Composing
Apprentice


My intention for Apprentice was to compose a piece of music using video by liquifying the essential strands which had been uncovered through the composition of previous pieces, rather than composing a video which represented musical form and rhythm. I wanted to compose a trio for guitar, clarinet and piano which called on some of the research into cross-modal perception to generate non-cochlear sound.

I was aware that the notion of a video as a piece of music may be somewhat controversial and problematic for a viewer but I kept in mind a discussion of sound art and sculpture: ‘an avenue of artistic practice does not depend on the exigencies of material. If the sculptor turns to materials never before employed in the production of sculpture, the right to call the work sculpture is not forfeited’ (Kim-Cohen, 2009, p. 152). Inspiration and encouragement also came from Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree, which was based on the concept of transubstantiation and transformative vision and drew on Duchamp’s readymade (Manchester, 2002). Furthermore, Turrell has discussed light as a material in relation to his series of Cross-Corner Projections (King, 2002) which seem to be sculptural works of light that hang in mid-air (Adcock, 1990). Turrell used light to create ‘perceptual volumes’ (Adcock, 1990, p. 36) rooted in the perceptual effects of space on light and light on space which also hark to a minimal and readymade aesthetic (Adcock, 1990).


Cage’s 4’33” showed that ‘silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening’ (Voegelin, 2010, p. 83), a concept which resonated with me when composing Apprentice as I attempted to shift, through the absence of physical sound, attention onto the perception of the image.

As I was attempting to create non-cochlear polyphony through the visual domain on a single screen I wanted to avoid pictorial or instrumental hierarchy. Considering the digital space through a perspective informed by Pollock’s approach to all-over space was useful in helping me to conceive each hand as having equal importance and significance within the organised whole. I was confident that Apprentice should not be concerned with the trajectories or movements of the hand as Syncretism and Étude had covered this ground already and could be aligned, in retrospect, with research into visual timing of dance-like movements and auditory rhythm perception (Su & Salazar-López, 2016). Generating rhythm using the binary state of pixels (on/off) would align the piece more closely with research which concluded that a visual stimulus of flashing light may be encoded as auditory, ‘resulting in the experience of “hearing” a visual temporal structure’ (Guttman, Gilroy & Blake, 2005, p. 234) although it may not be automatic (McAuley & Henry, 2010). Using static hand shapes devoid of transitional movements removed conflicting visual information, leaving only the timed flashing images of the hand. I was keen to compose a polyphonic work to engage with my reading into cross-modal perception in an artistic and musical way rather than focussing on simplified, single or uniform images in a pseudo-scientific approach or response to the existing research (Rileigh & Odom, 1972; Guttman, Gilroy & Blake, 2005; McAuley & Henry, 2010).

Two of Nauman’s pieces, the bronze installation sculpture Fifteen Pairs of Hands and the audiovisual installation For Children/For Beginners, capture the motions of hands: the bronze enables a prolonged observation of appendages seemingly engaged in transitory and expressive motions through physical three-dimensional space, while the audiovisual work also demonstrates motility and dexterity of the hand through a real-time two-dimensional plane. I was intrigued by the logical organisation and the clarity of form observed within each piece. A high degree of repetition is present within Fifteen Pairs of Hands as each individual within the pair echoes the other as if a shadow, reflection or engaged in dialogue. The methodical arrangement of finger combinations and audio narrative within For Children/For Beginners provides an elegant delivery of all permutations of the digits, reinforced with a vocal narrative and an even tempo. I attempted to apply the ideas of prolonged investigation and logical organisation to rhythm within Apprentice by employing a cyclical structure. I wanted to present a limited number of rhythmic figures across each instrument with rotations between instruments providing alternate perspectives.


Structure and Form


As the rest of the portfolio had been composed mostly using intuitive methods I wanted to try composing Apprentice using a generative process. Many of my teachers, mentors and fellow student composers used procedural methods to control and generate form and musical parameters and I wanted to reflect on this in my final piece. Up to composing Apprentice I had mainly relied on my intuition to guide, organise and make alterations to musical and visual materials during the act of composition. Working with a process was intended to broaden my experiences with composition by attempting to control the trajectory and direction of the piece prior to manipulating any of the constituent elements during the process of arrangement.

I decided that each instrument would have a limited palette of three hand shapes, each entering the piece through a gradual and rotational process. The rotational process consisted of three rhythmic phrases of approximately equal length which passed through each instrument within an immediate temporal framework. The rotation of phrases through each instrument created a cycle which allowed for the addition of a modifier to control the gradual entry of each new hand shape.

To begin each instrument performed one of the three rhythmic phrases which, when completed, were transferred onto the adjacent instrument. The rotation was continued until all combinations of phrase and instrumentation had been realised, creating a cycle. The rotational process would recommence following each cycle with the addition of a modifier to affect the hand shape attached to the first rhythmic phrase. As the modifier was bound to a phrase it would pass between each instrument as part of the phrase, positively affecting the hand shape for each instrument. With each new cycle the modifier continued to establish a new hand shape until all three shapes had been presented on each instrument.

I composed the rhythmic phrases directly within Sony Vegas Pro using a simple graphic. Working directly in the program allowed me to create the three rhythmic phrases as templates which could then be applied to any imagery required. Composing three rhythms with very different properties was intended to create constant movement and interest within the total space and are shown in the video playlist below which uses the simple graphic:


The process was successful in organising and presenting rhythm and visual imagery but the resulting piece fell short of my expectations. This presented an opportunity to build on my already established process. I realised that it may be possible to expand the piece beyond the expectation and conventions which the process established from the start of the piece while maintaining the ‘transactional rapport’ (Eco, 1989, p. 71) between the work and the viewer. This was achieved by retaining the identity of the rhythmic phrases but altering the entry of hand shapes using an intuitive strategy. Preservation of the already established rhythmic and cyclical conventions allowed for flexibility within the entry of the arguably more versatile hand shapes.


