The AudioVisual and the Question “Why?”
I have been creating audiovisual works for more than a decade. For me, these works never belonged to any specific movement, genre, category, scene or academic discipline. I usually want to leave it up to the individual viewers of such works to decide whether they consider the visual or the auditive part stronger or more important, or whether an equivalent merging of the two parts is successfully happening, in order to generate a third level of perception.
Maybe, that’s the ideal. My ideal. Well, I guess then we shouldn’t call it videomusic, nor video art with live sound. But it isn’t film, either. Is it?
Andrej Tarkovsky (who is often cited as a huge influence by composers of so-called “difficult music”):
The idea of a film always comes to me in a very ordinary, boring manner, bit by bit, by rather banal phases. To recount it would only be a waste of time. There is really nothing fascinating, nothing poetic, about it. (Guerra 1979)
What is the initial motivation for composers and musicians to work additionally with video and moving images?
4:43 p.m. I am working on a sequence of processed photographs that will later be assembled as part of a stop motion animation. This is part of a new concert video project, one short sequence out of a twenty-minute piece. The subject matter of the work is pre-Soviet Uzbekistan. There will be music and multilingual narration, written by another composer, referring to an old Uzbek fairy tale. In the on-stage scenario, my images will have a “function” that sits between set design and parallel scenery, a non-narrative narration of its own, accompanying yet counterbalancing the rest of the piece. I started out on the project with a simple way of “physical image warping”: found images are projected onto transparent cloth, photos of the projection are taken from different angles and the cloth is folded anew for each photo. Simple as that. Later, the photos of the projection will be arranged in a way that a wobbly motion (non-digitally) distorts the images, individual bent and warped elements / objects / buildings / portraits will gradually move into a foreground that appears sharper and a bit more three-dimensional, while other parts of the projection will move into a blurry background or remain flat as an image that has been re-photographed is supposed to be. The shape of the whole thing will probably be (digitally) cut to non-rectangular forms.
Correct me if I’m wrong: images are always flat. Sometimes pretending to be otherwise.
Sound cannot be flat. Sound only appears flat, sometimes, or maybe more often than sometimes…
Jean-Luc Godard, casually quoted: “It is necessary to show that there are no models… there is only modelling” (Godard 1980).
Why are composers and musicians working with additional video and moving images? Is it because it’s possible? Because the technology is just there?
In the old Uzbek fairy tale, we have a poor young woman who loves the Grand Vizier (a wise and sensitive poet) and gets unhappily paired off to the Shah (a cruel and jealous man). Her father is a weaver. Unfortunately, there is no agricultural proletariat appearing amongst the characters of this pre-industrial story. I have a bunch of intriguing fieldwork images, with donkeys and carriages. Carriages with big wheels. The other day, I found a spinning wheel. I took photos of the spinning wheel in different lighting, a rough turn-around sequence in six steps. Now I am thinking hard about how to “morph” the spinning wheel into the pre-Soviet agricultural donkey carriage wheel, or the other way around. And: yes, I have photos of weaving looms… from another project, which actually refers to the history of textile industry.
Now, I am pondering those wheels, and trying to make up my mind whether and how to re-employ images of weaving looms I made for an older project. Well, recycling of my own material… which I do sometimes, or rather more often than sometimes, or maybe often.
Material can be exploited and transformed, quoted, self-quoted and battered, ad infinitum. But the really crucial factor is time. Temporal exploration of the material. Changes and continuity that the material suggests. Temporal counterbalances to make solid things frail, and ephemeral things monolithic. Duration as a subject matter. Time play.
I love playing with time, playing hard and playing utterly serious. I don’t take the technical possibilities for granted. And I certainly don’t expect them to do the work for me. Time is uncompromising. There is no manual.
Correct me if I’m wrong: composing music equals temporal painting with sound. A film is a temporal painting of light and sound, plus (mostly) some kind of narration. Music can be dominant in films, sometimes, or maybe more often than sometimes… but can film score music ever have the inductive strength of an autonomous musical composition? Should it have, considering that it has to “properly” serve a function?
