Center for Visual Music


Moritz, William. "Visuelle Musik: Höhlenmalereien für MTV? (Visual Music: Cave Painting to MTV?)" in Sound & Vision (exhibition catalog). Frankfurt: Deutsches Filmmuseum, 1993, 132-145.

Visual Music seems to stretch back into the edges of pre-history. Leroi-Gourhan has shown that the partially-abstract Cro Magnon paintings were created not on cave walls in living areas, but rather in the most secret, inaccessible caverns, where religious rituals took place with hidden light sources, which implies that religious chants mingled with revelations by candlelight. Similar indications of elaborate machinery and dazzling projections suggest that the drugged initiates of Greek religious cults experienced audio-visual spectacles. The "divine" correlation between the tone scale of music and the rainbow spectrum of colors intrigued Aristotle and Pythagoras, Leonardo and the 17th-century Jesuit from Fulda, Athanasius Kircher, who shocked and delighted with his "magic lantern" shows. The sacred imperative also drove another Jesuit Father Louis-Bertrand Castel to construct in 1729/1754 versions of an Ocular Harpsichord which used 500 candles, 240 levers and pulleys, and 60 reflecting mirrors to illuminate a two-meter square frame with 60 colored windows (five octaves of 12 tones, each with a specific hue), each with a curtain that was automatically raised when the corresponding key on the harpsichord was struck. Castel became the sensation of Paris -- Diderot wrote about him in the Encyclopedia, Telemann came from Germany to compose a piece for the Ocular Harpsichord -- and Castel happily predicted that someday every household in Paris would own one of his instruments, 800,000 in all!

Today Castel's Ocular Harpsichord is forgotten, along with the Kastner's Pyrophone, the Colour Organs of A. Wallace Rimington in England and Alexander Burnett Hector in Australia, Mary Hallock Greenewalt's Sarabet, Thomas Wilfred's Clavilux, Anatol Graf Vietinghoff-Scheel's Chromatophon and many other clumsy mechanisms designed to project Visual-Music spectacles. But everyone knows MTV. Film and Video have provided a means of recording and playing back Visual Music, if not necessarily a means of remembering its roots.

The success of MTV rests in its commercial underpinnings. Video-clips are basically advertising films for a lucrative product, popular music, which enforces their production and insists upon their repetitive broadcast. The aesthetics of MTV, however, have been formulated by a cinematic tradition, the Avant Garde/Experimental/Underground/Independent film, that remains obscure to a mass audience, while it is much admired, and much exploited, by the filmmakers who create Video-clips.

The earliest years of filmmaking, before World War I, already produced the full range of cinematic expression that would make up the Visual Music vocabulary of MTV: the trick-filled fantasies of Méliès, the erotic and crypto-erotic films like Amor Pedestre, the "surrealist" transformations of the animators Emile Cohl and Winsor McCay, and even an abstract color-music in the now-lost films of the Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra, Hans Stoltenberg, and Leopold Survage.

After World War I, the commercial cinema fixed itself firmly on the 100-minute dramatic feature, which is still its main staple today. The "Hollywood" feature contributes to video-clips motifs and icons from cult film classics, and the most tedious aspects of certain clips: the cult of "star glamor" (which assumes that every close-up, even every home movie, of the adored Star is automatically fascinating,) and the related "document" of the Star performance, assuming that seeing the Star's live stage show will be thrilling, while, in fact, one rock concert is pathetically like another -- colored spotlights from behind, jumping and writhing of the lead singer, close-up of the guitar riff, etc. Even the carefully staged episode of Bruce Springsteen lifting a girl out of the audience to dance with her seems as implausible as those 1940s movies in which hapless soldiers get a chance to dance with a major movie glamor queen before being shipped off to die at the front.

