Synaesthetic Syntax – Visible Vibrations: Steven Woloshen’s Direct Animations and Jazz

As a technique, direct animation has historically tended to exhibit an expressive relationship to its musical accompaniment. The direct animators Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Harry Smith were integral to the introduction of popular music, and most especially jazz music, into the classical paradigms of visual music. Although the use of jazz in works from the 1930s through to the 1950s can be attributed in part to historical factors such as the popularity of swing and jazz’s influence on other avant-garde art forms, I argue that there is a physical, rhythmic rapport between direct animation and jazz and that their distinctive sensorial effects merit analysis in their own right. Direct animation and jazz are both characterised by propulsive rhythms and are highly visceral, both in terms of how they are made and in terms of their especially aggressive appeals to the bodily senses. In addition, the non-narrativity of improvisational jazz—as opposed to classical programmatic music or the set structures and lyrics of pop songs—is reflected in the formal flexibilities of animated abstract imagery. This expressively dynamic marriage between the frenetic visual aesthetics of abstract direct animation and the improvisational, syncopated polyrhythms of swing and bebop jazz continues to be exhibited in the contemporary works of Canadian experimental animator Steven Woloshen. This paper will examine the kinds of responses that are elicited by the visceral, manual nervousness of directly scratched and painted images on celluloid in Woloshen’s ‘Spotlight Series’ (1982-2006), focusing in particular on their propensity for evoking feelings of synaesthetic and kinaesthetic empathy with forms of swing and bebop. The complex configurations of shifting lines, shapes, patterns and sounds that comprise Wolshen’s animations flood the senses, inviting immersive absorption on the part of spectators by evoking responses synesthetically distributed amongst the optical, aural, proprioceptive and tactile powers of perception. Not only do Woloshen’s works offer visualisations of what a sound looks like in terms of shape, colour and movement, but they also display two-dimensional spatial configurations that place them in relation to other sounds. In this way, Woloshen’s isomorphic graphic compositions are expressive of the phenomenological experience of listening to as well as moving to music. This paper investigates the idea that Woloshen’s works are examples of visual music where the impulsive inner forces of dance are expressed graphically by means of the direct animation technique.