Friday, April 18, 2008

Music as Image / Image as Music

I mentioned last post that the pairing of images and music can provide a useful catalyst for hearing (or seeing) more perceptively. More generally, the audio-visual axis provides an interesting perspective on similarities and differences between these two art worlds. In the interest of self-promotion, I'll use some of my recent video creations to explore this intersection.

There's a long history of comparing art to music, whether it's Debussy/Monet, Picasso/Stravinsky, Schoenberg/Munch, Duchamp/Cage, Rothko/Feldman, etc.. While these comparisons are useful, they're often presented in a way that glosses over an important difference: music is experienced as a series of events over time, while still images are taken in all at once. I'm not saying we can't still find lots of common undercurrents in such disparate media, but I guess I want tighter, more direct connections.

Of course, ballet and other dance forms have existed for centuries as ways to rethink music in "motion pictures," but film/video/animation provide rich possibilities that have only begun to be tapped, especially in contexts where the images serve the music more than the other way around. I recently created score visualizations to go along with recordings I'd made of canons from Bach's Musical Offering. In each case, there was a particular audio technique that inspired the project, but I ended up being at least as interested in the idea of presenting the music visually. An advantage of these short canons is that the entire score can be presented at once in a video frame - the music still needs time to unfold, but one can, in a sense, view each piece in one image, like a painting.

Thinking about musical entities almost always involves a balance between seeing both trees and forest; a typical form & analysis study (especially of the Schenkerian variety) is preoccupied with showing how an effective musical structure can be seen as an organic whole. We can't hear a piece all at once, but an analytical graph can let us see it at one glance - sort of. In the case of the crab canon, the score itself can be viewed this way. (One part plays the notes forwards, the other backwards).
The new little animated GIF below (ah, the underrated animated GIF) uses simple animation to reveal how your eyes/ears might process the score image above.

Listen here

Thus, the idea of seeing motion in a still image is, in a way, a normal experience for musicians. I've heard Jim Zingarelli, an art prof colleague, lecture several times on the idea of seeing direction in paintings as well. Generally speaking, a painting isn't as prescriptive as a musical score about how direction ought to be perceived, but it makes for an interesting comparison. Here's one of Jim's many paintings that is partially inspired by musical/alphabetic symbols:

Stanza 17

It's not hard to see this image as being in motion. [resisting temptation to animate...resisting temptation to animate...] When I created my "ambigram on the name of Bach" last week, I discovered that a fun way to present it was to make a little video in which the script unfolds in time. The purpose of the video was to show that the invertible image could be created by drawing identical patterns from two different directions. However, especially because the letters have a handscripted look about them, the video turns out to be a nice way of revealing the motion that's implicit in the still image.

One of my favorite features of the animation above [better version here] is that its Bach-ness isn't really evident until the letters are almost complete - for most of the drawing time, the symbols aren't recognizable. It would be harder to create that effect in music, mainly because we never get to hear the whole thing at once in the way we see a final cumulative image above. Experiencing the cumulative effect of a musical composition requires more complicated mental processing. I suppose a really perceptive listener might hear Bach's crab canon for the first time and, about 3/4 of the way through, think, "Hey, those voices are retrogrades of each other!" - but that would require comparing a current aural event to one just committed to memory, a much trickier task than recognizing a matching set of images right before one's eyes.

There are, of course, ways in which a composer can make us suddenly realize that something recognizable has been taking shape without our knowing it. We'll finish up with another recent video creation of mine, in which a recently realized image of Bach's face is slowly morphed back into the powdered wig context. In order to enhance the mystery of the "reveal," I added a soundtrack in which a heavily distorted Brandenburg #5 slowly comes into focus as the wigging takes shape. I'm not claiming it as a great compositional feat, but it is a useful analogy for how the letters of Bach's name are revealed in the animated ambigram.

Maybe one reason I like the idea of seeing music as image is that I'm a sightreader by nature - probably my best professional skill as a performer is being able to translate lots of notes I've never seen into music on the fly. It can really be a thrill to "watch" music go by in that way, even though I often have little conscious idea of how my eyes are talking to my fingers. Of course, little black notes aren't really music at all, any more than the letters B-A-C-H are the sound of someone's name, so here's an actual image of musical sounds. (Any guesses?)

(Not nearly as cool-looking as the Ries Rollercoaster.)


Dan B. said...

My comments are delayed by my own need to finish a paper, but I wanted to thank you for tackling the subject of music and image relationships. I think you're definitely right that we need to find a better way to integrate the two in terms of teaching, although I think art is more temporal than a lot of people give it credit for. I've posted a response of sort up on my blog: and hope it's of some use.



My response to Dan's interesting response is here.