The inner structure of video-clips -- the synoptic quick cuts, the layering of imagery, the reliance on symbolism and reduction of whole stories into 3 minutes, the tight synchronization with on-the-beat cutting, the mixture of tricks and animations with live actors, the manipulation of color and black-and-white -- derives more from the Experimental film tradition. Already in the early 1920s, an avant-garde film accessed the achievements of the pre-war era and elaborated them into more complex, and more accomplished, classics. René Clair built the super-logical whimsy of Méliès and the silent comedy into an epic (20-minute), zany, life-and-death voyage through Paris, synchronized to a brilliant musical score by Erik Satie; this surreal Entr'acte contains mature use of every stylistic aspect of later video-clips, including quick cuts, layered imagery, special effects, guest appearances of celebrities, and symbolic compression of the epic tale into synoptic brevity. Other classic shorts of that period, Dudley Murphy's Ballet Mécanique and Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou have also provided the video-clip makers with inspiration, while the lesser known La P'tite Lilie by Alberto Cavalcanti is quite literally a "video-clip" in that it offers a satiric pictorialization of a current popular song. Parallel to these representational films, an abstract film flourished in Walther Ruttmann's 1921 Lichtspiel Opus 1, synchronized to a score by Max Butting, and the many films of Oskar Fischinger, which include 5-projector light shows 1925-1927, and his famous series of Studien which tightly synchronized abstract forms in choreography with phonograph recordings -- indeed they were originally issued as advertising films for the records, so they were quite literally "video-clips"! Fischinger's career continued into the 1940s, with color films, advertising films, and work on Hollywood productions like the Disney Fantasia.

Choreography, as Fischinger and René Clair used it in an experimental context, also has its own family tree. The color-light artist Loie Fuller created a sensation in turn-of-the-century Paris dancing on a glass floor with her veils illuminated by dozens of color spotlights from above and below. Alexander Hector also projected his color-music on a live dancer, Mona Clive. The first genius of filmed dance was the American Hollywood director Busby Berkeley, who used mobile cameras, trick effects -- and hundreds of disciplined dancers! -- to create elaborate half-abstract half-story dances that could only exist in the cinema. His "Lullaby of Broadway" number compresses the life and death of a glamorous fast-lane woman into 7 minutes, using exactly the visual techniques of many video-clips.

Still, the Hollywood musical in general favored the "documentation" of dance, while the Experimental film embraced it as abstract material. Dudley Murphy, who had made Ballet Mécanique with some collaboration from Man Ray and Fernand Léger, continued to make Visual Music films throughout his career, and in his 1929 cult classic Black and Tan uses the polished floor of the Apollo Club in Harlem as a mirror to fracture and multiply the dancers' movements, then shoots additionally through the same faceted lenses that he had created for Ballet Mécanique to render Duke Ellington and his dancers in an abstract kaleidoscopic multiplicity. In 1941 Murphy was a pioneer of Soundies, making 3-minute visualizations of popular songs, in some cases (Carrying the Torch for Jim) creating a synoptic story, in others (Alabammy Bound) a cinematic comic dance with fast cutting and absurd jokes, and sometimes relying on specialty character dances (Peter Ray and Dorothy Dandridge in Lazybones) -- all strategies common to Video-clips.

Other strains of the Experimental film also moved directly into video-clips. Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger transformed the psychological dance drama into a ritual of sexual politics. Anger and Bruce Conner further amplified this with the deconstruction of "found footage" which in collaged juxtaposition exposed the currents of sex and violence in the common media.

Fischinger's tight synchronization to jazz in a film like Allegretto demonstrates that music demands more than just a thump-thump-thump rhythmic beat -- rather a complex, layered "symphony" of integrated parts, with rhythmic background, harmonic supports, melodic bravura solos -- and some overall integrity of color and form to suggest the structural dynamics of key signatures and development/resolution patterns in the music. James Whitney and Jordan Belson took Fischinger's example into new realms of electronic and ethnic music models, elaborating his geometric vocabulary into greater complexity of polymorphous shapes, processed textures and much more intricate patterning. As demanded by spiritual models, Fischinger in his Radio Dynamics, James Whitney in his Yantra and Kang Jing Xiang, and Belson in his Allures made extensive use of flickering alternations of variant information. In 1957 Belson pioneered the light-show in America, giving light concerts at a planetarium in San Francisco, using filmed imagery by himself, James Whitney, and Hy Hirsh.

