Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Visualizing Music

"All of a sudden it hit me -- if there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion. After all, there are melodic figures. Why can't there be figures of motion?"
--Len Lye

I've always been interested in animated interpretations of music, and partly for my own sake I wanted to put some of my favorites here. Although I don't have much exposure to this area of film, the earliest examples of animated music I've seen have been the experimental films of Len Lye and Oskar Fischinger.

Len Lye's A Colour Box (1935)

Len Lye made "direct film" -- film made without a camera -- by scratching and painting individual frames of celluoid. I can only imagine how grueling this process must have been, but the results speak for themselves.

Oskar Fischinger's Studie #8 (1932)

Like Len Lye, Oskar Fischinger's films were totally abstract visualizations of sound, albeit much more stripped down and traditionally produced. He designed the "Toccata and Fugue in d" sequence for Fantasia but quit after Disney's animators made his designs too representational.

Gy├Ârgy Ligeti's Artikulation (1958/1970)

Sometimes animation can help us interpret music that would otherwise be almost totally inaccessible. This "visual listening score" for an early electronic composition by Ligeti is a good example of using discretization for musical analysis. Animating the score and allowing the audience to anticipate the seemingly random tones somehow grounds the whole experience and makes it almost participatory.

Autechre's Gantz Graf (2002)

Aphex Twin/Chris Cunningham's Monkey Drummer (2001)

Dense electronic music lends itself well to visualisation for the same reason that the Ligeti animation works so well. When music as incredibly complicated as Gantz Graf is set to perfectly synched animation, the editing and artistry in both the music and the visuals really shine through.

John Coltrane's Giant Steps (1959/2001)

For someone as jazz-illiterate as I am, this encompasses the imagination and vitality of a piece like "Giant Steps" and packages it in such an immediate, engaging way that I start to understand how much of a genuis John Coltrane was. That's a pretty huge achievement for an animated short. (High quality version here)

Larry Cuba's Calculated Movements (1985)

Sometimes animation and music work togeter just to create a mood, and I wanted to end this post with one of my favorite examples of that. Coincidentally, Larry Cuba did the very early computer animation that was used in the first Star Wars movie. He's done some other beautiful films too.

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