Vol. 43 Issue 2-3 Reviews
Sabina Covarrubias: Viaje

Digital download, 2019, sound available from: https://play.google.com/music/preview/Tgdno52wzzogdfnblktxpswgi2q?play=1 Video available from: https://vimeo.com/392076266/.

Reviewed by Seth Rozanoff
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Sabina CovarrubiasSabina Covarrubias is a Mexican multimedia artist and researcher in music technology, based in Paris, France. Her current creative work demonstrates an approach to merging sound and image sources to make visual music, using the Jitter program. Her creative output can be parsed into two types. Covarrubias characterizes the first as “digital algorithmic photography”, and the second as “audio-reactive visuals.” Her photographic approach stems from using algorithms to process a given image; algorithms applied are in the spirit of granular synthesis techniques. Audio-reactive works attempt to form a cohesive link between sounds and images.

Covarrubias has also, recently, been organizing Jitter tutorials, which are meant to assist artists and musicians with their own multimedia projects, as well as further clarify the program’s seemingly complex visual design. A definition of visual music based on more recent experience and practice, could simply be the combining of non-narrative visual elements with sound. That pairing often results in a film or a realtime performance that requires projection. The term ‘visual music’ has progressed recently, extending to music videos, installations, and other interactive visual practice. An important aspect of Covarrubias’ audiovisual work is her enhanced approach to music composition, and how it has influenced the structure between her sound and visual elements. As such, her work is not simply an exercise in VJing, or an attempt to ‘trans-code’ sound into image.

A good example of Covarrubias’ compositional approach can be seen in her work Viaje. It can be presented as both a live electronics and visuals work, and as music without visuals. Both versions last 45 minutes. Viaje was premiered at the 2018 Vision’R festival in Paris, and also has been performed at the 2019 Saturnalia Festival in Milan, and SONICA 2019 in Glasgow.

Viaje contains two main, juxtaposed, sound classes in this work: dense metallicfragments, and a lessenergetic soundstream. Relating to her use of Jitter, Covarrubias’ realtime images stem from that program’s library of objects, which can be used for making sound, as well as retrieving data. In Viaje, the potential role of these objects supports an interaction concept – managing structural interplay between sound and image practices.

Covarrubias develops expressive continuity in Viaje from a series of transitions, which seem to mirror shifts in the prominence or dominance of a range of musical motifs. She also manipulates the accompanimental processes, which can be viewed as a type of slowed down improvisation. Much of Covarrubias’ sound material can be characterized as a subtle range of noises, whose layers, at times, ‘bleed into’ the broader sonic image.

One important aspect of audiovisuality in Viaje, is the organization of broad sonic layers according to visual behaviors. For example, fine-grained visual particles are coordinated alongside specific musical fragments. Covarrubias seems to be decisive regarding these pairings. As such, these larger-scale gestures stem from a use of a range of modular and digital instruments. Covarrubias uses hardware manufactured by Make Noise, Moog, Mutable Instruments, and Arturia, in her work. Her configuration of these devices results in what can be characterized as a range of metallic sonorities. Those sounds are then pitted against various types of patterning, generated in Jitter. Another aspect of audiovisuality in Viaje, is the quality of an expanded space. Drone-like soundstreams seem to soften this sense of space.

Covarrubias addresses the issue of form as well, inserting short transitory sections between the larger audiovisual behaviors. For example, sometimes she clears out the orchestration, resulting in the transformation of her accompanimental materials. The listener or viewer might not notice the significance of these adjustments until a new contrastbetween sound and image is achieved. Another example can be heard around 18’30’’, where Covarrubias introduces flute-like utterances to denote a new formal section. This new sonic character is then mimicked throughout the succeeding five minutes by a range of motivic variation, all of which could be heard as being derived from an organ or similar keyboard instrument. As this section progresses, Covarrubias again, has set up another compositional structure between the more robust figurations and their accompanying orchestrations.

As related to visual elements in her work, Covarrubias developed a distinctive formal process as well. Two main issues are relevant here: color selection and combination, and movement of particles. In the context of Viaje, these visual behaviors seem to have been carefully choreographed to coordinate visual patterns with sound. Her approach to shaping visual behavior in Viaje stems from her work in Turning Point (2018). At around 4’00” of that work, her particlesare programmed to form new circular patterns. These patterns contrast the buildup of weightier musical layers. As this circular arrangement develops, one hears and views a clearer interaction with the music. As the work continues (circular patterns still present), almost unexpectedly around 5’30”, sequential musical figures dominate the landscape, and the circular forms are traded for dense strands of tread-like visual patterns. At times the movement of these ‘threads’, mirrors the past behavior of particles seen in the beginning of the work. This type of repositioningtechnique is also used in Viaje. This often happens later, mirroring development of new sonic trajectories. Meaning, after a given section, she develops variations of her sonic material, retransforming her fragments. As such, the resulting interplay between sound and image is maintained, stemming from subtle alterations of both elements. Overall, Covarrubias’ aesthetic can be summarized in her own statement: “I develop "visual-motifs" along with the work... I create crescendos, diminuendos, accelerandos, development of motifs, I cannot separate my visuals from the music.”

Mentioned earlier, Covarrubias has successfully unpacked Jitter’s objects for new users, who are not programmers, in particular. In her tutorials for beginners, she has broken down Jitter’s functionality, discussing the software’s practical features. Often, Covarrubias suggests a creative project in which a given Jitter object could be used. This trajectory not just assists one’s understanding of technical aspects of programming images, but also encourages artistic thinking. At the core of her tutorials, is experimentation between sounds and images – how to effectively manage audiovisual interaction.

Of course, this is an important aspect of her own creative work, but Covarrubias does not necessarily claim Jitter is the best approach. She states the following: “I believe that excellent results can be achieved regardless of the tool used...good quality and originality in a work will depend on the artist's potential and experience and not in the tool he or she is using.”

Her additional video footage further encourages new users who may feel overwhelmed by a given patch’s design structure. Covarrubias’ attitude has been informed by not only her own research activities, but her current multimedia practice as well. She does not overlook a discussion about Jitter’s programming theory either. Clarifying this information, can potentially further assist one’s view of the differences that exist between artistic approaches using technology, and Jitter’s technical structure. Ultimately, Covarrubias’ educational approach supports, or opens a space for artistic thinking, compared to a scenario wherein a user may struggle to work around a program’s technical limitations. Also, her tutorials encourage others to personalize their visual results. An example can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=8QcZ1Qc7qIw. This video corresponds to her tutorial aimed at using color data that has been extracted from a movie, and used to further modify a given 3D shape. Covarrubias also tries to speak in relatively non-technical terms here, assisting the user’s understanding of a given tutorial, including those provided by the Max program. Covarrubias’ tutorials as well as her artistic practice, make positive contributes to the ever-developing field of visual music.