Notes on Visual Music

Visual music is basically any animated image that is not purely representational.

In the last hundred years theatrical arts have dominated the use of animated images because they are highly profitable (movies etc). The use of pure visual narrative is often used as a dramatic device within theatrical works (special effects etc) It has also been used as a dramatic metaphor for physiological disorientation or representing alternate states of reality etc.

Commercially visual music technologies have found a minor niche in ‘music visualization’ – decorative light effects for night clubs and computer screens. This application of visual music reinforces the myth that color and sound have perfect equivalents! A lot of artists have wasted their entire lives trying to match colors to music. This is not possiblke due to the fundamental differences between sound and colour.

Sound if fundamentally digital… all music is a series of sounds and silences, but there is no such thing as ‘silence’ in visual perception. Black is a color. White is a color. All colors are seen surrounded by other colors. ‘Outside’ any shape, are more colors and more shapes.

Time has very different roles in music and visual art. All music is a linear sequence through time. On the other hand entire images are perceived instantaneously. Even animated images convey a lateral visual narrative at any point in time. Freeze a movie and in principal the image should make some sense (setting aside the specific limitations of your video player and interlaced video). Freeze music and all you get is silence or a cacophony of sounds that bare no resemblance to the music being played, or any music at all.

All forms of music visualization reliy on an arbitrary set of rules. The technology perceives sound X and triggers visual effect Y. Speed of computer response, layering multiple processes and randomization serve to disguise the arbitrary rules behind this technology. The worst part of music visualization is that the automation removes the human element and people see it as a mindless automatic light show, and not a ‘work of art’.

Of course projected light is not the only form visual animation needs to take. Using a physical medium such as paint or even sculptural elements provides an opportunity to feature the human element in the mix. With people actively involved, you have some chance of the art form being respected as an art form. More to the point, it provides an opportunity to allow direct interaction with the audience. Suddenly you have a fully fledged interactive performance art that keys into the interactive trend of most cultural activity in the digital age.

That’s the dream anyway. :)

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