Do You Hear What I See?

Do You Hear What I See?

Music, unlike every other art form we’ve got, is about hearing rather than seeing. And yet seeing is such a dominant sense that it still plays a very conspicuous role in music-making, whether it be the created-through-and-for-the-eyes scores we disseminate to musicians who then turn it into music by looking at them, the silent visual cues of a conductor that keep an ensemble together, or even the less formal visual nods that members of jazz and rock bands signal each other with.

Reading Mark N. Grant’s provocative comments about music history phobia yesterday, I was reminded of my own more rebellious—and perhaps a tad extreme—days. Back in 1983, I stopped writing down the music I was composing for nearly two years, transmitting it only through aural means. My slogan at the time was: “Divorce sight from sound, now!” In crazier moments, I even contemplated boycotts of organizations that I felt were too reliant on visual means to create sonic realities, e.g. orchestras, etc. I only half-jokingly attempted to get some friends to construct and carry picket signs to venerable performance institutions, but to no avail. They thought, alternately, that I was either completely joking or totally out of my mind. I was, perhaps, too zealous and possibly even more naïve.

For better or worse, we are living in a visually-dominant culture and for music to have meaning within our culture, it needs to be seen to some degree. And in that regard, music is not unique. While food is something that is supposedly experienced predominantly by the sense of taste, an amusing blindfold test in last week’s issue of Time Out New York actually proved how impossible it is to identify ingredients in a meal without seeing them, even for the most seasoned culinary savants (among them a prominent chef and a food critic who has worked for Gourmet magazine).

That said, to this day, I continue to eschew visual references when they refer to musical matters. For example, I’d never say: “What concert did you see last night?” And when people say they’re going to send me a recording, I always say that I’m “listening forward” to it. I’m also still somewhat suspect of musical matters which only make sense when you can see what they are. And actually, truth be told, this is probably why, though I voraciously attend concerts, my ideal mode of listening to music is on a recording with my eyes closed. Yet at the same time I confess that I love looking at record covers.

How reliant are you on your sense of sight when you create or experience music? How much do you feel you are losing from the experience of music when you are only able to listen to it, e.g. on the radio or a recording? And what exactly is it that you are losing?

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

13 thoughts on “Do You Hear What I See?

  1. dcpod9

    A lot of times when I go to a concert, I like to close my eyes. When I do this, I feel as though I become the music in some kind of out-of-this-world experience. But there have been some pieces that if I had closed my eyes, I would have missed out completely. An example of this is Daniel Bukvich’s “Voodoo.” The lights in the auditorium go out, and the stage is lit up with flashlights. The visual aspect adds tremendously to the aural aspect (I had chill’s for the entire piece). Eric Whitacer’s “Godzilla Eats Las Vegas” is another example where there is a visual component that adds tremendous effect to the music.
    Watching a soloist perform can be just as stimulating during a concerto. When I saw Joe Alessi perform de Meij’s T-bone concert, my eyes and ears were wide open, taking in the whole experience. Being able to see and hear his technical and musical ability truly enhanced the experience for me.
    In terms of what is lost, I always have a sense of disappointment when I see a wonderful live performance, and then I have to settle for the recording. No matter how good the recording, it never duplicates the excitement that is felt watching such a great performance. I could list numerous examples of this.
    To wrap up, there is some music that is great when listening to a recording or radio, and other music that needs a visual aspect to really get the full experience.

  2. curioman

    I’ll never forget… a couple years ago, I attended an open/free improv concert with a light show of sorts–colored lights and moving patterns flooded the stage, performers, and backdrop. The music was all fairly dissonant, but interesting and engaging. Accidentally, in the middle of performance, the ‘color machine’ stopped, leaving only harsh, bright, white light hitting the stage. Immediately, the music seemed abrasive, ugly, and unappealing–naked and bare, with holes punched all through it. In a few seconds, the lighting person slipped the color gels back in and the music became interesting again. A complete shift in perception.

    It’s hard to put into words, and doing so oversimplifies the experience, but this showed me just how much one sense can influence the other.

    This begs the question, might our mothers like our music if it’s bathed in kaleidoscopic mood lighting? ;)

  3. mjleach

    “This begs the question, might our mothers like our music if it’s bathed in kaleidoscopic mood lighting?”

    Probably not. I used to do a lot of projected visuals with my pieces. After one concert in Minneapolis, Jeff Brooks’ mother remarked that she disliked my piece almost as much as she’d disliked a Jim Tenney piece that she’d heard at another concert. (At least I was in good company.) ;-)

  4. jhhl

    I did an implementation of Tenney’s “for ann (rising)” for an AFMM Microfest in 1988 which was generated live on an Amiga computer. Since this piece consists of a series of mixed rising tones that fade in and out, creating a fused sound that reveals your own perceptions of listening, I thought I’d augment it with some simple graphics: rising bars that are in synch with each component tone’s frequency. If you are looking at the bars, you start to associate the tone you are hearing with one of them, and then are surprised that the bar you think is “yours” drops out and yet you continue to hear the tone rising. The visuals help you lock onto the perception of the tone and reenforce the fact that you are probably wrong most of the time.

