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SYNAESTHESIA FOR YOUR TV
By John Diliberto
Visual music experiences from Steve Roach, Philip Glass, Robert Rich, Michael Stearns, BT, and Fritz Heede
It's a cliche to ask a musician if they see images in their music, but I've certainly asked it as much as anyone. I've gotten answers on both sides of that question. It always surprises me that some musicians claim to have no visual imagery at all. But usually, especially with the music heard on Echoes, musicians have compositions that are rife with patterns, colors, archetypal symbols and fantasy images. Just like sixties lights shows, musicians see movements in their heads when music goes into their ears. And how often have you seen critics like me use terms like cinematic and wide-screen to capture the visual imagery some music provokes.
Photo by P.O.E.M. Musikverlag
German synthesist Klaus Schulze called his 1975 album, Picture Music, to capture the effect of his evocative, side-long journeys. I've interviewed a myriad of musicians who've talked about composing soundtracks for imaginary movies.
And how often have you seen critics like me use terms like “cinematic” and “wide-screen” to capture the visual imagery some music evokes? These days, many musicians aren't waiting for imaginary movies. They're working with digital video artists to create a marriage of visuals and music.
This is, of course, not new. The meeting of music and imagery goes back to at least Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou. Made in 1929, it was a silent film, but even then they recognized it needed music. They would play Richard Wagner's "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, and two Argentinian tangos when it was screened.
It wasn't quite an MTV moment, but it was a step and there have been many of them in recent years as video and computer animation technology become cheaper and more widespread. There's a deeper merging of music and imagery that had its beginnings in the early 1980s. Synthesist Michael Stearns and minimalist composer Philip Glass each created some of the most mind bending convergences of music and visuals.
and Philip Glass
Philip Glass did it with his trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi, all directed by Godfrey Reggio. Stearns did it with Chronos and several subsequent Imax films. I'm not talking about conventional soundtrack underscores, but musicians working intimately with directors, animators, and video artists to unfold a new world of sound and vision. The eye is a bully and wants to dominate, but these artists make the music equal to the visuals.
Ron Fricke, the director of Chronos, was the editor on Koyaanisqatsi, Glass’s first collaboration with director Reggio. He says the film and music were inextricably bound together in Koyaanisqatsi.
"It's very repetitive and actually fit the concept of Koyaanisqatsi very well," he recalled. "But for Koyaanisqatsi it had to be something that had that kind of jagged edge in it like the people rushing up the escalator, for instance. The music is really cooking there. And the music was mesmerizing to work with as an editor. I remember I was having trouble sleeping at night because I couldn't turn the soundtrack off in my head. I'd hear it over and over again."
Of course, there are many who would say that's the natural state of Philip Glass’s music, but I wouldn't be one of them. His scores for the Reggio films were richly varied. Koyaanisqatsi was a kinetic free-fall with an ultramodern sheen but also an underlying sense of ancestry and melancholy. Powaqqatsi's soundtrack represented the more global aspects of that film with guest appearances from Foday Musa Suso on kora.
Glass's score is full of heroic affirmation and poetic longing.
Scene from Naqoyqatsi
(Echoes On-Line subscribers: listen to Philip Glass talk about his film scores)
Ron Fricke worked a similar synergy with Michael Stearns's score to Chronos. That film featured time-lapsed shots of exotic architectural sites around the world, from Egypt to Europe to America. It was accompanied, and often driven, by Michael Stearns's soundscapes, which are more involved with texture and mood than melody and rhythm, although he puts just enough of both in there to maintain interest and momentum. Like the Reggio-Glass collaborations, the music is inextricably melded to the images, although it's quite an experience on its own. (Echoes On-Line subscribers: listen to an interview with Michael Stearns)
Stearns is a master of soundscape composition, as is Steve Roach. Over the years, he's worked with video projects, but his most ambitious is the recent DVD, Kairos, loosely translated from the Greek as "the time is now." Roach threads together several video artists with distinctive styles, weaving their compositions through a seventy plus minute, nonstop soundscape. Like Roach's music, you're meant to be immersed in the environment. The imagery starts out conventionally enough with Steve Lazur's thunderstorms and desert southwest landscapes which have been part of the Roach metaphorical oeuvre for two decades. But then it moves off in the undulating fractal liquid images of Steven Rooke (seen on Roach's Body Electric cover), the decontextualized ocean creatures of John Wadsworth where jellyfish and sea anemones become even more surreal than they already are through colorations and framing, and the crystal computer mandalas of John Vega which work like animated Rorschachs. (View a sample).
Except for a few moments, there's little event-for-event synchronicity. Roach's music flows from Body Electric-style grooves to techno-tribal stomps and lurid, churning atmospheres before concluding with a Structures from Silence-like sequence transformed by his electric rhythms that sound like a hive of insects drumming in your head.
"I didn't want something that was like a screen saver, triggering off the beat," explains Roach, who has begun using some of these visuals in his concert performances. "I wanted a contrast to what you were hearing, something that would mate with the music but wouldn't force itself upon the concert viewer, but at the same time, having an element that expands and takes you out of the sense of 'what's that guy doing up there?'."
