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visual music
an inquiry into the musical potential of the image

nederlandse versie


INTRODUCTION: MOVEMENT AND MUSIC


Before tackling our actual subject, we have to dispense once and for all with the nearly ineradicable idea that sound – and by extension music – is the natural appearance of movement. One becomes easily prey to such delusion when the non-moving image (sculpture, painting) is contrasted with music and not with moving visual art (film, video), as happens to be the case in the context of discussions on ‘the integration of the arts’. 

The equation of movement with sound – and by extension with music – may at least be called peculiar. Leaving apart the movements within the body (breathing, blood circulation, digestion), every movement is always and in all its dimensions visible, at least in principle (i.e. when it is not hidden, which means that it is potentially visible) – think of the movement of a leopard. Only a minority of movements, on the other hand, are audible. To begin with, many a movement is not audible at all: think of birds in the sky and fishes in the water. When audible, it is not always so: we only hear it when it is nearby. It suffices to refer to the masterly passage in Nietzsche’s ‘Morgenröthe’ where he describes how in the midst of the breakers on the rocks you see the sailing ship silently move over the waves. Conversely, on the sailing ship you hear the whistling of the wind in the rigging, whereas the breakers seem to silently rage against the cliffs …When movements are audible, we only hear fragments of it: of complex movements such as marching or trotting, we only hear the boots or hooves coming down. It appears that movement and sound are not really compatible. That has from way back been a problem in music: how to make music out of the movement of waves or falling leaves, flying birds (Schubert’s ‘Die Krähe’) or swimming fish (‘Schubert’s ‘Die Forelle’), nightfall or sunset – let alone the ‘movements of the soul’, music’s natural domain?

This is not the place to examine why music has nonetheless been the natural habitat of (foremost expressive) movement. Let us only remind of the fact that the sounds of music are experienced as an incitement to move, which not only propels ourselves, but in the first place the  imaginary beings thus conjured up. Music not only commands facial expressions, gestures and postures, but immobility as well – think of Mahler’s Mitternachtslied. Music not only conjures up the objective, optic appearance of a moving being, but in the first instance its subjective intention to move. That is why it always also renders the ‘sentence structure’ of the movement. More than any other art, music is able to articulate the unfolding of movement: with infallible certainty it not only indicates its beginning and end, but also every pause underway, every hesitation or every determination in its unfolding. All this cannot be deduced with equal certainty from the visual appearance of movements (see also: Mimesis and music).


MOVEMENT AND VISUAL ART


Of all the senses, the most appropriate to the perception of moving objects is the eye. Yet, paradoxically enough, whereas the mimetic technology has no difficulties in conjuring up the most diverse movements through sounds, it is far more difficult to render movement visually.

The most obvious solution is to restrict oneself to human movement, which can easily be rendered by actors or dancers. Far more difficult is conjuring up the movement of non-human beings and objects. For a long time, there has been no other possibility than resorting to the human body. Humans may be hidden in the objects that have to be brought to life: think of the Chinese dragons, the African masks, and the European giants. In the ‘Bauhaus’, abstract forms were brought to life through human supports (Schlemmers’ triadic ballet). Or human movement may be transferred to objects indirectly: the strings or the hand in the puppet theatre, Kandinsky’s abstract theatre, Depero’s ‘Progetto di scena mobile’. Or one might, finally, resort to machines: mechanically moved statues and automata: think Fellini’s Casanova dancing with an automaton, singing and fluttering birds, clocks with moving figures, evolving landscapes or skies, Depero’s ‘Complessi & plastica girante’ or ‘Complesso plastico colorato motorumoristica simultaneo di scomposizione a strati’, Tatlin’s rotating blade, Tingueley’s moving assemblages, Bury, and so forth. But it is only computer technology that makes it possible to make all kinds of robots.

