Jean Detheux chronicles Visual Music Marathon, the festival that came out of nowhere and set a benchmark, instantly!
The first ever Visual Music Marathon took place in Boston, on April 28, 2007. It was part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival which took place April 20-May 6, at museums, galleries, universities and public spaces in and around the Boston area. The Visual Music Marathon itself was held in the Raytheon Amphitheatre of Northeastern University. It consisted of a 12-hour-long program divided into 12 one-hour segments, with no break in between -- indeed, a real marathon!
There were 120 films in total. Sixty-four films were selected from more than 300 submissions from 34 countries, to which were added works from invited artists, an excellent section of historic films (Richter, Bute, Fischinger, McLaren, Hirsh, Breer, Whitney and Lye), one program curated by Bruce Wands of the School of Visual Arts and New York Digital Salon, another program curated by Larry Cuba of the iota Center, and one section of live video performances.
The festival was centered on the concept of "visual music," which was defined as follows in the guidelines: "Visual music: Fine art animation, video or film in which the visual elements are informed by musical processes."
The guidelines went on to say, "Works submitted for screening should illustrate in some form the concept or use of visual music. Abstract/non-representational ('fine art' or 'experimental') works with original music are especially encouraged. Works under 10 minutes in duration are preferred (all entries must be under 30 minutes in length)."
The person behind this marathon is Dennis H. Miller, a professor in the department of music at Northeastern University (by the way, and most relevant to the quality of this/his marathon, Miller creates exquisite animation, such as White Noise, music included, visible on his website (www.dennismiller.neu.edu). This festival was clearly a labor of love, love for the medium and genuine respect for its creators, but more on that later.
Those of us who were in Boston, attend "regular" festivals and submit our "non-narrative/abstract/experimental animation" pieces to them did not really know what to expect from VMM. We are indeed so used to being ushered through the back door in a token "non-narrative/abstract animation" niche, or drowned in a sea of "entertainment," that it was quite difficult to imagine what a festival made "only" of -- and for -- our kind of work, would be -- and feel -- like. (There are however honest efforts at opening the doors of major festivals to this type of work, as for example in Malcolm Turner's Melbourne International Animation Festival, Chris Robinson's OIAF are also progressively opening its doors to this type of work, so things are slowly improving, but only slowly.)
In this article, I will also present the impressions of some of the key figures I met during the Marathon, as well as a large selection of excerpts from many of the excellent films that were presented in Boston. I am now convinced that it takes several such comments and excerpts to hint at the momentum of that exceptional festival, and convey a bit of the quality and energy that were made so clearly visible during the Marathon.
But let's go back to describing VMM First pleasant surprise -- the festival brochure is gorgeous, each film is listed with a representative still, some words ("our" words to boot!) to present it and there is enough available information to make navigating of the roster a breeze. The brochure's focus is placed squarely on the works themselves, on the festival, and neither is used as an excuse to peddle anything else.
The brochure also features an excellent essay by Maura McDonnell, a look at visual music from both the critical and historical viewpoints, an essay that tells us a lot about the origins of visual music, detailing how it actually reaches way way back in time (as in the "color organs"), while also presenting many aspects of the form(s) of visual music, multiple aspects/approaches well worth reflecting upon, pointing to the "cross-pollination" that occurs between various art forms and sciences in, through and as visual music.
McDonnell lives in Ireland (www.soundingvisual.com) and teaches at Trinity College (M.Phil, music and media technologies) in Dublin.
Once again, as with Miller and all the other people who will "speak" in this article, McDonnell also practices what she preaches: the Marathon featured one of her films (Towards One).
A glance at her essay (www.soundingvisual.com/visualmusic/VisualMusicEssay.pdf) simply listing the title of its various sections, will show how exceptional her contribution is:
The Visual Music Artist
Visual Music Composition:
- Visual Characteristics and Musical Characteristics.
- Painting According to a Language of Music
- Principles of Counterpoint -- Orchestration of Form
- Orchestration of Movement
- Orchestration of Time
- Expressive Moving Paintings and the Composed Score
- Color Sings -- Colored Rhythm
- Composing Motion -- Figures of Motion
- Music and Image Synchronization -- Acoustical Laws and Optical Expression
Synthesis -- Simultaneous Composition of Sound and Image
Visual Music Performance:
- Instruments and Systems to Perform Image Parameters
- "Instruments to Perform Color-Music"
- Color Music Scale -- A Harpsichord for the Eyes
- Painting Music -- Harmonious Color
- Mobile Color
- Color Projection Instruments
All that is followed by a summary in which she reviews much of the above, mentioning, "a developing grammar for working with the complementarity of music and image."
The Visual Music Marathon was a first, but was/is already -- and definitely -- a model for (one hopes) many more like it to come. It takes a concentration of works only achieved in such a marathon to demonstrate, beyond doubt, the depth and diversity of visual music, its amazing potential.
But, there is a belief "out there" that audiences can only put up with a few minutes of "non-narrative/abstract/experimental animation" (henceforth referred to as visual music). I even heard of a pseudo-scientific study that claimed that "6-1/2 minutes is all that the 'average' viewer can take before dozing off."
I dispute that, I have had too many experiences that proved otherwise. I therefore cannot let it go unchallenged. From my lecturing (as for example with my "Animating in a Different Key" lecture, which can last up to 2-1/2 hours and show in excess of 300 images and QuickTime movies), to my introducing the Stephanie Maxwell Retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa a few years ago, which lasted well over one hour (and did not lose a single member of its audience), shows me that, given the right audience (a key, of course), the more experimental animation/visual music the better.
