual music into the search field of any search engine would have taken one directly to that section of my site. Try the same thing today and you'll get a raft of URLs linking you to sites that include jewelers, water colorists, record labels, audio equipment companies, filmmakers, film music composers, audio design houses, performance artists, video artists, and the list goes on and on.

There's no question that this influx of trendies affects the field negatively. It dilutes it and it creates confusion and noise by spreading ideas and products that completely misrepresent the field or represent it weakly at best. Most likely when the current craze passes (and that may take some time) the issues and principles driving the field will become more apparent and the people left standing will be those willing to go beyond conformism and trendiness into that barely explored field of integrating sound and light with feeling, spirit, and intellectual depth.

So the upshot is that the name, visual music, has been widely appropriated and the field is being overrun by hordes of people attracted by the trendiness and sexiness of the name rather than the substance of the ideas involved. The trendies seem to be completely unaware that the notion of visual music grows out of the principle that there are both natural visual manifestations and invented visual representations of musical elements and musical structures. And what makes visual music different from the bulk of abstract dynamic imagery is that it's intimately bound up with the structure of music, it's deeply informed by the color, flow, and feeling of music, and it grows out of the music.


The roots of visual music go deep into the history of music and culture although the current form of the idea of visual music began to coalesce in the 1960s with the emergence of affordable and accessible electronic tools. It is possible to go back into the early years of the 20th Century and find references to the idea of visual music in its most primitive forms but with rare exceptions and for a long time visual music as it is known today remained in the idea stage. Given the nature of the collective unconscious it's not surprising that it took the idea some time to develop the requisite critical mass before affordable and accessible tools emerged to accelerate its evolution.

Music is a natural partner of all dynamic art forms covering the expressive gamut. Music dramas have long integrated music, story line, and stage action. Dance in all of its spins is inextricably bound up with music and most likely has been so connected since time immemorial in the context of religious and celebratory rituals. Among other studies the serious practitioner of visual music needs to be a lifelong student of the global history of the marriage of music, drama, dance, and all their variations and relatives.

iota List

The writing of this essay came after a period of about a year and half of researching the iota list and being involved in many of its email exchanges. Researching the iota list is consistent with my lifelong approach to compositional field-testing, a process that includes examining whatever impacts my work in music and visual music composition. I joined the iota list at its inception searching for other artistic perspectives on plumbing the depths of visual music and as a field test of the tenor of those expressing interest in visual music. Knowing full well that they're rare birds I was also looking for people who viewed the dynamic arts as the quest for experiencing the sublime in ways that promoted the discovery and emergence of aesthetic knowledge - intuitively based knowledge that would serve the integration of the dynamic arts, emerging technology, science, psychology, and theology. With very few exceptions what I found instead was a group of followers and appropriators (a politically correct euphemism for intellectual property thieves) and academically inclined people who seemed more interested in defining visual music and its techniques rather than considering and exploring its special aesthetic nature. There is nothing more counterproductive to the creative process than attempting to tie it down with definitions, formulas, techniques, and standard and group approaches.

Many participants on the iota list chose to belong to the thought schools of abstract film animation pioneers like Oskar Fischinger and John Whitney rather than developing their own unique approaches to a more evolved form of the integrated dynamic art of sound and light. Despite the fluid beauty of Fischinger's imagery, his use of music is very primitive, completely without subtlety; in fact, it's strictly Saturday morning cartoon work (Mickey Mouse synchronization) as far as the music is concerned. It is worth noting that such a simple-minded approach does hold a special appeal for beginners and many on the iota list are relatively new to the field of visual music.

John Whitney's approach to music was another matter entirely; he understood music as a composer understands music. Unfortunately Whitney's students and followers on the iota list had no idea of what Whitney meant by harmony in his book, Digital Harmony. The best they could do was mutter something about "right notes" when they talked about his approach. The deepest and most powerfully moving visual music is rooted in natural processes, and harmony (Whitney's thesis) based on the chord of nature is one of those beautiful natural processes. I tested to see whether anyone on the iota list was interested or knew enough to go into the subject of Whitney's approach to harmony but the test produced only silence. Had John Whitney lived long enough I'm convinced he would have gone higher and higher up the harmonic series and experimented with the use of far more complex ratios in his work. I haven't observed anyone actually following up on his work. I've seen some close copies and derivative work but I haven't seen any serious follow up and that's also what I'd expected to find through the iota list.


There were numerous exchanges on the iota list about just how much one could use of another's work before becoming legally liable for copyright infringement; the appropriation of music was a particularly hot topic for a time. When the copy machine emerged in 1959 and quickly became the most popular tool in the educational world, legions of students learned from educators that stealing, if properly rationalized, was not only acceptable, it was desirable. What that attitude led to in the 1990s was cheating and plagiarism on a massive scale, enough so that the educational system, window dressing notwithstanding, virtually gave up on any semblance of standards of honesty. What went on in 2000 on the Internet with systems like Napster and its relatives was just a natural evolution of the copy machine mentality into the culture as a whole.

