Visions of the Future
One of the stars of Channel 4's Fourmations, Brian Johnson's Improvisions combine musical performance with real-time manipulation of video images. Peter Ridsdale trips on this.
One area of experimentation currently being opened up by advances in technology is that of interactive audiovisual art; one studio involved in that experimentation is Bristol's Image Lab.
I RECENTLY FOUND myself a witness to the emergence of another aspect of the fast-evolving hi-tech audio-visual arts. In the wake of Videola (see MT, March '90) and Coldcut's dramatic predictions for the future of computer graphics (MT, August '90), it was the turn of Bristol's Image Lab to make a presentation of what they term "Improvisions". The project is the brainchild of composer Edward Williams and electronic image maker Brian Johnson, who have linked up with a team of improvisational musicians drawing on a variety of musical styles. These styles range from the Indianesque vocals of Chloe Goodchild and the inventive violin playing of Stuart Gordon (which neatly escapes any attempts at categorisation), through to the jazzy sax playing of Jerry Underwood and Will Gregory and the Afro-Latin inflected percussion of Simon Preston. Williams and Johnson have also worked with Julie Tippetts, a brilliant singer whose maiden name, Driscoll, was widely known in the '60s when she had a big hit with a Bob Dylan song 'Wheels on Fire' (although I understand that she tries to play this down as much as possible nowadays).
It is difficult in the context of such a presentation to decide whether you are watching the birth of a new art form or merely experiencing one of the interesting endeavours that technology makes possible but that fails to catch on due to the lack of a public platform, the logistical problems involved, or for whatever other reason. That people up and down the country are experimenting at this very moment with new ways to put sound and vision together in the privacy of their own (often home) video suites and recording studios is certain - all I can say about the Image Lab project at this point is that I have never seen anything quite like it before.
At the time of my visit the process was at the deed-without-a-name stage and labels such as "Videosonics" and "Improvisation" were being thrown around. Since then the neat term Improvision has been conceived and adopted. The description according to the press release of the day, however, is "Real-time Interactive Video Music Improvisation". Whatever the label, this tentative new art form is a process in which the musician plays to images on a video monitor screen which are partly controlled by the video artist and partly controlled by the musical input itself.
An ovoid shape may, for example, become stretched out by high notes and made circular by low ones, and a colourful abstract pattern within this basic visual "window" may have its blues emphasised by quiet notes and its red components brought out by loud ones. The video artist might then respond to the musicians' gestures and could change, to continue the hypothetical example, the basic ovoid shape into a pulsating string of ellipses with an entirely different colour scheme superimposed on any other image - footage from old movies perhaps, electronically generated Lissajous patterns, images of the musicians themselves as they play or indeed any of the manifold visual resources that Image Lab can offer. Visual ideas may then suggest some kind of sonic analogy to the musician and in this way the process grows and develops.
Johnson stresses that he is not trying to illustrate music or provide a visual counterpart for every single musical gesture in a diegetic sense (what is more commonly known to film music composers as Mickey-Mousing); instead he's more involved with a choreography of images, a kind of visual puppetry that is at times synchronous and at other times tangential to the musical discourse.
Image Lab is housed adjacent to Williams' recording studio which has a relatively large performance area purposely designed so that dance and movement pieces can be accommodated within. Diligent readers will recall that Williams is an enthusiastic proponent of the Soundbeam Movement-to-MIDI converter. (See MT, Oct '89.) At the session that I attended Jerry Underwood and Simon Preston were installed in this space facing a large video monitor, two video cameras and a battery of lighting equipment. They were flanked by two of Williams' Trolleys (more about these later) and surrounded by Simon Preston's musical paraphernalia which included balaphons, berimbau, mbiras, frame drums and sundry other percussion instruments lovingly collected from distant corners of the globe. Their signals were being sent to engineer Mark Newbold at the mixing desk in the control booth and in turn sent to Brian Johnson in the Lab.
Walking into Image Lab is a refreshing experience for the jaded techno-journalist who has all but had it up to here with the usual variations-on-a-theme studio facility. This is no place to stifle a yawn as yet another proud studio owner points out the inevitable hi-tech toys. The all-too familiar landmarks are missing in this bewildering Aladdin's Cave of esoteric electronics and guerilla technology. I recognise a VCS3 in one corner but am slightly disconcerted to find that its function in this setup has nothing at all to do with sound - its waveforms are being used to control a dynamic and multicoloured oscillographic display. Now here's another puzzling thought: you are probably aware that oscilloscopes only come in glorious Greenchrome; but here before your very eyes is a multi-hued version.