"The right audience," indeed, a very important key, and did the Visual Music Marathon ever summon "the right audience!"
You have to imagine the setting: a dark room, and a 12-hour program of uninterrupted visual music, divided into 12 one-hour segments, but without a break in between! From 10:00 am to 10:00 pm, with beautiful weather outside (well, during much of the day), on a Saturday, with spring showing up in full force (flowers and trees blooming, the works), and yet the amphitheatre was near full all of the time, with people going in and out, usually during the few seconds separating the various segments. I saw many who were there at 10:00 am last till the very closing well after 10:00 pm. Surely, we all needed to take a break once in a while, but we kept coming back for more. This was a festival unlike any I have attended, there was a quality of attention, itself fueled by expectations radically different from "habitual animation" festivals; the main mood was one of quiet concentration, attention and, well, yes, respect.
People would applaud each and every piece shown during the 12-hour marathon. One could feel the heightened attention at the key moments of particularly successful pieces, the reactions to the manifestation of "quality" (as per Robert Pirsig) was exceptional. How far we were from the cravings for mind-numbness/numbing so often the norm elsewhere.
The closing of the festival was at once a manifestation of warmth, dignity and gratitude. How fortunate "we" were to be granted that kind of event!
I strongly suspect that much of the source of that extraordinary mood came from the fact that the festival was organized by Miller, and that his reputation and association with the music department of Northeastern U. attracted many musicians (that is a fact). It also attracted many filmmakers/ directors/ animators and, above all, practically nobody came to the Marathon to be "entertained" (in the lowest sense of the word, as addressed in my Notes from the Underground Part One -- Animation: Prozac or Kyosaku?; this was a place dedicated to the celebration of "the search for meaning."
Case in point -- during the historical films segment of the program, a film broke, resulting for the audience in a few minutes of "empty" waiting. There was not a single manifestation of impatience, not a cat call, nobody used that "silence" to (try to) be funny; there was simple and dignified waiting, "just waiting" as some Buddhists might call it.
Indeed, unlike what is too often commonplace in "habitual animation" festivals, this was not a celebration of "Life is a bitch and then you die," it was rather a brilliant demonstration of Cézanne's "Art is a religion. Its aim is the elevation of thought."
Yes indeed, the elevation of thought.
This VMM was a magnificent demonstration of the sensitivity and intelligence of visual music creators and viewers. One film after another took us on multi-faceted journeys that made visible, and audible, so much of the infinite possibilities of that art form!
It indeed seems to me that the potential of visual music is infinite. When getting involved with it, we are confronted with an infinity of choices begging to be made, from that of being a "human metronome," to being totally at odds with the music, exploring it all while making visible many of the combinations and possibilities that gratify us. To be "on" the beat, ahead of it, behind it, to draw/paint/animate with the bass, or switch to the top, or go along with the middle, to concentrate on the "colors" of the music, or privilege one over the others, to connect with all those echoing shapes, the resonances, and switch (again, switch, an essential aspect if there is one), back, and forth, and back again, to play hide-and-seek with all those elements and get lost, with delight (at times), in the midst of them all -- what richness, what joy!
And, I am merely talking about the only facet of visual music I am "qualified" to speak of, the visual aspect created on/from an already existing music.
I can only imagine what it must be like for a musician to work "from the other end," to look at a stream of silent images and try to give them a voice and, just as we visual artists are in front of music, be confronted with an infinity of possible (and impossible!) choices.
Many of the films screened during the Marathon were made by artists who made both images and music (had I had a sense that this was possible when I was a kid, I may not have skipped my piano lessons as much as I did).
I strongly suspect both the visual artist and the musician connect to, at times, similar "things" ("things" indeed as defining this more would be too limiting).
The exchanges between images and sounds are very potent; images inform the music just as much as the music informs the images. When, in 2005, I made my two NFB films (Liaisons and Rupture) in collaboration with the great Montréal-based composer Jean Derome, we kept remarking to each other how much his music made me see my images like never before, how much my images made him hear his music differently.
This is essential stuff, "perception is constitutive" (again, if interested, refer to my "Notes" to investigate this further), and it is precisely in/through the emphasis we notice and make manifest ("make visible/audible") uniquely that we reveal, and share, our humanity.
I guess almost no film, in that large collection of works, was trying to "tell us" anything other than presenting itself. There was practically no "message," and, to my great relief, this festival was spared what is becoming a real plight in "habitual animation" festivals. There were practically no "self-promotional" pieces, none of the films had that awful "schoolish-careerist-bad-taste-in-the-mind" feel that it used to be SIGGRAPH's special fate to attract, but which has now infested other festivals as well.
No, we were graced with one poetic piece after another -- films. We were spared the "Look Ma, no hands!" pabulum that we have to endure so much elsewhere.
VMM was about art and music, "visual music," and did it ever deliver!
In "regular" festivals, one has to sit through long programs made of mostly linear, storytelling, figurative work in order to see a few token pieces of visual music. That makes it very difficult to get a real sense of where that art form is today.
VMM not only gave us a terrific historical context (a bit of an eye opener for me, as I was not really aware of how far back in time this research actually reached) it also gave us the broadest, largest cross-section of what is being done today that I have ever seen (I was amazed at the quality and number of its practitioners, lots of talent -- and honesty -- "out there").
