Videomusic is a field of practice that could be seen as a subset of visual music, a term which can be considered today to be familiar enough to speak for itself. This broader area of artistic activity includes digital work, cinema, painting and visual “instruments”, and dates back at least to the 18th century.
Fuller definitions of visual music can be found in the writing of Cindy Keefer, Jack Ox and Brian Evans, but a simplistic definition could be “the expression of musical ideas through visual means,” while the term “videomusic” was coined in the 80s by pioneers of the form such as Jean Piché. In my conversation with Piché, he provides a useful definition of the form, and explains its significance. Although video dates back to the 60s, in the 80s and 90s it became an “accessible” medium. Readers will be aware that the introduction of music software on domestic computers greatly impacted the production of electroacoustic music, which previously was only possible in elite commercial studios, universities and other dedicated institutions. At the same time, or shortly thereafter, time-based media practices were altered by the introduction of affordable video cameras and video editing software. This opened up many creative possibilities — for our purposes, most interestingly for composers. For many, this was not just a matter of affordability — the process of acquiring video material on tape, and editing and transformation in timeline-based software, mirrored familiar processes in the production of electroacoustic music. Such composers tend to produce work that was significantly different to the visual music that preceded it.
History and Context
I am delighted to see Maura McDonnell’s historical summary of visual music included in this issue. As well as being a great visual music practitioner, she is one of the leading writers on the field — her blog <visualmusic.blogspot.com> is highly recommended as a first port of call for those interested in the field. She has been actively maintaining it for nearly a decade, making it a wonderfully rich resource. A prolific writer, she is very much “one to watch” for the latest events, works and developments in the field. Her article “Visual Music” was written in 2007 and has been included in several publications since. A freshly revised version produced for eContact! 15.4 makes a fantastic introduction — I recommend starting there!
McDonnell’s second article, “Visual Music — A Composition of the “things themselves”,” offers what could be seen as a sequel to the first. It concerns itself with more recent work, and in particular work where the sound and image are conceived together from the ground up, often by the same artist. Although it does include some historical context, it concerns itself primarily with contemporary practice. What I find particularly useful is her categorization of this practice, which includes some very practical and applicable distillation of approaches to videomusic. It would make an excellent primer for anyone “starting out” in making videomusic.
Another historical overview is provided by Patrick Saint-Denis, in “Musique visuelle: De la musique au-delà des frontières du son.” Although it covers some of the same ground as the McDonnell articles, Saint-Denis has his own specific “take” and some differences in terms of emphasis. Of particular interest I think is his inclusion of early video artists such as the Vasulkas and Nam June Paik. In our conversation, Jean Piché talks about videomusic being in some way an answer to video art, so it is very useful to see this discussion further amplified here.
Inés Wickmann’s “Vidéomusique: une image-son” covers similar ground to the McDonnell and Saint-Denis articles, but rather than focusing on genre or technique, it places the focus on the creative process, and looks at the creation of videomusic works in a conceptual way. A rather more personal approach is taken in “Hear / See,” which Jean Piché has rather wonderfully characterized as “a slow conversation” between he and I around visual music. It is indeed a conversation (by email) in which we discuss our work and obsessions. We cover quite a lot of ground along the way — it becomes increasingly discursive as we warm to our topic(s), but I think it works quite well alongside the above-mentioned, more structured articles.
To some extent Laurie Radford’s “I am Sitting on a Fence: Negotiating sound and image in audiovisual composition” problematizes the whole idea of composers feeling compelled to include visual elements in their work. He questions (tongue perhaps in cheek) whether this might be a matter of simple opportunism, and discusses ideas that extending music into the visual domain might be both backward-looking (re-introducing the visual articulation that is lost if live performers are taken out the equation) and forward-looking — a natural response to the era of media convergence we live in. Much of the acousmatic “project” has been to deliberately focus attention on sound, with no visual distraction. My personal opinion is that the acousmatic paradigm is alive and well, and as important as ever in our visually dominated age. Deeper discussions of terminology, function and media make this a deep and thought-provoking discourse.
As might be expected from the title, Nicolas Wiese’s article “The AudioVisual and the Question ‘Why?’” does indeed raise a large number of questions about videomusic, and audiovisual practice in a broader context. Although the article discusses the author’s own practice, it adopts a polemical standpoint somewhat analogous to Radford’s paper, questioning some of the terminology familiar to visual music, VJ and indeed videomusic practitioners. The precedents here are not generally included in the visual music “canon”, although they are clearly touchstones for those working the field — Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Lynch’s Eraserhead, Peter Gabriel and Aardman Animation’s Sledgehammer. There is an interesting discussion on the (differing) roles of time and space in audio and visual media respectively. The author offers no answer to the question “Why?” — “who wouldn’t want to find out by themselves, for themselves[?]” — but his own work, which explores many of these questions, will certainly guide anyone trying to find out.
General contextual reflection and a discussion of the author’s own work is included in Claudia Robles-Angel’s “Audiovisual Art: Perspectives on an indivisible entity.” There is much overlap between the precedents discussed here and in Maura McDonnell’s articles, but Robles-Angel works towards a theoretical framework for her own work which can also be applied more broadly. She outlines two contrasting approaches, both derived from a Deleuzian philosophy, and discusses in some depth a handful of her works, using these to further develop a distinctive theoretical framework with relation to her own practice.
