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Remembering beginnings & connections

“We are, in some degree, also amused by the very visions of fancy itself.  Often, when slumber has half-closed the eye, and shut out all the objects of sense, especially after the enjoyment of some splendid scene; the imagination, active and alert, collects its scattered ideas, transposes, combines, and shifts them into a thousand forms, producing such exquisite scenes, such sublime arrangements, such glow, and harmony of colouring, such brilliant lights, such depth, and clearness of shadow, as equally foil description, and every attempt of artificial colouring.”
— William Gilpin “On Picturesque Travel”  (1792)

Web Image of "Blue Evening Timbre" © Dave Tilton

Blue Evening Timbre (36 x 45 inches) (2013) Edition of 6 © Dave Tilton

I often am asked about the connection between my work and electronic music, the answer travels a long and winding road.

My first introduction to electronic music was Morton Subotnick’s “The Wild Bull.”  It was different and difficult, totally unlike anything I had ever heard.  It was 1968.  It was amazing.  After that, I listened to some things by Subotnick, Babbit, Reich and others, and found them intriguing and stimulating.  But, I truly fell in love with electronic music through film scores.

I think I was drawn to scores because they are performed for the ears, but composed for the eyes.  Louis and Bebe Barron’s score for “Forbidden Planet” was my first.  Then came Wendy Carlos’ score for “A Clockwork Orange” and I was hooked.  I became a fan of Tangerine Dream after hearing their dark, moody scores for “Sorcerer” and “Firestarter” and then on to Vangelis, Jarre and Moroder, and more recently Serra, Revell, and The Dust Brothers.

Much like scores, my first tinkering with creating sounds was intended to communicate visually.  I was conducting academic research in information design during the late 80’s early 90’s and exploring ways to use computers to increase the amount of information expressed by graphics such as maps.  We were diddling around with things like animation, human-computer interaction, and sound.  For example, we experimented using certain sound characteristics like pitch to express an increase or decrease in the density of something  (e.g. population) when you moved the mouse pointer over an area of a map.  New technologies introduced new possibilities.  It was an exciting time to be involved in information design.

During those research years I bought my first synthesizer, a Roland JD-800.  It was so cool — a digital synth that had analog controls for generating and modifying waves, shaping envelopes, etc.  I later added a Korg Wavestation and a second JD-800 rack-mount.  I had a blast with these synths and learned a great deal.  Wish I still had them.

One outcome of my information design research was an opportunity to develop an interface for a research project using videodisc technology.  That experience led to further research in interface design and eventually to some opportunities to put that research into practice.  Starting in the mid-90’s, Paula and I combined our talents and designed interfaces and systems for a wide range of commercial applications beginning with consumer CD-ROM titles and later Internet- and intranet-based information systems for corporations.

The nineties brought a tremendous amount of technological advancement.  Personal computers became increasingly powerful, digital video/photo technology began to be viable, and the Internet emerged from the bulletin board stage to become what it is today.

After Paula and I retired from design work, I was poking around for something to do and picked up a camera again.  I had first become involved with photography back in the mid-seventies.  At that time, I was interested in narratives and capturing scenes that expressed certain aesthetic ideals.  It was mainly about composition, exposure, focal length, and catching the light just right.

However, when I returned to photography, I realized that what I really wanted to express in a photograph exceeded what could be captured on film.  Rather than documenting a scene, I wanted to capture the feelings and emotions I attached to a scene through memory.  And more importantly, I wanted to be able to create images that allowed others to uncover their own memories and emotions in the scenes portrayed.

Traditionally, photography is considered documentary by nature — a photograph refers to things in the ‘real’ world.  But to create the images I wanted, I needed to break the link between a photograph and its real-world referent and replace it with the image in my head.  In other words, I wanted my photographs to be of my memories and impressions of a place, not the place itself.

And then I had an epiphany of sorts — for me, real-world referents in a photograph function like lyrics in a song.  I didn’t want lyrics.  I wanted to create photographs that were like film scores — subtle images that would give viewers something to get started on but leave lots of room to play and construct their own meanings as they consume the image.

This basic realization got me thinking about using music, specifically electronic music, as a model for my ideas.  Most electronic compositions don’t contain lyric, and if they do it is usually some form of sampled or synthesized speech selected for its timbre rather than meaning.  This is especially the case with electronic film scores.

The purpose of a film score is to subtly establish mood for the viewer.  And, as opposed to a soundtrack (which includes songs), a score communicates with the viewer rather than the characters in the film.  Often, a score is simply background music.  But, great scores like Vangelis’ score for “Antarctica” or Jarre’s score for “Witness” transcend the viewing experience to become compositions that stand independent of their associated film.

I went back and listened to dozens of scores that I felt possessed this transcendent quality.  I wanted to understand what gave them their strong visual quality.  How when you listened to them they felt like large canvases on which you could create your own imagery.  Even when I thought about the movie they were written for, I could easily re-imagine the scenes.

As I was working through all this, I recalled listening to two CDs from the late 80’s, “Western Spaces” and “Desert Solitaire.”  These were collections of thematically related compositions by ambient composers Steve Roach, Kevin Braheny, Michael Stearns, and Richard Burmer.  They weren’t scores, but they were exceptionally visual.

