Dennis Miller

May 28, 2009
Lori Napoleon

The genre of Visual Music, an art that employs musical composition or performance techniques to create a visual work, has the potential to transcend traditional categorical boundaries in both visual and musical realms. Its origins can be traced back over 200 years to the 18th century invention of the prism-operated color organ, which systematically correlated color with musical notes. Advancements in electric lighting and the emergence of film and video during the 20th century led to the existence of Visual Music in its current form. Unique in its integrative character, this particular artform's underlying concepts represent a synthaesthetic union of the senses. Visual Music has been embraced within a myriad of historical, geographical and cultural movements. Thus, examples of Visual Music range from stop-motion photography to painted films; light shows to audio-visual installations; computer-generated musical scores to digital animations.

Artists working today in Visual Music continue to explore the overlap between audio and visual. They employ a broad variety of approaches that includes a metaphorical interpretation of music. They apply structural and compositional processes to visuals. They also experiment with the physical structure of light and sound. Mixed-media artist Dennis Miller is a longtime practitioner, educator, and curator of Visual Music. Director of the Music Technology program at Northeastern University in Boston, Miller most recently curated the Visual Music Marathon in New York City, which was touted as an instant benchmark by Animation World Magazine. We were able to speak with Dennis Miller about his insights into this intriguing genre as well as his own personal work.

AE:  How would you describe your own approach and practice?

DM:  When I first began to compose with images, I tried a number of different strategies to relate the music and images. The first piece I composed, Residue (1999), used direct correspondences between processes that were applied to the sound and those that were used for the visuals. For example, the piece opens with a musical gesture that is repeated, then transposed, then doubled, then inverted, sequenced, etc. Throughout the piece, I applied specific musically compositional processes to the images, though somewhere around the midpoint, the music went its own way.

As I got more involved with image synthesis, my work turned to a different direction. For several pieces, leading up to Circles and Rounds, I composed the entire visual composition first. Among these, different works explored different types of imagery, for example Faktura (Russian for quality of surface or texture) attempted to synthesize a wide range of natural surface textures, such as dripping paint.

As I became less and less satisfied with the formal aspects of these works, all of which seemed to me to show their seams, I decided to shift gears entirely and compose the entire music layer first. As a composer, I found that it was far easier to create a unified design with music, given its syntax and my own lengthy experience writing modern concert music.

AE:  We've all watched traditional, narrative movies and most of the time there is a musical soundtrack. When watching your animations, I found that even in the absence of objects, there often was a story-like trajectory: shifting spaces, navigating a landscape, being engrossed in a dense thicket of tendrils and suddenly launched upon a vast precipice. I'm curious as to whether you approach the musical aspect of your work as a soundtrack that enhances and unifies the focal point of the visuals, or whether you view the audio-visual aspects as inseparable and truly synaesthetic. When you're working on a Visual Music composition, does one medium dominate?

DM:  I don't think there is any one description or plan of action for Visual Music. I like to think that somehow the images, be they video or animation, are informed by musical processes. I do not believe that either medium would intentionally be made to be secondary or merely accompaniment, though obviously that could happen over some length of a piece. Most of all, I would think that the relationship of the sound and images in any given piece should be dynamic and change over time. Syncing every musical event with a visual event can get very tiring. At least in a concert setting.

I believe the music can provide an affect to an abstract visual image, though I don't mean to imply that I am aiming for specific emotional states in any of my work (nor am I attempting to model any actual physical objects in the visuals). And as I mentioned, I do think music is best at creating a unified formal design. For me, that's the current approach.

AE:  I was recently reading about Alexander Laszlo, an early Visual Music composer, and his first reviews. The press first complained that his visuals were "not modern enough" for the music he played. And on his next tour, the press voiced the opposite complaint, that the music was not modern enough for the newly expanded visuals! Sound and music have a way of creating mental image-states that might be similar in mood but distinct in every individual's own memories/interests/etc, so it can be quite alarming if the visuals don't correlate with the mental pictures that the sound implies, and vice versa. Is your use of abstract imagery a way to allow the audience to freely incorporate their own imaginative response to the framework you create for them? Can you explain what draws you towards your use of abstraction in particular?

DM:  Any sound-to-color mapping is completely arbitrary (and scientifically, of course, there is no correlation between the wavelengths of sound and sight). The trick is to impose a mapping by creating the meanings and correlations you want for a piece and then make them work in that specific context. Diego Garro speaks about this, as does Brian Evans.

I prefer abstraction precisely because there are no prior associations, or at least, there are none for me within the images I use. What the viewer chooses to "see", or make associations with, is up for grabs, and anything that happens is fine with me. I am happy to provide an open framework, but I hope viewers won't get bogged down in those associations and impose their own meaning on everything, thus failing to see other connections that I've tried to make among the elements of the work. I also think abstract images and music are the best context in which I can apply the principles and ideas that I am after, which include the musical organization of a unified-time-based mixed-media (multi-sensory) composition.

AE:  I'm very interested in any comments you would share about the imaginative, surreal, sometimes "disorienting" landscapes in your animations. Are you also interested, both in the music you create and in the visuals, in this idea of using tech to create haunting, otherworldly, enlightening and otherwise impossible scenarios that tickle the brain and the imagination, allowing us to "fly” forwards and backwards, to adapt microscopic and macroscopic lenses in a heartbeat, etc.?

DM:  I don't set out to create any specific space or environment. I would, for example, think more about where I will use a 2D space and when I might want to transition to a 3D space. When I decide how much reverb I want to use in a musical element, I am thinking about what might be appropriate for the images at that moment. Of course, I am just as likely to create tension in a piece by using "the wrong" type of acoustic space for the visual one. That's a dialect worth playing with, like any other type of inconsistent juxtaposition an artist might create, for example a vastly crowded visual plane with the minimum of music (or vice versa).

AE:  Your work makes extensive and exploratory use of the POV-Ray scene description language. In which applications and contexts is this language normally used, and how does your artistic work depart from it?

DM:  When I first decided to explore visual imagery, I looked at a few programs and decided POV-Ray would be a good place to start. In every respect, it is the visual corollary of Barry Vercoe's Csound, a sound synthesis programming language. Because I knew Csound fairly well and had no problems composing music in a word processor, I was able to adapt to POV-Ray right away. As you noted, the bulk of work with the software is in creating photorealistic imagery, which POV-Ray is amazingly adept at doing, as it obeys the laws of physics. However, it didn't take long before I could adapt it to do my bidding: putting broken glass filters in front of the virtual camera (as in Vis a Vis) or creating morphing isosurfaces (mathematically defined shapes) at will (as in Faktura). I abandoned POV-Ray after completing Faktura and used Cinema 4D for the next several pieces. More recently, I have adopted a very eclectic approach and use whatever tool is needed to get the job done for both image and sound.

AE:  How do you approach the relationship between the synthetic medium in which you work and the somewhat realistic, but often super-realistic or surrealistic sonic and visual textures that result?

DM: Realistic objects are not a goal of mine, but realistic lighting or perspective or textures is often important. I would describe my work as abstract visual imagery combined with abstract sound. Regarding musical techniques, I've used convolution, granular synthesis, physical modeling, sample processing, time stretching—whatever tool is right for the job.