Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Music and Vision

Let us explore a hypothetical:

Assume that you are seeing a live performance of the classic Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue” performed by the original musicians,* exactly how it sounds on the album. You experience this performance in two locations (completely identical performances both times), Blue Note Jazz Club in Greenwich Village and Rose Hall at the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex. To try and create as close to ceteris paribus conditions as possible, let us also assume that any of the ideological, acoustical, and historical material associated with both localities are neutralized, leaving just the music and the visuals. I think you know where I am going with this, the experience of the music would be different. The visual experiences of these localities would work symbiotically with the music in a parallel (identical?) way to music and film.

I understand that the last assertion is a little contentious. The visuals in film are projected two-dimensional images, framed within a set of conventions that allows the music to, at the same time, exist both separate (in that it is does not have to be part of the diegesis) and simultaneous with the image. This allows the music to create a metaphorical relationship with the image; a dialectic between image and music that act on each other creating a synthesis. This is what Michel Chion terms audio-vision, very succinctly summarized by Phil Ford in his review of Michael Long’s book as being, “compounds of sounds, pictures, and words—virtual collections of audiovisual memes assembled in spectators’ minds. The items within these collections are of ever-shifting and indeterminate kind and number; their individual meanings depend on their relations to one another, and those mutual relationships are in constant flux.”

Though a concert hall is typically a static visual (real life experiences of a concert can be visually more dynamic than some film, for example arena rock), the relationship remains the same, or at least similar. Our primary focus in the hypothetical is the music; the imagery is peripheral in our mind. However, in most films the image is in the fore with the music as “background.” This is a very important point that I do not want to just dismiss. In film, even if the image is a static black screen, the music is always perceived as commenting on the image, otherwise it would just be a recording.** In a concert the imagery is affecting our perception of the music.*** Despite this inversion and inequality of roles, there is still a dialectic relationship in which music and visuals interact, changing our perception of both.

I believe we should further explore this relationship vis-à-vis daily life in the 21st century. From birth, individuals are inundated with audiovisual material from films, television, and increasingly the internet. In addition, ipod culture has made it possible for individuals to quite literally provide a soundtrack to their everyday life. Whereas in the early 20th century, framing devices, such as film title music, were needed to “provide the accommodative imaginary space in which a view-auditor recalculates the relationship between ‘real’ sensory input and the interior envisioning required for successful reception of a filmic environment” (Long 34), in the 21st century, viewers no longer need these framing devices to bridge that gap; blurring the line between the real and the imagined. This blurring is furthered by video games and other virtual environments where the individual takes on the persona of a character on screen, becoming fully engrossed into an imaginary diegesis.

Obviously, this is nothing more than some preliminary thoughts, and it may be either totally unoriginal or (for lack of a better word) bogus, however, I think there may be an under-explored intersection between music and vision here that could lead to profound insights into how we understand both.

* I could use an example with musicians that are still alive but it doesn’t really matter, besides I love imagining this possibility.

** This point is brought up by either Gorbmann or Chion, I can’t remember at the moment, but the important point to acknowledge is that it is not a completely equal relationship.

*** Music dramas may complicate this understanding.

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