Even more difficult is it to conjure up movement through a two-dimensional image. Up until the eighteenth century – leaving apart the shadow puppets in Java or the shadows in Plato’s cave – it has only been possible to make a two-dimensional image move through intervention of the hand, as with a kaleidoscope. More sophisticated is movement induced through the mechanics of a keyboard. Inspired through Newton, the Jesuit Louis-Bertrand Castel built a colour-keyboard in 1725. It consisted of two coloured discs with twelve colours, corresponding to the twelve tones of the scale. In 1757, an adept of Castel built a ‘eye-clavichord’ with five hundred candles behind a row of fifty boxes which opened when a key was struck, while at the same time a tone was heard. In 1879 Frédric Kastner succeeded in building a ‘pyrophone’: an organ with glass cylinders filled with gas that produced tones, which inspired the ‘light -organs’ developed by Brainbridge Bischop in 1888, Wallace Remington 1895, and a light organ with 4 x 7 coloured electric bulbs by the Futurists Corra and Geinnate. Ivan Vysjbegradsky designed a light dome for a ‘Temple of light’. In the thirties, complicated ‘spectaculars’ were developed with electric bulbs and neon light for advertising purposes. With all these colour- or light organs, the form is determined by the character of the source of light (the arrangement of the lamps) or by the screen on which the light is reflected (screen, wall, dome). There have been increasing efforts to have also the form change. This was realised in the ‘sonochromatoscope’ of Alexander Laszlo (coloured forms on turning discs projected on a screen behind a pianist), the optophonic piano of Baranoff-Rossiné built in the Wchutemas in Moscow in 1923 (a piano with coloured discs moved through keys), the ‘MobilColor Projectors’ of Dockum, the ‘Lumia’ of Wilfred, the ‘Lumigraph of Fishinger. Only the development of film offered limitless prospects. To begin with, also real movement could be rendered in moving images. Every constraint is lifted through special effects. Any imaginable being can be brought to life through animation. Animation may also be used to bring abstract forms to life, which is often called ‘visual music’ or ‘absolute film’: think of artists such as the Futurists Carra and Ginna, of Bauhaus people like Vic Eggeling, Walter Ruttmann, Oskar Fischiner, Hans Stoltenberg, Hans Richter and of Survage in France. In the sixties, a new generations falls in: John & Jams Whitney, Jordan Belson and Harry Smith. But above all the computer offers limitless possibilities, even when they often seem to be inversely proportional to the quality delivered. 

Also more primitive efforts must be mentioned: think of Esher or some forms of Op-art and holograms.

All these forms of moving plastic art are often combined with sound or music. This can be realised through a separate production of sounds (such as thunder in the theatre) or through music accompanying  a silent film. Soon, the sound-track is developed: the sound of movement and dialogue is added to the image. With moving abstract forms, it is mostly music that must fill he gap.


MOVEMENT IN NON-MOVING OBJECTS: DYNAMICS
 

But there is more. Movement can be understood as a the mere change of position (of the whole or parts) in space. But there is also something like ‘force’, ‘dynamics’, ‘will’ (intention). This kind of movement is to be found foremost in non-moving objects.

To begin with, non-moving objects cannot be grasped in one glance. The eye only sees the point on which it focuses. It has to scan its object – a face, a body. In doing so it focuses on points that attract the attention – the eyes, the lips – and hence follows a hopping trajectory over the object. The eye also wants to see the ‘lines’ that isolate figures from their background, and parts of the body from the background of the body as a whole. The eye cannot catch these lines in one glance either: it has to follow their course. The same goes for gradients (especially from black to white) that indicate ‘roundness’. Such ‘movement of perception’ induces us to perceive contours and surfaces as if they were moving. This is a first source of a ‘dynamic’ lecture of non-moving objects.

Objects are also susceptible to gravity. They may submit to it and come to rest on the earth's surface. But they also can struggle against it: as when plants grow towards the light of the sun, when trees pave their way to the light, when animals erect themselves on their legs. But it is above all man who, standing on his two legs, has to permanently hold his head and trunk in balance (Schopenhauer: marching as an postponed falling). A body may proudly erect itself against gravity, or desperately let itself hang. Through ‘anthropomorphising’ extension also lifeless matter may be experienced as being in rest (a boulder or a flat polder) or struggling against gravity (a rock, a volcano or a mountain). The same play of forces is at work in architecture: the horizontal architrave resting in all its breadth upon rising columns. A triangle is grounded with its base on the earth's surface while its two rising sides are striving upwards. Foremost with geometrical forms the movement of perception comes to endorse the movement of dynamics: the curves of a hill are read from the left to the right, and the sides of the triangle of a pyramid or a roof as an upward movement.

