Vol. 31 Issue 4 Reviews

Boston Cyberarts Festival: Visual Music Marathon/The Puppet Master by Eric Chasalow

Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 28 April 2007; Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA, 5-6 May 2007.

Reviewed by Peter McMurray
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Every other year for the past eight years, the Boston Cyberarts Festival has set itself to the task of organizing and promoting a large-scale “collaboration of artists working in new technologies in all media in North America” (Web www.bostoncyberarts.org). The festival, which ran from 20 April to 6 May, 2007, takes place at numerous venues throughout Boston, this year including both usual-suspects locations like university campuses and art museums, as well as smaller locales like neighborhood gymnasiums, churches, and even a biotechnology company’s office space. The festival consistently presents high-quality music and sound art, as well as a wide array of visual artwork. Two events at this year’s Festival brought these sometimes disparate artistic worlds—audio and visual media—together in particularly compelling ways: the first ever Visual Music Marathon at Northeastern University, and the premiere of Eric Chasalow’s new opera, The Puppet Master.

Although the concept of a “marathon” concert did not originate with the Visual Music Marathon, held at the Raytheon Amphitheater at Northeastern University on 28 April from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., it certainly found meaningful expression in that event. (Other notable music “marathons” include several regular, high profile events in New York City—the Wall to Wall concerts at Symphony Space, and the Bang on a Can marathons—and even a regular event at the Boston Cyberarts Festival produced by the Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio, directed by Eric Chasalow.) Organized by composer/graphic artist Dennis Miller, the Marathon consisted of two basic types of works, each taking up roughly half of the program: one group was made up of submissions to the Marathon, totaling 64 works (out of over 300 entries); the other featured several one-hour blocks of materials with some connection, such as historical works, live performance pieces, and a pair of curated sets by Larry Cuba (iotaCenter, Los Angeles) and Bruce Wands (Digital Salon/School of Visual Arts, New York). 

Despite some technical difficulties in projecting 16-mm film, the Marathon’s inclusion of historic works offered a useful counterbalance and perspective to the heft of new(er) works on the program. These historic works spanned back to Dada pioneer Hans Richter’s work in the early 1920s, beginning with Rhythm 21 (1921) and Rhythm 23 (1923), both of which emphasized the filmic aspects of visual music. Richter’s work, which strongly evokes musical rhythms despite predating films with sound-synchronization, served as a compelling reminder not of how far the medium has “progressed”—though that progress was readily apparent—but rather of how much a visual artist can express even with relatively constrained technological means. 

Richter’s Rhythm compositions also suggest a very rudimentary form of three-dimensional imagery, one of the major elements in contemporary visual music. Richter succeeds in creating a surprising sense of depth—and even an illusion of front-back motion along a z-axis—with his use of different sizings of images. For example, even in the earlier of the two pieces, Rhythm 21, white blocks appear to spring from the black background toward the viewer and vice-versa, as a central gesture to the piece. Jumping ahead nearly a century, this same basic ethos prevailed in a number of works that use 3-D images. Some, like Scott Pagano’s 1.618 (2006), even echo the idiosyncratic use of line segments in Richter’s work to realize a much larger visual schema; others, like Nebula (2006) by Hilary Harp and Suzie Silver, saturate their visual spaces more densely with constant 3-D animation; others create virtual images (even of musical instruments, no less), as in animusic’s Pipe Dream (2001); and still others, like painter/animator Jean Detheux in Daydream Mechanics V, Sketch 3 (2006, a setting of a Michael Oesterle composition), manage to evoke a three-dimensional world through visual artifice, manipulating “flat” images in ways that create moments of depth-inflected motion.  

