As Michelle Ramona Silva points out in her work, DIGITAL ALCHEMY: MATTER AND METAMORPHOSIS IN CONTEMPORARY DIGITAL ANIMATION AND INTERFACE DESIGN the digital arts are a fertile ground for exploring the act of creative alchemy. I spoke with Bryan Michael, an artist actively engaged in crafting experiences that cross the boundaries of alchemy and art to get a better understanding of the interstices of sound, image and technology.
– David Metcalfe
In the interview you did with Re:Gen Magazine from ’07 you said that you played at Matthew Kirscht’s art opening in New Orleans, did you compose new music for that to accompany the themes of his work?
No, in fact I was working with a factor of juxtaposition for this particular evening. Kirscht was showing his non-Halloween paintings which dealt with childhood trauma more than anything. Visually it resembled a sort of “Candyland-gone-wrong”. Upon first view you received the impression the pieces were quite accessible as he was using very vivid and wonderful colors, but upon closer examination it was apparent the imagery contained much darker elements. So, in a sense my set of off-kilter dance music at the time paralleled that experience.
Have you had any similar opportunities since then?
I scored a few gallery showings of friends’ work, but these were all done after-the-fact and not conceived simultaneously or analogously with the work being shown.
What do you look for in a visual artist to accompany your work?
I would love to work with someone that could create a visual aspect of the music simultaneously during the recording process. Although I think it is possible for this task to be performed separately, the idea of both the visual and musical elements being conceived at the same time seems important. The trick is finding someone that can interpret and translate the tones into viewable elements without them being typical screenplay-style interpretations of the emotions evoked. Someone with a strong synaesthetic sense would be ideal.
As an electronic artist how is your work enhanced/changed when you are accompanied by a visual display?
It heightens the experience for the audience and adds a much needed missing element. However, in these cases, there are always moments when the viewer/listener experience becomes divided, whether it be from their own expectations of what should “go” with the music/film or when both elements simply do not gel. Which raises the question, is it possible for a “true” visual interpretation of music?
Have you ever worked with algorithms that ‘play’ visuals that are sync’ed up to your music?
Yes, and again, there always seems to be the moments that don’t work and then moments that seem serendipitous. I would love to work with an algorithm that directly translates the rhythmic elements, tonal frequencies and harmonics produced from their various combinations, into the corresponding color spectrum frequencies in real-time. Similar to an oscilloscope but with a full dimensional range of colors in a multidimensional field; a holograph of sorts.
Is there a difference between something like playing at a gallery exhibition where the images are static and having a moving display?
Yes and No. At this point, it is left mostly up to the individual as to the experience they are going to obtain. Some can use music solely, or a combination of music with static imagery, to delve within their own mental state and have a more intense experience, as opposed to having the whole thing decided for them with screenplay-style moving images. I think it may be possible to prompt listeners towards a more intense experience by way of color combinations that directly and truly represent the music. How to accurately translate music to image, remains to be seen. Music moves and thus its visual counterpart should. For so long, the visual arts had been locked in a static medium: canvas, paper, wood, etc. Music has always been about tonal changes through a time dimension, an ever-changing sonic vibrational experience. The musical equivalent of a painting would be a single chord, or say, a one second sound snippet of a fully orchestrated track. I think the early pioneers of film and even TV were privy to this, striving to create a unique experience by morphing and varying visual frequencies on a time plane similar to music. They were not keen to reduce the medium as some method for easily broadcasting theater productions, which is what it has predominantly become.
How does the audience’s response change?
Again, it is up to the individual, but environment plays a big factor. For example, in an intimate gallery setting with static imagery, one is less apt to lose themselves, but in a darkened club with pulsating lights that mimic the rhythmic elements of the music, we have a different story.
Do you think that the abstract nature of the music requires some sort of visual? An orchestra has the visual element of the players, jazz musicians have a similar level of showmanship, but an electronic composer usually only has a laptop or small set of synthesizers does this necessitate some sort of accompaniment?
Again, it is largely up to the individual, but in today’s culture, I believe most people enjoy the extra stimulus that comes with the visual elements of a live musical scenario. Unless the audience is persuaded to close their eyes and practice some form of mental image formation or meditation, laptop performers have a unique dilemma, as they do not obviously “perform” with their machines. Thinking differently, I have friend Todd Steponick of At Work that is able to pull off a very impressive live laptop show using billboard style props and road signs. I do think many laptop showgoers may miss the experience of watching musicians physically interact with their instruments to produce tones, as in an guitar player strumming and plucking strings. I long for a way to see the inner functions of the computer during a laptop set, not merely as translated numerical data, but as a true visualization of the electrical synapses of the machine on a humanly visual level.
How does color affect your compositions? I know you mentioned some of your recent compositions sounding like those vintage ritual photos from the 60’s/70’s, do you find it’s easier to compose with a visual in mind?
Not really. When I’m composing, I’m often approaching the music from a more an emotional level, beyond the visual. Personally, I often find the visual aspect comes after it’s finished and I can listen from a different mental state.
Do you ever experiment with Pythagorean scales or harmonics?
Absolutely, and I plan to incorporate more elements such as Gematria into my works. The idea of reducing words and incantations to their numerical equivalancy and plugging the data into sequencers for audible results.
bryan at netwt.org