Please Note:

In 2009, this section of my site, along with a number of others, was extended, developed, polished, and folded into my latest project, Emergent Music And Visual Music: Inside Studies. The new project includes a book, a set of four DVDs, soon to be released CDs, and, eventually to be released, Part 4 featuring the writings and compositions of other artists in field. For more details on the project, go to its Introduction.

Visual Music Flavors

Ron Pellegrino, May 1997

Visual Music is based on the principle that there are both natural visual manifestations and invented visual representations of musical elements and musical structures.

(This paragraph was added in November 2000 after I'd completed an essay entitled Visual Music and the iota List. Over the period of my research of the iota list (about a year and half) I gradually became increasingly uneasy with the "flavor" metaphor as descriptive of the various approaches taken to visual music. 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 but common sense says that those incongruent flavors seriously digress from the notion of a sweet desert. Similarly the essence of visual music grows out of the principle stated above - natural visual manifestations and invented visual representations of musical elements and musical structures - and the more congruent the flavors are with that notion the closer the works are to the heart of visual music. There's far more to the field of visual music than simply combining sound with dynamic imagery. In a nutshell the dynamic imagery should be variously informed by the music, integrated with the music, embody the music, and/or grow out of the music.)

The popularization and accessibility of multimedia 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 current visualization revolution in education, communications, and the arts. Visualization tools such as vcrs, video camcorders, CD-ROMs, AV microcomputers, MMX technology, test equipment, and relatively inexpensive yet powerful software for doing high quality multimedia are commonplace in 2000 in the home, business place, and classroom. And DVD and Java, a software multimedia synthesizer, are in the early stages of exploding onto the scene. 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 society and the conditions are ripe for a visual music harvest.

Once you begin examining what people are calling visual music in 2000, 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 the same algorithmic process.
  3. Literal visualizations are mapped to some of the symbols used in traditional music scores.
  4. Scrolling scores in software MIDI sequencers bring the look of the piano roll to the digital age.
  5. Software for the creation, animation, and sequencing of graphics spinning out with musical gestures is modeled on the principles of MIDI sequencers.
  6. Interpretive visualizations emerge from dance and theater traditions which 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 be performed or play themselves.
  8. Appropriately dramatic, humorous, or lyrical music closely synchronized with natural or invented moving imagery is now a mainstay of the popular media scene.
  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 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 on coincidence and the predisposition of the minds of the audience/spectators to create order out of simultaneous sensory events.
  11. Landing somewhat closer to the Cage/Cunningham target are two related approaches: the first is based on simultaneous real-time composition by sound, image, and body movement collaborators; the second involves performances by an individual creating music with self-precomposed imagery or creating real-time 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 processes that lead to the music they´re creating. Several nights ago I was in an audience that was treated by Steve Williams, the drummer for The Shirley Horn Trio, to a transcendental evening of visual music drumming. 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.
  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 multimodal 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 CD-ROM on the science of sound should be packed with charts and diagrams illustrating the basic principles that tie music together with the fields of physics, psychology, physiology, mathematics, speech, engineering, audiology, architecture, etc.
  15. Sonification of visual forms is a sphere of activity that intersects with music visualization enough to be considered a candidate for another visual music flavor. 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.

Recently I spent a fascinating afternoon with two artists from Trans-Hyperborean Institute of Science listening to their music based on the structure of DNA. Beyond the repeated pattern on the sonic surface the music seemed to be infinitely dimensional, amazingly rich in subtlety. According to the creators "it was designed to evoke a natural healing response in those who listen to it." Such explorations beyond the bounds and formal constraints of traditional and academic music are fueling the rise of a musical diversity that bodes well for the present and future. The greater the number of creative people who feel free of the pressures to conform to conventions, the richer and deeper our cultural life.

Since 1967 I´ve explored and used in research, composition, performance, and teaching most of the listed flavors of visual music. Tell me what I´ve missed; I´d like to try it. Beginning to end, my performances and residencies today are based on multiple flavors of visual music.

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