Hy Hirsh bore another tradition: Len Lye's abstractions drawn directly on film had to be optically printed, and Lye began using the optical printer to render texture and layering into live-action footage as well (Rainbow Dance, Trade Tattoo). Lye's seminal work in this field inspired Hirsh to create his complex Couleur de la Forme, Scratch Pad, Décollages Recollés, and Etude Anatomique du Photographe, and also Pat O'Neill to embark upon his astonishing series Runs Good, Down Wind, etc. all of which combine found footage with composed shots, matting one image inside another, substituting backgrounds and other surreal transformations. Video keying now makes this kind of matting very easy for electronic video-clip makers, but the vocabulary was perfected by these Experimental film masters.

Another key inspirational figure is Harry Smith, who, influenced by Fischinger, began making abstract films and showing them as one-projector "light shows" with jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie in San Francisco's Bop City nightclub during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Then Smith moved to New York and created there several animated collages from figures cut out of 19th-century books: but mysterious, mystical, surreal films of great layered complexity, which became cult classics. A screening during Billboard's annual awards in 1983 (the first celebrating the triumph of MTV) included Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, Conner's Cosmic Ray, Fischinger's Allegretto and Smith's Film No. 11, brilliantly synchronized to Thelonius Monk's "Mysterioso". The crowd of new video-clip professionals cheered particularly warmly for Smith.

The multiple-projector light shows shown with rock concerts in the late 1960s and early 1970s made liberal use of films by Fischinger and the abstractionists, of Kenneth Anger and Bruce Conner, of Chien Andalou and Hy Hirsh and Pat O'Neill -- all integrated into wide-screen melanges of flowing liquids, slides, animation films (the surreal Fleischer "Betty Boops" were particularly common) and flickering strobe lights. These elaborate light-show spectacles demanded a new "psychedelic' style in music programming for television, which affected the styles in pop music (Jack Haley's Moving with Nancy special) as well as the rock dance shows that would include imaginative films synchronized with rock songs by groups who were not present (Pat O'Neill's Coming Down for the U.S.A. rock group, Pink Floyd's animated numbers).

Some of these very Experimental filmmakers became a part of video-clips. Bruce Conner would make "Mongoloid" for Devo, and "America is Waiting" for David Byrne -- and the star of his Breakaway, Toni Basil, would be a pioneer of video-clips with her "Hey, Mickey", and others hits. Many of the best independent/experimental animators have been hired to work on video-clips, including Jan Svankmajer, the Quay brothers, and Nick Park, all of whom bring with them a heritage of great visual literacy. And certain singers, notably Peter Gabriel, have consistently demanded high-quality, imaginative visual imagery to accompany their music, which have often required the talents of leading filmmakers.

It is still tempting to see the influence on video-clips of Ken Russell's music visualizations in films like The Music Lovers and Tommy. And the musical episodes in Beatles films from Hard Day's Night to Yellow Submarine. And many other sources. They are probably all true: this is a post-modern age, in which everyone sees everything on television, and computers make it possible for dead movie stars to dance with co-incidentally, temporarily living ones. The question now is not so much where you stole something, but how well you use it.

In France in 1932 Claire Parker and Alexandre Alexeieff invented a "digital" instrument which had thousands of pins sticking through a screen so that they could be pushed with your fingers forwards or back, creating shadows or becoming invisible. Each pin, then, was like a pixel, with an off-on function, in modern computer electronics. Using their new invention, they made a film visualizing of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain which contains many remarkable smooth transformations, including the "morphing" of two women, one an old hag who attacks a young girl: as they struggle the girl grows old and ugly while the hag becomes young and beautiful, then the new hag seeks revenge and begins the cycle again. The technical wonder of this "special effect" is completely lost in a mystical revelation about mothers and daughters, teachers and pupils, seasons and fertility. Did, 60 years later, the makers of the new computerized morphing for Michael Jackson's "Black or White" video, P.D.I., know their Alexeieff/Parker predecessor? It is not unlikely, as the classic animation is widely screened in classrooms, on laserdisc, at festivals, etc. But more important, perhaps, is the morphic reverse of that question: Would Parker and Alexeieff be upset to know that they were being used for Michael Jackson's "Black or White"? I suspect not-- it's a good use, worthy of its heritage: vivid, musical and meaningfully responsible. Ah, that all video-clips were!

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