"Oscillographics had been worked on since the 1950's by people like Mary Ellen Bute and Ben Lapinski", Johnson explains, "but as far as I know I was the first one to do it in colour... I converted a colour TV set to do these things so that I could make videos of them. It's a vector scan display which means that instead of scanning across and going down and flying back up as a TV does it actually draws a picture on the face of the tube - rather like waving a sparkler around in the dark."
Johnson is the charismatic Caligarian figure who is the inventor, engineer and architect of this particular laboratory, but it very soon becomes apparent that the essential difference between Johnson and a mad scientist is, to paraphrase Dali, that Johnson is not mad at all. He has worked as a drama therapist, an electronic engineer designing special effects for rock bands and he is now a full-time film and video maker with a leaning towards education.
Johnson is a passionate believer in what he does and is quite prepared to run his colours up the mast.
"I'm not just trying to titillate your optic nerve. What I'm trying to do is to bring arts and science together, to de-compartmentalise knowledge. I call this room Image Lab because I want it to be a laboratory in a real sense. It's where you investigate being alive. I mean that."
And the last clause is delivered with full eye contact just in case you entertain the smallest of doubts. I don't want to give the impression that Johnson is totally didactic - he has a great sense of dry humour that's difficult to convey in print. He also has strong views about technology both visual and musical, and is not at all impressed by certain current trends. In fact, he is afraid that the widespread use of digital parameter access and the consequent rise in usage of synthesiser presets will result in the disappearance of experimentation. And his fears are likely to be well grounded.
JOHNSON COMES FROM that great British institution, the "biscuit tin" school of electronics and used to believe that the science was "quite useless" until he discovered practical applications for his knowledge using bio-feedback with Special Needs people.
Galvanic skin response meters, alpha wave amplifiers and microvolt meters are all still in evidence in the Lab and can all be used as control devices. It would be quite possible, for example, to make music by telling lies whilst hooked up to one of these devices or to have a tomato plant controlling a gradual colour change.
Johnson delights in modifying and recycling obsolete equipment and points out a machine that looks like a reject prop from a very early episode of Dr Who.
"At the time I was as poor as a church mouse; these things were old petrol pump control units which I took apart and rebuilt - I couldn't even afford knobs so I got dowelling rod, cut the middle out and stuck it on like that - then I got very wealthy and bought all these knobs."
Domestic-type computers such as the Atari 800XL (which people now find hard to give away) are snapped up and put to uses that their designers would never have dreamed of. "They were so cheap I had to buy them", he pleads.
A BBC Model B with a Gen Lock facility enables images from various domestic video recorders to be overlaid or keyed in with computer-generated colour graphics. "Keying in", it transpires, gives images which look a bit like solarisation and are derived using the same principle as a thermograph.
"It's looking at light levels and cutting off detail. It's rather like looking at a contour map of a hill and saying, well, we're not going to look at anything below 500 feet - you get one image that way; then if you increase it to 200 feet you get a bigger one... it then ascribes a colour to it."
Image Lab is divided up into a number of "workstations" and each one can be photographed or filmed. There's an optical bench where powerful lights or lasers shine down through a motorised assemblage of glass ashtrays, plates, prisms and ornaments and so on. A bench where anything drawn or painted is filmed from below so that the images magically appear in real time, seemingly without the aid of hands and art implements.
There's also a video-microscope which provides access to a visual world invisible to the naked eye. It would be no problem at all to film someone dancing among amoebae, for instance, with a judicious amount of image mixing. There's also a modelling bench where toys and other found objects can be made into dioramas or stage-sets for animation and puppetry. What looks, in 3D, like a post-holocaust landscape in some twisted Legoland with a shameful secret becomes even more sinister when seen as a two-dimensional colourised backdrop.
All in all up to 15 different images can be superimposed at once but Johnson rarely feels the need to go for this kind of complexity.
"I've noticed with kids, and a lot of teacher friends of mine have also noticed, that attention span is very short. Various people have been doing studies on this and some have said that it isn't true, but the average kid I get in here has the worst kind of TV advert attention span: it's 15 minutes before they have to have a break, and they also want their cortexes plugged in - they want 50,000 images a second and tremendous volume as well. There's a hell of a temptation to make things fast and to fill up the gaps and spaces, but one really meaningful idea, slowly moving but which is communicating something, is better than 50,000 that don't communicate anything. It's like the American attitude towards warfare - throw 3000 bombs at it and you might kill something: but then they invariably miss anyway."
Johnson also has at his disposal domestic titling units which he picked up for £15 each ("I've modified a couple just to be slightly different") and various other devices including digitisers, selectors (which turn images into silhouettes) and the wonderfully named Wobbulator which was invented in the '60s by the Korean/American performance artist Nam June Paik and someone called Abe. This is basically a black-and-white TV monitor with large scan coils from a colour TV mounted around the original coils. Audio signals can be sent through the exterior coils causing the image on the screen to "wobbulate" to the music.