Much came out of that for me, some clearly, some still incubating, but I left Boston with a huge baggage of "food for thought," eyes filled with magnificent images, head spinning with inspiring music, amazed at the kinds of "connections" artists had found/created/made visible between visual form and musical form, and my heart is now filled with gratitude for such a beneficial shot in the arm!
I'll indulge a bit here in more of the thoughts generated by VMM. I think 3D really has serious problems when in the hands of "plumbers" (again, refer to my "Notes from the Underground" to see what I mean by that). Indeed, several pieces seemed to become interchangeable as they obviously were all relying on the plumbing of the software that was used. A generic 3D "look" was emerging through the close proximity in time of so many pieces done similarly with similar tools.
I guess this is due in part to the fact that, in 3D, the "pictorial space" is a given, while, in 2D, it is an accomplishment, a reward, possibly the real goal of the work.
This is to me an essential difference between 3D and 2D, and if 3D has given us magnificent pieces, overall it seems to be condemned to a "box" when used by "plumbers," too often devoid of any sense of poetry (I suspect this lack of poetry comes from the fear of one's ambiguity and the unwillingness/inability of the artist to let him/herself drift into unresolved areas, a severe lack of faith in one's own darkness). I think 3D is making it so easy to lock in "objects," that it takes a special artist to allow those objects to come under attack from other elements, the very locus of space itself included, and, if only temporarily, to lose their/its identity.
I submit that it is in that very loss of identity, "now you see it, now you don't," that the poetic sense of a piece is born, and maintained.
I did talk at length about much of that in most of my six "Notes from the Underground," but this article seems like a good opportunity to review some of those points. Just as painting was put through a "grinder" of sorts when the likes of Monet, Cézanne, Kandinsky and many others could not help but depart from the norms of the 19th Century "official art" (academic, salon painting), and, in doing so, "exploded" what had until then been accepted/imposed as "The" canon of "acceptable" art and as "The" definition of pictorial space, I posit we need to do the same with regard to the "dumb" pictorial space imposed by most (please note: "most," not "all") of the habitual ways so prevalent in 3D animation and, indeed, sometimes in visual music as well.
By the way, much 2D suffers from the same plight, the source of all that being buried in the artist's worldview, his/her Weltanschauung, where the real "limitations" reside (see my "Notes" again).
Just as those 19th century visionaries did, when exploding socially accepted norms of their time, finding ways to escape the narrow "positive/negative" bi-dimensional space tyranny, and discovering/exploring "equivocal space" or "a-dimensional space" in the process, we need to discover/create ways of exploding the "habitual space" of animation/visual music, a space that seems to be the trap in which many people fall when dealing with "moving art."
The underlying form of most animated works today is one that is totally taken for granted, while great artists had/have to discover/rediscover it each time, in order to make it visible (as in "Art is what makes us see," or Art is about "making the visible visible").
Look at most storytelling animation; it starts and remains in a "space" that is never challenged, never threatened, a "space" that never undergoes any kind of metamorphosis. That space acts as a "container" that is totally taken for granted, and all that happens happens "within it," that "space" is, in fact, never "seen," indeed, never "made visible."
Bereft of the linear and reliable structure a story can provide, especially on a cognitive level, visual music has to articulate itself within different parameters (lots of possible variables here), and quite often, it does so by a series of "switches" that articulate/modulate/make visible the "space" in which they happen, and this in ways far more potent than what is habitually done in storytelling animation. The music the animation works with/from is itself so prone to multiple readings, the animation can follow now "this," now "that," anticipate "this" or/and "that," recall "this" and/or "that," ignore "this" and/or "that," the freedom/range of potential choices is immense, probably infinite.
In visual music, much of what happens is a transposition, a metaphor, there really is "no-thing" to tell, and this contributes greatly to giving visual music its poetic impact ("Art is what makes life more interesting than art," wrote Robert Filliou).
That "getting lost in the midst of all the possible metaphors" provides a sense of "space" that is huge, infinite, but which also demands much from the creator, as it is as easy to be lost in "all that" as it is to avoid being lost by attaching oneself to simplistic elements (hence my referring to the "human metronome" possibility earlier).
There is "getting lost and choking," and there is "doing one's best when one no longer knows what to do." The latter too is a key, an important one at that! Too many people are led to believe that art is about knowledge, too many students are deceived into believing it is all about learning "how to." I guess this is "normal" given that our universities have increasingly become vocational schools, training students for "jobs" instead of fulfilling their original Socratic mission ("Know Thyself").
Amongst the greatest artists, Cézanne was most aware of, and worked with, "echoing shapes" (more on that again in my "Notes"). He, of course, worked on "still images" (so to speak), yet the structure of much music is such that elements can repeat themselves over time, either identically, and/or through variations, and the Visual Music artist is thus offered a great opportunity to enable/make visible those "echoing shapes" on the temporal plane, a fabulous privilege/responsibility if there ever was one!
Add to that (although I believe this precedes everything else, always) the very structure of attention itself (that constant swing from "Where is it?" to "Aha, there it is!" see my "Notes" on that), and you have a 'brew" in which just about anything can happen.
Visual music is a demanding art form, but it definitely is a rewarding one as well, for both the doer and the viewer (which often can be facets of the "same" person, possibly at odds with each other).
