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MuViz - Visualization Notes

An essay by Joel Ryan in the context of the "Mapping Your Creative Territory" masterclass.

Though I have seldom surrendered to the desire to visualize music, the opportunities emerging from computational graphics are difficult to resist. My own audio autism has been pretty water tight, sustained by a belief in the uniqueness of musical experience. Probably this phenomenological monism is just another version of the idea of "absolute" music, but I do not think it is so much dogma as desire - a desire to create compelling music. The horror of visualization is partly avoidance of the "extra musical", but there is also a real fear of the dominance of one mode of experience over the other. While always involving some visual references, musical instrument design, for me, seems to be all about trying not to clutter up the interface with visual tasks which crowd out listening. In my experience, this competition between modalities does not hold between touch and listening. Difficult bodily involvement with playing don't seem to interfere with concentration on sound, perhaps the opposite. It could be that competition for mental resources is the problem, ie vision stealing from the power of other kinds of "imagination" at work in playing music. Or perhaps it's simply that the timing involved in decoding some kinds of visual material is incongruent with the time required to focus on a musical performance.

But, whatever the answer, there is a place where visual imagination can play a strong role in music. I spend a lot of time visualizing when "composing" and writing musical code: visualizing models of the flow of musical sounds and models of processing, visualizing hierarchies and relationships of musical parameters and of DSP control structures. These include both mechanical and iconographic images: images of physicalistic "processes" as well as mathematical abstractions, though, for a programmer this distinction is moot. Interestingly, this visualization is spread out over external and internal mental forms, realized partly on pieces of paper and partly via the power of imagination in the traditional sense.

Computational geometry offers a rival locus for visual imagination. All branches of science now depend for their everyday work on synthetic graphic constructions. These are not pretty pictures, but simulations and CAD (Computer Aided Design) systems, which are built up directly out of the research methodology they have come to aid. They include strong visual representations of empirical data, and pattern recognition tools which incorporate theoretical constructs of their science. They are not artificial intelligence, but they are indispensable instruments of research. In a very real way, understanding the folding of proteins and mapping and manipulating the relations of genomes are impossible without chemical CAD tools. Mathematical ideas themselves are more easily communicated and elucidated via graphic simulation. In fact, the very nature of scientific rhetoric itself is changing, so that proof "by construction" is once more mathematically valid. These systems have drawn so close to the "language of science" that we now trust in simulations to search for the solution to both pure theoretical and more practical problems, as in cosmology, meteorology and geophysics. This convergence of simulation and imagination will probably be as empowering for our time as was the discovery that the syntax of algebra enables extension of the idea it represents.

Considering that the distinction between real and simulated makes little sense in the arts, there is curiously little enthusiasm in art music for the possibilities it offers for new theoretical tools for music. In the academy the material basis of music was undermined generations ago in favor of an idealized concept of writing. As a believer in the fundamental ground of all music in performance practice, in human players and their history, I don't feel threatened by revisions due to our tools. But, though there is definitely more than curiosity in the colorful fringes of musicology, there is a strange silence in the rest of the academy.

Excerpt by Joel Ryan, 2002

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