The film and its narrative are opening up certain perceptual, cognitive and subconscious levels that good music should open up on its own — and does, I think, more often than sometimes. So in this sense, film and music are competitors. Competing for the spectators and their notoriously economized attention span.
What, then, is the role of moving images for music, outside the highly economic, non-aleatoric system called “film”?
Synchronicity can be seductive, and a sedative.
Synchronicity is quite often a trick. Means to an end.
Tarkovsky, interviewed by his friend Tonino Guerra in 1979, before finishing the post-production of Stalker:
I would like to try a muffled music, barely distinguishable through the noise of the train that passes underneath the windows of the Stalker’s home. For example, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (The Ode to Joy), Wagner, or, perhaps, the Marseillaise, music, in other words, that is rather popular, that expresses the sense of the movement of the masses, the theme of the destiny of human society. But this music must barely reach, through the noises, the ear of the audience, so that, until the end, the spectator does not know if he is really hearing it or if he’s dreaming. (Guerra 1979)
I like this idea of music as an atmospheric, rather subconscious undercurrent that charges the images in a subtle way — far from screaming at you in a merciless bombardment of obvious synchronicity. Maybe, that’s where we’re getting closer to the third level of perception, which is generated by that subtle yet inevitable merging.
4:23 a.m. I am wide awake, another early morning of mild insomnia.
YouTube search: “audiovisual concert”… for the first time in a couple of months.
Structural bubblings in oversaturated green and blue, moving back and forth. Music with a lot of linear delay. Author name bears the prefix “VJ”.
An indie-rock band playing in a cinema, along with independently produced short films by young Slovenian filmmakers.
A solo guitarist playing romantic etudes with his eyes closed. Something is projected on him, but we cannot clearly see what it is.
An Eastern European pop group with club VJ wallpapers.
More club VJ wallpapers, with actual club music.
A production company setting up a festival stage in time lapse.
… I have to admit, none of this is really interesting for me. None of this comes close to my idea of an audiovisual concert, in which the very potential of such specific format is being explored.
Can abstraction be a subversive act in opposition to the flood of (more or less explicit) images that accompanies our everyday lives?
Switching to Piotr Kamler, the 1960s/70s/80s Polish animation wizard who worked with the GRM guys. He unfolded a rare sense of rich minimalism in pre-digital visual special FX; and most of all, the images and their development merge perfectly with the music — it seems that the two have become inseparable.
In Kamler’s Le Pas (1975, music by Bernard Parmegiani), the physical quality of each sound event has a close relation to the illusory movements we see, without being mere sound transcription or musical illustration. Furthermore, the ambiguity of solidness and lightness in the “objects” we see, is comprehended by and in the music.
Similarly interesting for me: Kamler’s surrealism makes the distinction between abstraction and depiction obsolete. We can see objects, moving entities, spaces, landscapes. But all this is organized in a sparse and geometrically constructed visual language. Perhaps no other visual world matches as perfectly with the classic 1960s/70s era of electroacoustic music, in which the haptic qualities of musique concrète and the anti-natural abstraction of sound synthesis become intertwined, and blurred (Kamler 1975).
5:16 p.m. I need a break. Instead of going out for some fresh air, I’m drawn into YouTube research again.
Search term: “stalker”.
The first five hits are all about the Chernobyl-themed video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Number six: the first hour of Tarkovsky’s film, original Russian version without subtitles, 306 122 views, 1 973 likes, 61 dislikes.
What could be the idea behind a vertical mirror line, symmetrically centred, as a means of video processing? [… as a means of abstraction?]