And that brings me to one of the most obvious impressions that I took from the Visual Music Marathon: visual music is a vibrant -- and major -- art form, and its performance in Boston was so strong, it now is even clearer to me that it is not being served well by the way "habitual animation festivals" treat and present it.
Far from it! It deserves better, and it received better during the Visual Music Marathon.
When talking to Larry Cuba of the iota Center during the festival, I mentioned that VMM felt a bit like the "Salon des refusés," a group exhibition that was showing the works of artists who had been refused by the official Salon de Paris during the second half of the 19th Century, a group of artists consisting of people we still very much remember today (Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Pissarro, Whistler and many more), while those who were in the official Salon have been (often mercifully) forgotten, at least most of them.
I make a parallel with the "Salon des defuses," because I see the official selections of most of the animation festivals I am familiar with repeat, year after year after year, a pattern of "more of the same" (films praying, for the most part, to the gods of "Life is a bitch and then you die"). These selections are definitely the voice of the "official Salon," and if people are not aware of what the Visual Music Marathon revealed to its audience, they may come to think that the official voice is showing "all there is."
Not quite, not quite.
What puzzles me in this state of affairs is that I see in visual music much that could renew what is being done, again and again, in "habitual animation" and yet is being brushed aside: different ways to create and relate to animated pictorial space, a different discourse that needs an intelligent public to exist, and which can help elevate its public's thought (again, "Art is a religion, its aim is the elevation of thought"), a reaching for the best we all have in us. In essence, it is the opposite of the catering to the lowest common denominator with which our society and culture are becoming more and more identified.
Also, there are at least two "flavors" of visual music -- one is harsh, dry, bare, hard, aggressive, the other is warm, generous, "moist," inviting. I am, in this, reminded of the two major facets of early abstraction -- "hard edged" and "expressionistic" (much more could be said about this, there is no hinting of competition between the two in my statement).
The very same "divisions" exist in the world of music as well, and there is no intention here of making one "better" than the other.
However, when I consider "habitual animation" in the context presented above, I can barely see it as art, at best as "illustration," and a very conventional form of illustration at that, again, most often it is merely a form of commercial "art," a "sub-genre."
For example, here's an email I recently received from a young and very gifted art student interested in "animation as an art form." Here's part of what he said after attending his first animation festival ever: "... . a lot of the work was disappointing and the guest speakers preached the importance of withholding personal vision to maybe someday work on the shading of Jimmy Neutron, animation as career, animation as expression seemed non-sensical to them."
I mentioned earlier the fact that VMM was a labor of love, and that it was the brainchild of Miller. Those of us who had films in that festival can testify to the immense care with which Dennis treated us and our work. To give an example of his commitment, let it suffice to say that he sat at his computer for the full 12 hours (and a bit) of the Marathon, manning the controls and showing each and every film himself.
I most definitely believe that the Visual Music Marathon has to become an annual event, a feast "for the rest of us" (the "Refusés"), but I do hope Dennis will receive the help (manpower and financial support) his magnificent festival deserves. The last thing we need is to see him become ill over such a huge task, visual music needs champions like him, very much so.
Kudos as well to Northeastern University for supporting this venture!
The first and last films screened during that event were by Stephanie Maxwell. Her Time Streams (Allan Schindler, music, 2003) opened the festival, and All that Remains (Michaela Eremiasova, music, 2006) closed it. This was a fitting choice given Stephanie's formidable presence in the field of visual music.
I have since seen her very latest, Runa's Spell. Her work is getting deeper and deeper into a world of absolutely gorgeous color. There is an increasing warmth, a "mellowing" as well (in the best sense of the word), beautiful work. Stephanie might just be the only artist capable of bridging the gap between the two "schools" of visual music, the "dry" and the "moist," and to do so successfully.
If I called her a "master-liar" in Ottawa a few years ago ("If Art is the lie that is truer than reality, Stephanie Maxwell is a master-liar... "), I could now, given the strategic position of her two films at VMM, first and last, call her "Stephanie 'bookends' Maxwell!")
I asked her to send me her written comments about VMM, including a list of films she particularly responded to. Her comments and excerpts of films she mentions will be posted later in this article.
There are many films whose excerpts I would like to show, like the beautiful Kyoto Bells (Wilfried Jentzsch, 2006) in which a simple square is progressively modified by the evolving processed sound of a bell (the whole thing being a lot less "mechanical" than this description would suggest) And the amazing 1.618 (Scott Pagano, music by BT, 2006) in which the mathematical process giving it birth does not interfere with its sheer beauty.
In regard to 1.618, I feel that there is potential damage done to the film by some of the "generic" look of its 3D images, but all that is more than compensated for by the sheer talent and intelligence of its creator, the connections between visual changes and the music are magnificent (an editing tour de force, superb "montage"), even if some of the images are less than remarkable at times (Maxwell speaks well of that problem in her comments below).
Miller's White Noise is so poetically charged, it makes me seriously consider trying my hand at its 3D process which, when "used" that way, is so obviously not limited to plumbing (people who are aware of my relationship with 3D will take this as a sure sign of genuine admiration for that film).
The number of issues that came up during the Marathon was so vast, we were faced with a real dilemma -- either we walked out of the theater in order to be able to share opinions about what we had just seen and thus did not see what was showing at that time, or we stayed in and watched the films, putting away all that had been bubbling up previously, at the risk of forgetting what that was.