With living beings, already the structure of their bodies betrays the direction in which they will move: eyes and mouth are situated on a ‘front’. The mere orientation of their face indicates in which direction they are about to move, or to which object they are relating. Also the posture of their limbs betrays which movements they intend to perform: the paw is already slightly lifted up or the head recoils anxiously. Above all in man there are countless ‘intentional movements’ from which we can read movements forthcoming or just finished (see Freud's analysis of Moses). In that sense every body, even when it completely stands still, is one potential movement, of bundle of forces about to burst out in an action. 

To distinguish it from real movement, we should rather call this kind of movement ‘dynamics’. The term ‘visual music’ would only be misleading. 


THE RENDERING OF MOVEMENT IN NON-MOVING VISUAL ART


Immobile objects may be further dynamically charged when conjured up through a non-moving image.

The two-dimensional non-moving image is a whole that has to be scanned step by step by the eye. Therein, looking at an image resembles the reading of a text. The plane is read according to a standard itinerary: from the left to the right, from below to above and diagonally from left under to right above. This itinerary is further determined through the geometrical build-up of the plane. From way back, artists have been using this phenomenon to confer an extra dynamic to their paintings. It suffices to place one of the above mentioned movements (the movement of perception, the opposition against gravity, intention) on one of the above mentioned axes, to lend them additional dynamics. The effect may even be heightened by moving against the dynamics of the plane, as in Michelangelo’s God creating Adam. The reverse is also true: standstill or inwardness can be made more static by balancing dynamics on all the axes (static composition).

But the non-moving image can also render actually moving bodies: running, falling, flying and dancing beings or acting humans. Most suited is the culmination point of a given movement, when it ‘stands still’ for one moment, often as a transient pose with an expressive freight of its own: think of the moment when the receding arm reverses its movement to proceed to throwing (discobolos), of hips wiggling when dancing of stepping (Botticelli’s or Raphael’s three Graces), of the arm stretched out to summon up to combat (Delacroix).


TRACES AS VISUAL KINETIC IMPULSES


Already in the real world, movement can also be descried in its traces. Whoever sees the traces of the movement of a snake in the sand cannot help from reading the snake’s movements in it. This holds above all of human activity: we see the stroke of the knife in the notch. We see the writing of the hand in the loops of the handwriting – which is the basis of graphology. We see the laying of the bricks in their succession in a row. And we see the succession of columns in a gallery as if they have been put down as a whole. In the diagram of an earthquake below, the eye reads the movements of the needle:




 

In that sense, traces are transformed into kinetic impulses: impulses that provoke movement. They stir the irresistible need to repeat or recreate the movement to which they owe their existence. This is only strengthened through the scanning lecture of a row of columns, or a layer of bricks. 

TRACES OF THE MAKING OF THE IMAGE

 


This goes above all for the traces left by the making of the image. To be sure, not every creative process leaves its marks in the end product. A painted surface or the contours of a figure may totally dissolve into the image. But, even then do we read the natural gradients or lines as traces of the activity of the artist. We have seen how the contours and the undulations of the surface are being scanned by the eye. That they are now created by an artist really transforms their course into a movement. The artist may so design the surface or the contours that the movement becomes a real ‘flow’ animating the body – think again of the ‘movement’ in the arm of God creating Adam in the Sixtine Chapel. The effect is further enhanced when the stream coincides with a genuine movement, such as Venus’ mane undulating in the wind with Botticelli, or when the movement of a stride is endorsed by the flow streaming towards the point of the foot, as in Botticelli’s marvellous ‘Flora’ in the Primavera. There, the threefold descending flow (of making, of perception and of real movement) is further enhanced through Flora’s self-confident erect posture, opposing gravity. And, finally, the dynamics of the whole are further heightened through the downward dynamics of the line of the geometric grid that divides the rectangle in three parts: both foot and compositional line point to two thirds of the base of the rectangle. 

Thus is unfolded a synergy of forces bringing the immobile image to life. In this light, one can only look down pityingly on the countless efforts of the Futurists to render movement through piling up its multiple phases in one and the same image: think of Bragaglia’s photographs with multiple exposure, Balla, not to mention Russolo’s simply ridiculous ‘Music’.