Many of the above effects can be achieved using a Quantel Paintbox, as many a well-informed visitor to the studio has pointed out, but this is beside the point according to Johnson.
"I'm more interested in the content of the message than whether or not you've got a £15,000 mixer."
BEFORE YOU BEGIN to wonder whether you're reading a magazine called Image Technology rather than Music Technology, it's time to cover the other side of the equation, - although I feel that many of the concerns expressed by Brian Johnson are pertinent to both disciplines - what about the actual musical interface?
Basically, the sound from a microphone can be used direct or filtered into four separate frequency bands which are converted into voltages used to control the image-processing equipment. To make things slightly more complicated, there's also the possibility of receiving signals from The Trolley. Edward Williams has long been involved with the real-time electronic modification of acoustic sounds, and to this end has developed equipment racks mounted on trolleys which improvising musicians can control with foot pedals.
"The Trolley started off with the VCS3", he explains, "any sound that you put into a VCS3 can be modified by the treatment modules; a voltage controlled filter, a VC envelope shaper, a VC amplifier and a ring modulator. (You can also have re-enveloping and re-filtering.) I started off by making tape feedbacks and other tape manipulations and then putting them through the VCS3 and the EMS Pitch Shifter. The player would be able to control the output by means of pedals so that he or she could trigger the envelope shaper and bring out a sound that was a mixture of what they'd been playing a couple of minutes beforehand and what they were playing at that moment.
"In our last series of concerts we used a sampler and digital delay line (a Powertran MCS1) which was absolutely ideal for our purpose. The player could use a pedal to freeze the memory so that it would play round and round; you could then change its pitch by means of another set of pedals (to three or four preset pitches) and finally you could emit it via the VCS3 either by triggering the envelope shaper or by a random trigger of some kind. EMS have also got some very good Random Voltage Generators. You could also change the frequency of the input into one side of the ring modulator by means of pedals. We've also been using an ART multi-effects processor."
Both the direct audio signal and the signal from the Trolley can then be routed to the Lab giving a total of eight control signals per musician. Williams and Johnson made a conscious decision to use improvising musicians in the early stages of the project and both are keen that this should be a live medium first and foremost. However, Williams, speaking as a composer, is also keen to try more structured compositions.
"I've spent most of my professional life writing music for images and I would now like to produce some music-led screen pieces. It would seem unreasonable not to expect composers to get their hands on images and screens in the same way that Wagner wanted to get his hands on the theatre. Wagner's aim was to achieve what he called the Gesamtkunstwerk, the complete work of art, in which he had control over everything. Now, I'm not particularly interested in total control, but I want to use video as a composer with a need to collaborate with a video artist in order to achieve that. Obviously Brian has his own separate existence as a video artist and and there's no way that I could do what he does - the beauty of the images that he produces, which, however much they are led by music are entirely self-justifying; they are absolutely compelling in their own right."
It's worth pointing out that the photographs accompanying this article hardly do justice to the medium they describe. Stills are inadequate even at the best of times for representing moving pictures, but this is even more the case with Videosonics, especially in its more abstract manifestations. It is only in movement and sound that the medium begins to make sense, and the ideal is to experience a live performance. Seeing the musician playing and the transformation of the musician's image as this occurs, it's possible to follow this thread of visual logic into quite abstract territory whereas a still from these regions would appear as a somewhat haphazard collection of shapes and colours.
One of the main problems with creative video as opposed to video used as promotional material for rock bands on outlets such as MTV, is the lack of a public forum, as Johnson points out.
"If someone makes a video, that's it isn't it? You show it to your mates and that's the end of it. You can send it away but who on earth is going to look at it?"
It would seem that there is a growing need for a kind of videola gallery above and beyond the refined and somewhat esoteric limits that are at the moment provided by most of the "multi-media centres" of our major towns and cities. Perhaps the inevitable mushrooming of TV channels and the subsequent "product vacuum" will be the answer. The first public showing of three Improvisions was as part of Channel 4's Animation Fortnight (24th November - 2nd December). Williams and Johnson are currently negotiating with the television companies in general and initial responses are encouraging. There is also the possibility of an installation at the forthcoming Expo in Madrid.
At present there are no immediate plans for live performances in this country but Williams and Johnson are working towards a multi-media show involving dancers and the aforementioned Soundbeam. They will probably be touring as Uncle Jambo's New Electric Music Hall and will be doing workshops as well as concerts. If you're interested in the area of mixed media I would strongly urge you to check it out. Improvisions are something new and really rather good.
Feature by Peter Ridsdale
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