This points to the only thing I may want to see done differently in the (hoped for) next editions. Stretch the event to maybe two days -- one day of screenings, one day of meetings or a mixture of both. This marathon was, and could be even more, a privileged meeting point for the creators of visual music to share views with each other. The readers who sat on my "non-narrative panel" in Ottawa a few years ago, with Maxwell, Steven Woloshen and Richard Reeves will be interested to know that the Marathon reached a point well beyond what had been touched on that day, there really is an appetite for the kind of work visual music makes po
Finally, as promised, here's what Larry Cuba, Maura McDonnell, Stephanie Maxwell and Dennis Miller told me about this first-ever Visual Music Marathon.
We tried to present as many excerpts of the films that are mentioned below as possible, that in itself was a bit of a task.
First, Larry Cuba's comments: I think that the Visual Music Marathon was a milestone in the history of the art form and I hope that it will become a regular event.
Dennis Miller's decision to screen historical and contemporary work in the same program parallels The iota Center's philosophy: abstract art has a timeless quality that defies obsolescence. It is valuable to see the entire trajectory of the visual music genre. In addition, I was particularly glad to see that the program included films projected in 16mm, as originally intended, and not as video representations.
Many of these titles are not available on video, yet, so the marathon was a rare opportunity to view works by artists such as Hy Hirsh and Adam Beckett in beautiful new prints from iota's film preservation program.
A major highlight of the weekend, for me, was the presence of many of the artists themselves. The Visual Music community is scattered throughout the world. Any chance for us to meet face-to-face is an exciting event.
Bravo, Dennis. Well done.
And here's Larry Cuba's list of favorite films (again, with a proviso, my asking for a list is really not fair, I plead guilty):
Well, I hesitated, because it's so hard to narrow it down to a few and I don't want to leave out anyone who's truly deserving. (I think a list like that "should" be complete to some degree, because I know what if feels like to be "left out"). So, anyway...
Dark Star (Benton-C Bainbridge, images, Bobby Previte, music, 2007)Score (Fried Daehn, 2006) 1/3 (one over three) vol.1 (Chiaki Watanabe, images, Tristan Perish and Sylvia Mincewicz, music, 2006)Sunspot (George Stadnik, 2005)Pipilo (Brian Evans, 2007)200 Nanowebbers (Semiconductor, music Double Adaptor, 2005)White Noise (Dennis Miller, 2007)Liaisons (Jean Detheux, images, Jean Derome, music, 2005)Rupture (Jean Detheux, images, Jean Derome, music, 2005) Daydream Mechanics V Sketch 3 (Jean Detheux, images, Michael Oesterle, music, 2006)
Work that I was familiar with before, but certainly enjoyed seeing again:
Time Streams (Allan Schindler, music, 2003) and All that Remains (Michaela Eremiasova, music, 2006) by Stephanie Maxwell.Wicked Paths, Cruel Deserts (Ying Tan, images, Jeffrey Strolet, music, 1999)1921>1989 (Michael Scroggins, images, Barry Schrader, music, 1989)The Rice Song (Chris Casady, 2006)
When I later showed Larry a draft of this article, he had this to add (and I agreed with him so much I am including his remarks):I have just one point to make to you, the 12-hour marathon was definitely totally unprecedented and a breakthrough event. A program of all abstract/experimental/visual music pieces (in contrast to the typical 'mainstream' film festivals and animation festivals that you mention) was not. There have been many examples over the years... in the '70s, there was an entire film festival devoted to abstract film held in Montpelier, France... there is an abstract film festival currently being held in Milan... the visual music exhibition at the Hirshhorn and MOCA museums recognized vm as a true art descended from abstract painting, etc... the Bruce Wands hour of the VMM was selected from an all-vm festival he held in NYC... and then there's iota. Having been to the same ASIFA animation festivals that marginalized the abstract and the experimental, O founded the iota center in 1994 in direct response to this tendency. Checkout our screening program [online] especially our KINETICA series (which traveled to museums all over the world).
Our approach has been to pretty much forget about film festivals and concentrate on art museums and cinematheques. However, once our KINETICA programs were out there, we found many festivals were also interested in presenting them. I think the VMM is one more example (albeit a particularly significant one) of the ever-expanding recognition and acceptance of vm as an art form separate and distinct from "animation." Wouldn't it be better to acknowledge this rising tide of interest than to position VMM as an anomaly of some kind? Anyway, just my two cents...
I'll add that VMM was not "just" a program of all abstract/experimental/visual music pieces, it was a marathon, and conceived as such. But Larry's point is very important, there are venues and efforts "out there" that are trying to give visual music and the "animation as art" efforts the place they deserve.
It is also through VMM that I discovered the iota Center, and its essential mission. William Moritz (who died in 2004, amongst many activities, also wrote about one of my heroines, Mary Ellen Bute, right here at AWN) must/would be delighted.
One thing in particular grabbed me in Larry's discourse, it is his fight against this pathetic "obsolescence" so ever present, imposed in fact, this ridiculous two-year shelf-life the films submitted to festivals have to conform to! Imagine going to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, or the Met in NYC, and stare at a Rembrandt or a Vermeer (gorgeous ones in both places) and "dismiss" them because they were made more than two years ago! (Mind you, in reference to the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Cézanne, but also Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and all, I once heard a "person, a librarian no less, refer to them as "Dead White Europeans.")
