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Conversation between Alex and Stephen (prev top next)

2007feb07

#1, visually emotional narrative

Alex,

You ask whether a visually emotional narrative could emerge from musical structure alone, as it does aurally, but in the next sentence you say that the purpose of your work is to develop a visual experience that places the role of music at its center.  Was the first question rhetorical, or are you straddling the fence?  Assuming it's not ...

I think the answer is yes, as long as you're willing to define "musical structure" in a way that's abstract enough that it could be expressed as adequately visually as it is aurally.

For example, the opening of Beethoven's fifth symphony could be abstracted as "three short ones that are all the same followed by one longer one that's different."  That's pretty small-scale, but it's structure.  Is it emotional?  I think so (to the extent that music is emotional --- which is a separate question); it's only a single atom or molecule of an emotional narrative, but it has an emotional tone, one that is distinct from, say "one long one followed by three short ones" --- more serious, for example.  Of course, a tiny motive is a different thing than a symphony.  Could a visual narrative achieve as much as an aural one?  I think the answer is "yes, but."

A musical narrative doesn't exist in a vacuum.  To understand (and feel) a Beethoven symphony, you need a certain degree of fluency in its idiom.  There are neural mechanisms that allow us to distinguish, without training, consonance from dissonance (in some contexts), but Beethoven's use of consonance and dissonance depends much more on learned meanings of pitch relations than on raw perceptions.  If there were to be, ex nihilo, a visual composition comparable in scope to a Beethoven symphony (but as foreign to us as a Beethoven symphony would be to a person who'd never heard music), we simply wouldn't have the familiarity with its idioms to understand it.  We might be amazed (and certainly awe is an emotion), but that's a different thing than understanding the narrative intent of the composer.

There's another possibility, though: using a visual idiom that already exists.  This is not a complete solution, because our contemporary visual idiom is largely representational, and does not map one-to-one to musical idiom, but it's a place to start.  The visual language needs to grow and evolve with the art that's communicated in that language.

However, there's more to "musical structure" than just ... structure.  A piece of music is not just a set of mathematical relations.  It is also the effect those relations have on us when they're embodied in musical sounds ... and sounds have affects.  Just as the color red can only be known by experiencing the color, musical sounds can only be known and felt by hearing them (though, of course, in both cases, the memory of the experience is also an experience).  So, visual music will always be distinct from aural music.  Of course, the distinction could be blurred: just as I can read a score an "hear" the music in my head, it should be possible for a person to watch visual music and imagine sounds.  But for these sounds to be the ones intended by the composer, the listener would have to be very fluent in the idiom.  I don't think this is impossible; for example, if you knew me personally, you could imagine my voice as you read these words.  But the average literate person's facility in verbal language is well beyond the average person's facility in musical language (being able to hear a score when reading it is the exception), and our visual language is only now being born.

I don't mean to suggest that I want to develop a visual language that exists apart from music; I don't.  I'm too much a musician to be passionate about a mute art.  But even if I wasn't interested in music as a permanent companion to abstract animation, I would still chose it for now, because people's understanding and love of music provides leverage.  Was it Stravinsky who complained that when he attended concerts he didn't know what to do with his eyes?  In any case, our eyes are often free to do something else when we're listening to music; opera and ballet take advantage of this, but abstract animation has the potential for being more satisfying visually than either (though the human form can be pretty compelling).  And: music provides a context, a frame of reference in which a visual language can be taught.  If a musical event has a certain meaning (within the idiom of a certain composition) and we place a visual event in parallel with it, the audience will associate the two, and begin to expect the visual event to function the way the musical one does.  If the visual event is well-designed, this association will be satisfying, and thus more memorable than if it were arbitrary.  Using music as a platform, a springboard for developing an abstract visual musical language is very practical, because people already listen to music, and they like forming associations.  It's a natural.

S.

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