Improvised music proved impossible

Posted in culture & media design, performing graphics, tools on April 22, 2012 by visualraccoon

A couple of years ago the raccoon was asked to chair a panel on “New Media.” The speakers were all amazing and gifted hacker/artists. To chair such a group was a real and unexpected honor (and, I screwed it up; more on that later).

To start things off and incline the tone of the panel in the direction of my obsession — the performing of live visuals — I enthusiastically proclaimed and promoted the idea of “Blues Graphics.” “You know,” I said, “visuals improvised live like Stevie Ray Vaughn playing the guitar.” The phrase had sounded so good to me the day before, screening well in my mind’s eye (the same display on which also appears footage from the imaginary Veli’s Graphics Bar in West Oakland). So I used the chairguy’s one minute intro to play SRV’s version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” while at the same time showing a moving montage of the outside of Veli’s. Thus setting the scene for joy and sharing.

Well, as it turned out, for me, not so much.

But first, the panel itself went well, and all panelists did outstanding presentation/demos.

However, afterwards, while standing around in post-panel conversation, I was informed that improvising graphics ala SRV on guitar was simply not possible because, “The parameter space is too large to map onto the control space.”

Yikes. How embarrassing for me.

And I didn’t even know exactly what that sentence meant. But it was delivered with such authority that I was paralyzed in cognitive thrall, stammering some response I don’t even remember. Then I slunk away to lick my cerebral fissures and contemplate the errors of my visually obsessive ways.

But later that day, far from the crowd and upon reflection, I realized that the slogan & dictum was bullshit.

Here’s the proof: simply substitute a well known human activity, musical performance, for visual performance. With good ol’ SRV as my counter example.

Because, see, you could say exactly the same thing about musical performance. First, think of all possible sounds, and then consider the possibility of designing some kind of instrument to make them. Pretty hard, huh? Among the many problems is the large number of parameters to control that incredible variety of sounds. Pretty big space, right?

But then some bozo comes along and says he wants to make that instrument, and then proposes to play it in real time, maybe even improvising with it.

You would have to tell him, “I’m sorry, but such a performance is not possible because the parameter space is too large to map onto the control space.”

End of discussion.

Good thing you were there to clue him in, saved him a lot of trouble.

Nor can bumble bees fly.

So, here’s why music can be improvised:

Indeed, the space of all sounds, it’s a large parameter space. And let’s throw in more parameters, timing. How many ways are there to sequence and sustain sounds over time? Double yow. But, I hadda throw in time, cause that’s where performances take place.

However, look folks, we’re simply talking frameworks here. They restrict and limit possibilities to enable creativity. Inventing within constraints, art is painting with restrictions, blah blah blah

So we can use the Western diatonic scale to trim that infinite sound space, and on temporality impose time signatures. Narrows things a lot. And then invent an instrument which further narrows the possible sounds, and which maps the result on a control space (strings and frets, say). In fact, the guitar is exactly a working model of how to map the trimmed parameter space onto a playable control space.

Bumble bees can fly, and visuals can be improvised without need of randomization or algorithmic slaves.

Visual SRV lives!


Visuals first, music optional *

Posted in performing graphics on April 19, 2012 by visualraccoon

In space, they can only see you play.

No sound, all fury, signifying everything.

All visual music approaches here as a limit, so we just sat down to wait.

David Tristram coined this brilliant phrase*, and I think it captures an important aspect of performing graphics.

“Music optional” serves to open our minds to a graphics performance with its own visual rhythms and structures, not merely serving as vuzak in a dance club while playing second fiddle to the techno beat.

Performing graphics silentio in Literature.

… and then the music started — music without sound! The Mahars cannot hear, so the drums and fifes and horns of earthly bands are unknown among them. The “band” consists of a score or more Mahars. It filed out in the center of the arena where the creatures upon the rocks might see it, and there it performed for fifteen or twenty minutes.

Their technic consisted in waving their tails and moving their heads in a regular succession of measured movements resulting in a cadence which evidently pleased the eye of the Mahar as the cadence of our own instrumental music pleases our ears. Sometimes the band took measured steps in unison to one side or the other, or backward and again forward — it all seemed very silly and meaningless to me, but at the end of the first piece the Mahars upon the rocks showed the first indications of enthusiasm that I had seen displayed by the dominant race of Pellucidar. They beat their great wings up and down, and smote their rocky perches with their mighty tails until the ground shook. Then the band started another piece, and all was again as silent as the grave. That was one great beauty about Mahar music — if you didn’t happen to like a piece that was being played all you had to do was shut your eyes.

       — Edgard Rice Burroughs, Pellucidar (1923)

Mo works silent, for God’s sake! He’s the only artist currently performing at Veli’s who does so, and one of only a handful of graphicists running silentio in the whole SF Bay area.

