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The intersection of the abstract and the concrete forms a VISUAL MUSIC.

Visual Music is important as a potentially rich site of intersection between concrete and abstract forms of representation and expression found in music, visual imagery and motion. Visual Music exploits “the power of film to fuse abstract and representation together”.(Brougher  and Mattis, 2005)


“A consistent thread in the conceptual approach to abstraction in film has been the attempt to establish an analogy with music. This has been both the attempt to apply musical compositional concepts to film structure and to seek a parallel between colors and musical notes.” (Le Grice 1977)

Turner describes the elements and functions of Visual Music as an art form where, “pure forms – points, lines, planes-can, like chords and scales, be arranged in time and space”. Turner then adds that this analogy of a Visual Music is “ free from the limitations of representing objects which already exist”. Whilst this freedom is undeniable, and beautifully applied in any of the films by for instance Jordan Belson, Oskar Fischinger and Mary Ellen Bute, I argue that a greater freedom is one that accepts the element of representation in abstraction and vice versa and finds a way to move between these interdependent forms.

The concept of Visual Music has become popular with many writers and curators, ironically, as a way of constructing a sort of narrative continuity to a story of the many disparate works spanning the last two hundred years. The development of Visual Music can be traced back to color organs in the 1800’s through to abstract film in the 1920’s, through to “expanded cinema”, light and sound shows that started in the 1960’s, to contemporary digital multimedia installations and video dj performances. (Brougher  and Mattis, 2005)

4.2 The Visual Music of Oskar Fischinger

Among the most prolific, inventive and inspirational pioneers of Visual Music is. Oskar Fischinger,
“His work involved engineering feats and inventions; early techniques of transcribing music from gramophone records to graph paper, the invention of a wax slicing machine, and invention of his own color organ, the Lumigraph”. (Leslie.E 2006.)

Fischinger’s description of his metaphor of a subtle flowing relationship between sound and moving image, as being like a wandering meander alongside a river, the river being the flow of music, the wanderer representing the visuals, is as relevant and just hard to achieve today as it ever was. (Fischinger 1947)

The concept of Visual Music may currently be gaining a wider exposure and following at least partly influenced by the synesthetic capabilities of digital technology. However as early as 1986, Moritz was concerned that Visual Music’s potential delicacy and artistry was in danger of becoming diluted or forgotten: diluted as merely another style for advertising media to use blandly and repeatedly, or forgotten through erasure by digital technology using it as a recipe to be fixed and instantly generated by a computer algorithm.
“The delusion of technology, and the delusion of rhythm”, produces films or “products” that are “often more of a syndrome than a piece of Visual Music- a particular style of pattern appears and “does its thing” repetitively for 5 or 10 minutes (often accompanied by attractive music) and then stops, for no particular reason. Remember, no machinery can offer you a sense of graphic design, a sensitivity to color, or a sensibility for choreography and timing. (Moritz 1986)
I greatly admire the lyrical dance-like animation that Fischinger achieved through intricate frame-by-frame animation. Perhaps this appeal comes from the Fischingers’ aesthetic sensibilities alluded to by Moritz. Generative Artist Scott Draves despite using the machinery of programming code and computer synthesis still attributes human sensibilities to the success of his work. Draves sees a difference between the animated image systems he actively selects according to his own aesthetics compared to what he calls “the lowest common denominator Las Vegas effect” - bright colors and fast motion.

Scott Draves digitally generated, Electric Sheep (Draves ) , and many digital video works produced for instance with the open source software tool Processing™, have a beautiful seductive endlessly flowing quality. Yet it is this same quality, that can display a kind of sameness and lack of distinctive interest or absence of changing moods and atmospheres.