 
The diverse phases are not read as a continuous movement but as a rhythmically articulated one.


INCREASING AUTONOMY OF DYNAMICS IN VISUAL REPRESENTATION


In the beginning, the artists tried to get rid of traces altogether, or, the put it more accurately: they let them match the even surface or disappear in the unbroken flow of the contour (da Vinci's 'sfumato'). This is not always possible: think of drawings, but foremost of copper engravings or etchings, where surfaces cannot but be rendered through lines. In handling such unruly media, the artist soon learned that additional expressive powers could be obtained through bringing the traces in the forefront. They now could be read as traces of the movement of the hand that produced them. In a first phase, the artist might accentuate the contours, already made fluent through idealising the model, through a line, however ‘invisible’ it may be (see again: Botticelli). An even stronger effect may be obtained when lines or strokes are deliberately placed in the forefront. This may be achieved through a synthetic summary of the separate lines of the real contour, such as the single line with which Matisse circumscribed his figures. More often, the contour or surface is divided in separate lines or strokes. Also here the traces of the making join the movements of their lecture and the many further forces at the disposal of the artist (Klee). A remarkable feat is the way in which Judith Schils succeeds in rendering the music emanating from the piano - or the psychic energy projected in it - in her series  'Pianos':
 




From the nature of the traces the character of their maker may be deduced: from the patient and poised movements on Dürer’s copper engravings to the transport in Van Gogh’s strokes.




 
 
The dynamics of the cuts or strokes endorses the overall expression of the representation.


AUTONOMY OF THE DYNAMICS OF CREATION


The increasing autonomy of the dynamics of creation comes to split the image in two parts: on the one hand it shows a visual representation, on the other hand it evokes the activity of its maker through the expressive traces of the creative process.

The rift may be restored in two ways. Either the artist continues to subordinate the traces to representation, or he cancels representation altogether and restricts himself to expression through traces as such. This latter solutions results in a kind of self-portraiture through the artist (Matiushin, Pollock). 









Undoubtedly, through such resigning the visual arts come to resemble music. Lines and strokes are visual traces, the counterparts of the tones produced on an instrument as audible traces of the activity of the player. And they equally partake of measure and rhythm: the lines of strokes may be of the same length and be located at equal distances, or they may vary in length and direction while being located at varying distances. The differences in ‘weight’, which in music are often indicated through loudness, may here be evoked through variations in the amplitude of the curves or through the ‘weight’ of the descending movement.

It seems that we here can – this time justifiably – speak of ‘visual music’. But there remains a crucial difference. Music does not evoke the activity to which it owes its existence: it is only a means of evoking the movements of an imagined being. In Schubert’s ‘Die Krähe’, the fingers of the pianist do not conjure up the movement of his fingers, but the movement of the wings of the crow that accompanies the walker to his grave. The dynamics of visual traces, on the other hand, are a rather primitive form of music: a form of music in which the sounds only evoke the movement to which they owe their existence. Even when the title ‘visual music’ might justifiably be conferred to visual traces, this is done so somewhat prematurely. We only have to deal with a preliminary stage of music. Van Gogh’s strokes are a portrait in the same way as the sound of marching boots are a portrait of soldiers marching.


DECORATIVE ART AS NON-MOVING VISUAL MUSIC


 

As soon as visual art resigns from the task of conjuring up a visual representation, it unawares comes to resemble the decoration on pottery, furniture, textile and architecture.

Strange enough, it is precisely in this domain – from way back excluded from the domain of art – that traces are distancing themselves from the activity to which they owe their existence. Take a motif such as meanders. No doubt, a meander is born out of a movement as simple as moving up and down a stylus in the clay. But the decorative purpose imposes a logic that is alien to the original operation: the movement has to be continued along the entire circumference of the pot, and its end must so join its beginning, that the meander seems to continue endlessly. Since this cannot be achieved in one single movement of the hand, the continuity of the end result is no longer a trace of a real movement. This is a first step in the emancipation of visual music: the movement that is conjured up is no longer the movement of the hand. Herein it comes to resemble the movements that are conjured up in music, which have equally nothing to do with the movement of the pianist’s fingers.

