Visual Music

We’re lucky here in Los Angeles to have a major organization for the promotion of abstract animation–the Center for Visual Music, which restores and exhibits classic titles from an elusive genre, and releases excellent DVDs showcasing the work of filmmakers like Oskar Fischinger and Jordan Belson.

Last week, CVM and UCLA screened over a dozen films representing a half-century of animation and “visual music” from the 1920s to the ’70s, many of them recent preservations. Visual music is a genre that’s hard to define, but the best single book I know that summarizes its history (with hundreds of color photos) is Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900, published in conjunction with the 2005 MOCA/Hirshhorn exhibit. It traces a fascinating historical path through a variety of media as artists, inventors, and filmmakers “experimented with color and abstract forms suggestive of limitless space, motion, rhythm and the unfolding of time,” and it offers a fascinating example of cinema’s relationship with an intermedia art form. Examples abound from the films of Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter in the ’20s to later sound and color productions by Fischinger and Len Lye to the technological advances of the Whitney brothers (whose slit-scan technology was appropriated by Douglas Trumbull for the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey) to modern digital media.

Single Wing Turquoise Bird Light Show Film

The UCLA screening was a rare and at times exhilarating opportunity to not only see some key works on celluloid, but also to hear from local filmmakers (Michael Scroggins, David Lebrun and Peter Mays) who were members of the troupe Single Wing Turquoise Bird (1968-’75) that created live, multimedia backgrounds for major rock concerts and art venues. Hearing them describe their typical set-up–including multiple high-resolution and high-speed projectors, liquid overhead projectors and film slides–while emphasizing the live, organic, and freeform aspects of their work suggested a kind of visual jazz performance that would have been remarkable to see. As a facsimile of sorts, we screened the 5-minute Single Wing Turquoise Bird Light Show Film (1971) a 16mm representation of a typical light show (but lacking the key live components and high resolutions). When the subject of contemporary VJs came up, Lebrun cited the emotional range of the light show movement and suggested that it was probably richer and more expressive than today’s relatives.

Lebrun’s own nine-minute Tanka (1976) was a standout in the program, an arduously arranged compilation of flickering images from the Tibetan Book of the Dead that suggest animated forms set to a feverish, original jazz score with an Indian inflection (thanks to the use of sarod and tabla instruments). The impression of highly ornate gods and demons in a wild dance is alternately funny and frightening.

Cibernetik 5.3

Another high point of the program was the seven-minute Cibernetik 5.3 (1965), the only film by John Stehura and a classic of computer animation that he completed as a student in the earliest days of digital film recorders. Stehura programmed the film with punch cards on a computer that didn’t even have a screen, and didn’t see the results until the film was finished, an amazing feat considering how visually rich and textured it is, with cascading colors and patterns culminating in footage shot with a fisheye lens in UCLA’s botanical garden. It also incorporates throbbing, atonal selections from electronic music pioneer Tod Dockstader’s acclaimed Quatermass (1964) recording.

For me, the other highlight was onetime CalArts animation scholar William Moritz’s 1993 recreation of Fischinger’s R-1 en Formspiel multiple-projector show that Fischinger performed in the 1920s. Moritz utilizes a triptych of three frames running concurrently: a central frame surrounded by two outside frames that mirror one another’s tinted montages of geometric shapes and billowing clouds of wax and liquid. It’s probably not a terribly exact reproduction of Fischinger’s show, but it is visually powerful, and definitely gives the viewer a sense of what Fischinger was up to in the early days of visual music performance.

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