Saturday, March 27, 2010

What is Visual Music? Paul Friedlander

What is Visual Music?

I am an experimentalist, seeking new forms.

In this illustration, you see a spinning string vibrating in harmony, this description sounds like a musical instrument, but it is a light sculpture. The vibrating form is a superposition of the second and fourth harmonic: a 'visual chord'.
You can read more about my light sculptures in Art Background. I am involved in developing light sculptures and new uses for the computer creating 'visual music'.
Here is my understanding of three kinds of visual music.
First Kind: Visual Music is a means of converting music to images using a system or set of rules which can be implemented as a machine or computer code. There are screen savers which respond to sound, but apart from synchronisation of sound and image, what do they do? How can they express the content of the music? This idea has been around longer that either the computer or the 'sound light converter' found in night clubs. Some famous people have speculated about this, Goethe for one, and Beethoven also was known to have produced a table of equivalence between musical key and color. Beethoven and Goethe did not agree as to which color corresponded to which key and the whole process of establishing a 'sound light' relationship is an ongoing and unfulfilled activity.
Second Kind: Visual Music is a means of expressing music in visual form requiring the active involvement of an artist, designer or director to interpret the music and find the means to express it visually. This is perhaps too narrow a definition since many of the events and happenings of the 60s involved a collaboration between different forms: theatre, dance music, etc. where no single element prevailed but the performance was a kind of Visual Music. This is also where the word multimedia originated. Rock videos could be said to fall into this category but the most wonderful examples are more abstract and can be spell binding, awesome even. The presentation of a Pink Floyd concert is a perfect example of this second form .
Third Kind: Visual Music has no relationship with music as such, although it maybe viewed with or juxtaposed with music. Visual music is about creating visual relationships which change over time. It is primarily about abstract qualities of movement or changing form or color. This is the kind of visual music closest to my own sensibilities, it is perhaps the most illusive or least understood form. The earliest proponents used mechanical or optical means. The Whitney Brothers started making what would now look like psychedelic (before the word had been invented) animation's in the 50s and 60s. The first great creation of Visual Music to receive widespread notice by the public was the Stargate sequence in the movie 2001. In the 70s, artists like Tom DeWitt and Richard Monkhouse started creating special analogue electronic 'image synthesisers'. More recently with the advent of desk top computers, there has been an explosion of activity in this area. But much of this work is animation which is restricted by the fact that it must have a beginning, middle and end. I prefer a form without time limits, where you can watch for a minute or an hour, it all depends on your state of mind. No beginnings, no endings, no fixed form, ever changing, every time you return to the piece, something slightly different happens.

Before I knew the term Visual Music, with light, light shows and light sculptures I sought to dematerialise, to render transparent and weightless, to create form without gravity, a floating state, abstract, in short what I am here calling Visual Music. Most intriguingly in my work with spinning string, I discovered forms that echoed the behaviour of musical harmony. Intentionality is not my predominant artistic mode, we discover through our work, only after the work 'speaks to us' do we understand our motivation. The string 'spoke to me' and I understood my purpose in creating dematerialised form. The vibrational forms of the string was the work 'speaking to me' but what did it say? I am still interpreting its message but this is what I have understood so far.
The term experimental is used in art to indicate working with new forms. With the Spinning String Light Sculptures I had found a much closer connection to the concept of experiment in physics, I had discovered a new physical phenomena.
In science experiment is used to test theory, but what then is my theory? It is that art is close to science. You could simplify it by saying: physics is about physical forces, art is about mental forces. More generally there is something deeper going on in science and art. Einstein observed that a theory needs to be expressed elegantly. A beautiful equation is more powerful because it can be worked with more effectively. Its elegance gives it utility: Form follows Function was a founding principle of modernism and although we live in a post modern age, the lessons taught by modernists are still relevant, particularly when considered in the abstract. This is not about style or functionality, at issue is the underlying common nature of science and art. In this context, Visual Music throws 'light' on the subject.
The observation that art and science share a common purpose is not new, Leonardo DaVinci would have said much the same and even at the dawn of history Pythagoras declared that numbers were the underlying structure of everything. However this is not a matter of repackaging classical concepts in a contemporary context. Our understanding of the scientific method has undergone a paradigm shift within the last generation. Science is no longer perceived as seeking immutable truths, its method uses human imagination, searching for 'models', which explain and provide understanding. Scientific theories (or models) may not resemble art works but they are creations of the human mind and are subject of strong feelings within the scientific community. While orthodox theories are taught 'as if true', new theories always come along to upset the established truths in a way which mirrors the development of art. This insight has yet to be fully appreciated by the scientific community, let alone the World at large. It is important for artists to understand this, both out of intellectual curiosity and because it is directly relevant to the their own creative process. We are all engaged in a common creative pursuit.
Pythagoras conviction that the universe was made of numbers took its inspiration from music, but more than that, it was a mystical revelation, of which I shall have more to say shortly. The Greeks understood the principles of harmony and those principles remained unchanged until the arrival of the tempered scale which was a revolution as radical as Relativity overturning Classical Mechanics. In the 20th century composers have used mathematical methods for a new purpose. They used the formalities of maths to create a new kind of music which does not repeat: "generative music". Terry Riley was an early exponent of this minimalist approach. He came to London to perform his seminal work, 'A Rainbow in Curved Air' with the Electric Symphony Orchestra, while I was their lighting designer. I find Terry's approach to composition very close to my own intuitions about the way I want to create visual music.
The use by artists and musicians of science and mathematics is a step towards greater power. The purpose of science is to explain and provide understanding but science is much more than a dry process of reasoning, over and over again it has amazed us and transformed our lives. For art to throw more light on the human condition this will be achieved by a combination of passion and reason... although much of the reasoning may be hidden in the finished artwork. Our eyes, minds and hearts will be opened to the fullest by the new experience. The potential is there, we will be more than surprised by the results. Unpredictable, but I hazard the guess that the deepening fusion of art and science will not be artists in white lab coats, quite the contrary, we shall be moved from disbelief to be overwhelmed and astonished by the vision of the future that will unfold.
It is this sense of astonishment, wonder, magic which remains central to my continuing activities as an artist. I am a seeker in search of miracles. It is an abiding misunderstanding of our age that there is some kind of contradiction or battle between art and science, or science and religion. Far too many scientists have launched futile attacks on the magical and irrational, too many evil technologies have been developed from scientific discoveries. Too many people from what was once called the left, the libertarians, the dreamers, the idealists in search of a better World have denounced science. Don't be hasty in your judgement I ask. As artists and visionaries we must rise above such skirmishes, and recognise the power and potential in both the rational and magical. There has always been black and white in magic and so it is with science and technology. It is up to us through our own experience and understanding to discover the positive.
As children, we all have an intuitive understanding of this magical aspect to life. Children are also very good at asking questions. They are playful mystics and questioning scientists all at once. It is this child like quality I seek to encourage within myself and others. The sense of excitement is the fuel of imagination. Life can be like a beautiful beach where we all play. The sea shells we find as children are full of this energy. As artists our creations can absorb this energy from our enthusiasm and concentration on the act of creation. If we are lucky, they come to life, extra energy flows from an unknown source. It is then, when the work itself surprises us that we know that we are really onto something.

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