Precisely the logic of decoration engenders an increasing divergence between the movement of making and the movement conjured up through its traces. The emancipation does not stop here. A second meander may be so superposed over the first one that it comes to mirror the first one. In the result, it is not visible that the motif has been made through separate movements of the hand in two phases: both movements are read simultaneously as an uninterrupted and endless flow. The trace is still read as the trace of an activity, but it is no longer the activity to which it owes its existence. This is from the beginning so with wholes that come about through addition of operations on different levels. In a brick wall, there is the level of the succession of the bricks within the row and - on a higher level - the succession of rows piled up one upon the other. The movement of making is dissociated from the movement of reading: it no longer matters whether a gallery came about through piling up the drums of one column after another or whether first all the first drums were laid, and then the second ones, until all the columns could be crowned with a capital. We can read both movements separately at random.

In this respect decorative art is elevated to the level of music. Only here can we speak of a ‘visual music’ in the real sense of the word: both conjure up movements that differ from those of whom they are the traces. Even when the difference is not so big as between the moving fingers and the wings of the crow in music.


INTERNAL CONSTRAINTS ON VISUAL MUSIC


In the decorative arts, the development of a genuine visual music is hampered by an internal limiting factor. Let us first have a closer look at the traces of making in images that conjure up visual representations. We only read separate movements in one breath: where the line or the stroke ends, also the evocation of the movement stops. We can proceed to the reading of another moving element, but it is not determined which trace should be read next: when reading Van Gogh’s strokes I can begin wherever I like, and continue wherever I like. This goes especially when the artist resigns from conjuring up a representation. The traces of his activity are piled up into a kind of ‘clouds’: clouds of angles with Picasso’s cubist works, clouds of plusses and minuses with Mondrian, clouds of dots with Agosto Giocametti or Matiusjin, clouds of ‘lasso-movements’ with Pollock.




 

The absence of a linear reading can be remedied through so linking up the separate elements that a compelling sequence of reading is imposed. The separate elements may be placed on a horizontal row, as the decorative arts do from way back. The separate movements are then absorbed in an endless flow as in a garland or a string of beads and all kinds of friezes.
 





The most obvious way of having such succession continue endlessly, is to curb it around the surface of a cylinder, such as the surface of an amphora or a string of beads.

 



 
On a flat surface, though, the élan of the movement inevitably comes to stop at the edges. A primitive means of letting the movement continue nonetheless, is to prolong the surface. This solution is chosen by many a painter who wanted to produce ‘visual music’, without having properly understood the problem (Vking Eggeling Horizontal-vertikal-Orchester I 1919/1929; Richter: ‘Fuge’ 23 (1923/76) and ‘Orchestration der Fläche’ (1923).

Far more appropriate is to so curb the direction of the succession that it can be continued within the plane. There are many methods. In a first series of solutions the movements are arranged around a centre.




 


Another method consists of piling up increasingly bigger shapes around one and the same centre (Klee: ‘Polyphon definiertes Weiss; Albers).









Or one might proceed to using different levels, as with writing letters on a paper, or with brick walls consisting of rows of bricks. In the latter case, the linear succession is interrupted through an articulation in ‘rows’ or ‘lines’. The repetition of elements within the rows is mirrored in the piling up of rows into a surface (Klee’s chess-board motives).





But also such continuation has its limits: once the surface is covered, the movement comes to an end. Another method of realising movements on different levels is to consider parts of the plane as another surface, wherein a new rhythm is installed. This is the case when a ceiling is divided into ‘caissons’, each with a rhythm of their own. Different rhythms may also be combined on one and the same level: mirroring meanders, combinations of two or more different lines or series of elements (Klee).

A complex solution consists of producing new surfaces through making lines cross: the rhythm of the lines engenders a rhythm of shapes (Klee, Kupka).




 

Wherever several movements are running together, on the same or on different levels, one can speak with some reserve of ‘polyphony’ (Klee). But this is a mere metaphor. Even when there is more than one movement at the same time, these movements are not at all melodies, and their reciprocal relation is governed by totally different laws than in genuine musical polyphony.