4.3 Generative Artwork and Visual Music

Scott Draves sees creative potential in computer algorithms that are of the complexity of ‘artificial intelligence’ and biological simulations of genetic breeding, evolution and mutation of sound image and motion. (Hilborn 2008) This work is quite different from the immensely simpler automated music-visualiser in I-tunes or Windows Media Player. Even though the design and choreography may be generated by “machinery” there is a fascinating organic familiarity to the forms and evolving growth-like changes and mutations of the colors and shapes generated in for instance Scott Draves’ Electric Sheep, Keiko Kimoto’s Imaginary Numbers and John Mc Cormacks Turbulence.   Drave’s most recent project Dreams in High Fidelity, builds on his networked artwork, “the Electric Sheep screen-saver”. Draves talks of the development of, “more expressive genetic codes” and in common with Brian Eno’s recent 24Million Paintings, calls his artwork; “Paintings that Evolve.”     

The Visual Music, or lumia, artist Friedlander shares an interest in a form of moving image that can evolve over time. “I prefer a form without time limits, where you can watch for a minute or an hour ”.(Donnell 2006) Draves also is not interested in short length finite narratives. Dreams in High Fidelity (Draves 2006 )at its current state in March 2007, would take 18 hours to play as one continuous sequence and is intended to play as an ambient attraction similar in effect to a painting in a frame on a wall. Whereas Friedlander uses physics experiments and physical phenomena, Draves uses computer modelling and generation of virtual phenomena.    

The lack of any narrative momentum or motivation, in these indefinite length works, is a source of both attraction and repulsion. Some may see the beauty of “no fixed form, ever changing,” subtle slight differences, whilst others may just as easily see this same feature as a lack of “content” and “story” amounting to what they might derogatorily refer to as “wallpaper”.

4.4 Visual Music and the full potential of film soundtracks.


In filmic terms, the majority of so-called Visual Music consists of film image with non-diegetic sound or music. That is the soundtrack consists of sound that does not appear to come from any source seen in the filmed image, eg the source of the sound such as a music ensemble, sound system, pianist etc are not seen to be in the film, the sound is coming from another source to the film. This is the relationship of “mood music” in traditional narrative films; the predominant use of film music is to cue, support or affect emotive responses.    A slight twist to this system of sound and image structuring occurs in the Visual Music films of many artists interested in literal and precise synchronisation between sound and image, for instance Jordan Belson and more recently Ryoji Ikeda and Robin Fox. In these artists’ films there is a concrete relationship between sound and image, the colors and shapes changing and moving on screen, appear as if they are the sound-making source.  In the case of Robin Fox’s “Backscatter”(Fox 2005) DVD, the audio heard on the DVD is the same signal used to create patterns filmed off the screen of a cathode ray oscilloscope. Whilst this creates a an impressive synchronicity between moving image and sound, if every beat of film has the same relationship between sound and image it becomes a kind of monotone unison.

Mike Figgis in interview with Aitken talks of the value of treating sound and image as separate flexible streams of information, “If you can fragment and separate the visual images from sound, the overall picture functions in a really interesting way. It becomes a device for representing fragments of memory.    The interesting thing about cinema is its potential for a non-linear timing of events and the ability to revisit those events.” (Aitken 2007) I agree that a consistently rigid supposedly perfect synchronisation between movement or timing of images and a films soundtrack may limit the potential for film to treat time flexibly and build its fragments of memory and potential for networks of associations.

4.5 Visual Music in the Digital era.

The multi-sensory components of Visual Music, sound, image and movement, are to a computer, like information of any kind, always manipulable, reconfigurable data. Computers can work with sound and image interchangeably. For this reason computer technology may well have led to the increasing attention given to Visual Music. This is now leading to a transformation and expansion of the definitions of Visual Music. In the recent Visual Music film, Graveshift (Stavchansky 2004), there is more of a two-way resonance between image and sound, and between abstract and concrete representation. The electro acoustic soundtrack in this film also contains an interesting meshing of representation and abstraction; recognisable sounds of places and things (“field recordings”) merge into new sonic spaces and musical compositions.

I see that the influence of the pure-abstraction intention of much Visual Music is the appreciation of the emotive power and freedom of not having any concrete image or narrative representational content. Yet for me limiting a film to the supposed purity of only representational or abstract relationships of image and sound, narrative or non-narrative, seems like selling the medium and viewer short.