Whenever I come across such groups of followers and appropriators what always comes to mind are questions like:

Technique and Art Materialism

Early discussions on the iota list were conducted by people with roots in the beginning stages of the current wave of visual music; that group included people such as myself, Laurie Speigel, John Whitney's sons and some of his students. But it didn't take long for the list to be dominated by beginners, students, recent college graduates with serious academic inclinations, and people with very superficial experience and knowledge of music. The iota list was populated by mostly film and video animators with a sprinkling of performance artists using projected images in a multimedia setting. They were a generally non-musical group who simply wanted to be identified with the expression, visual music. Like many beginners in any field they tended to be especially interested in learning about techniques and mechanics. The subject of mapping (a highly mechanical process) was a hot topic for weeks.

There was a sort of murky cloud on the iota list, a prevailing feeling of satisfaction with achieving and remaining at the lowest level of technical development. The fact is that being a serious student of technique is an excellent way of mindfully communicating with your tools whatever they are, hardware or software. Tools start out by telling you what they can do; but if you stop at what they're telling you, you remain a child of technique. With will power and effort you can teach and encourage tools to do more than their designers intended. That's what it means to build a mature expressive technique - to start with the given and go beyond it to create a technical system unique to your inclinations and to your own view. So in the final analysis technique becomes a vehicle for transcending limits, either inherent or invented, so as to offer the world a uniquely personal view. Satisfaction with the lowest levels of technical development will not prepare anyone to transcend the limits of the tools; instead one will locked in to what's commonplace.

The iota list seemed not the least bit interested in breaking free of the stultifying influences of the past. In fact for many the purpose of the list seemed to be to search for more past influences to embrace. It seems reasonable to connect that tendency to look to the past with the fact that the thinking and inspiration of a film historian (Moritz) carried by his students tended to dominate the list. This should not come as a surprise since the iota Center is built around the Moritz collection of abstract animation films, videos, and related materials. Plus the iota Center is maintained with the help of students and colleagues of Moritz. So, thanks to the Moritz legacy, the iota list was strongly tilted toward materialist activities such as creating art products that could be distributed, sold, collected, and used as stock in trade in the academic and museum worlds.

Just a few weeks ago I sat through a four hour Moritz presentation of the works of Fischinger and the people who had been influenced by his work. It was a rare film treat and an excellent academic presentation but during that evening there was virtually no mention of music made in any context. So once again, it's not much of a surprise that this group of film and video artists (the iota list) seems to be barely conscious of the essential role of music in the expression, visual music.

Opting for the easy way (technique) the people on the iota list assiduously avoided the difficult work of exploring and integrating psychophysics, emerging technology, scientific principles, and natural and supernatural links for the dynamic arts of sound and light. They seemed completely unaware that those who stop their quest with the acquisition of mechanical techniques simply sink into another form of art materialism. Training in mechanical techniques as stock in trade is the basis of our educational institutions in the arts. Because our educational systems are designed to transform students into consumers and industrial cogs, the stage is set for those thoroughly programmed student minds to accept art materialism as the end of the road, the object of their life's work. And those students who buy into that educational system become the teachers of the next generation of students which makes it very difficult for anyone to break out of that vicious art materialist cycle.

Creative Process

This essay might be interpreted as harsh criticism of the iota list when, in fact, it should be read as an account of what was experienced there by a composer with a lifelong dedication to the field of visual music, a composer protective of the notion of visual music as a generator of experiences, thoughts, ideas, and processes that stand a good chance of being novel as well as stimulating, inspiring, revealing, and moving. What happens when any group convenes (including one like the iota list) is that a natural pressure emerges inducing the group to conform to an acceptable line of thought, to a correct view of policy or of how to proceed (political correctness), as well as to cooperate to achieve a common goal (a sort of single-mindedness or group-think).

Characteristically such groups, while giving lip service to including everyone and to the notion of diversity, tend to resist and discourage the very process that gives rise to the creative impulse. The creative process is born of turbulence, passion, the urge to go deep and wide, a willingness to struggle with differences and the unknown, and the courage to take a stand for the sanctity of individual perspective as the key to promoting the evolutionary process in the arts. In contrast to that sort of creative environment, cooperation, standardization, and codification all come after the evolution is over. Derivative is the disparaging term often used to describe work based on historical precedents. Unlike art technicians, mechanics, and historians, creative artists cultivate a free thinking attitude that values original over derived views. It could very well be that online lists open to all are by nature of very little value to any creative process except to make it stand out in high relief.

Lest anyone be concerned about the fate of visual music at the end of 2000 and beyond, rest assured that it's alive and well in the care of numerous creative spirits, some of whose web sites can be found with this link on my web site. In particular, do check out Stephen Malinowski's web site, definitely the work of an artist at the point. Once in progress it's natural for every movement in the arts to have a rear guard and at this time in the context of visual music the iota list occupies that position. Who knows? That may change. Hope springs eternal.

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