Towards an Aesthetics of Visual Music

by William Moritz, 1986

Now that the MTV phenomenon has made it possible to have a viable (even lucrative) career in composing Visual Music, it behooves us to glance back over the history and masterpieces of that genre in order to discover any principles or aesthetics that might render composition more effective or easier.

Since ancient times artists have longed to create with moving lights a music for the eye comparable to the effects of sound for the ear. If they were less successful than composers of auditory music, the sole reason rests in the fact that light is harder to manipulate than air. While dozens of folk instruments carved from wood can easily and instantly produce complex and satisfying sounds, pioneers of Visual Music (like Father Castel) struggled with unwieldy mechanisms (Castel's clavecin oculaire, 1729-1754, employed 500 candles, 60 reflecting mirrors and 240 levers and pulleys) that could produce only marginally satisfactory visual imagery. Still, the lure of a technological breakthrough drove dozens of artists to experiment with all sorts of devices. Not until the perfection of the motion picture could painters of light turn to a common technology which would allow a relatively simple production of imagery and a relatively accurate reproduction of that composition for a mass audience. Thus many of the "Old Masters" of Visual Music are animators - Oskar Fischinger, James Whitney, Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, Norman McLaren, Alexeieff, and Len Lye - just as are many of today's best practitioners, from independents like Sara Petty to the commercial creators of MTV rock videos. Any discussion of Visual Music, however, must remain "inter- disciplinary." "Color-Organs" - those non-filmic instruments invented to project pure light configurations - represent a viable alternative to the film/computer/ video complex, and some of the major figures in Visual Music, like Mary Hallock Greenewalt, Thomas Wilfred, and Charles Dockum, worked only in the color-organ medium. Some animators also performed with color-organs of their own invention, such as Charles Blanc-Gatti with his Orchestra chromophonique or Oskar Fischinger with his Lumigraph. But more important, a filmmaker like Jordan Belson is deeply influenced by Thomas Wilfred's color-organ Lumia, and Belson produces his filmed imagery not exclusively by traditional animation but also by devising pure light projections (like Lumia) which can be shot in real time. Aesthetically, the films of Belson should be discussed beside the animation films of James Whitney and Harry Smith, just as the Mobilcolor projections of Charles Dockum's color organ, with their geometric transformations, should be considered beside the films of Fischinger.

I can not go into a full history of Visual Music here - two of my recent articles provide some general background - but, based on my extensive study in the field, I want to suggest two major stumbling blocks toward the creation of good Visual Music, which should hover in the consciousness of animators who set about composition: the delusion of technology, and the delusion of rhythm.

Technology, as I already suggested, has always been a problem area for Visual Music, since no efficient, supple and easy light modulator exists even today. Most inventors of color organs were convinced that their instruments constituted a breakthrough - Father Castel, for example, despite how ludicrously awkward the 500 candles of his Clavecin oculaire may seem to us, believed that someday every home in Paris would own one - yet almost every color-organ, despite the wonderful compositions they play, remains an eccentric curiosity and a technological dead end. Traditional animation has produced the most successful Visual Music compositions, but, as we all know, 24-frames-per-second hand craft is a pretty tedious business. So the dream of a magic labor-saving device tempts many animators into wasting time fooling around with machines that can usually, at their best, produce merely shoddy work. Computers (and lasers and video) are hardly a panacea for most artists: Computer time remains prohibitively expensive, the manipulation of many graphics programs can be just as awkward and time-consuming as traditional animation, and the nature of the visual product is most often severely limited, so that one can hardly keep a five- minute stretch interesting. The "computer artist," furthermore, usually has to refurbish the raw imagery by traditional film and animation processes, and still the finished product is 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 attrac- tive 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 choreog- raphy and timing. These skills can best be learned by practicing and studying traditional hand animation, just as an auditory-music composer must leam the rudiments of harmony, counterpoint, melody and structure by playing scales and chord progressions on the piano and other instruments before setting out to compose a symphony.

This leads us to the "delusion of rhythm." As most beginning film students discover, music generally has a "beat" that can be counted mathematically, and since many pieces of music share the same general rhythm, you can couple to a given film various musical selections which not only "fit" to the film but also - according to whether the music has a jolly, sensuous or ominous mood - completely dominate and control the film, giving the impression that the visual imagery has changed to express the various moods. Too much of what passes for Visual Music relies on just such false synchronization. Auditory Music contains much more than a "beat." The would-be composer who sits long hours at a piano playing scales and chord modulations is learning a secret abstract structure of Auditory Music: what makes a melody beautiful and gracious, how syncopations make rhythm more compelling, how harmonies support the highlight melodies, how counterpoints of several simultaneous melodies can develop a synergy that means more than each single melody rather than merely conflicting with each other in a confusing fashion. Gradually the composer also learns to combine the timbres of various musical instruments into complex orchestral textures - and how to vary and time all these elements into particular, satisfying structures that remain interesting and effective even after dozens of repeated hearings. As a listener, you do not have to know any of these technical details, but you can "feel" when a song is more or less interesting.

