Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Seeing Music

I'm a big believer in finding ways to create visual analogues of musical ideas. This is partly just an outgrowth of my interest in analogical thinking; as I've mentioned many times before, Douglas Hofstadter's explorations of Artificial Intelligence have been deeply concerned with how analogy-making is a fundamental component of human thought. Thus, it's only natural that one would try to find extra-musical ways of expressing the meaning one finds in musical sounds.

Of course, the connections between the visual and the aural can go both ways, but I'm particularly interested in visual analogues that help to focus the listener's aural skills. This turns out to be a tricky business. Maybe I'm unusual in this regard, but even as a trained musician who loves to listen attentively, I find that my primary focus tends to drift towards the visual when confronted with an AV pairing. I admire both of the Disney Fantasia movies (I actually prefer the less lauded 2000 edition), but inevitably the music tends to function more as accompaniment to the animated stories - nothing wrong with that, but I'm intrigued by the idea of visuals that keep drawing the ear back to the music. The best case scenario is when such visuals serve as catalysts to a more perceptive kind of listening.

Here's a surprisingly good example of that:

This ad (hat tip to Elaine Fine) for the Zurich Chamber Orchestra is way cool technically. (I need to get my hands on the software they used. I've imagined doing this kind of thing, but that kind of 3D imaging isn't just drawn frame by frame.) It's lots of fun to watch, but I also think it does a great job of leading the viewer back to the music, partially because the barebones visuals are so focused via the wispy black-lines-on-white-background; and, specifically, because the focus is on the musical notes. Part of me wishes they'd been a little more creative in choosing which notes to spotlight (the initial tight focus on an accompanimental violin part is odd), but the vertiginous thrill of the rollercoaster ride is effectively tied to the pace of the music. Note that by "pace," I don't mean that the tempo changes as the notes climb slowly and then rush downwards; rather, the visuals suggest something about the building tensions and headlong releases built into the feel of the music. Ideally, the viewer will have the sense that he/she is inside the orchestra or, better yet, inside the "great emotions." Whether it works as an ad I can't say for sure, but it definitely makes me want to hear more of this music.

And what is this music? Well, the ad doesn't tell us. It took some searching, but I finally determined this must be from the 2nd symphony of Ferdinand Ries, a student and associate of Beethoven. (I'm not sure I'd ever heard of Ries, but I finally found a vague web reference connecting the name to the video and connected the dots from there.) If I could download this recording right now, I probably would, just to see if the rest of the music is this captivating. It's true that the video above will be circulated mainly because its visuals are so clever, but I think this kind of thing can also serve as a catalyst for engaged listening.

I have all sorts of grand visions of how that could play out on a bigger scale, but that's for another day.

1 comment:

Catalyst said...


I've watched both Fantasias, many years ago, but truthfully, I wouldn't watch them again. It's like you said - the music is very secondary to the animation. I disliked having certain images and stories imposed on the music.

Now, I know there are a lot of people who experience music by 'imagining a story' to go along with it. I've strangely never been able to relate. I experience music on a completely non-visual level. Is anyone else like this?? Anyway, I simply dislike having the visual of Donald Duck whenever I hear Pomp and Circumstance now, or an animated drummer for Rhapsody in Blue. It forces my experience of that music into a certain slot. (Despite all this, I still appreciate the way Fantasia made some of this music more accessible and familiar to so many.)

I was impressed with the ad because, again, like you said, it does a great job of following the pace, or the contour of the music. And it was a relief for me to not be visually imposed on.