One contributing artist and attendee, Emile Tobenfeld, known by the moniker Dr. T (the namesake for his MIDI software), suggested that the use of 3-D was a frequent point of faltering for visual music. He explained that he “rarely find[s] 3D animation evocative in a musical sense, and [only a few] of the works that I saw that used 3D made a positive impression” (electronic correspondence, 22 May 2007). Mr. Detheux echoed those sentiments, at least implicitly, in warmly praising Dennis Miller’s piece, White Noise: “Dennis Miller's film demonstrates that 3D can be used for poetic work, very, very unusual in my experience of animation” (electronic mail correspondence, 22 May 2007). In a sense, such critiques might apply equally well to any number of techniques, especially in an artistic medium so naturally interdisciplinary, and therefore by extension, difficult to master in its entirety. On some level, the ever-expanding reach of technology certainly plays a role. In the world of non-visual electronic music (taken broadly), loops, samples, and sequences have become mainstream techniques possible on any home computer; similarly, the growing availability of visual-editing and 3D animation programs has lowered the barriers-to-entry in video-based media, which somewhat mitigates the need for high-level specialization, at least in beginning to use those techniques.

Mr. Tobenfeld’s remarks also beg the question of artistic identity. Many of the artists involved in the Marathon have written on the topic and proffered definitions of “visual music.” But ultimately, the medium seems to accommodate a variety of styles and artistic worldviews, with diverse perspectives on the comparative roles of sound and visual material. Several of the programmed works—especially some of the older ones—used preexisting musical materials as a sort of soundtrack, in a very loose sense. In addition to Mr. Detheux’s use of Mr. Oesterle’s work, others featured music by Oscar Peterson (Norman McLaren), Thelonious Monk (Hy Hirsh), Erik Satie (Bum Lee), and Laurie Spiegel (David Ehrlich), to name a few, while several others used traditional/folk music in a similar fashion, played continuously with simultaneous visuals. Some works succeeded better than others in navigating that space between MTV and total audio-visual disconnect—the works by McLaren and Hirsh are classics for doing just that—while others, even those without a fixed sound-composition, sometimes drifted more toward predictable interactions between the visual and musical elements of their work.  

Another key aesthetic issue raised by the programmed works is that of source material and abstraction. Once again, the historic-works segment framed this issue nicely. Of course, abstraction can exist with real-world materials, especially when those materials are other art media themselves. Thus a work like Oskar Fischinger’s Motion Painting I (1947), which as its name suggests makes use of stop-motion techniques to capture the kinetic aspects of painted works, has a strongly abstract feel to it, even though the process of painting is, by itself, a very familiar real-world experience. Other works like Mary Ellen Bute’s Rhythm in Light (1934) use light sources—in this case, manipulated in various ways with prisms, cardboard tubings, and lens materials—and then abstract and recontextualize those images. The development of computer graphics and other digitally created images can be traced back to yet another “historic” inclusion, John Whitney’s Arabesque (1975). In this piece, vertical and horizontal graphics are presented at first in isolation, and then joined together, yielding a sort of abstracted, visual rendition of a sonata-form composition in music. It should be noted that Larry Cuba acted as the software programmer for this piece, and Manoochehr Sadeghi, a virtuoso on the Perisan santour (an instrument similar to the hammer dulcimer), created the sounds. It is worth pointing out that Whitney’s contributions to the field extend back to the 1950s, as he developed optical and analog technologies to facilitate his own visual-music artworks.

In the subsequent three decades since Arabesque, computer-generated graphics have of course developed such that non-abstracted animations are now the standard (albeit highly varied) fare in visual music, but Whitney’s work again sets a certain high-water mark for later works, whether abstract or not.  On the other hand, many artists’ work draws on real-world images, often quite visibly, including roses (Brigid Burke), metal hinges  (Justin Rubin), an oil refinery (Nick Cope, Tim Howie), and even images from the current Iraq War (Jonathon Kirk). 