Hell, my dear friend Martine Chartrand (Black Soul, 2001) creates on average two minutes of animation per year of steady work (painting on glass), to have her magnificent work measured with the standards of the fast ("cultural") food industry just does not make any sense. And there is more, Miller reminded me of that ludicrous demand some festivals sometimes place on our work: "Could you make it shorter?"!!! Shades of Amadeus' "Too many notes!"
Next, here's what McDonnell wrote about her experience at VMM: The Visual Music Marathon provided the opportunity to bring together in one event, contemporary music and image artistic works that are being composed in order to be presented as moving image with music and/or music with moving image.
The sheer diversity of practice that is possible in this newly awakening art form of visual music was demonstrated most clearly in the Visual Music Marathon. It was nothing short of amazing to see such a variety of approaches. An interesting aspect for me, of seeing 120 quality artistic works one after the other was being able to see that diverse practice all at once and see how although diverse, the works all fitted very well under the term of "visual music," even if many of the artists who submitted work would see there work belonging to other genres. What could also be seen in such a mammoth sitting were the points of commonality amongst the works shown and indeed, the continuing lineage they had with historical abstract animation and film.
It didn't seem to matter how the films were made or what manner in which the music was used -- was the film created first and music composed second, was the music the source of inspiration for the structure of the film, were software and external processes used to generate imagery and sound -- none of this mattered (indeed it is of course very important to each individual artist how and why they create their work). Software, sound designers, filmmakers, animators, music composers, multi-disciplinary artists -- all their artistic work was welcome at this event. The point of commonality in every work presented was the impetus in the art work -- the energy that was directed to connecting the visual with music processes.
An interesting note for me is the prevalence of a marriage between electroacoustic music/computer music and abstract animation filmmaking imagery that was apparent in many of the works at the event. Has electroacoustic music found an outlet for visualizing its abstract sound? Through working with electroacoustic music has abstract animation and film found a way to articulate its language? These were questions I was left with after this amazing visual music event. Dennis Miller did an excellent job in his programming of the event and in bringing to one sitting, the most amazing and beautiful films/animations and music.
McDonnell's selection of some of the films she enjoyed during VMM are:
Rupture (Jean Detheux) The imagery, movement, change, incredible interplay of multiple figure and ground transformations, the use of the screen and the mood of the music made this a film where I sat up and really took notice, it involved the viewer, brought you through time in the most intricate way.
Calculated Movements (Larry Cuba) I have always wanted to see this film and was delighted to see it at VMM. What was striking for me was how the precise formal arrangements of graphic events was like a modern version of the precise orchestration of forms crafted by historical filmmaker Viking Eggeling. This had a real modern twist, but the graphic forms were very beautiful in their precision and evolution over time.
200 Nanowebbers (Semiconductor) This piece was all about surfaces -- the surface of the music, the surface of the image ground. From simple forms to complex forms, multiple planes and angles and surfaces, creating structures that had behavior, those behaviors closely coupled with the behavior of the music.
All That Remains (Stephanie Maxwell) This was a very striking film and music where there was a really tight sense of visual and music working together. The imagery was incredible as was the music sublime. A beautiful work.
Dissonant Particles 9 (Gordon Monro) The simplicity of the visual forms and their link with sine tones and the simultaneous sounding of sine tones towards dissonance was cleverly explored with the most simple visual forms -- colored particles which decayed and grew in the most hypnotic manner.
Djizzazzy (Oerd van Cuijlenborg) This was a really interesting work for me. The use of line, dots to build up visual patterns that were linked with the musical riffs and patterns of the jazz music made for a very engrossing piece. Each riff was interpreted graphically, and changed with each musical variation. There were chordal groupings of imagery as well as what I would call timbral graphics.
phase_trans #3 (Rumi Humphrey) This was a very beautiful work, the imagery was tightly coupled with the music. Imagery working with lines and planes building up a most interesting visual music work.
Then Maxwell said: It is almost impossible to find a program anywhere in the world that is devoted entirely to visual music and abstraction and with such a great representation of both historical and contemporary works. The Visual Music Marathon offered a scrumptious platter of artistic experiment to smile at and to sidle up to. It was a blitz of beauty and invention and a rare chance to witness art that is challenging and audacious -- in content, concept and form.
The careful and far reaching planning for the Visual Music Marathon by Dennis Miller and his staff at Northeastern University was evident in the great number of international works and artists represented on the marathon and also by the professionalism with which the marathon was staged and executed. Every work of the 120 marathon selections in this 12-hour program was presented nearly on schedule and without any major hitches. In addition, the beautiful and detailed color Marathon program booklet was not just a useful program guide of the works presented, but also gave important insights into the artists' goals and techniques as well as their impressively divergent backgrounds in the arts and sciences. This booklet alone is a remarkable resource for those interested in the art form as well as a record of a remarkable event. The opening essay in the booklet, written by visual music artist and lecturer Maura McDonnell, provides a comprehensive statement on the history of visual music and on several representative artists. Her very thorough discussion of the identifying characteristics and components of visual music works and the inclusion of many examples make this booklet a valuable text for art and history classes that explore this unique art form.
The back-to-back presentations of the works for 12 hours could test one's endurance. However, it provided a unique opportunity to discover and experience a form of art that has been given little attention in the mainstream and that has also been incorrectly dismissed by some critics and reviewers as unimportant or subversive.