What the audience sees right now in rhythmic imaging splendor is a whole field of the sproinging slinky-spirals. Distant ancestors of the originals from the beginning of the piece, the spirals have at this point multiplied and become rainbow hued, colors pulsing as they bounce to the infectious visual beat. And hey at the back of the club I see a few humans moving to that beat themselves. Yeah, in fact, you can dance to it! Go Mo.

I think the Oskar Fishinger would dig Mo’s performance too. Following the Fish’s lead, this homie is doing it all. He’s painting motion, he’s sharing process, he’s flying at the speed of visual creation. With the audience totally on board for the flight, clapping hot to the graphic cadence Mo is laying down.

From the Glossary:
silentio — “Under silence, ” said of a graphic performer who works noiselessly, without accompany audio of any kind. The silentio style is both rare and exceedingly difficult. Most graphicists need and use rhythmic sounds to emphasize the visual rhythms in their imaging.

       — Lakin, Live Graphics Nightly (2007)

ERB and the Mahars bring up a great point about Visuals First, Music Optional. Just google on “dancing without music” (here, let me) and you’ll find that the deaf community has embraced the idea, the slogan, and the practical exercise for years.

Cool, text-graphic dance by and for the hearing impaired.

Every performing graphicist should do an internship in that culture.

Do what you love

Posted in lifestyle on April 13, 2012 by visualraccoon

Plan A:

Plan B:

Better odds, better payoff.

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Dancing about architecture: What a good idea!

Posted in culture & media design, performing graphics, tools on April 9, 2012 by visualraccoon

Ghandi was once asked what he thought of Western Civlization. He replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”

So, dancing about architecture, let’s go for it.

Why not use the Space Palette as an input device for AutoCAD … oooo, “Spatial” Palette, cool!

Which is the point of the last chapter in Live Graphics Nightly: all text-graphic media for live performance have more in common than differentiating; fine art or applied art is a later distinction of use, not an a priori essential property of a medium (fiddles and violins).


Of course, usually this famous saying is used in its various forms as a put down for media-mismatches.

A common version: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

FYI, first use apparently in 1918

Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. All the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience. A poem, a statue, a painting or a play is a representation of somebody or something, and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents.


who goes on to say

“In 1921 the remark reappears in the form of a sphinxlike simile. The format of the comment uses the word “like” once and the word “about” twice. This conforms to the most common modern template.

Writing about music is like ____ about ____.

“The first slot contains terms like dancing, singing, or knitting and the second slot contains terms like architecture, economics, or football.”

So now you can generate your own!

3, no 4 … nah, it’s only Three Dimensions of Visual Performance

Posted in culture & media design, performing graphics, tools on April 7, 2012 by visualraccoon

Or, how to avoid “vuzak fatigue” = the audience ignoring the visuals.

This is a followup to a discussion last summer between myself, Tim Thompson, and David Tristram. David got things started by defining the problem:

dt> The audience ignoring the visuals. This is central to my frustration with visual performance and must be solved if we are to succeed.

My response was to dig up my old PIPs metric for visual performance. I claimed that one reason audiences preferring the triggering and mixing of pre-recorded visuals (common “VJ” style), or synchronous computer generated images (algorithmic slaves, “music visualizer” style), was because the manual performers were several orders of magnitude too slow to be interesting in a purely generative schema. Compared for instance with musicians and other fast input performers.

dt> PIPS is useful but is a very narrow metric.

Well, David is right, PIPs is a very narrow metric — by itself. But, when you add two other narrow metrics, then you get … narrowness compounded? Or, if lucky, a rigid framework which is useful just because it is definable. When I got my degree in rat psychology, I learned that measureable rigid frameworks have their uses, if only to clearly define where you don’t want to go. They can also provide a place to stand from which to get a clearer view of where you do want to go.

In that spirit, I say that, yes, PIPs by itself is a sterile metric, but when you add in AG and MP, then those three axises together define a useful space for visual performance. Or in less grandiose terms, a few things to keep in mind when designing, composing for, and performing with visual instruments.

The axises are Performer Inputs per Second (PIPs) with Air Guitarabilty (AG) in a visual system that has Mistake Potential (MP).

This works as follows:

You have a visual performer initiating very frequent actions (PIPs) which gives enough temporal density to weave engaging graphical patterns in realtime, and the audience knows she’s doing it thanks to AG (Air Guitarability, the visible correlation between performer body movements and changes in the visuals), all within a conventional temporal structure so there can be flow, expectation, surprise, and mistakes (MP).

By “conventional,” I don’t necessary mean old traditions; I simply mean conventions whether new or old which establish structure for the performance. Call it dynamic visual vocabulary, call it time signatures for visuals, call it late for dinner, whatever. Just so the audience has a chance to grok the rules for the visual temporal patterns you’ll be laying down.

Oh shit, there I’ve said it, “rules.” So be it. I’m just an old fart, conservative, straight-ahead, 12 bar graphics guy, so my viewpoint is a bit conventional (literally, conventions — I like ’em)

I think rule-breaking is great in artforms where there are established traditions to contrast with. Rule-breaking in live visual performance may be a bit premature, like making up a new language, not teaching it to anyone else, and then expecting people to appreciate the delightful ways in which you violate the syntax for extra poetic expressiveness. They won’t.