(Hear Steve Roach discuss his music influences and favorites with John Diliberto in The Echoes Chamber)
Among the compelling artists on Kairos is Lynn Augstein. Working with light projections, she creates diaphanous sails of color that shift like cirrus clouds in inky space or flow like water gently ripping on a pond. On her own DVD, Borealis, patterns morph and dissolve in free flowing winds as colors shift from dark palettes to translucent pinks and blues (View a sample). The ambient music, by Steve Roach, David Parsons, Augstein's partner, Dwight Loop and others, isn't synchronized to the visuals at all. It ranges from shimmering glides by A Produce to David Parsons' ethno-electronica, but rarely rises to a pulse.
Kairos and Borealis work in the arena of pure abstraction. The images are amorphous and usually unmoored or uprooted from the real world, as in the case of Wadsworth's work, which takes natural forms as their original source material. Fritz Heede and John Banks' DVDs, on the other hand, take the natural world and turn it into a surrealist ride. The pair have created two videos, Illuminated Manuscripts and Ritual Path. (Read a review of Illuminated Manuscripts).
John Banks mixes nature cinematography and stills with computer animation where doors open in the middle of one landscape and cascade you into another. A chair is enveloped by vines in a Magritte-like moment while ghostly figures wander through a shimmering, polarized landscape in another
On Illuminated Manuscripts, Fritz Heede created a global music leaning toward the Middle East that synchronized perfectly with the images. You were literally rocketing from one scene into another on the synchronous drive of music and visuals.
Ritual Path maintains many of the same thematic and visual sensibilities, although the music isn't quite as locked to the visuals.
Both Heede and Banks say that was intentional, but it makes Ritual Path slightly less kinetic as visual music, though separately the images and music are equally as powerful as Illuminated Manuscripts. Each disc has ample additions, including special ambient re-mixes of the music and videos.
(Echoes On-Line subscribers: listen to an interview with Fritz Heede and John Banks)
Robert Rich (photo: David Agasi)
Composer Robert Rich and artist Daniel Colvin also shared a close association. Like many of these projects, their Atlas Dei began as something else and was expanded into a full length DVD.
Rich says that even before they met, Colvin would listen to his music while he drew, but once they got together on the project, music and visuals began to cross over with each other.
Scene from Atlas Dei, by Daniel Colvin
You can experience that synergy in Rich's compelling score as it moves through the imagery, from deep space undulations to soaring sequencer tracks topped by his spiraling lap steel guitar solos.
Atlas Dei begins with a quote from Albert Einstein, emerging out of a deep black background:
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.
From those words, Atlas Dei slowly morphs into kaleidoscopic colors and imagery of the ancient past and future imaginations. Recalling the rich overlays of Peter Greenaway's film, Prospero's Books, Colvin uses mostly still photography and images but sets them in motion through computer manipulation. Mixing Leonardo Da Vinci-like charts, maps and schematics from antiquity with nature scenes and airbrushed mandalas spinning in layered landscapes, Atlas Dei moves through the archetypal and futuristic as images dissolve through each other.
There is no real narrative to Atlas Dei. "It's the story of the human mind trying to make sense of the environment and an attempt to understand our place in the universe," explains Rich. "Atlas Dei, means a map of God and it's looking at how we look at the world."
While Kairos and Borealis revel in abstraction, creating ambiences removed from the world, Atlas Dei takes the reality of the world and unzips it to fathom its mysterious designs. (See a sample).
In the 1980s and 90s, Miramar released a series of videos called “The Mind’s Eye.” They'd collect visual images, usually from commercial media and demonstration videos, edit them into themes and set them to music. It was eye candy, though often compelling.
You can see a bit of that aesthetic in BT's This Binary Universe. Released in 2006, the music of This Binary Universe is a masterpiece of Enoesque melancholy as simple melodies evolve through an electro-orchestral palette of mechanical marches, minimalist hymns and pastoral dreamscapes. It's an album that seeks out joy and redemption, but not without traveling through the dark.
And you can see that on the companion DVD. BT collected a group of artists who created videos for his music, ranging from glorified screen savers to insect robots flying through space. The infinite, Escher-like cogs, gears, spirals and mandalas of "1:618" by Scott Pagano are a wonder of abstract symmetry that's like sliding into the bowels of The Matrix. Jeff Nentrup and Gabe Watkins's "Dynamic Symmetry" with its Mardi Gras robots, recall the old Mind's Eye videos of yore. (Echoes On-Line subscribers: listen to an interview with BT)
Image by Gabe Watkins from "Dyanamic Symmetry"
None of these artists are working in the MTV video arena. There aren't a lot of venues for their art outside of DVD sales.
The Harmony Channel is a recent attempt to bring this music to the cable world, using many of these discs as on-demand video. They were on Comcast for a moment but are now working with an internet model. Their concept is videos as an aural/visual soundtrack, like moving paintings with sound.
I'm not sure most of these artists conceive their work this way. Instead, they're looking for a more dynamic, sensually engaging, intellectually compelling exploration. For the best of them, it's not just images accompanied by music, or music reinforced by images, it's a synergistic and synaesthetic experience. Most of these works are scored in 5:1 surround, with BT's This Binary Universe making the most of that process. But they all create an immersion experience. Just turn out the lights, turn on the video screen and turn up the volume to be absorbed into another world.
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