Other works, such as Stephan Larson’s Discord: Metal and Meat, used the visual music medium to pose some of the recurring “big picture” questions about the human relationship with technology, depicting a stunning (if suggestively grotesque) eruption evoking volcanic flow. But if images of technology in Mr. Larson’s work suggested intense conflict between “man” and “machine,” other artists found a certain warmth in that same relationship, as in Whirlitzer, a 2006 collaborative composition by Margaret Schedel (sound) and Nick Fox-Gleg (visual).  The piece was an express homage to early music-machines, like player pianos and music boxes, with both sounds and visuals derived from and depicting these machines. Ms. Schedel’s sound composition, derived from just three seconds of a recording of a music box, succeeded as a dynamic but succinct statement (the whole piece lasted only 60 seconds) while avoiding the traps of nostalgic sentimentality.  Larry Cuba, who acted as a host curator for the hour-long segment on works from The iotaCenter in Los Angeles, contributed more obliquely to this theme with his destined-to-be-classic Calculated Images (1985), which explores the visual representation of hierarchy as expressed through raster graphics. Each successive graphic pattern develops, growing out of previous elements combined over time, almost as though enacting a Schenkerian-styled hierarchy of complexity and detail, with the end result producing a final “score that describes the composition from beginning to end” (taken from the program notes for the event). Although visual-music generally eschews narrativity, pieces like Calculated Images suggest that even abstract works can ably convey narrative-like meanings. Indeed, if Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies can depict “fate knocking at the door” or “the heroic conflict” through their rhythms and tonal areas, it seems appropriate to acknowledge a similar subtext of humanity and its relationship to power structures and hierarchical organization as mediated (and perhaps facilitated) by technology.

Just a week after the Visual Music Marathon, composer Eric Chasalow premiered his one-act multimedia opera, The Puzzle Master, 5-6 May, 2007, in the Laurie Theater at Brandeis University. For the libretto, Mr. Chasalow turned to poet F. D. Reeve, an emeritus professor at Wesleyan University, currently living in England; Mr. Reeve adapted the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Video artist Denise Marika, known for her “video sculpture,” designed the set and, of particular interest here, also created a continuous video component to be projected against the back of the stage throughout the opera. (Ms. Marika also presented work as part of the Cyberarts Festival in a group exhibition at the Howard Yezerski Gallery.)  David Moulton, a composer and audio engineer, provided a set of four BeoLab 5 loudspeakers. The 2,500-watt conical speakers, which Mr. Moulton helped design and refine over a period of several years, make use of two aluminum disks at the top of the speaker to distribute high- and medium-frequency sounds evenly around a performance space.  These sizable speakers, besides providing formidable acoustics, also added prominently to the contours of the staging, as they flanked the singers. 

Although initially conceived as a much larger project, the opera ultimately consisted of pre-recorded electroacoustic materials, a live electronic keyboard part, and five singers: “Delling, a world-famous engineer”—Daedalus, sung by baritone Donald Wilkinson; “Ingram, his twelve-year-old son”—Icarus, soprano Jennifer Ashe; and Caribe, a mixed-chorus whose members also doubled as other characters in the story—tenor Matthew Anderson, mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal, and bass-baritone Paul Guttry).

Mr. Reeve’s libretto transplants the familiar myths to a Caribbean island, where Delling reflects on the life of his son, Ingram. The opera presents flashbacks through several episodes in his career as inventor, reaching its climax as Ingram falls to his death while flying with a set of wings created by his father. The opera closes with Delling’s musings on the existential problems of freedom and the liabilities of information technology—a theme suggested implicitly in several works in the Visual Music Marathon, as well—followed by a funeral scene for the deceased Ingram.

Mr. Chasalow has defined himself as a composer of both instrumental/chamber works and fixed-media electronics, often combined.  However, The Puzzle Master leans more heavily toward its non-electronic elements, with powerful vocal writing—performed admirably by the vocal ensemble—but with a relatively muted electronic part. The composer intended to include a small chamber orchestra but for practical reasons was forced to pare down his forces to a single instrumental performer, Yoshiko Hiramatsu-Kline, on keyboard.  Although Ms. Hiramatsu-Kline offered an outstanding performance—on the first night, her click-track stopped early in the opera, yet she still managed a very complex part cued only by conductor Eric Hewitt from the back row of the audience—the uniform timbres of the keyboard did not do justice to the nuances of the vocal writing. Similarly, the electroacoustic part seemed a bit overwhelmed at times by the singers; while the opening and closing of the opera had very strong, clear gestures, the “tape” part kept a relatively low profile through much of the actual dramatic narrative.