[ Correct me if I’m wrong: the term “videomusic” — which seems to be a specified genre — implies the inherent dominance of music. It’s a kind of musical genre, not a film genre, nor a category of fine arts. So the music won’t allow the audiovisual experience to reduce the musical dominance. Will it?… ]
7:33 p.m., a few days later. I need a break, or should I say, I feel like I’m done with productivity for today. It’s raining outside, let’s take a little YouTube tour.
The music video for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, directed by Stephen R. Johnson and produced by Adam Whittaker.
Here, we have a fine example of a pop clip that manages to maintain the visual poetry of Švankmajeresque animation film, and especially the slight imperfection of motion and audiovisual correlation gives the viewer’s brain enough space to do its own work. I think that’s the tension, the interesting part. The music and the individual events in the video belong together, which quickly becomes obvious — and then the spectator is eager to continue merging them, treating them as one, actively (Gabriel 1986).
Does “AV”, or AudioVisual, make sense as a term to describe a specified art form? Something beyond music (including videomusic) and beyond film (including narrative / illustrative music video clips)? Should this category, then, include “typical video art” of the kind that strongly emphasizes auditive aspects?
In contrast to many other audiovisual works I have conceived in the last ten years, my current Uzbek project is best described as a contemporary chamber music work enhanced by a video element. There’s a score written for three percussion players, there are spoken text passages and there’s the video as an additional layer, juxtaposing and/or accompanying and/or superimposing and/or extending the scenery of a traditional stage setting.
As for other works I created, I would rather call them AV pieces instead of videomusic or video-enhanced concert pieces — centred neither on the music, nor the images. A balance of elements. A balance of synchronicity and asynchronicity. Temporal painting with light and sound. Or sound and light. Sometimes with a clear ending, sometimes without a beginning. An audience walking through it and an audience sitting, observing progression. Sometimes a stage, sometimes no stage, but a performer (me, or others) behind, amidst the audience. Sometimes with text, typography, spoken word, sparse, non-narrative, some verbal and semi-verbal semiotics becoming part of the sound painting and/or the light painting.
In such a commissioned video work for enhanced chamber music, my ways of developing a specific audiovisual relation differs greatly from other AV pieces I pointed to above. Here, the writing of the music and the invention of the piece’s visual world are much more separated from one another, and the way the images refer to music a bit more predetermined.
Nevertheless, here, as in each new project, I am utterly curious about the material’s temporal possibilities and excited to experience the “intermedial clash”.
And here, as in each new project that involves images, I try to follow a certain step-by-step process that allows me to think about and develop images and their temporal arrangement in relation to other levels of perception and to consider them… well, musically — even when the music isn’t there yet.
Once I heard a young art historian talk about “the AVPs” in a public introduction speech; she was referring to a group of artists, pointing out their profession as audiovisual performers. She assumed that this acronym was generally understood without further explanation. I was wondering how long it took each person in the room to figure that out. In the following years, I never heard this acronym again.
I think the motivation just comes around, often fades, sometimes remains. Ask anyone who feels attracted to music-making as well as visual creation. Why wouldn’t they try some form of combination at some point? The “Why not?” always stands before the “Why?” And that’s the way it should be. At least in the beginning. And who can tell how it’s going to progress?
Giorgio Agamben, casually quoted: “The paradigm shift of new technologies enables us to think with the things, rather than thinking only about the things.”
Compared to many other artists who consider their approach to visual creation to be music-related, or of a musical “nature”, I think mine bears less resemblance to graphic notation; it’s almost never about visual representation of sound (or sound patterns). That makes it perhaps a bit more difficult to explain how exactly the images and their temporal arrangement would be (arguably?) music-related, or developed in some form of “musical thinking”.
Well, does it even require an exhaustive explanation?
3:12 a.m. Still awake, again. For some reason, YouTube guided me into a scene of David Lynch’s notorious Eraserhead.
