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August 1, 2018

Synectics in Music: Visuals

Seeing is Sound

Paul John Rudoi
CEO, Founder - Consortio, Inc.

The term “graphic scores” can be a loaded one–Xenakis is a good (and fantastically awesome) example of why–and many composers shy away for various historical, socio-economic, or personal reasons. Today’s post will not convince you to use graphic scores, at least in the traditional sense. The goal is to see how visual and aural explorations can jumpstart our creativity.

So take the connotations from the term out of it and consider graphics less to do with performance but rather as a way to clarify compositional intent. For example, Arvo Pärt sometimes uses graphical scores to sketch out his melodic contours, most famously with his “Melodical Drawing.” Here is a composer who, similar to Copland, Stravinsky, and many others, went through various stages–neo-classical, serialist, and more–to get to his current minimalist style and rockstar status as an important spiritual force. But just because many people listen to his music while falling asleep doesn’t mean his technique or process lessened. His “Melodical Drawing” mentioned above shows the visual of a bird influencing how he solidifies a piece’s melodic contour. Anyone can do this with anything.

  • Writing a piece about the sea? Think of waves’ shapes or how foam sticks to a sandy beach.
  • Considering a mythological subject? Take a couple steps back from John Cage and use constellations as a guide for the highest, lowest, and most important notes in a melody.
  • Art songs from poetry about a social justice warrior? Look at the map of a town that was important to them or the names of streets important to their cause. In essence, visuals can be converted into music if you let them guide your musical thinking.

Even more exciting is when people from seemingly disconnected realms find connection with music in new ways, such as using the structure of a Philip Glass concerto to evolve and fix current agricultural dilemmas (yes, you read correctly). The maps and drawings for these and other projects look very much like the graphic scores many of us know and only some of us love. Why couldn’t melodic contour or even rhythmic material be derived from this, considering Mico Muhly derived a piece for the BBC Proms from diagrams of horses’ gaits?

Taking a step back, visuals don’t have to be limited to non-musical material on paper. David Byrne is an example of someone heavily influenced by the world around him, transforming seemingly unmusical things into music in a somewhat zen-like view. “I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry–poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs–is how the world works.” This quote, taken from his Bicycle Diaries wherein he chronicles his experiences as he bikes nearly everywhere, sums up the possibilities of everything if we consider the artistic next to the geometric.

Beyond the analog, there are experimentations and connections taking place that weren’t possible in previous generations yielding some spectacular results. YouTube users Smalin, Musanim, and many others have taken to YouTube to create a library of thousands of graphical scores influenced more by the sounds that they hear than the scores themselves. And if you find this sort of visual stimuli fun, you’re not alone. Whether you use them as a time-wasting game or as impetus for your next piece, there are thousands of fantastic apps for musical and visual experimentation including Node Beat, the Korg Gadget, or the entire app suite by Olympia Noise Co. If you’re feeling adventurous, this list can get you started, and no worries if you don’t understand half of the language about what the apps can do. Just mess around. That’s what Brian Eno, Peter Chilvers, Sandra O’Neill, and others do all the time.

Are Xenakis’ graphical scores, Musanim’s versions, Part’s “Melodical Drawing,” and architectural designs really that different? Any answer to that question is right: they are as similar or as contrasting as you want them to be, especially as it pertains to your own writing and explorations. It’s all about the journey, and as Byrne says, “the world isn’t logical, it’s a song.”


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