All these solutions allow to continue the movement on a higher level. But they eventually lay bare another weakness of visual music. Again: when reading such a hierarchic whole, one can begin on whatever level. It is not determined where the movement begins, and where it has to continue. Also the tempo can arbitrarily be chosen. That is why visual music lacks one of the most powerful characteristics of audible music: the synchronous - communal - reading of movement through all the listeners.

On top of that, aural music is able to render the course of time as an organic movement that unfolds from a beginning, through a climax, to an end. Music achieves this through the use chords. It suffices to listen to the beginning sentence from the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony to convince oneself that music is more than a succession of kinetic impulses. From the very first note onwards, we feel that this is the beginning of an entire period, how it will unfold and how long it will go on. The mere rhythm as such itself might be visualised as follows:


  _ . . _ _ _ . . _ _ _ . . _ _ _ . . ___ _ . . _ _ _ . . _ _ _ . . _ _ _ . . ___ 


This is an exact rendering of the duration of time, but what is evidently lacking is the ‘soul’ of the movement, its 'pulse'. This wonder is achieved through harmony, which has no visual equivalent. That is why, in the visual dimension, we can start and stop wherever we like. In music this is from the beginning excluded.

In non-moving visual music, the effect of harmony can only be hinted at through the propensity to articulate geometrical figures. A line that goes up and down has extremities and a centre. Every time the movement passes through an extreme or a centre, it has performed a ‘period’. Yet this can not remedy the shortcoming that the beginning as well as the end must be arbitrarily chosen and that the movement can go on perpetually. Nowhere is this so evident as in the (round or edged) spiral: it can go on inwards and outwards, as long as you like.


EXTERNAL CONSTRAINTS ON VISUAL MUSIC


As we have seen, the continuation of a movements on a plane has to necessarily end up in the development of structures more complex than the single line that has to be continued. Such complex configuration threatens to no longer be read as a trace of movement: they rather come to impose themselves as figurative wholes.

That goes in the first place for the efforts of modern artists that were out at elevating painting to the level of music. In Pollock’s paintings, the traces of movement are dissolving into a kind of tangle – and a tangle is a figure (just like cosmic streams, nebulae and so on). Nowhere is this so apparent as in Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie-woogie’: the squares are added up to rows, and these rows in their turn combined into a chess-board pattern, which is supposed to remind of the map of New York:




 
 
But also pure decorative art is all too readily filled in with figuration. A curve is naturally transformed into a snake, a centripetal motif into a flower, and so on. Whence the proliferation of foliage, grotesques, snakes and dragons, not to mention the vegetal motifs in Jugendstil:
















While dissolving into representation, the dynamics of decorative motifs is caught in an immobile pattern. Exemplary in fire-work: the explosion leaves traces that develop into lines, but their momentum is suspended as soon as we read the whole as a flower.





And so we have come full circle: we are back at the very point where the trace released itself from the fetters of representation…

Even when it is foremost in the non-representative, ‘abstract’ art that (non-moving) visual music can flap its wings, it does not really get off the ground. Its flight is broken in that the dynamic flow has of necessity to dissolve into a hierarchical organisation of time on different levels. Furthermore, the trace is all too readily absorbed in a representation where its dynamics are contained. Aural music easily gets around such danger precisely because movement as a rule is not audible, so that the sounds conjuring up movement cannot remind of some audible appearance. Through such detour, we inadvertently understand why music has become the natural means of conjuring up movement…

Only when visual music is aware of its constraints can it take a higher flight. And it can do so only through subordinating itself to, if not disappearing behind precisely the so scorned representation. Rather than breaking its élan, representation really emancipates visual music: it saves the traces from involuntarily dissolving into arbitrary representation. Precisely through operating within the confines of a pre-existing representation can traces be read as pure traces – as visual music – think of Dürer or Van Gogh. And the cleavage within the image can be mitigated when the visual dynamics are subordinated to the object represented, as when the traces of the painter’s hand are used in a self-portrait.

This explains why the dynamics of non-moving representational images is so much stronger than in the art of mere traces. It suffices to compare Rubens’ ‘Fall of the Angels’ with some Pollock to convince oneself of that truth.




