Diego Garro is one of the leading figures in British visual music. For me his work represents a sub-genre of sorts, of work very firmly rooted in an electroacoustic / acousmatic tradition. Artists working within this sub-genre tend to produce both the sonic and visual aspects of their work, and tend to make very different creative decisions than those brought up in a fine art / media / cinema tradition. Garro has already written several articles outlining an acousmatic approach to visual music, and his article “On the Brink of (In)visibility: Granulation techniques in Visual Music” represents a fascinating extension of some of his ideas, exploring in particular an extension of granular synthesis into the visual domain. This is an idea that seems somewhat in vogue amongst videomusic artists, and Garro’s paper represents a very strong distillation of this area of practice, referring to his own work as well as that of several other contemporary practitioners, as well as finding precursors in the filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage. As well as establishing a robust framework for audiovisual granulation, Garro’s offers a wonderfully detailed and generous exposition of the techniques used in his recent work, Dammtor.In many ways Andrew Lewis’ LEXICON is part of this same tradition (Lewis is well known as an acousmatic composer, producing sound and video in this instance). However, I think this work is a special case. Although it might be seen as acousmatic, its roots in text and the spoken word make it very distinctive. In “‘LEXICON’ — Behind the Curtain,” Lewis discusses what I see as one of the most interesting examples of videomusic produced in the last few years. I find it very powerful as an arts / science collaboration, and the wonderful poem by dyslexic “Tom” proves to be source material rich in creative possibilities, both for sound and image. Lewis expresses his intention that the piece should be seen as acousmatic music with video as opposed to audiovisual composition (or perhaps videomusic), and writes a fascinating discourse on his ideas as to how working with video — for the first time — has, perhaps counter-intuitively — solidified and expanded his thinking on acousmatic composition.
The last two articles discuss new uses for old techniques, and broaden the view on what videomusic might be. Jonathan Weinel and Stuart Cunningham outline a fresh approach to an old idea in “Digitized Direct Animation: Creating materials for electroacoustic visual music using 8 mm film.” Direct (sometimes called camera-less) animation involves the application to blank film stock of paints, inks or dyes, or the scratching of exposed film to produce white figures on a black ground (which can in turn be coloured). These techniques were used by many of the leading figures of film-based animation, most notably Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Stan Brakhage. McLaren extended the technique to the (optical) soundtrack, literally drawing or scratching the sound for some of his animations.
David Candler, in his article “Gary James Joynes — A Review of Visual Sound in Practice,” offers a catalogue of several of Gary James Joynes’ recent works. This term — “visual sound” — could be seen to denote another sub-genre of visual music practice. Somewhat analogous to sound art, much of his work actually concerns itself with the physicality and phenomenology of sound and image. Much of it is based in the field of Cymatics, using analogue synthesis to drive a purpose-built “wavedriver” plate machine, a technologically extended version of the well known Chladni plate. Some of his work consists of beautiful high-resolution photographs of Chladni figures, an interesting illustration that visual music need not actually involve the ears at all. His live cinema and installation works reunite sound and image and extend the author’s audiovisual language, whilst remaining admirably focused and restrained, adding a remarkable consistency across his work.
Interviews, Columns and Reviews
Also included in this issue is another round of interviews made by Bob Gluck from 2005–06 with artists who had studied and worked at the Columbia-Princeton Center for Electronic Music. A good number of Latin American composers were to be found among the early Columbia-Princeton generations, notably Argentine-American composer Mario Davidovsky, a “ferocious advocate of Latin American composers who applied to come to the Center,” whose role in increasing awareness of the work of Latin American composers should not be underestimated. Columbia-Princeton’s legacy is well known, but also noteworthy are the intertwining of and exchanges between Latin American and US-based institutions — notably the Instituto Torcuato di Tella and Columbia-Princeton — and composers in the 1960s and 1970s, a crucial period of constant growth that would to a large extent define the nature of electronic music for generations to come. Among those composers can be found Venezuelan composer Alfredo Del Mónaco and Uruguayan composer Sergio Cervetti (Del Monaco’s experiences there greatly influenced his instrumental composition; Cervetti built up the programme and electronic studios at the NYU School of the Arts), as well as Argentinian-Canadian composer alcides lanza (who would later direct the McGill EMS for some 30 years) and Peruvian composer Edgar Valcárcel (who returned to work in Peru following his studies).
Capping off the issue are three more items around the theme of videomusic. We are lucky to have yet another contribution from Maura McDonnell, who reports back from the prodigious 2013 edition of the biannual Seeing Sound Festival in Bath UK that has featured visual music and video since 2009. And this time around in his “6 Questions” column, Kevin Austin’s guests are two Montréal-based artists working with videomusic, Maxime Corbeil-Perron and Julien Robert. 1[1. Also see eContact! 15.2 for “6 Questions” to video / media artists Freida Abtan, Joseph Hyde, Pierre Paré-Blais and Jean Piché.]
Included with the articles comprising this issue are many video clips illustrating the author’s ideas and works, and I hope you enjoy reading and viewing this valuable contribution to the field of videomusic and related practices.
30 April 2014