This paper grew from a larger challenge to develop a design theory and practice of musical instruments with cultural resonance. A major difficulty with this problem is that canonical musical instruments and musical instrument forms are so old that no design rationale is available. This perhaps explains the related challenge that this question has not been considered part of the disciplines of musicology. Musicologists consider this in the sphere of the organology. Organologists develop taxonomies based on construction methods, materials and sound reproducing mechanisms and suggest this question belongs to historians. Historians demur pointing out that there work usually requires a text and such texts are rare for most of the canonical musical instrument forms which are thousands of years old. The strategy that resulted in this paper is to look at instruments for visual music, most of which emerge in the last hundred years or so–specifically live solo music practice.
Analysis of three examples of live solo visual music practice will be presented: Cenzontle by Roberto Morales; SoundPainter by Diane Douglas and Arduino Video Installation by Sabine Gruffat. Although materially and structurally quite different these pieces have some interesting features in common - the visual and sonic material is controlled concurrently by a single performer and certain objets trouvés (Found Art) are a key organizing element.
All three pieces were well received (e.g., Cenzontle won a Bourges Prize) and the performers have generously shared the technical details of their realization and their writings about them.
Since concurrently performed solo visual music is still relatively rare it may be too early to make useful, general conclusions about the practice so the goal of this paper is to use these examples as case studies to elucidate some methodological approaches and axes of analyses to eventually contextualize this growing field.
Methods of Visual Musicology
The scarcity of visualmusicologists and musicology of recent technology based works in general results in some specific methodological challenges and opportunities. There is the problem of the authority of the author which in this case rests on an intimate knowledge of the production means and methods of the pieces to be analyzed and not on formal qualifications as a musicologist.
Analysis techniques need to be adapted to the particular perimusical objects of study which in the case of these improvised and interactive works do not look like traditional western music scores. These perimusical objects include the gestural controllers, signal flows, software, schematics, staging etc.
One common analysis approach (well represented in this visual music conference) is to situate works in a lineage that includes the usual suspects: Kandinski, Fischinger, Richter, Moritz, Smith, Whitney. This approach is not very productive for the three works to be presented. We can connect one composer (Douglas) to Kandinsky because synthesthaesia is a key motivation to her work. Another composer (Gruffat) is well versed in experimental film and therefor familiar with the visual language of early abstract film and visual music. The third composer (Morales) has experienced in what we might now call intermedia ensembles. None of these connections yield much of interest to say about the actual works and none of these artists self-identify as visual musicians. Several strong cues in the sound and its performance specifically point away from a lineage approach - or at least one that starts with these composers and their pursuit of abstraction. First, there is no attempt to disguise the means of production - a common tactic in the pioneers of visual music. On the contrary the three works specifically celebrate the means of production and the copresence of performer and audience.
Performing Objects and Legibility
This suggests one useful analytic frame: the performed object and in particular we can place the works in a space organized by the distance in space and time from gesture to image/sound outputs and the ratio of the number of animated objects and animators an approach pioneered and illustrated by Stephen Kaplin (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/the_drama_review/v043/43.3kaplin.html). When we apply this analytical frame to visual music which is not performed we can see the difficulty abstractionists negotiate trying to bleach their works of character and narrative. Audiences understand there is a wizard behind the curtain. Contemporary audiences certainly understand many of the sound and image synthesis methods even if they don't master them. For example, various mirror symmetries are a common motif we see in visual music and abstract film . This is legible and has been embodied by anyone who has used a kaleidoscope. We also notice that many of the "abstract" forms in visual music are interpreted as celestial - the obvious theater for geometrically stark points of light of unstated provenance. This parallels and is reinforced by Hollywood's use of electronic music sounds to identify alien characters or worlds - a clear vanquishing of any dreams of a sustainable abstract language bleached of capacities of representation.
In Cenzontle the objets trouvés are a 3D graphic model of feathery spatial textures and short video loops of personal relevance to the performer. The visual component of the performance results from modulations and contextualizations of these elements including scaling, compositing and viewpoint shifts. These modulations are derived from gestures and live sound material from flute, voice, maracas and digital synthesis.
For the "Arduino Video" the objet trouvé is an artifact well known to TV repair technicians as "Sound on Vision Interference" achieved by modulating the red, green and blue color channels of a video monitor with audio signals controlled by an arcade joystick.
In "Sound Painter" the computer trackpad is re-contextualized (in size and number) as a controller for finger painting and sound synthesis.