Synaesthetic Syntax – Visual Music Through Media Archaeology

Despite the fact that an official definition of Visual Music as an art form is still somehow debated (Garro2012), in the last decades several worldwide exhibitions have been inspired by the idea of connecting sound and light under the common name of Visual Music (Ox2008). History is full of works in this direction: from the early color organs (vanHelden1994) to the cybernetic Musicolor Machine by Gordon Pask (Pickering2011), from the early experimental movies by Richter, Eggeling, Ruttmann, and Fischinger to the audiovisual creations on CRT screens by Mary Ellen Bute (Abbado2018), the audio-driven laser performances by Cross and Pellegrino (Collins2018), and the first animations by the Whitney brothers using analog computers (Youngblood1970) that anticipated modern digital softwares at the origin of the big audiovisual productions of festivals worldwide.

Although the concept of synaethesia is often adopted to describe these works, in the art world the word synesthesia has been widely misused and drifted from its original definition to identify any multimodal sensory experience such as live cinema or a VJ show (Evers2020). In this paper I describe my practice that goes back to a strict and somehow objective definition of synesthesia for Visual Music: when the same untranslated signal is sent to deflect a light beam to create images and to drive the coils of loudspeakers to produce sound.

I embrace the expressive limitations imposed by the direct translation of the same signal into light and sound in favor of the intrinsic gained coherence, avoiding any arbitrary juxtaposition of image and sound by the artists, often encouraged by the computational power of recent digital machines. Enveloping the audience in synchronous sound and light information visually reveals the underlying sound properties and geometries of sound that could otherwise remain obscure for the ears: frequency ratios, phase shifts, detuning and beatings, etc. I call this process visual listening: a deeper way of understanding sound through light (Novello2020).

To achieve perfect synchronicity I need tools that can exchange the same signals. The methodology at the base of my practice is media archeology: resurrecting and repurposing old media for the creation of live performances and contemplative installations (Zielinski2006). I am attracted to their aesthetic difference from the ubiquitous digital projections: fluid beam movement, vibrant intensity, infinite resolution, absence of frame rate, and line-based image. I also consider the environmental impact and the charm of repurposing obsolete devices. Finally, by exposing the public to the aesthetic differences between old and new devices, I invite them to reflect on the sociopolitical impact of technology, in a retrospective on technologization: what old means, and what value the new really adds.

I do not discard but embrace hybridization by combining the advantages of both eras: the fluidity and vibrancy of colors of analog light beams and the precision and replicability of digital control. I believe that a device that has been revived and hybridized in such way is capable of generating new aesthetic experiences for the audience impossible without considering our past and present technology at the same time.

Garro, D. 2012, From Sonic Art to Visual Music: Divergences, convergences, intersections. Organised Sound, 17(2).
Van Helden, A. and Hankins, T.L. 1994, Instruments, Osiris, 9, The University of Chicago Press.
Ox, J. and Keefer, C. 2008, On Curating Recent Digital Abstract Visual Music, http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/Ox_Keefer_VM.htm.
Pickering, A. 2011, The Cybernetic Brain, Sketches of Another Future, University of Chicago Press.
Abbado, A. 2018, Visual Music Masters: Abstract Explorations of Past and Present Artists – Skira.
Collins, N. 2006, Handmade Electronic Music, Routledge.
Youngblood, G. 1970, Expanded Cinema, Dutton.
Evers, F. 2020, The Academy of the Senses, Synesthetics in Science, Art and Education, Art Science Interfaculty Press.
Novello, A. 2020, Media Archeology-based Visual Music, accepted for publication on Musica/Tecnologia XV, Firenze University Press.
Zielinski, S. 2006, Deep Time of the Media, Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, MIT Press.