Overall, the singers performed a very difficult score with impressive fluidity. Especially on the second night, the singers seemed to coalesce into a single-minded musical unit, allowing a much more elaborate interchange between different vocal groupings. For the most part, the vocalists moved quite smoothly between ensemble work, soloistic moments, including several lengthy passages for the two soloists, as well as extended soliloquy-reminiscences by members of the chorus. Occasionally, a stronger accompaniment-part in counterpoint (perhaps in the keyboard part, but especially in the electroacoustic part) would have rendered these transitions even more effective. Even so, the singers and conductor moved the work forward convincingly, in spite of the somewhat minimized interaction with the electronic parts. Most importantly, the score played to the strengths of the vocalists and they responded adeptly.

Mr. Chasalow’s vocal score also employed a surprising use of highly exposed tonal material. On several occasions throughout the opera, Caribe (the chorus) began singing chorale-like music, with slow, synchronized harmonic changes with much more traditional phrasing and cadences. Perhaps the result of postmodern attitudes toward tonality dating back at least to Luciano Berio, or perhaps just an intended respite from what would otherwise be an intensely active harmonic landscape, these chorale sections juxtaposed nicely against the electronic backdrop. While the precise dramatic function of these chorales was not immediately apparent—it made up a relatively small portion of the chorus’ overall part—it consistently opened up timbral spaces in the vocal writing, allowing the musical textures to “breathe.”  

The video projection, which was developed for the most part separately from the music compositional processes, shows a series of semi-abstracted images on a textured screen/”visual sculpture,” made by leaning two-by-four boards vertically against the back wall of the theater, with several inches between successive boards.  The result was a ribbed surface that distorted the images of the film to varying degrees in different places in the theater. Perhaps the most striking visual of the opera came at the very end, as “undertakers” removed the boards and laid them on the ground, symbolizing the coffin of Ingram/Icarus, as a looped video segment played, showing (what appeared to be) a corpse tied up in a body-bag, falling down a long set of steps. The combination of this eerie danse macabre with the new-found clarity resulting from the de-textured screen gave a strong visual closure to the opera, and was accompanied by some of the most expansive, but also fine-tuned, sounds of the evening—presumably the kinds of moments necessitating the use of the BeoLab loudspeakers. 

Mr. Chasalow’s opera highlights several important issues in multimedia artwork.  As a composer, he rightly focused on the musical composition of the piece. After laying out the basic form and length of the opera, he and Ms. Marika worked largely independently of one another in actually fleshing out the details of their respective materials. The two pieces laid together nicely, but with an apparent flexibility in their coordination, finally culminating in tightly-corresponding visuals and music in the remarkable closing funerary scene. Nevertheless, the music emerged as the dominant role in the work as a whole. In contrast, the Visual Music Marathon aesthetic, as diverse a program as it was, tended toward more visually-dominant works. Although any individual may prefer one aesthetic to the other, the task of striking an artistically meaningful balance between sonic and visual elements requires fine-tuned sensibilities, whatever the aim; to their credit, the participants in these two events showed a number of possible solutions to that challenge.  

The two events also demanded very different sensory strategies from their audience. Of course, both required a combination of active listening and viewing. But the types of long-term narratives at stake in such presentations differ considerably. For Mr. Chasalow’s opera, the overall development is relatively clear: like traditional opera, he set out to “tell a story” of Daedalus and Icarus, and he did so in a chronologically comprehensible way, though told largely retrospectively. A format like the Visual Music Marathon is more complex. As a starting point—mentioned above—visual music is generally a non-narrative art form; however, the challenges of programming 12 hours of visual music requires a certain organization.  Dennis Miller and his colleagues chose to balance several possible approaches: a historical approach (including the “historic” works as well as some slightly older works from The iotaCenter); a global-sampling approach (including as diverse a body of works as possible, regardless of their chronology); and an approach focused on presenting new works (which made up a sizeable portion of the program). This too creates a certain meta-narrative (or narratives) within the program as a whole, though the meanings of that narrative vary depending on what portion of the Marathon the audience-member attended.  

