Audiovisual Aesthetics | A View from 10,000 Feet (or so) Part 2

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Sound & Music Cont’d

Audiovisual aesthetics, especially in relation to music, can of course be traced back for millennia, so I have drawn some historical lines to constrain the inquiry. Since the idea of the ‘audiovisual’ is indissociable from electronic media, my earliest trace-back to a 19th Century precursor will be Wagner’s “emancipation of dissonance.” While this concept dates from ~1926, in practice it was Wagner’s famous Tristan Chord which opened up the new possibilities for exploring dissonance in music composition. And since he was a practitioner of ‘music drama’ — which for him, was a break from operatic tradition — it has a place as an early aesthetic precedent for 20th century audiovisual aesthetics.

The Tristan Chord was a chord made up of two dissonances, only one of which resolved. In musical harmony, generally you’re supposed to create tension with dissonance, and create a feeling of release and a return to the home note by harmonically resolving it. In Tristan und Isolde, Wagner left the chord only half-resolved, and that opened up a wedge in music practice that only continued to widen in the coming decades, as more composers moved into this space of tonal dissonance as a key principle of composition. This movement of emancipating dissonance in music was called atonalism.

The first chord of Tristan, known simply as “the Tristan chord”, remains the most famous single chord in the history of music. It contains within itself not one but two dissonances, thus creating within the listener a double desire, agonizing in its intensity, for resolution. The chord to which it then moves resolves one of these dissonances but not the other, thus providing resolution- but-not-resolution.(source)

Here is the chord itself:

Now, if you want, take a break from this blog post and watch some Wagnerian music drama!

The next historically significant shift that impacts audiovisual aesthetics is what you might call the ‘emancipation of noise’ though it wasn’t exactly called that. Music had traditionally been thought of as a kind of antithesis to noise, since noise is unstructured, chaotic, random and unwanted, and music is supposed to be everything at the other pole from that (order, organized, intentional, etc.). But Luigi Russolo, an Italian Futurist, in The Art of Noises (and within that book, the chapter “Futurist Manifesto”) argued that the distinction between noise and music should be collapsed.

As it grows ever more complicated today, musical art seeks out combinations more dissonant, stranger, and harsher for the ear. Thus, it comes ever closer to the noise-sound.

Everyone will recognize that each sound carries with it a tangle of sensations, already well-known and exhausted, which predispose the listener to boredom, in spite of the efforts of all musical innovators. (source)

In antiquity, life was nothing but silence. Noise was really not born before the 19th century, with the advent of machinery. Today noise reigns supreme over human sensibility. (source)

We must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.

Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men. (source)

Noise for the Futurists was inherently associated with technology. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a very noisy soundscape, and they saw that as a source of creative inspiration.

To see these ideas of noise and dissonance at play in an audiovisual work, Ballet Mécanique is the best historical precedent to experience. It was a collaboration between the filmmaker Fernand Léger and the the American composer George Antheil. The length of the score and the film were not the same, however — 30 versus 19 minutes! — so there is a silent version of the film, and the score is often played as a music-only piece. This clip purports to be the “canonical version” of the film, based on a research thesis:

Ballet Mécanique, the film with score (“canonical”)

Here’s a section of the music performance, showing some of the noisemakers used in the composition, except that appears they are using digital tools now instead to perform some of the noises:

Around this same time frame (a little earlier, ~1917), Erik Satie coined the concept of ‘furniture music’ which today is widely considered to be the precursor aesthetic for ambient music. Furniture music was music that didn’t call attention to itself, and was just sorta there like furniture in your home, which today we recognize as the ambient concept.

Satie is the maverick who invented “furniture music”, sounds that were designed to be heard but not listened to, long before Muzak was branded and sold. (source)

Satie created “background music” before it was even a thing.

Coined furniture music, Satie conceptualized a concert experience where an audience intentionally ignored the performers. The “music as wallpaper” was purposely not listened to while the ensemble sat scattered amongst the patrons.

In 1902, Satie and his ensemble premiered furniture music in a Paris art gallery, where he begged his audience beforehand to ignore the performance to come. Despite his efforts, the audience politely hushed as the performance began, for they were thrilled to see performers play amongst the crowd.

The concepts of ambient music, sound installation works, and even muzak and lobby music all have their roots in Satie’s sonic wallpaper. We’ve seen furniture music go from an experimental performance practice to an unavoidable phenomenon whether we acknowledge it or not. (source)

Arrangements of furniture music.

Interestingly, the music intended to be furniture music or wallpaper sounds quite busy by today’s ambient and chillout genre standards. Satie is much more famous for his Gymnopédies which actually seem a lot closer to the furniture music ideal.

While in its origins the musical context was that of acoustic instruments, today of course we tend to think of ambient music as one of the electronic genres, often associated with drone-based, ‘chill’ or ‘down tempo’ electronica styles. One of the artists most associated with ambient music is Brian Eno, who is usually the ‘go-to’ guy for getting a grounding in the ambient aesthetic.

Brian Eno is the English synthesist who first coined the term “ambient” and is widely revered as one of the most innovative and influential recording artists in contemporary music. His hand has touched many genres: rock, techno, electropop, world music and, of course, ambient.

