Sound artists have always maintained a strong relation with the visual. This issue of eContact! is more specifically interested in the creative use of sound and light. Historical and analytical reflections are complemented by contributions that bring “to light” different artistic perspectives and practices.
Historical and Analytical Perspectives
As early as Antiquity, humans have sought to establish relations between sound and vision. This is what led Father Louis Bertrand Castel to invent the ocular keyboard, an instrument that proposed a systematization of these relations from a perspective that sits somewhere between art, science and occultism. It is with the same spirit that we open this issue with Patrick Saint-Denis’ reflections “On Light Music Before Cinema,” laying the historical basis for audioluminous art. We see that this history also informs the practices of other artists and authors found here, whether through the influence of the Clavilux in David Payling’s contribution, or synesthetic principles encountered in the work of Derek Holzer or Daniel Fishkin.
The analysis of creations in which sonic and visual elements are brought together has until now been done principally from the perspective of video or cinematography. One of the most important publications in this domain is certainly Michel Chion’s L’audio-vision (1990), in which the author defines, among other things, the principle of syncresis, that moment in which a sonic element and a visual element fuse into a single perceptual object. Adam Basanta’s interest in this problematic has led him to extend Chion’s concept in view of elucidating “A Proposed framework for the classification of audiovisual relations in sound-and-light media installations.” Because his article lays out an analytical model dealing specifically with the relation between sound and light, we felt it to be an essential component of this issue.
Dave Payling’s text “Lumia and Visual Music: Using Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia factors to inform audiovisual composition” weaves the link between history and creation. Taking his inspiration from the Clavilux, an instrument invented by Thomas Wilfred, David Paling proposes a sonic equivalent to Wilfred’s work. From colour towards material and form, Payling poses the question of whether “colour [can] exist without form and motion” through a discussion of his piece Space Movements Sound.
Following the paths established by Michel Chion and extended to the relation between sound and light by Basanta in the previous section, here we examine the work of several artists who, despite coming from a sound background, have moved towards audioluminous composition. With the text “Lumière, matière, science, fiction,” I propose some reflections on the relation between sound and light found in his cycle of works frequencies. For many years I have been working with these two mediums with a non-systematic perspective on their concurrence: it is not a question of translating one into the other, but rather composing in both mediums simultaneously in the service of the audioluminous work.
A discussion of his approach to performance in “The Light Bulb in My Music” would suggest that German artist Michael Vorfeld shares this view on concurrent mediums. In his piece Light Bulb Music, he uses a variety of microphones and sensors in the manner of a microscope in order to reveal the electromagnetic instability of incandescent filaments.
An interview with the German composer Alexander Schubert on “Strobes, Mirrors, Fog and Site-Specific Experiences” offers a survey of the work by this emblematic figure of eclectic contemporary music. His fantastical creations expose the audience to artificial universes that oscillate between New Music, performance, techno rave and rock concert. Schubert explains how his use of light is essentially the same as audio sampling:
The way that the light is turned on and off leads to an effect close to video sampling (sampling being the process of extracting and exposing only certain excerpts of a continuous stream). Here, only certain passages are chosen, sampled and made visual for the audience.
A series of creative tandems concludes this section, starting with the duo of Mo H. Zareei and Jim Murphy. Brutalist architecture is a primary influence that has led them to consider light as an element that recalls the industrial neon. “Audio-Visceral Art: Sound waves and light waves in phase” explains how Zareei and Murphy use the medium to exacerbate the corporality of their motorized cinematic installations. Interpreting the term “expanded audio” as a “synonym of acousmatic sound,” English collaborators Andrew Hill and Jim Hobbs describe how their “(I)MAGESOUND(S): Expanded audiovisual practice” uses a 16 mm projector repurposed as scenic lighting to “transform the entire [performance] space into light and sound.” Finally, sculptor Scott Sherk presents his collaboration with Par Badt, Cor + Som, a site-specific work they installed in a castle in Portugal’s Alentejo region that made it possible to “alter the light in the space and simultaneously fill the spaces with sound.”