Finally, these two events suggest the expansive possibilities—and some might argue the inherent limitations—that stem from borrowing artistic concepts from other media. Maura McDonnell’s extensive essay “Visual Music,” printed in the official Visual Music Marathon program (also available online at www.soundingvisual.com/visualmusic/VisualMusicEssay.pdf), offers insights, from the perspective of visual music: 

Each visual music artist has an idea and approach to working with his or her chosen visual material. The visual material is pliable and formless; it can be taken from many sources, just as contemporary music takes its sound material from many sources and shapes it in many different ways. What is most striking about visual music works, however, is that in order to put some shape onto this visual material, the focus has been on using concepts from music, focusing on the structures and language, yet reworking these concepts for a visual production. (program booklet, pp. 2-3)

Continuing on, Ms. McDonnell pays considerable attention to the use of motion, in both traditionally composed music and visual music. And indeed, for all the various approaches to visual music seen at the Marathon—whether fully abstracted or hinting at narrativity, whether computer-generated or derived from objets trouvés—a similar mindset to that traditionally ascribed to composers seemed to prevail, with emphasis on the structuring of events in time to produce a coherent artistic statement, though not necessarily a “linear” or “narrative” one. 

On the other hand, since Richard Wagner—at least as the Gesamtkunstwerk philosopher, if not as an opera composer—any composer working in opera has faced the perplexities of the visual art world, and specifically the challenges of presenting a literal spectacle in addition to the usual demands of composing music. Mr. Chasalow has opted to have his singers—all in “concert-blacks” except Ingram’s sneakers, which nicely tempered the dress code—stand in place for the bulk of the opera (although, effective use was made of three musical “asides” with soloists repositioning themselves somewhat onstage, as well as offstage singing by Ingram as a posthumous memory in Delling’s mind). Such a relative lack of staging may be par for the course in post-tonal operas, given the difficulty of the vocal parts. But the visual tradeoff is real: one opera-goer suggested the piece be marketed as an oratorio, rather than an opera, given the lack of traditional staging. Yet the addition of Ms. Marika’s video projection here allows the composer to write concert-level music without giving up on a compelling visual stage-space. Or, to put it somewhat reductively, the presence of video actively transforms Mr. Chasalow’s music from a concert piece to an opera. 

Thanks to the Cyberarts Festival and the respective host-institutions (Northeastern, Brandeis), these two ambitious events were presented essentially in tandem, allowing for a sort of conversation between visual music and multimedia opera. As in so many instances, the handles used to label these art forms prove slippery at best; but standing side-by-side, a marathon and a one-act opera certainly elucidate one another’s meanings and artistic identity. In fact, these ambiguities in definition seem to nurture the growth of both art forms, allowing each to expand in both musical and visual terms.

This fertile blurring of distinctions is captured in Robert Seidel’s __grau. The title of the piece, meaning “gray,” is reflected in a brief dialogic epigram at the beginning of the work (this work can be viewed online at www.grau1001.de):

mf ...for me, life consists of black and white only...
rs ...i think there is just the in-between...

The piece begins with a brilliant display of colors moving across the screen, right to left, before white flashes overrun the images. Musically, the soundtrack by Heiko Tippelt and Philipp Hirsch combines ambient vocal music with a white-noise pulse that culminates—at least for the moment—along with the white flashes, leaving in its place a mostly black-and-white visual work with tantalizing blocks of color occasionally recurring. The black-and-white sections initially suggest a procession of three-dimensional Rorschach images, eventually giving way to a whole series of explorations of “in-between” visual worlds. Indeed, black-and-white simply falls short of the task of describing it.

Similarly, the generic delineations of “opera” and “visual music”—not to mention “music” and “film” or “visual art”—hardly do justice to the vibrant works artists are creating and presenting today. Jean Detheux perhaps expressed it best: “I have no doubt whatsoever that Visual Music is a major art form with deeply grounded historical roots… and that it will eventually be recognized as such. VMM [the Visual Music Marathon] was a magnificent celebration of the vitality of that art form, and it (the festival) will make babies, mark my words.” (electronic correspondence, 22 May 2007). Judging by the abundance of sophisticated, challenging works presented at the recent Cyberarts Festival, it seems that Mr. Detheux’s prediction of fertility and growth among such multimedia presentations is well on its way to realization.