The blueprint for Lynch’s future nightmare archetypes is laid here, including the ghostly chanteuse (well, not singing here). Unlike the later Mulholland Drive, which I always considered a bit overdone, the nightmarish scenario of Eraserhead still leaves enough quietness and subliminal space. Nothing is rushed. It’s a musical timeframe well set in a gentle Valium grip. So you can experience with your whole set of nerves, how the lady is unveiled within the radiator system. It takes you there, slowly, otherworldly. And then there’s music, music in a conventional sense… but in a way you have never heard conventional music before. Music played on some organ, which becomes something else, one of many sound layers in an audiovisual time painting (Lynch 1977).
In my case: is it because a certain kind of technology is available and allows a swift shortcut between auditive and visual creation? Can it be regarded as a shortcut at all, or rather as a complication, a detour around the “direct communication channel” (is that something I was ever looking for?), out of a diversification that remains a bit awkward about its own legitimation?
Tarkovsky, again: “Probably it would be nice not to make films, but only recount them to the blind. A beautiful idea! One only needs to acquire a tape-recorder” (Guerra 1979).
I certainly haven’t given a lot of satisfactory answers to the question “Why?” in these notes. And who wouldn’t want to find out by themselves, for themselves. Combining different media in artistic creation is a huge subjective adventure, unless you pretend to have a manual.
There are very few principles and basic elements that I rely on as a sort of fundamental toolkit for my audiovisual creation.
One of the recurring principles is transparency. Transparency in different aspects. Besides some rather personal, philosophical conceptions of transparency, there’s a very obvious relation between transparent image layers / multiple exposures, and modulation of sound layering.
Everything that seems to be solid or profound or concluded with an end in itself, becomes nothing but a layer when made transparent and being combined with other such layers in multiple exposure. It is the remaining stability and the remaining recognizable shape that the layers leave, in combination with the background noise that the transparent multi-layering generates, which opens up one possible new space.
Gabriel, Peter. Sledgehammer. Music video directed by Stephen R. Johnson and produced by Adam Whittaker. 1986. YouTube video “Peter Gabriel HD — Sledgehammer” (5:44) posted by “Rob Harrah” on 24 September 2012. http://youtu.be/b00eOKE__pI [Last accessed 5 March 2014]
Godard, Jean-Luc. Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma. Paris: Editions Albatros, 1980.
Guerra, Tonino. “Tarkovsky at the Mirror: A Conversation between Andrei Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra (1979).” Nostalghia.com (n/d). Trans. David Stringari. Available at http://nostalghia.com/TheTopics/Tarkovsky_Guerra-1979.html [Last accessed 4 March 2014] Orig. published in Panorama 676 (3 April 1979), pp. 160–170.
Kamler, Piotr (Dir.). Le Pas [The Step]. Music by Bernard Parmegiani. 1975. YouTube video “Le Pas” (7:05) posted by “aaaproductionParis” on 6 February 2013. http://youtu.be/9Hjq1EJqJio [Last accessed 5 March 2014]
Lynch, David (Dir.). Eraserhead. With Jack Nance and Charlotte Stewart. 1977.
Poller, Tom Rojo and Nicolas Wiese. Der Garten der Pfade die sich verzweigen [The Garden Of Forking Paths] (2009). YouTube video “Tom Rojo Poller / Nicolas Wiese — Installation” (4:07) posted by “nicolaswiese” on 11 February 2010. http://youtu.be/JXj8cYyxyl0 [Last accessed 5 March 2014]
Wiese, Nicolas. There is Bacteria (2010). YouTube video “There Is Bacteria Edit 2” (11:51) posted by “nicolaswiese” on 17 October 2011. http://youtu.be/ojqwMPDNjjY [Last accessed 5 March 2014]
_____. An Uzbek Fairy Tale (2013).
Wiese, Nicolas and Yoav Pasovsky. Mill (2011). YouTube video “Nicolas Wiese & Yoav Pasovsky — MILL Edit2” (5:45) posted by “nicolaswiese” on 30 September 2011. http://youtu.be/5Hl3DvzUVpU [Last accessed 5 March 2014]