By Bill Alves
Our next MicroFest event will feature my Visual Music Ensemble, so here’s a little bit about this possibly puzzling title. Artists have adopted the term visual music (VM) to refer to ways artists structure abstract images or video that are analogous to the composition of that other art of abstraction, music. In our case, we perform live music that corresponds in different ways to project computer animation, but what does it mean to correspond? Of course rhythms in music commonly correspond to movements in dance or dramatic action in film, but VM frees the images from representation to create a new marriage of sound and light.
One historically popular proposal is for a correspondence between pitch and color. None other than Isaac Newton wrapped the musical octave around the color wheel because of a conviction that the spectrum must represent a diatonic scale. However, the experiments of the so-called color organists of the last century require some generosity on the part of the viewer to see as visual equivalents of music that they are representing.
At least, I arrived at this conclusion when exploring the idea of musical and visual correspondence. Then I discovered a fascinating book by one of the pioneers of computer animation, John Whitney, Sr. Instead of searching for correspondences in colors, Whitney found that ratios of movement can take the eye through patterns of tension and release, the visual equivalents of dissonance and consonance (see a fascinating set of examples here). He wrote, “The foundation of my work rests first upon laws of harmony, then in turn, upon proof that the harmony is matched, part for part, in a world of visual design….This hypothesis assumes the existence of a new foundation for a new art. It assumes a broader context in which Pythagorean laws of harmony operate.”
Whitney realized his application of “Pythagorean laws” to patterned motion through a technique he called “differential dynamics,” in which a large number of elements are set into repetitive motion, the second traveling twice as fast as the first, the third three times as fast as the first, and so on. These speeds represent the same relationships found in the harmonic series used in the pure musical harmonies musicians know as “just intonation.” With the new technology of digital computers, he was able to precisely pattern motion to create works of exquisite choreographies of light that move from chaotic distributions of elements (visual “dissonance”) to breathtaking symmetrical patterns (“consonance”).As a music composition graduate student, I pondered how to apply Whitney’s principles in my study of computer animation, when my computer graphics teacher asked me if I would be interested in helping an artist who had called the cinema department looking for an assistant. Of course the caller was John Whitney himself, and I worked with this delightful man from time to time over the last years of his life, absorbing his ideas and techniques. Although trained as a musician, Whitney was not a music composer, and in his early computer animations he often preferred soundtracks that avoided conventional musical harmonies that could compete with his visual harmonies.However, his example inspired me to simultaneously compose computer animation and corresponding music based on the both visual and musical just intonation ratios. I could see that, like musical consonances, Whitney’s symmetrical patterns represented different mathematical foundations. The simplest type of symmetry, bilateral, would correspond to a musical frequency of 2:1 — the octave. Radial symmetry in thirds would be the visual equivalent of pitch ratios 3:2:1, adding the perfect fifth, the next most consonant interval, and so on. In my work Static Cling, for example, I used these musical just intonation ratios together with symmetrical patterns based on Whitney’s differential dynamics, but extrapolated to three dimensions.The intricate patterns of Arabic geometric abstractions also inspired Whitney, especially in his film Arabesque. These dazzling designs represent another realization of the Pythagorean order of the cosmos, the rational proportions taken over by medieval Islamic philosophers and artists (see examples here). In works such as my Breath of the Compassionate, which will appear on the MicroFest program, I have “thawed” these frozen patterns and set them in motion, themselves in Whitney-esque proportions. This piece is named for a type of pattern in Arabic abstraction in which adjacent tiles alternately expand and contract into one another, creating a sense of visual inhalation and exhalation. The Islamic philosopher Ibn al’Arabi named the universal breath of creation, joining the elements of fire, air, water, and earth, as the “breath of the compassionate.”The April 11 concert will feature several of these works performed with live accompaniment by an ensemble consisting of keyboards, retuned electric guitars, and gamelan instruments. However, the projections you will see that go along with this music are not generated live in response to the music nor are they a kind of mindless screen saver that lacks any artistic connection to the music. I have laboriously created these animations with a computer in non-real time, composing them as neither subservient to nor predominating over the musical score. So on April 11, come enjoy the visual and musical symphony that emerges from techniques and ideas that are simultaneously modern and ancient.