And that comparison also teaches another lesson: only through incorporating visual music can representational art compensate for the absence of subjective ‘intention’ (‘Wille’) in every visual appearance. Only thus can the image unfold to a completed visual art, wherein real movement, movement of perception, struggle against gravity, intentions and traces of making, join in a meaningful polyphony. A further advantage is that the organic flow of time, which music is able to render through harmony, can here be realised through representation. In this sense painting has always been ‘music’. It is no coincidence that painters came to admire music precisely when they wanted to shrug off the yoke of representation, and in so doing precisely broke the backbone of its genuine ‘polyphonic’ character.


MOVING VISUAL MUSIC


In the moving two-dimensional image (film, video) there are no problems with rendering a moving object. But the moving visual arts nonetheless also resort to providing ’visual’ kinetic impulses.

When the body is marching, rowing, dancing, its movements function as kinetic impulses. The advantage of visual movements is that they contain all the information that is needed for the imitation of the movement. Audible impulses are far more vague: like the baton of the director, they only indicate the beginning of the movement. Further information about the movement to be performed has to be conveyed through additional audible signs (volume, pitch and so on). On the other hand, sound has the advantage that you do not have to see a movement to be able to imitate it synchronically.

Just like the drone of the boots can be replaced with the beating on a drum, also a visual movement can be replaced with a neutral visual impulse: paradigmatically in the baton of the conductor, which is after all a purely visual item. But also a electric lamp will do. As soon as kinetic impulses are thus isolated from the body, movements may be conjured up that are different from the ones to which they owe their existence.

There is, hence, also a – this time moving – visual music, that has been elevated to the level of audible music. Here, all the constraints on the unfolding of time imposed on non-moving visual music are lifted. No longer is it necessary to break up time in different hierarchical levels, nothing opposes a perpetual flow of time. It is also conceivable that additional information about the kind and character of the movement could be provided through variations in the source of light. We could give different colours to bulbs and rays of projected light, or we could vary their shape, and so on. But precisely the development of a technology for enhancing the expressive powers of moving visual music would again engender the temptation to interpret the visual impulses as representations. Suppose you would try to render the ‘beat’ of a movement through a succession of circle, square and triangle. You would be in danger of representing the movement of three separate ‘actors’ rather than as moments of one and the same movement. And, last but not least, even when moving visual music has a beginning and an end, never will it be able to let us feel from the very beginning how the flow of time will unfold. Although there is something that might be called ‘a chord of colours’, such a chord is merely an isolated, static given. The terms ‘chord’ or ‘harmony’ are rather misleading metaphors. For, in music, chords are inherently related to other chords: the appearance of one chord compellingly calls for the appearance of another one. There is no visual counterpart to the propelling force of chords and their succession. As opposed to non-moving visual music, moving visual music even cannot resort to geometrical logic to provide an equivalent for the overall articulation of time.

Thus the system remains a poor one and it can nearly elevate itself above the primitive level of dance. The constraints are not merely technical, they are inherent in the medium itself. Precisely therefore, moving visual music cannot do without audible music: just imagine a dance-temple where everybody is moving on the rhythms of a light-show devoid of music. Music plays the same role for moving visual music as representation does for non-moving visual music. And that reminds us of the fact that moving visual music is able to synchronise movement and to impose its tempo to all viewers, which is impossible in non-moving visual music.

Movement is not always articulated. Also gradual shifts are conceivable: think of the change in colours in a sunset, the paradigm of most of the plastic artists that wanted painting to parallel music. They were out at freeing colours from the fetters of shape and would have let them change like the colours in a sunset (Remington). They overlooked that colour is unconceivable without form: also in a sunset do colours have forms. The equivalent in music for such gradual shifts are glissandi for pitch, change in timbre, changes in volume.


CONCLUSION


So, there really is something that may be called ‘visual music’. There are even two kinds of it: non-moving and moving. But, due to inherent constraints, they never will develop into full-fledged autonomous branches of art. Non-moving visual music naturally courts visual representation or design (pottery, textile, tapestry, architecture) and moving visual music is doomed to remain a complement to audible music, if not a mere extension of it.


© Stefan Beyst, November 2001

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Background to this text:      stefan beyst: theory on art



 
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