Re: [rumori] representation in sight and sound (Artie Burple Crankling)

From: Chris Stecker (
Date: Wed Sep 19 2001 - 11:34:49 PDT

> you're saying randomness is a good crutch to replace talent
> and vision. dont get me wrong, i like to use randomness for,

Yep. In my case, it is, certainly. I am not a Musician nor am I a Composer.
I'm just a reg'lar guy. I put my ear to what I hear, and try once in a while
to capture and present something I think is interesting (or that I just
"like") to others. Maybe they'll like it too. Maybe not. Perhaps, then, I
represent the Ellsworth Toohey-fication of sound art, by elevating talentless
artists, random processors, and even mere listeners, to the status of
"interesting," thereby cheapening the whole deal for all the visionary "real"
artists out there. That troubles me, but I really don't know a way out of
the problem, short of quitting the whole art thing and leaving it to the

> as you said, a 'seed', but for me that is only a very first
> tiny step. actually randomness is more like a little water
> sprinkled on the seed which is the idea for the piece. if
> there's no idea you just have a small puddle. and without
> talent/skill you just have a wet seed that never becomes a
> plant.

Hmm, yeah. Can't smoke the seeds, I guess. Or maybe you could make soup with
some seeds and whole bunch of randomness. Or refried beans. Or popcorn.
Doesn't take much gardening skill to make a good soup.

> unless you're just imitating bird calls, music can't directy
> depict anything. it can CONNOTE, but it can't DENOTE. that's
> what i mean by abstraction.

Yeah, I'll amend my view and agree on this point, but it's one that I've
often been troubled by, and now I'm forced to ramble (rant) about it. The
gist: I don't think the difference is fundamentally between music and visual
art but rather between sight and sound, in general. In fact, I think that
music can denote, but that denotation in music is fundamentally non-spatial,
and we are simply less willing to accept such as true "representation."

The bias toward visual representation is natural and pervasive; we tell
babies, for instance, that the _image_ of a car "is" a car, while the _sound_
of a car is merely "the sound a car makes." Of course, careful introspection
reveals that the image is no more tied to the thing itself than is the sound,
but somehow we relate more directly to the image than the sound. Does the
image have "meaning" where the sound does not?

I think the answer to that question lies in the "primary dimensionality" of
our sensory systems. Vision's primary dimension, space, is represented
directly at the sensory periphery. Different locations in space project
images to different regions of the eye's retina, so that visual signals to
the brain are pre-parsed according to spatial layout. Similarly, the
primary dimension of hearing is not space, but frequency; different sound
frequencies stimulate different regions of the ear's cochlea, so that signals
to the brain have direct access to spectral information, while spatial
information must be computed (in the brainstem and midbrain) by comparing
signals recieved at the two ears. Similarly in vision, color is computed by
comparing the signals received by three receptor types, each most sensitive
to a different set of wavelengths. Auditory space and visual color are
extremely undersampled and have very poor resolution compared to the primary
dimensions of visual space and auditory spectrum.

Consder then, that the ability of visual art or music to represent objects
must be related to the primacy of the dimension depicted. For vision,
representing spatial organization (faces, houses, "scenes") is no problem.
For audition, spectrotemporal organization (bird calls, utterances, timbres)
is similarly natural. Steev's statement "Unless you're imitating bird calls,
music can't direclty depict anything." is equivalent, in visual terms to
"Unless you're painting faces, visual art can't directly depict anything."
The difference, IMO, is that visual representation is spatial. Notice that
when people talk about "reality" or "the real world," they wave their hands
around in space. "Out there" is where "things are," and so representations
that include a spatial description (i.e., visual representations) are somehow
"more real" than those that do not (auditory representations).

So, the fundamental difference between the representational capability of
music and visual art--and I agree that there is one--lies not in a
fundamental limit of music, but either in our willingness to accept
non-visual or non-spatial representations or in our limited ability to
produced musical structures of adequate complexity or realism. Like Steev, I
think the main difficulty right now is the latter, the lack of adequate
tools. Indeed, the same problem exists in science: one reason more
scientists study vision than hearing is that the presentation of a visual
stimulus (say, a picture) is more easily controlled than the presentation of
an auditory stimulus of similar complexity. Computers and DSP are changing
this fast, just as they are changing the ability of musicians to control
musical sounds (sampling is the obvious case in point).

I've often thought that sampling was analogous to photography, with sample
processing and editing equating with darkroom "tricks," collage included.
It's rather easy for a photographer to represent an object or event, and by
combining images, to make a statement that relates two or more objects or
events. But, photography lacks something in expressivity that other visual
arts, like painting or sculpture, possess. When we come across a powerful,
or emotional photograph, it seems most often the case that the source of its
power is the subject, not the photography itself. Had a lesser photographer
not captured the image at just the right time, in just the right light, it
may have been weaker, but the role of the photographer is not the same as
that of a painter, who brings interest to the work through her painting
style, rather than (necessarily) her selection of a subject.

If sampling=photography, then it seems that instrumental music=painting. The
ability to represent is hindered by the simplicity of the artwork's basic
unit: a brush stroke or a note, say. But that simplicity also provides a
great deal of flexibility: paintings can be as realistic or abstract as need
be, and I would argue that instrumental music can be as well. In the extreme
case of photorealism, I think we must consider the "musical" analog to be
sound "synthesis" (in the old-school sense of the word) which must employ
non-traditional instrumentation just as photorealistic painters must use
different brush strokes than their more abstract colleagues. Both visual art
and music are capable of varying degrees of abstraction and realism. I think
the key difference lies in the fact that tools for accurate sonic control are
still primitive. It's like we've been painting all this time with big
house-painting brushes, which are great for painting houses, but when used
for representational painting on a small canvas, fall somewhat short of
adequate. Sampling reflects just one of a new set of brushes suitable for
making representational sound art.

>(btw, lyrics arent really music. they are writing. a song
>with lyrics is really a hybrid of 2 forms, music and

As a final point to end this part of the discussion, this is a great point.
Lyrics are different from music. They aren't "writing" though, they are
speech. I've left lyrics out of the discussion above, because, like Steev,
I'm primarily interested in instrumental music. But keep in mind that a huge
proportion of (especially popular) music contains lyrics. In the context of
the discussion above, note that speech is not the same as sound, and the
primary dimension of speech is lingustic, not spectral or spatial. Language
is THE prima facie representational system, more thoroughly capable than any
analog system, visual, auditory, or otherwise. As such, the inclusion of
lyrics in music trumps all else, making, I would suggest, lyrical music
potentially more representational even than photorealistic painting or
photography. On the other hand, what's that David Byrne quote? "Singing is
a trick to make people listen to music longer than they ordinarily would," or
something like that.

> that abstraction is equivaent to masturbation? on the
> contrary, my aim is to get better and better at getting
> further and further from abstraction.

Although my point above is that music is quite capable in principle of
representation, I still like abstract art, for the reasons described in
earlier emails. Come to think of it, I like masturbation too. Reproduction
is great (I have a wonderful infant son to prove it), but is it the "purpose"
of sex to make babies? Is sex without reproduction meaningless?
If abstraction is to representation what masturbation is to reproduction,
what's the artistic equivalent of recreational (or even just
non-reproductive) sex?


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