I dug them out of a yet unpacked box from a recent move.  And, as I listened to these CDs, I started to understand the relationship of timbre to compositional structure.  I also began to understand how these composers manipulated this relationship to produce strong visual qualities in their music.  I heard timbre created through many layers of manipulated sounds.  I heard structure created through the subtle, complex layering of timbres.  I heard compositions that evoked landscape.

This led to a model for creating the images I wanted — I could think about color and texture in terms of timbre, and I could use those colors and textures to create form and position for compositional structure.

Implementing this model didn’t seem feasible with traditional film photography, but digital offered possibilities.  Digital photography was just beginning to emerge as a viable alternative to film — the first megapixel cameras came out for the consumer market in the late 90’s and Apple introduced the Mac G3 series around that same time.  Adobe Photoshop, first released in 1987, had evolved into a powerful and effective digital darkroom.  Equally important, digital printing was emerging as a legitimate option to traditional darkroom prints.

Working in a digital environment was intriguing because with computers, what we see and what we hear are conceptually close together.  Both light and sound start and stay as 1s and 0s, the difference lies in how those 1s and 0s are manipulated and expressed.  Theoretically, I could reconfigure the concepts and techniques used to manipulate sound in order to create the textures, colors, and forms I needed.  And, I could do this using the standard tools of digital photography.

There are two basic methods for acquiring sound for synthesis — one is waveform generation, the other is sampling.  Both have analog and digital options.  Waveforms are generated by oscillators and then subsequently modified using various types of synthesis.  Sampling involves recording real-world sounds and then manipulating them to create the electronic sound you want.

In my model, sound would be replaced by pixels created using various tools in Photoshop or acquired by sampling with a digital camera.  Photoshop would serve as my synthesizer and also as a sequencer for composition.  An inkjet printer would be my recording device.

With conceptual model in hand, I spent the bulk of the next decade working out a set of basic techniques.  Every issue had to be tackled from the ground up.  But, my initial experiments showed enough promise to keep me coming back for more.

As I continued to develop my techniques, I realized that that one of the primary benefits of working in a digital environment was a level of control over the nuances of color, form, and texture previously unavailable to artists.  By using electronic music as a model for my techniques, I was able to extend this control to capture the sense of memory I wanted to express in my work.  As a result, my images evoke a painterly aesthetic, yet contain textures, colors and forms truly unique to the digital medium.

It now has been almost 15 years since I started down this path, and electronic music continues to inspire my work.  What began as an exercise in photographic process has evolved into an art form that straddles a number of traditional media categories.  But, that’s a story for another day.

Thinking Differently about What We See and Hear

Web Image of "CloudWave"

Dave Tilton, CloudWave, ©2008

“All that you are really doing when you’re collecting stuff from space is that you’ve got to get that information into your brain so you can think about it.  And what we’re used to doing is putting visual information into our brains – well there’s no real reason why we shouldn’t listen to signals.” (Dr. Tim O’Brien, of Manchester University’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, discussing the technique called “stellar seismology” which is used to record sounds by interpreting light waves recorded through telescopes).*

We live in a world composed of energy, and as human beings, we transform that energy into amazing things.

The three cones in the human eye divide up photons in the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to create color and our minds turns those photons into Rothkos, Rembrandts, and sunsets.

Our ears sense differentials in air pressure (sinusoidal plane waves traveling through the matter that surrounds us) to create sound and our minds turn those waves into Beethoven, Eno, and traffic noise.

Sensing takes place in our organs; making sense takes place in our minds.

For me, the line between hearing and seeing is thin and malleable, or even fuzzy and blurry.  Energy is translated into sight and sound by our eyes and ears and turned into art and music in our minds.  Do I need sine waves to hear music in my mind?  Do I need photons to see art in my mind?  Some may call this imagining, but for me it is a willful reconfiguration of my sensory experience.  This reconfiguration is the basis for my art.

A while back I was talking to someone about my techniques being modeled after techniques used in synthesizing and composing electronic music.  He responded by stating flatly, “Sound is temporal.  Image is static.”

I say, “Sure, kind of, maybe.  But what can we learn by thinking differently?”

* Science is beginning to ‘listen’ to stars by measuring what they see through telescopes.  In 2008, scientists recorded the sound of three stars similar to our Sun using France’s Corot space telescope.  According to BBC News Science correspondent, Pallub Ghosh:  The technique, called “stellar seismology,” is becoming increasingly popular among astronomers because the sounds give an indication of what is going on in the stars’ interior.  Just as seismic waves moving through Earth provide information about our planet’s insides, so sound wave traveling through a star carry information about its inner workings.  The Corot detects the oscillations as subtle variations in the light emitted by a star as its surface wobbles.  This light signal can then be converted back to sounds we understand.  In addition to Dr. Tim O’Brien, Ghosh also quotes Professor Eric Michel of the Paris Observatory as saying, “This is a completely new way to look at the stars compared with what has been available for the past 50 years.  It is very exciting.”  Read Ghosh’s full article to learn more:

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Carta Notes captures updates from Carta StudioWorks authors: Dave Tilton, Paula Oeler, and, when we write together, Carta.