Ars Electronica 2005
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Festival 1979-2007


Visualized Music
An Old Theme, A New Theme

'Wolfgang Winkler Wolfgang Winkler

With this year’s theme “Hybrid—living in paradox”, the Ars Electronica Festival is attempting an analysis of the current state of our society—and not in art alone.
Thanks to modern media, the world has gotten smaller; societies and their cultures have converged. Over the course of past centuries, Europe has mistakenly imagined itself to be the centerpoint of each and every cultural development, and in doing so it successfully suppresses the fact that, long before Europe’s emergence, high cultures had already been flourishing in China, Egypt and Mesopotamia—to name only three. European historiography mostly omits from consideration the lines of development extending to Europe from these cultures and that ultimately made Europe that which Europeans presume it to be—the middle point of the cultural world.

This Eurocentrism has survived intact into the 21st century.
Terms like “non-European” or, for example, “the cultures of South America” make it patently clear that Europe is still trying to maintain its purportedly leading position among the cultures of the world without realizing that this position has long since become a thing of the past. The Ragas of India, for example, or the Maquams of the Near East display a level of complexity that an audience accustomed to music in 3¼4 and 4¼4 time simply cannot appreciate. It is characteristic of Europe’s self-righteous attitude that even the daily rhythms of Bulgaria and Rumania are no longer comprehensible—even they are too complex.

On the other hand, the influence that Europe exerted or still exerts upon other parts of the world—in music, for instance—has certainly not been inconsiderable. This influence has often enough been the key determinant of taste, and likewise frequently the basis for other developments, but it has also often been an approach towards aesthetic homogenization. If one scrutinizes various different international composition competitions—UNESCO's Rostrum, for example—then one hears very clearly that Europe can exert a thoroughly unwholesome influence on mature musical cultures deeply rooted in other countries. Ultimately, all the works one hears there start to sound as if they had just blown in from Donaueschingen, the European symbol for contemporary music—though, indeed, that too has passed into the realm of history.

The fact that this state of Eurocentrism does not prevail in the world of art is yet another indication that we have long since become inhabitants of a hybrid society without realizing it. Since time immemorial, musical cultures have been brought into correlation with the corresponding developments in the plastic arts and the social structures of the society that is the setting of the particular musical culture. Mozart would not have even understood the accusation that he had stolen themes or melodies from others. In his day, there was absolutely no basis for such moralistic insinuations. The mixture of different aesthetics goes far beyond music.

Music has always been connected with the word in the form of the song. The discussion of which part of a song’s content is transported by the music and which by the lyrics is an undertaking that is as protracted as it is senseless. It’s simply the song in and of itself. It is not only since the days of Kandinsky and Klee that music and the plastic arts have become interconnected; they have always been partners in the reception of art. It is simply impossible here to cite the countless examples of this, but mention can at least be made of Scriabin and his color-light piano or of the scientific studies that have looked into the extent to which light waves and sound waves correlate with each other. In the opera, the worlds of architecture, music, literature and the plastic arts ultimately blend together into an artform all its own. Ceremonial performances of music in Antiquity generally included the same partners.

So then, when Ars Electronica and the Brucknerhaus initiate a programmatic focus on “visualized music” within the context of both the Ars Electronica Festival and the Brucknerfest, than all we need do is refer to this mixing, overlapping and collaboration in the arts. The fact that technology, moreover, comes into play as an instrument is completely beside the point. Today, the computer plays the same role as conventional instruments, though perhaps with other more highly advanced expressive possibilities.

In his graphic notation, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati showed a clear state of development of visualized music. His graphics are scores in a musical sense to the same extent that they are graphics in the sense of the plastic arts. Everyone is entitled to his/her own personal approach to or take on these scores. The pioneering project of the 2004 Brucknerfest—a collaboration of artist Johannes Deutsch and the Ars Electronica Futurelab to bring Richard Wagner’s opera Rheingold into a new dimension-likewise proceeds in the direction of visualized music. Indeed, the sense of this development is not to be a superior director atop that famed hill in Bayreuth; rather, independent of Richard Wagner, the point here is the creation of a new dimension of the stage and of the visual mise en scène.

Ultimately, one could say that pure music is actually encountered only on the radio, whereby the listener, as a result of personal associations to the particular piece of music, can create a virtual image to accompany it. Everything else is, in the final analysis, visualized music. This is the bread and butter of MTV and other media outlets, but, from this perspective, even a large-scale orchestra concert in the Brucknerhaus is a video clip with the musicians and, above all, the conductor, as the leading actors.
The idea behind this programmatic focus of the Ars Electronica Festival and the Brucknerhaus—one that will be developed further in the coming years—is to come up with a new possibility of implementing and realizing visual imagery and music. In this sector, tradition indeed constitutes instructions but never the ultimate aim.
Translated from German by Mel Greenwald