I felt honored to open and close the Marathon with the screening of my works: Time Streams (a collaboration with music composer Allan Schindler, 2003) and All That Remains (a collaboration with music composer Michaela Eremiasova, 2006) respectively. Even greater was the opportunity to submerge myself in an extreme density of creativity and imagination that I have not had the opportunity to experience in a very long time.
Visual music is a very difficult concept to realize effectively. My works are abstract and have been called visual music. On the one hand I can see them as visual music works, even if they have an aural component. For me, the visual music happens in the sense that time, movement, rhythm and choreography are elementary features and forces expressed in the concept and design, and throughout the filmmaking and shaping of the work. Cine dance might be a better label sometimes for my work, although there are no human dancers. The dance is not a classical performance or a deliberate expression of abstract forms in organized choreographed patterns and movements, but rather the evocation of motions, vibrations, frissons, and other extrapolations from my own experience of living. In my abstractions, I attempt to elicit a recognizability, not literally, of some real life qualities of physical, visual and other sensory experience, and to create the 'feel' of what we share in our physical world -- some things more obvious and others more subtle. The subtle is the most interesting to me. Hidden beneath our routine generalized encounter with life we actually experience a continuous, more sensuous encounter with our surroundings and within ourselves that we routinely ignore, pass by, and through time lose our ability to tap into. These are the multifaceted encounters with motion, light and sound, and the inter-sensory richness that we are immersed in moment to moment. Life is a dance, life is musical. Through my abstractions I attempt to heighten attention to a physical, perceptual experience of living, through its wiggles and giggles.
The works at the Marathon demonstrate that creativity, experiment and imagination are alive and well in a time of media stagnation, with its repetition, ad nauseam, of tired story ideas and themes, and the pervasive 'wow' raison d'être of technical 'fireworks' positioning themselves front and center in our consciousness and marginalizing meaningful expression and creative insight. That is not to say that every work at the Marathon was a tour de force of visionary articulation. On the contrary, there were several works that seemed to get caught up in the 'special effects' trap, as in computer spiraling three-dimensional and fractal patterns and repetitions that were great to gawk at, like a slick Lamborghini, but were devoid of the evocation of the wonder one might experience when seeing photos of supernovas and exploding galaxies that present at least an ancillary opportunity to be amazed at and connected to our abstract existence.
Personally, I cherish the experience of surprise, and out of experiencing something truly unexpected, something fresh and alive. Several works at Marathon were surprising. Although I became satiated, if not fatigued, after about seven hours of viewing, with a number of meaningless, showy, slinging around of sparkly, mutating 3D animation effects works, one work in particular took the sting out of my own critical bite, Cinepainting (Simon Goulet, images and Sandro Forte and Simon Bellefleur, music; 2007). Strands and globs of colorful, glossy, 'oily' tendrils are launched and seem pelted through an atmosphere from a multitude of directions. They break up, collide, mix, 'drip' and suspend as if in a slow motion dance. I felt as though I were in the middle of a painting in the process -- not at the plane of a canvas, but in a special time-space orientation with paint peppering through the air with seemingly chance collisions. This was the key experience of this work. It was not about the end point, but about the act of artistic creation.
The Marathon seemed a might top heavy with computer generated works. Many seemed repetitious and too dandy. But there were several works that riveted my attention, mainly because at the heart of the works were real ideas, whole ideas that became a kind of discourse with the artist. Among my favorites were Jean Detheux's Daydream Mechanics V Sketch 3 (2006), Autarkeia Aggregatum (Bret Battey, 2005), O (Circle of Life) (Keum-Taek Jung, animation and Christopher Brakel, music; 2004) and Rain (Rebecca Ruige Xu, images and Yanjun Hua, music; 2005. All of these works were carefully constructed to not just represent an idea, but to allow the viewer to 'enter' the idea through the artist's imagination.
There were very special works in the Marathon that did not use the computer at all, or were merely computer assisted, mostly in post. These works reveal the 'hand of the artist' in their creation, meaning that they utilize good ol' techniques like drawing, cel, cut out, and object animation, and other more experimental hands-on processes. These works are treasures and rarities in an increasingly automated movie-making world where the hand of the artist is on the keyboard and tendons, muscles, and nerves atrophy, and where the vibrations and impulses of the physical act of art has become more rare. Filmmaking seems more and more to be a collage experience. So much is downloadable (images and musical scores, for example), and there are menu upon menu of choices to snazzy up the work.
Marathon works like Sensorium (Karen Aqua, animation and Ken Field, music; hand-drawn, 2007), Bird Calls (Malcolm Sutherland, animator; drawing, 2006), Etude (David Ehrlich, images and Tom Farrell, music; animated clay painting, 1994) and Passage (Barbel Neubauer, animator; hand-drawing and scratching on 35mm film stocks, 2002), were a welcome reaffirmation about the many important means for art making. Other Marathon works mix various source techniques and computer processes exquisitely. Works like tides (experimental video photography by Matt Costanza, music by Abby Aresty, and dance choreography by Missy Pfohl Smith; 2006), I've Got the Guy Running (imagery and music by Jonathon Kirk; digitally processed military source video and audio, 2007 and Graveshift (Arie Stavchansky, images and Per Bloland, music; cross-discipline collaboration, digitally-transformed live action and dance; 2004) create novel hybrids from many techniques and sources.
