Even Greeks Had Ear for Visuals

by Patrick Goldstein


Everybody knows that Aristotle helped dream up metaphysics, tragedy and theology.

But MTV?

Long before the airwaves were packed with music videos full of clouds of smoke and wild women, the Greek philosopher was apparently mulling over the potential of visual music.

"For an art form that's seemingly without a past, visual music has a rich and decidedly intriguing history, one that certainly stretches back to the Greeks," explained William Moritz, an experimental film maker, poet and composer who is best known in local video circles as a ground-breaking visual music historian.

A man who is obviously happiest rummaging through the strange annals of history - he currently works as a researcher for ABC's "Ripley's Believe It or Not" TV show - Moritz was among speakers on Thursday's opening-day program for Billboard's fifth Video Music Conference. The three-day video music gathering, which features a host of panels, exhibits and nightly screenings, runs through Saturday in Pasadena.

Moritz's multimedia presentation, which covers a video spectrum ranging from 15th-Century graphic harpsichords to Betty Boop cartoons and 1960s music-video prototypes, is part of a continuing effort by L.A.'s Visual Music Alliance (VMA) to broaden the horizons of video enthusiasts.

"We're trying to serve as a focal point for people who want to expand their visual repertoire,' said Tom Seufert, a songwriter and recording-studio owner who founded the loosely-knit organization in 1980. "As Bill (Moritz) points out, man has always been fascinated by visual music, but we've only just gotten to the point where we have the technology to carry it off."

As part of the Billboard conference's activities, the VMA will put on a visual music showcase tonight and present a special merit award to video pioneer Oskar Fischinger as part of a video music award ceremony Saturday night.

"Visual music is so much a part of the younger generation's interests and imagination that as consumers they've begun to look at product in terms of its visual impact, not just its musical accompaniment," Seufert added. "So we've concentrated on the educational process, sharing information and setting up screenings and a visual music library. You have to show people that there's more going on than the MTV image of a sexy video with lots of half-naked girls running around."

If anyone was ever qualified to improve visual music's slightly tarnished reputation, it would be Moritz. An amiable man with the rumpled charm of an absent-minded professor, Moritz is fluent in six languages, wears an earring in his left ear and can discuss Greek tragedy and Wagnerian operas as easily as most people recommend a good restaurant.

The 42-year-old visual artist spends half the year on tour, giving poetry readings and lecturing on underground film and visual music, topics that he has taught at such disparate institutions as CalArts and the University of Calcutta. Sitting behind a desk piled high with arcane texts, he hardly seemed to fit into the transitory world of music video, where a pioneer is anyone who's been making videos long enough to write off his expenses on last year's tax returns.

"Obviously, today's music video shows are very ahistorical," said Moritz, taking time out from a "Ripley's" research project about an 18th-Century fencing champ whose biggest match was against a transvestite opponent clad in skirts and a bonnet. "When you watch MTV, it's as if the past began earlier this year. But I'd like to think that people making visual music today could learn a lot from all the visionaries who've worked in the medium over the years."

Moritz traces the art's origins to the Greeks, whose religious rituals offered elaborate theatrical presentations, which may have included magic-lantern-type projections.

"Unfortunately, we don't have many records from that far back," Moritz said. "But we have reason to believe, because of the Greek's sacramental use of psychedelic mushrooms, that these were pretty wild, and certainly very visual affairs."

"Certainly we know that the Greeks had both the theoretical and technical know-how to make visual music. Aristotle clearly understood the similarities between the color scale and the cycle of vibrations, the link between sight and sound, and we also know that the Greeks made a lot of complex musical machinery."

Visual music surfaced again after the Renaissance, benefiting from a series of elaborate, though unwieldy technological innovations. According to Moritz's research, these included a variety of exotic contraptions.

-- A 1560s graphic harpsichord designed by Archimboldi, a star pupil of Leonardo da Vinci. The invention rolled a paper screen through the top of a harpsichord, which produced different colors and visual patterns depending on which keys were played. "None of the colored paper has survived," Moritz said, "but I imagine it would produce something like a seismograph."

-- A 1740s optical harpsichord concocted by Father Castel, a French Jesuit priest, which was equipped with 500 candles used to light a six-foot square screen. "The screen was divided up into 500 individual units, and each time you hit a note, it would raise a new curtain, exposing a frame of color," Moritz explained. "It caused quite a sensation in the salons of Paris. Castel made all sorts of bold predictions about how everybody would want to own one, which sounds a lot like the claims you hear today about videodiscs."

-- A 19th-Century instrument invented by the French composer Frederic Kastner. "It worked on the same principle as the optical harpsichord, except that each different musical note would send jet of colored gas streaming from the top of the organ. Wagner was a big fan and tried, unsuccessfully, to incorporate it into the scenic design for his later operas."

-- In 1928, video visionary Oskar Fischinger (who later worked for Disney on "Fantasia") made what is generally considered the first promotional video. "It was an animated film, with handmade charcoal drawings that accompanied a song by a Spanish pop composer. They didn't have MTV in those days, so it was shown in movie theaters instead."

According to Moritz, the excitement surrounding today's advances is that the technology finally exists to put these innovative but awkward ideas into mass circulation. "TV commercials and shows like Sesame Street have educated kids to the point where they're far too visually literate to stay interested in primitive, lip-synced rock videos for very long.

"You have to understand that, on screen, the performer is the least interesting part of the musical process. Look at a video of a symphony orchestra. If you turned off the sound you couldn't possibly tell the difference between the London or the Boston symphonies."

"But, when people begin to join absract visuals with the power of music, we'll probably have visual artists who are just as popular and influential as the musicians themselves."

Moritz pointed at the stacks of books that towered over his desk like skyscrapers. "Right now, there's not much demand for visual music historians," he said, "but I think it's going to be a very crowded field someday."


-published in Los Angeles Times, Calendar Section, November 18, 1983.


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