Oh yeah, and about the on-again off-again Visual Richness dimension. Originally not there, then yesterday I thought I needed it and so put it back in. But then I realized (again, apparently!) that Visual Richness is secondary, an epiphenomenon in the viewer’s perception generated by PIPs and MP. I claim that MP is only possible within a dynamic visual vocabulary of primtives, riffs, and time signatures. Such a visual system, like the music infrastructure (i.e. diatonic scale, notation, time signatures, etc), then supports the emergence of composition. And entertaining richness is simply good composition times speed. Otherwise it’s just visual noise (bad composition) or slow painting (come back when it’s done).

Finally, the excellent post by David that spawned this blog entry:

Date: Thu, 09 Jun 2011 08:44:16 -0700
From: David T
Subject: Re: "VISUAL MUSIC" a conversation

Excellent discussion fellow voyagers.

PIPS is useful but is a very narrow metric. I would posit a single mallet hit on a tubular bell performed at the correct instant can rival a Steve Vai solo. Or a haiku compared with "War and Peace". Or Cage strumming a piano harp with a feather. Or meeting someone's eyes. All summer in a day, or a moment.

The audience ignoring the visuals. This is central to my frustration with visual performance and must be solved if we are to succeed. It's the environment and expectations commonly associated with live performance that make it difficult to showcase visual performance. The solution is using an environment tailored to visual performance. We have them, key examples being movie theatres and opera.

For our smaller events, say like in Daev's garage, simple steps should be taken. Turn down the lights. Have the musicians face away from the audience and toward the screen. Have the video fall to black between compositions.

The above reveals my bias toward the artifact, not the act of creation. Ultimately, the experience of the observer is the critical event, and the main part of that happens between the screen and the observers eyes. However, personally, I am interested in visual (and musical) experiences that are not the same every time. That's why I like live music, and especially improvisational performers like the Dead. I believe live, improvisational, collaborative visual performance is exciting, beautiful, enlightening, and transformational.

Let's do some of that.

Performing graphics: Fine art or applied art?

Posted in culture & media design, performing graphics, tools on July 8, 2010 by visualraccoon

Don’t answer that question! (on advice of visual counsel)

There are certain distinctions dangerous to make. And certain questions that only solidify those dubious distinctions.

If you know that someone is using a computer to spontaneously generate images for a live audience, what exactly do you know?

Is there text?
Is there graphics?
Is there music?
Are there bar charts?

Is it for fun?
Is it for profit?
Could it be for both?

Will the material be on the final exam?

Are you enthralled or bored out of your skull?

It’s time to stop drawing permanent lines of demarcation for no purpose. They will only bite you in the butt later on.

As the raccoon once told an audience in Japan, “beware of Westerners bearing distinctions”.

Text vs Graphic
General vs Special
Group vs Individual
Beginner vs Expert
Social vs Technological

and now

Fine Art versus Applied Art

The sooner we stop trying to make these distinctions — trying to make them once and for all, permanently, applicable in every situation — and instead see them as contextual decisions of local practicality, then the sooner we can enjoy the cross-fertilization of dancing over boundaries.

Wouldn’t you like to be one of the folks boogying in the back because you were so moved by the content and the spirit of the live imagery?

The group’s ideas at the Tuesday afternoon meeting never looked so good.

For a good overview of the very fine applied art of performing graphics in service of group communication, see Lynn Kearny’s site.

And for a complete trampling under dancing feet of the dubious and dangerous fine/applied distinction, see the last chapter of Live Graphics Nightly.

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VGA out for iPad SBPro, finally!

Posted in iPad on June 6, 2010 by visualraccoon

Kudos to AutoDesk — they did it right.

The image you are creating appears live on the big screen as you draw it, but the SBPro menu does *not*. The control menu only appears on the iPad for you alone to see and use.

Thanks to Rachel Smith for tipping me off that SBPro for the iPad had been updated.

Now that graphic recorders can work live using the iPad, this brings up a dilemma. If you only work full size, then at any time the group can see the entire record of the discussion. But you are limited in how small your lettering can be.

Jonny Goldstein‘s image is a good example:
(image (CC) Jonny Goldstein)

*Or* if you zoom and pan to get more detail, then while you are doing that the group will not be able to see the big picture.

This image of Rachel’s has lots more detail:
(image (CC) Rachel Smith)

But, as Rachel says, she has “concerns about sensitive persons in the audience watching my mad panning and zooming as I work,” and concludes that, “I think this is a great process for personal recording, but not yet for group work.”

So bottom line, iPad SBPro is like Zeno’s Paradox — it may never quite get there, but it keeps making progress in the right direction, and may soon be close enough for most practical purposes.

Which in the meantime leaves plenty of time for some darkhorse like vmacs for the iPad to slip in. Stay tuned!

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