Yet while he’s been part of some of popular music’s biggest commercial and artistic success — leaving his indelible sonic stamp as the producer of U2Talking Heads and David Bowie — his name is hardly a household word. Perhaps that’s because Eno’s roots lie partly in the 20th century avant-garde or “fine art music” as he calls it. Unlike so many composers in both popular and classical genres, Eno has always valued timbre and texture over the formalities of notes and chords, though not at the expense of accessibility.

The ambient milestones

On the cover notes to his 1978 milestone Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978) Eno describes ambience as “an atmosphere, a tint…designed to induce calm and space to think”. He also points to its non-intrusive qualities in declaring that “it must be ignorable as it is interesting”, or in other words, be able to be used for background or foreground listening depending on the listeners needs.

Crucial to Eno’s concept of ambience — indeed crucial to any ambient music conceived around this passive/active model — is his conviction that such music can be produced without compromise. Thus, it remains distinguished from both the muzak heard in shopping malls and the torrents of relaxation and new age drivel that his music has unwittingly inspired. Eno believes that ambient music can relax without boring the listener into rest. Its intrinsic values remain.

Eno’s legacy

Today there is a good deal of music tagged ambient that goes well beyond Eno’s original conception of the word. His idea of simultaneous background/foreground music is actually quite narrow — “as ignorable as it is interesting” — even though much of the music on the albums listed above rises above this limitation.

But the idea of modern music as subtle atmosphere, as chill-out, as impressionistic, as something that creates space for quiet reflection or relaxation: these are ideas he has brought from relative obscurity into the popular consciousness. And his recording techniques have helped change the way that modern musicians — particularly electronic musicians — view the studio. No longer is it just a passive medium through which they communicate their ideas but itself a new instrument with seemingly endless possibilities. The “studio” today is often a single desktop or laptop computer, its size and capability no doubt mind-boggling to those who where making electronic-based music in the 1970’s. (source)

You might think that with Atmosphere, Noise and Dissonance becoming integrated into musical and audiovisual creative practices, there wasn’t any ‘opposite of music’ left to be integrated, but there was — Silence! The absence of sound and noise would itself become foregrounded as a compositional resource, most famously by John Cage’s 4’33”, which was a composition in which a pianist sat at a piano playing nothing for the duration indicated by the composition’s title — four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Cage was inspired by Zen Buddhism and this composition is about the negative space of music (to put it one way) — the sounds of the world in which music occurs. The piece is also about ‘equalizing’ the status of musical and all other sounds.

A live performance of 4’33”

You might wonder what a work of silence has to do with audiovisual aesthetics, but works such as this have been very inspirational in the design of soundtracks and the use of silence to heighten the emotional aspects of audiovisual experiences. Here’s a cool short video discussion of the role of silence in the soundtrack:

The Art of Silence (in film)


Electronic music, recording and amplification in general led to new ‘hypersound’ aesthetics which continue to this day in our common experiences of films that are far too loud. It’s hard to find a better example of the sudden eruption of the electroacoustic sound in cinema than Forbidden Planet. The sounds were made from custom tube circuits that often overheated and destroyed themselves in the process of producing sounds, and often their ‘death throes’ were recorded and made their way into the soundtrack.

Vacuum tube technology is what made Louis’ circuit creations realisable. In the 1986 Keyboard Magazine interview he explains, “Tubes are forgiving. The grid of a power tube may be expected to take one or two volts. If you accidentally touch it with 300 volts, it’ll heat up, it’ll get red in the face. Take the voltage away and it’ll cool down, ready to do its normal thing. A transistor would blow in a fraction of a millisecond. And even if they don’t cost much, they’re a damn nuisance to keep changing.” In order to create electronic life, says Louis, “you have to be free to abuse the circuit.” That said, he pushed his creations to their limits often overloading and destroying them in his quest to discover outrageous new sounds before the circuits ultimately expired.

The groundbreaking soundtrack for Forbidden Planet dazzled and amazed audiences, however the Musician’s Union took a more negative stance. In their narrow view that the Barrons work could not be considered as music (hence the bizarre term “electronic tonalities” on the film credits). The union were pedantic traditionalists and simply did not have the imagination to appreciate and understand music created with home-built electronics and tape machines. They forbade the Barrons from becoming union members and because of this they were not credited as being ‘proper’ composers and their score was never considered for an Academy Award nomination. The Barrons never scored another film for Hollywood. (source)

Forbidden Planet.
Forbidden Planet

Glitch: The Aesthetics of Breakdown

More contemporary aesthetic trends, such as glitch — which is based on intensifying the artifacts and corruptions in digital files — are not as much of a break with previous traditions as we might think, since as we saw with Forbidden Planet, overheated and melting tube circuits certainly also qualify as an aesthetics of breakdown.

The difference may be that in the example above, the breakdown of the tube circuits would not be known to the audience, but only to the composers producing the sounds. With glitch, the error is presented directly to the audience as error, artifact, noise, breakdown, gaps, and, well, glitches.

However, even this is not necessarily new, since in the earlier rock music genres, feedback and amplifier buzz was also a kind of technical error that was often played up for aesthetic effect. The main difference may simply be that with rock music, feedback between mics and speakers had an analog basis, while with glitch, the technical errors are digital.

Glitch examples.

End of Part 2.

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