Even the simplest folk song or pop hit contains the whole thousand-year tradition of intricate musical structure inside it, and the re-play value of auditory music derives from this implicit sophistication. If we are to have a Visual Music with a competitive re-play value (such as a music-video you want to see as often as you want to hear the song that goes with it), we must create visual structures with comparable intricacy, refinement and complexity.

What are the visual equivalents of melody, harmony, rhythm and counterpoint? Can the most satisfactory basis of a Visual Music even be found in analogy to Auditory Music? All of the classic composers of Visual Music have had theories about this, and they often disagreed. Mary Hallock Greenewalt believed that the intensity of light and the subtlety of the gradations of fading in and out were the most important factors. She devised a notation for these dynamics, based on the cycles of the moon, and wrote out light scores for such pieces as Beethoven's MOONLIGHT SONATA. Her great rival, Thomas Wilfred, eschewed Auditory Music entirely, feeling that Visual Music (which he called Lumia) must stand on its own, silent, or it would never be respected and appreciated. He felt that felt that elapsing time and changing hue were the key factors, and allowed currents and clouds of color to flow around his screen slowly with sensuous languor. The Auditory Music analogy to both of these styles of visual composition might be the lush romanticism of Wagner, Scriabin and Mahler, but I suspect that while both artists created some successful Visual Music pieces, the arbitrary limitations they imposed would make it difficult for their pieces to successfully sustain themselves in analogy to much other music - just as, for example, the video imagery Ron Hays did for the LIEBESTOD hardly suits the dynamic complexity of Wagner's thick, chromatic orchestration.

Simplistic or monomorphic imagery may make excellent single pieces when the overall structure is appropriate. Len Lye's FREE RADICALS, for example, with Lye's usual tasteful genius, couples the "automatic" scratches to percussion music which suits the explosive, jagged black-and-white lines that subtly twist and streak and cluster to correspond to the timbres of the different drums, the chant and the metallic sistrums. But this same formula would not work with a rock song or an orchestral dance. The percussive white scratches would match up to the general rhythm and would seem to "fit," on the first viewing, but the auditory intricacies of melody, harmony and counterpoint would sub-consciously demand a more sophisticated complexity that would leave the viewer dissatisfied or bored on repeated viewings.

We can find more satisfactory complements for traditional Auditory Music in the films of James Whitney and Oskar Fischinger. Whitney limited the building blocks of his films to the dot, but in a film like YANTRA, he created an astonishing diversity and complexity of images by clustering the dots to imply solid shapes or aligning them to outline geometric forms, by choreographing the dots into dramatic patterns of movement, by varying textures through solarization of the film stock, and by balancing the colors of the dot figures against the background hues. These variations in form, color, texture and movement reach an apotheosis of complexity in Whitney's later films, for which, by the way, he made extensive observations of various fire, water, air currents, wood and stone phenomena to learn the secrets of design and flux in nature as they relate to pattern and movement in art.

Similarly in Fischinger's ALLEGRETTO, we see a viable visual equivalent for orchestral music, with rhythmic pulsations of circles and matrix hue in the background to suggest rhythm and general key signature, while several layers of shapes in various mutating colors and clusters move in complementary patterns in the foreground to suggest melodies, harmonies and counterpoints. Not surprisingly, ALLEGRETTO is immensely satisfying, and has an almost infinite re-play value. The same could be said of other Fischinger films (including the silent RADIO DYNAMICS) and of the intricate animations of Harry Smith's FILM NO. 3, FILM NO. 7, and "MIRROR ANIMATIONS" FILM NO. 11, in which consciously controlled layers of diverse, balanced shapes, colors and movements flow with a dynamism and structure comparable to what we expect from Auditory Music.

Are there "rules" for the composition of Visual Music? Perhaps so, but not any easy, exact values - no one color or shape or motion is always equivalent to a certain tone or chord or rhythm. And the secrets of constructing a satisfying overall structure must be learned from a great deal of comparative study of successful and unsuccessful Visual Music compositions - and a lot of trial-and-error practice!

Originally published in Asifa Canada Bulletin (Montreal: ASIFA Canada), Vol. 14: 3, December 1986

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