The Language of Visual Music

Crafting a vocabulary and grammar

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Blog post by Rose Sebastian

We are constructing a language of visual music. This language relies on non-symbolic communication. Rather than relying on past experiences and taught words to help viewers understand our language, we are communicating through feelings and sensations. This language is created by the visual musician every time they craft a piece yet, like every language ours too has a grammar and a vocabulary.

Our understanding of reality and what is possible shapes the grammar and vocabulary we create. Yet, as Benjamin Whorf theorized, that grammar and vocabulary will also shape what realities musicians can express in our language. In the 1930s, Whorf argued that the constraints of language shape what thoughts we are able to express. As he said, "No individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality, but is constrained by certain modes of interpretation even when he thinks himself most free." While his beliefs about the Hopi sense of time might not have proved correct, Whorf’s beliefs about the restrictions that grammar and vocabulary place on expression have shaped our thinking in creating our language.

Motion is central to our vocabulary, both the movement of objects within the environment and the viewer’s sense of their own motion. Color combinations and changes in brightness also produce direct emotional responses. Repetition, symmetry, and other aspects of shape and structure have universal impacts. All of these form the vocabulary of our emerging language. The goal of our visual instrument is to create an efficient grammar for communicating these elements, so that the physical actions of the musician are connected to the emotional response of the viewer in a way that is intuitive, expressive, versatile, and interesting.

Yet our sense of reality is also shaping what elements find their way into our vocabulary and grammar. The original Outer Space Visual Communicator was named in honor of and developed in conjunction with Sun Ra, who at times referred to himself as an outer space communicator. When Sun Ra used and performed on musical instruments he was not playing music that was just a series of notes and scales and chords and beats. What he was doing was going to other worlds at some deep level of his being. He was going to these other worlds and then communicating back the experiences and realities that he was encountering. For Bill, the experience of that music wasn’t hearing individual notes but of getting to be part of other worlds. Those worlds had the capacity entertain, uplift, educate, and bring beauty. Bill created the OVC to express and share those worlds using vision instead of sound. That sense of other worlds which can be reached through vision and through audio continues to shape the development of Bill’s visual music today and the language of our visual music.

So the process of creating our visual language is a slow and careful one, as we try to balance creating a language that allows musicians to access other worlds with the need to make the language easy to learn and understand.

References: Benajmin Lee Whorf