Vol. 33 Issue 1 Reviews
Dennis Miller: Seven Animations

DVD-Video (NTSC, Region 1), 2005/2008; Dennis Miller Animations, Northeastern University Department of Music, 351 Ryder Hall, 360 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA; telephone (+1) 617-373-4132; electronic mail dhmiller@comcast.net; Web www.dennismiller.neu.edu/.

Reviewed by Andrew Fletcher
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

DVD CoverThe convergence of abstract images and music often brings to mind dry, academic showpieces, whose theoretical concept eclipses their content, music therapy workshops, or early 1990s trance videos. But within the stratum of non-figurative computer art, only a few artists produce compelling work that instills feelings beyond technical admiration. Dennis Miller’s work successfully negotiates this bridge, spanning evocative, creative expression and the clinical precision bred from working in a high-tech academic arts environment. The pieces that make up Seven Animations exhibit a scholarly approach to their maternal technology, whilst also demonstrating a warming sense of experimentalism and intuition.

Mr. Miller, a composer by trade, currently serves on the music faculty at Northeastern University in Boston. His Web site (www.dennismiller.neu.edu/) reveals a deep-rooted interest in computer generated imagery (CGI), particularly in the abstract field, and the relationship between sound composition and visual images. Seven Animations represents Mr. Miller’s output over a seven-year period, comprising roughly one nine-minute piece from each year between 1999 and 2007. Given this time span, it seems appropriate to review each track individually and in sequence. The DVD has just been re-released and the videos are arranged more or less chronologically.

Residue (1999) presents a rotating cube in space. The first thing to strike the viewer is its rather sinister rate of movement: somewhere between fast and slow; hurried yet glacial; machinic yet fluid. Perhaps it’s just that this is the first piece, but its calculated feel lends a creeping sense of anxiety. Recurring orange nebulae build on this, complementing the almost electroacoustic soundtrack, which segues into Ligeti-esque “cloud” arrangements, bringing the audio and visuals into a rewarding alignment. Some daring cuts provide the key for a narrative, though this doesn’t developz—and has no need to—at such an early stage.

Second Thoughts (2000) heralds a more glitchy dimension (present in one form or another hereafter) as Mr. Miller enters the 21st century. Electromagnetic spectral lines and grainy fuzz combine with Geiger clicks to imply, if one suspends disbelief, a sense of radiation sickness and toxicity. High contrast imagery gives way to more standard fare (floating shapes in space), although there is a greater sense of environment, with a less sterile feel than previously. Black on red is used to menacing effect, suggesting a multitude of ills.

This thematic focusing is extended in Vis a Vis (2002). Simple oscillation dominates, as refracted light patterns sway back and forth with a naturalistic swing. The colors are vivid, yet there is an underlying haunted feel, like a distorted analog signal hiding behind a high definition veil. Watery sounds reflect the fluidity of the images and shapes imply themselves, yet never quite materialize. A sudden “crack” near the middle suggests genuine technical failure, giving the impression of Mr. Miller as a seasoned tinkerer and breaker of things, a far cry from the contrived glitch often encountered in similar work.

aktura (2003) begins in darkness, before homing in on some unidentifiable light source. Shattered landscapes dissolve into infinity. These are of that “plasticky,” synthetic quality that much early CGI seems to have, where surfaces and lighting are too “perfect” and negate credibility. This gives way to a complex layered section, swiftly refocusing the attention. Movement hints at tangible imagery, like an autostereogram, and is emphasized by a dynamic audio palette. Layers of perspective shift like desert sands, light melts on and off the screen like an aurora, and objects move in and out of existence as if the perspective is at a quantum level.
Halfway through and the selection is impressive. A sense of darkness underpins the technical wizardry, indicating deftness and restraint in composition. The soundscapes are less memorable, although extremely complementary to the visuals, thus fulfilling a large part of the motivation behind Seven Animations. This betrays a pragmatic sense for the final product, focusing on synergy, rather than on individual elements.

Jumping forward, White Noise (2007) is more advanced and complex. The viewer is reminded of jellyfish by unnervingly organic textures and a visceral color scheme. The sounds are of deep seas teeming with life. Mysterious shoals reflect light at a frantic pace and there is even the impression of insemination, suggested by clouds of viscous fluid, floating with unnerving intent. Shocking horn stabs puncture this threatening and dreamlike landscape, and blood and tissue in deep water add to the confusion, bringing to mind the chaotic forces of sex and violence. We emerge, blinking at some distant, unfocussed industrial structure. This narrative is impressive, but is cut prematurely short by an ill-fitting “floating shape” sequence. Nevertheless, White Noise is thoroughly engaging. We return to the deep, to see frail, spindly creatures traveling through fertile waters and into the blackness.

Cross Contours (2005), with its cartoonish titles and less thematically linked visuals, is the weakest piece here. The soundtrack is more harmonically dense, but the onscreen textures tend towards greater repetition and less inspiration. The “glue” between sound and vision is lacking and the color palette not focused enough to hold interest. The piece improves during a quieter section, moving into semi-transparency and smoky intangibles, but this soon returns to screensaver territory. An interesting “hairy” object appears just prior to the end, but floats off the edge of the screen, leaving an unresolved feeling.

Finally, Circles and Rounds (2006) presents objects in a cloudy space. More specific colors and complex shapes suggest a technical exercise, but industrial sounding electroacoustic noises create a pleasing counterpoint. Fine threads fill the screen, which, combined with the more incongruous soundtrack, are engaging and curious. This is gradually replaced by a tempered cloud effect, like tamed steam. A close-up gives the impression of speed, while distant shots are more serene, lending a sense of scale and perspective. We then travel “inside” the object, which appears “flowing” in a strangely organic way. Ossification and a curious brittleness give way to a febrile and bristling ending.

The overall sense here is of environments, to my mind, eerie undersea worlds with mysterious inhabitants. Having viewed a reasonable amount of abstract CGI, I can say that Mr. Miller has refined and elegant artistic sensibilities as well as the technical skills to realize these. The DVD shows a nice development curve, both technically and conceptually, but also gives the impression that each piece is as good as it can be for that time. From an audio perspective, attention is paid to the “sonic object” and the importance of location and atmosphere is also evident. The general feel is of synthesis, although many sounds hint at electroacoustic composition. If these are synthesized, then they are beautifully rendered.

I stated earlier that the soundtrack is unmemorable, but on reflection, this seems the result of a tightly bound music/visual relationship not necessarily apparent on the first viewing. Once the audience develops a feel for the poetry of the work and an idea of the rhythm and architecture of each piece, the noises seem to drop more naturally into place, indicating deeper layers on further viewings.

It would be otiose to reduce this to an array of visual and sonic objects floating around in environments. The works largely transcend this, sometimes hinting towards a narrative, as in White Noise, or sometimes exploring beyond the physical space initially presented, as in Circles and Rounds. Prickly glitch is expertly deployed in Second Thoughts, and surprise cuts and deliberate ambiguity are put to excellent use in Vis a Vis. It is this slipperiness, this elusive feel, that Mr. Miller uses to such good effect, elevating the collection far beyond academic exercise. With one exception, the works here demonstrate that warmth, intrigue, and even a sense of the visceral can be conveyed within an often sterile, complex and technically difficult medium. For this reason, Seven Animations is a memorable and impressive example of the genre.