    Of course you can also just listen to the piece, but that’s a lot easier in a private setting than in a concert, staring at a bunch of loudspeakers.

  5. lawrence

    I can’t relate to the idea of my senses being in competition with one another. I don’t understand the need to shut any of them down in order to focus on another. And, leaving aside the aesthetic experience, I’ve learned oodles from watching musicians perform — their fingers, their breathing, their eye-movements – all of these things tell me a lot about how to compose more effectively.

  6. MrCutTime

    I’ve come to the conclusion that some sort of visual experience is BOUND by the brain to the aural experience. Whether an audience member watches the music makers intently looking for clues or confirmation of their commitment or “heartfeltedness”… or closes their eyes to imagine VISUALLY what the music suggests to them or dancing colored lights like Oskar Fishinger… I now believe people enjoy music on their OWN psychological levels and not necessarily MINE.

    Once I believed we should have a SCRIM before the stage to FORCE the audience to use their imaginations. But I suspect approx. HALF the adience would be bored and leave… or worse, TALK thru the performance!

  7. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    A few weeks ago, a long and somewhat static piece of mine was premiered. The director (of the ensemble of violin, cello, bass clarinet, flute and piano) was certain the audience would lose touch with 35 minutes of pianissimo non-functional harmony.

    He asked me to create a slide show, which I did somewhat reluctantly, using a slowly flowing copy of the score that would appear in negative image in the interstices between slowly changing and shifting photos (about 250).

    After both concerts, the audience response at the post-concert receptions was unanimous: the images were beautiful but distracting, and the music spoke for itself.


  8. Frank J. Oteri

    35 minutes of pianissimo non-functional harmony
    Dennis, you’ve really whetted my appetite to hear this piece! Is there any way for you to share anything more of it with us (sans visuals of course)?

  9. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    That’s the name of the piece — it will be up on my WAAM site in a few days, as soon as the recording arrives. I made my own, but it was just a music-stand document.


  10. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Just got the official recording — awful. Too distant, too much heating system noise, and the audio compression was on.

    So I’ve posted my music stand recording. You can hear the page turns and such, but it’s sonically acceptable. It’s on the WAAM page.

    Down to March 11 for “New Granite”.


  11. William Osborne

    I have a 52 minute work for trombone and quadraphonic electronics based on the Book of Revelation. The music was inspired by the visual images in the book. My music has always been visually oriented because I have largely focused on music theater. For our most recent music theater work, Cybeline, my wife wrote the text and drew cartoons with which she interacts during the performance. (See clips on our website.) This summer I also completed a video for Music for the End of Time with 5.1 Dolby Surround sound. We premiered it in Taos, NM where it was a huge success. Taos is an artist’s colony, mostly for painters. The town has only 20,000 people, but over 80 galleries. They like visual things there. If you have two minutes and twenty-one seconds to spare you can see the You Tube trailer for Music for the End of Time here:

    Additional clips and stills from are on our website – though I am still working on the page. It’s still pretty crude at this point.

    All things considered, though, I agree with Frank. It is often better to let people create their own images when they listen to music – even with music theater. Of late, I have just been writing piano music which I put directly on our website. They are short works called “Memos for Piano,” of which there are now 27 totaling 54 minutes in length. Given the medium of transmission, maybe you could call them E-Melodies. No intermediaries. Just a direct connection to the 350 to 400 visitors a day we have to our site. I think a new model is in the air.

    William Osborne

  12. pgblu

    Cartoon operas
    I saw two recent, totally independent efforts in the realm of composing/improvising in combination with live drawing of cartoons/images. Both projects were extremely engaging, and I would be glad to hear of other such efforts.

    The first I heard was by a Freiburg, Germany-based composer named Thomas Wenk. The second was by Jennifer Walshe at the Darmstadt Summer Courses 2006. Unlike Wenk, she was ‘merely’ drawing performance symbols (cutoffs and the like) on things that looked like magazine clippings. Wenk was scribbling all kinds of pictures on blank paper of various colors, and the connection between sound and image was much more mysterious.

    Interesting that in both cases the drawing was done by the billed composers and not by a ‘visual artist’ with the same sense of professional commitment as the musicians involved. I have to say this bothered me a bit — though it wouldn’t have made the efforts ‘better’ if different.


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