Critical Engagement


Apprentice may not be immediately recognised as a piece of music by a viewer who does not possess musical training or experience as music is more conventionally presented using the medium of sound. However, it is hoped that the musical attributes of the visual imagery will be strong enough to be recognised by an engaged audience. If this were achieved the connotations of instrumentation may also reinforce a sense of sound. However, a viewer may be required to undergo an almost complete submission to and acceptance of the rules which govern Apprentice. The reference to musical instruments through hand shapes would require a degree of experience and knowledge of instrumentation to fully access the piece, as well as an awareness and submission to the perceptual devices which attempt to establish cross-modal perceptions which may be reliant on viewer compliance (McAuley & Henry, 2010). The continued absence of an audio track to accompany the video was a response to Wilfred and Brakhage’s visual music practice in which the presence of sound was believed to distract from the temporal art form (Moritz, 1986; Fuxjägen, 2012) and may directly benefit video pieces which attempt to conjure non-cochlear sound.


Integral to each piece in the portfolio was the imagery of hands which functioned to demonstrate technique, as in the case of Portals and Étude, or act as a lens through which the presence of video editing was made explicit. Syncretism was the only piece which did not attempt to make a connection between the hand and a particular musical instrument, revealing a valid compositional approach to imagery devoid of a connection to instrumentation. While Portals was composed to be a score and Étude designed to bring attention to specific elements of Western classical guitar technique, neither piece needed to feature images of the instrument. For example, applying the exaggerated motions of air guitar to Étude may have provided an alternative approach to visual material which may also have been applied to the violin for the video score Portals, producing a very different type of score without sacrificing identity. Apprentice was successful at replacing direct images of instrumentation with associated representational imagery through the hands themselves.

Conversely, it could be argued that Apprentice is too overt in its musicality as a viewer may easily recognise the representation of instrumentation in the hand shapes. Depicting instrumentation in the hand may provide little resistance for a viewer whereas images of the hand in Syncretism may have a higher resistance as they did not depict musical action. It would be possible to subject images of hands which do not reference instrumentation to the same interventional video editing strategies and structural processes used in Apprentice but may require a higher degree of investment from a viewer. The reference to musical instruments and structuring in Apprentice may also allow for an interpretation of the video as a score for performance. Although Apprentice was not intended to be a score analysis and consideration of the piece may prove useful if I were to make further attempts at composing video scores.

The use of an all-over approach to screen space was an attempt to create polyphony and maintain an equal balance and hierarchy between instrumentation. It may have been more effective to present the polyphonic piece as a triptych on one wall, or spread the piece over several walls to fix single instruments within the physical space. I will likely compose polyptych pieces in the future, using multiple screens on the same or opposing walls of a gallery space, to which I may consider Apprentice as the progenitor. I originally connected polyphony with polyptych through video art, specifically Bill Viola’s approach which balances a traditional form of presentation with notions of spirituality for the contemporary viewer (Westgeest, 2016).

If cross-modal interactions are capable of producing non-cochlear sound it does not strictly follow that polyphony is possible. Garro (2011) asserts that polyphony within the visual domain cannot be achieved due to the limitations of visual perception:
‘while we are able to discern the component layers of polyphony, as well as appreciate the resulting ‘gestalt’ of the mix, we do not see a ‘mix’ of different overlapped visual streams: polyorama, as a faithful optical equivalent of polyphony, does not exist’ (Garro, 2011, p. 11).
However, if the rhythmic phrases and hand shapes were unique and strong enough the totality of the visual image may establish a sense of balance as ‘the forces constituting a system compensate one another’ (Arnheim, 1974, as cited in Evans, 1992, p. 14).

As in Portals, the simple and repetitive nature of the structural and rhythmic process was intended to reduce viewer memory load (Snyder, 2001) which may enable a deeper engagement with the total visual image rather than a focus on one instrument. However, there is evidence to suggest that recall of visual rhythmic patterns may be weaker than auditory encoding which could mean the rhythmic structures of Apprentice were too complex (Rileigh & Odom, 1972; Collier & Logan, 2000; Iversen, Patel, Nicodemus, & Emmorey, 2015). By considering these points future attempts to create a visual polyphony may look towards engaging with peripheral vision by surrounding the viewer with room-sized displays and somewhat simplified rhythms. However, I acknowledge and accept that achieving polyphony through visual stimuli and cross-modal interaction may provide many further challenges.

Footage quality and stability of the image was a particular issue with Apprentice due to the increased use of repetition and hard cut-editing. Slight changes in hand position between each shot were amplified by the aggressive cutting and looping, causing severe jumping of the image which was reduced but not eliminated in post-production. Post-production colour grading reduced inconsistencies with lighting but both issues could be avoided by investing in professional lighting equipment, filming in a larger space and engineering a jig to support the body throughout filming to reduce performer fatigue.

Finally, I was aware that there may have been a risk of losing artistic and musical direction by assuming a pseudo-scientific approach through research into the perception of sensations. Although it would no doubt be vital to engage with further research in order to create pieces which generate non-cochlear sound through cross-modal interaction and perception, the integrity of the compositions would be my priority.
© 2016 James A. Fox Contact Me