Toward the end of the program I was saturated to the hilt, and the works progressively seem to merge on top of each other. At 11 pm (one tidy hour beyond the 10 pm planned closing) the Marathon wrapped up and everyone went home. Dennis Miller looked greasy, sweaty and exhausted (blood, sweat and tears). He packed up his computer, from which all the works were played and that he had personally manned throughout the Marathon, and he too went home. I felt relief. But, I also felt a kind of sadness that the Marathon had actually come to a close. It was a remarkable show of individualism, of innovation, and of art which reacts and springs from the more imaginative of practitioners of cinema. The next day I heard that the Visual Music Marathon might be screened again in New York, that selections from the Marathon might be presented at SIGGRAPH in San Diego this summer, and that there may be a Visual Music Marathon 2 in two years. Yikes, another Marathon! I can't wait!
And finally, Miller had this to say: The Visual Music Marathon was an opportunity to discover the vast range of works by artists who have a clear interest in combining music and image in meaningful ways. It was exciting to see that many filmmakers have chosen to put the sonic and visual mediums on equal footing, and the variety of interactions between these two was quite astounding. Many of the works were so well integrated that one would be hard pressed to know what process was used to create them: Did the music or the images come first? Did the composer and animator work side by side in real time, or was the collaboration one of long distance with long gaps in time? Were the two media created by the same person, and if so, were the two media created simultaneously? Were there parameters from one medium "driving" those of the other? (One also ponders the array of tools used in the creation of the image and sound...)
There are clear similarities among the works that would allow one to categorize many of them. Some were simply delightful eye candy, with swirling patterns of color enhanced by appropriate music, while others presented more challenging structures, complete with recurring visual elements that became thematic in importance. A number of works were interpretative, for example Eva Toth's Lajka's Memory, a profound piece with strong expressionistic overtones.
The technical aspects of the Marathon was another noteworthy element. What compelled Simon Goulet to film hundreds of gallons of flying paint and how did he accomplish his magic?
Where was the line between reality and purely digital imagery in Suzie Silver/Hilary Harp's Nebula, which incorporated actual video of real glass art works within its virtual environment? These are only two of the works where tour de force seems an appropriate description.
Taken as a whole, the Visual Music Marathon is a clear-cut and highly positive indication that contemporary time-based art is alive and well in the world today. Long may it reign!
Here's Miller's list of favorite films (when he sent me this, he stressed that, and I mostly agree with him, that this list would likely change each time he/we look at the VMM selection):
Daydream Mechanics V Sketch 3 (Jean Detheux)Rupture (Jean Detheux)Liaisons (Jean Detheux)add.value 5 more (Gerhard Daurer)Navigating the Pearl System (Fran Hartnett)Afterlife (John Banks, images; Fritz Heede, music)SEEK ASSISTANCE (Vishal Shah, images; Adam Stansbie, music)Retz/distrans (Pierce Warnecke)1/3 (one over three) vol.1 (Chiaki Watanabe, images; Tristan Perich and Sylvia Mincewicz, music)Erev Shel shoshanim (Nathaniel Resnikoff)Cortex (Mike Almond, images; Mathew Adkins, music)INFINITE SONG (Serban Nichifor)¿Te Acuerdas Hijo? (Do You Remember Son?) Rajmil FischmanIV.6 (Mike Winkelmann)Sports and Diversions (Bum Lee, images; Erik Satie, music)All the Possible Braidings (Betsy Kopmar, images; Jami Sieber, music)Lajka's Memory (Eva M. Toth, images; Gyorgy Kurtag Sr. and Gyorgy Kurtag Jr., music)Time Streams (2003) (Stephanie Maxwell, images; Allan Schindler, music)
Lots more to say about this Visual Music Marathon and about visual music, I talked earlier about it being akin to the "Salon des Refusés," but a friend made a remark that feels more accurate -- the Marathon is a lot closer in fact to the historical 1913 Armory Show of New York (xroads.virginia.edu/~museum/armory/armoryshow.html) than it does to the "Salon des Refusés." I see it as equally historical, there is a "before" and an "after" VMM, the presence and perception of the importance of visual music will never be the same.
As a footnote, the festival was dedicated to Miller's father, who died a few short weeks ago. Here's what Dennis said to me about his father: Marvin Miller was 82 and was a psychiatrist and art glass jewelry maker. He was exceedingly fond of highly colored abstract images and was, of course, a great supporter of my work (my folks had many of my prints in their home). We lived most of our family life in New Orleans, though my folks had been residing in Bellingham WA for the last few years.
There's no doubt in my mind that Marvin Miller would have felt right at home during the Visual Music Marathon, what with all those highly colored (moving) images dancing in front of our eyes (and a few inches behind them as well) for 12 straight hours!
Born in Belgium, Jean Detheux received his academic training at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Liège. Immigrating to Canada in 1971, he taught at various art schools in Canada and the U.S. He has exhibited his paintings and drawings in solo and in group shows, in Europe and the Americas, where his work can be found in many private and public collections. He has also given numerous talks about the phenomenology of vision and the process of creation (member of the Husserl Circle in 1981). He has written, in English and French, many articles on art and animation, reviews of festivals, symposiums, books and software, several of those having been published by Animation World Network.
After nearly four decades of work with natural media, sudden serious allergies from his use of painting materials forced him to give up "real" painting for digital technology (in 1997). This brought him almost "naturally" to animated film ("time-based art"). He has since made numerous films, including two with composer Jean Derome, produced in 2005 by the National Film Board of Canada.