Transference: Light to Sound and Sound to Light
This group of entries presents the work of artists whose research is based on the principles of energy transduction: from light into sound or from sound into light. These artists follow, each in their own manner, paths established by scientists such as Ernest Chladni or Jules Antoine Lissajous, who, already in the 19th century, had discovered ways to visually translate sonic phenomena. Charlotte Parallel’s “Transductions: Transforming light into sound” describes how she listens in on the energy produced by street lights or emitted in city streets using a solar panel plugged into a portable amplifier. Daniel Fishkin, in his presentation of “Dead Lion, or, The Musical Oscilloscope: A Diegetic approach to synthesis and feedback,” throws light on the techniques he has developed to route luminous energies through an amplifier to then recover it using photodiodes and an oscilloscope in order to generate, in effect, Lissajous figures. These figures are also the base of American artist Derek Holzer’s recent work in “Vector Synthesis: An investigation into sound-modulated light.” His repurposing of the cathode ray tube beam of oscilloscope screens allows him to create vectorial visualizations:
Driven by the waveforms of an analogue synthesizer, the vertical and horizontal movements of a single beam of light trace shapes, points and curves with infinite resolution, opening a hypnotic window into the process by which the performed sound is created.
[Galleries] Light+Sound in Canada: A Panorama
Closing off the issue, we present a selection of works created in Canada over the last 15 years that explore the topic connecting this collection of articles. Light has long been an interest of composers in Canada. In 1985, Marcelle Deschênes and Alain Thibault collaborated around the theme of “primitive light” for the multimedia spectacle LUX. And in 1989, a concept of the Montréal-based artist Luc Courchesne was the inspiration for Francis Dhomont’s Chroniques de la lumière, an “impressionistic sonic version of visual elements.”
But artists have also appropriated the medium of light in order to compose with it on par with their audio work. Projects such as condemned_bulbes (Burton, Lakatos and Roy) and Music for Lamps (Basanta, Stein and Stein) follow in many ways a path that was opened up by Michael Vorfeld some 30 years ago. Adam Basanta, for example, explains that in Music for Lamps he approaches the mediums of light and sound as two “voices” within a musical discourse. The influence of musical thought is also clearly evident among those who invent devices such as those used in Patrick Saint-Denis’ Vertex, a robotic instrument that features light as an integral part. This is equally the case for Myriam Bleau, who, speaking of her Soft Revolvers project, says: “If music is movement, a flux of tension and release, it seems natural to articulate the visual and the kinetic using a musical approach.”
For others, light instinctively became an indispensable component following intensive periods of work for the stage. This is the case for Remy Siu and Martin Messier, both of whom exploit the video projector for its potential as a luminous source rather than for its customary usage. In his installation project Boîte noire, Messier materializes the normally “elusive” light in a three-dimensional structure made visible by means of smoke machines. Siu employs the same technique in new eyes — for [single] player, but here it is the performer who controls the sound and light with a “game mechanics” orientation. Finally, in addition to these two mediums, Chris Salter uses sensors and actuators in Haptic Field, an environment that blurs the perceptive boundaries such that visitors “sometimes confuse (or substitute) the light with the sound and vibration.”
Growth Induced by Exposure to a Light Source
The relation between sonic creation and the visual medium was already examined in earlier issues of eContact! on Biotechnological Performance Practice (14.2), DIY instrument building (18.3) or Videomusic (15.4). There is, however, very little available literature that specifically addresses the sound and light problematic.
The articles brought together in this issue demonstrate the importance of this relation in contemporary artistic practice and it is our hope that we have succeeded in contributing relevant reflections on the topic. Because a large number of the creatures that populate our planet are phototropic… and it would seem that this phenomenon of growth induced by exposure to a light source has not escaped many artists working in sound.
With this issue of eContact! we illuminate some artistic practices in which the artist is found to be creatively occupied behind the lighting rather than under the spotlight.
Montréal, 12 October 2017