"Visual Music"  Music for the EyeS

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Star Oasis by Scott Draves

This introduction to Visual Music briefly covers the original definitions and background of this rapidly-expanding genre. Today we find artists in diverse fields creating what they all describe as “Visual Music” – from experimental filmmakers to video artists, animators, CG artists, VJs, installation artists, painters and musicians. But what really is Visual Music, and why is it suddenly so popular across so many disciplines?

Interest in Visual Music and the corresponding relationships of sound to color, and music to image, extend back to Aristotle, Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Issac Newton.

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Allegretto by Oskar Fischinger
Theories were developed on the relationship of the musical tone scale and the rainbow spectrum of colors.  

Playing Light and Color

A long related tradition exists of artists inventing “color organs” – first mechanical (18th century), then later computerized machines projecting moving colored lights to visualize specific notes and music. Many of these artists developed charts mapping the exact correspondence of notes to colors. Arguments occurred among these early inventors, such as what is the exact color of B flat? In the early 20th century, some color organ artists performed their machines with classical music in symphony halls throughout the US and Europe. Others created silent projections of color with their own internal visual rhythms (such as Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia work).

Basic Definitions

Two basic historical definitions of Visual Music emerged. The first concerns the desire to create visually a music for the eyes, just as we have music for the ears. Using color and light projections, film, video, and various visual imagery, artists over several centuries have tried to compose a visual music, using the “visual equivalents of melody, harmony, rhythm and counterpoint.”

Quotation Using color and light projections, film, video, and various visual imagery, artists over several centuries have tried to compose a visual music, using the “visual equivalents of melody, harmony, rhythm and counterpoint.” Quotation
[1]This type of visual music is often accompanied by music but doesn’t absolutely require musical accompaniment, as it is not strictly dependent upon music tracks but rather utilizes the structures of music in its imagery. The tradition of silent Lumia work stems from this first definition. Many of the films of Oskar Fischinger fall under this first definition. Fischinger was the grandfather of Visual Music, who made abstract films beginning in the 1920s and influenced generations of filmmakers. 

Visual Music historian William Moritz believed “The most unique thing that cinema could do is present a visual spectacle comparable to auditory music, with fluid, dynamic imagery rhythmically paced by editing, dissolving, superimposition, segmented screen, contrasts of positive and negative, color ambiance and other cinematic devices.”[2]

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Radio Dynamics by Oskar Fischinger
The second basic definition of Visual Music involves a system or process whereby music or sound is converted into visual form (usually film or video) through the use of a mechanical instrument, a computer, and/or an artist’s interpretation. An expanded definition includes the illustration of music by a painting or graphic artwork. Conversely, some filmmakers literally generated sounds from images, by drawing or photographing lines and patterns onto the film’s soundtracks (Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren). This second definition of Visual Music includes modern ‘music visualization’ software and extends to 1960’s “Light Shows.”

Early History

The history of Visual Music on film and video extends from hand-drawn animation in 1911 to sophisticated computer graphics today. Visual Music filmmakers have used a variety of animation, photographic and optical printing techniques, including painting and scratching directly on film; animated wax, clay, cutouts and drawings; visuals generated by soundwaves, soundtracks generated by images, real-time performance instruments, mechanical color organs, manipulated live action footage, hand-processed and solarized film, early analog computers, and a wide range of machines and software. Many artists needed to invent their own devices and machines in order to create their visions. 

Important early Visual Music filmmakers include Walther Ruttman, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Norman McLaren, Mary Ellen Bute, Jordan Belson, John and James Whitney, and Harry Smith. Contemporary VM artists today, among hundreds worldwide, include Baerbel Neubauer, George Stadnik, Chris Casady, Jim Ellis, Jack Ox and Scott Draves (aka Spot).

Visual Music received widespread attention in 2005, with the US exhibition “Visual Music” in museums in Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

Quotation Visual Music received widespread attention in 2005, with the US exhibition “Visual Music” in museums in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Quotation
The definitions were dramatically expanded by the art world, then the music world. Today a worldwide contemporary scene thrives. Perhaps all of this work being created today isn’t what is technically known as Visual Music, but it all serves to help shape, define and further progress the genre.


About the Author:

Cindy Keefer is the Director of the Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles, an archive and research center dedicated to the preservation, research and promotion of Visual Music, from historical to contemporary.

CVM’s program includes preservation of vintage VM films, curating screenings and exhibitions, and producing DVDs (recently for Oskar Fischinger’s films).

CVM archives the work of numerous Visual Music artists, historian William Moritz, and the related traditions of color organs and 1960’s light shows. Keefer has taught, published, lectured, curated, researched and preserved Visual Music.

Citations:

[1] William Moritz, “Towards an Aesthetic of Visual Music.” ASIFA Canada Bulletin (Montreal: ASIFA Canada), Vol. 14: 3, December 1986

[2] William Moritz, “The Absolute Film.” Presented at WRO 99 Media Art Biennale, Wroclaw, Poland, May 1999.

Article © Cindy Keefer, 2006, all rights reserved

 


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