Technical Sound-Image Transformations

4 Hand-drawn Sounds

Early artistically motivated experiments with sound include the experiments made by the Russian Futurist Arseny Avraamov from 1930 onwards. Avraamov developed methods of first drawing wave forms in larger formats by hand, before then scaling them down photographically to fit the narrow audio track of the film material and in this way synthesize sounds. In the same year, the animator and engineer Rudolf Pfenninger worked on similar methods to develop his Tönende Handschrift (GER 1932). Like Pfenninger’s experiments, those of the Russian inventor Boris Yankovsky between 1932 and 1939 were also initially motivated by a scientific interest in electro-acoustics and phonetics. It was Yankovsky who exploited the potential of optical sound tracks for the deliberate processing of sounds (spectral analysis and resynthesis, time stretching, or formant synthesis).[8]

However, the fundamental conditions that shaped artistic production were derived from the media-technical requirements of optical sound as early as the 1920s. László Moholy-Nagy for instance, distanced himself in 1927 from the concepts of color-light art, and saw optophonetics as the locus of future aesthetic discourse on the interrelationship of all optical-kinetic and acoustic-musical matters.[9] In his essay “Neue Filmexperimente” (new experiments in film),[10] published in 1933, he makes reference to artistic appropriation of the optical sound method as a means to back up his theoretical writings from 1923 on the potential of the gramophone.[11] It is remarkable that both Moholy-Nagy in these texts, and John Cage in a lecture he gave in 1937, “The Future Of Music: Credo,” sketched two antagonistic models of the artistic use of optical sound. On the other hand, both authors call for a precise study of the graphic symbols of the different acoustic phenomena,[12] in order to provide complete control over the overtone structure of tones … and to make these tones available in any frequency, amplitude, and duration.[13]. In addition, optical sound methods allow for music to be completely recreated,[14] while new methods will be discovered, bearing a definite relation to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system.[15]. Following the approach taken by Theodor W. Adorno, namely that what is new in art emerges from the progressive evolution of artistic material, optical sound was perceived as an instrument for the subjective control of sound structuring. On the other hand, Moholy-Nagy and Cage introduced the concept of an experimental aesthetic practice into their reflections on the nature of optical sound. Every form of optical material can serve as a source for the creation of sound.[16] Left to the apparative logic of the photo cell, the resonant results cannot be predicted on a theoretical level.[17] In this context, Moholy-Nagy refers to experiments in which “the profile of a person … was hand-drawn on film and then made audible.[18] In these attempts to make the two-dimensional tracings of the human physiognomy audible based on the icononical similarity to the transversal script of the phonograph, the anthropomorphism that also inspired Rainer Maria Rilke to trace the coronal suture of a human skull with a phonograph stylus is expressed.[19] In addition, Moholy-Nagy describes studies made by filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, who, in addition to studies on the synchronization of instrumental music and animated visual forms had addressed himself since approximately 1931 to the matter of drawn optical sound. Fischinger put patterns and ornaments on the audio track of the film strip. However, he scarcely broached the issue of the discrepancy between the imagery of these figures and the entirely indifferent medial gaze of the photo cell, by writing the following in two newspaper articles from 1932: There is a direct relationship between ornament and music, in other words, ornaments are music. … One can perhaps hope that relationships can be found between the linear beauty of form and musical beauty.[20] We can perceive the optical sound track as a two-dimensional form yet the photo cell only evaluates one optical dimension (fluctuation in the intensity of light) and a temporal one (frequency of the fluctuation of intensity). For this reason, different optical patterns can create the same variations of intensity on the optical sound track and therefore sound identical when played. Consequently, to assert the unambiguous correlation of geometric forms and sounds is only partially valid; these must be read in a more differentiated manner, in the light of the interdependency of medial operation and human perception.

The possibility of audiovisual transformation provoked an oscillation between semiotic and medial registers, as Guy Sherwin reflects in the optical sound films he has realized since 1971, a good forty years after Fischinger. Sherwin did not find the pattern-like cyclical nature of the optical film sound track in abstract drawings, but in the photographic image — by taking a series of photos of fenceposts and stairs in succession and exposing them on both the image and sound tracks. In order to render persistently indexical photography audible in the form of a play of light and shadow based on architectural elements, Sherwin’s concept takes the change of media to its extreme. In the film Newsprint (UK 1972) he particularly emphasizes this culmination by sticking newspaper onto celluloid strips and thus replacing the spatially distanced exposure process with physical contact. The film material literally becomes a carrier for image and sound. Sherwin allows the script and audio soundtrack — symbols and signals, in other words — to collide with one other.

Others also attempted to make optical means of recording sound visually tangible, among them Norman McLaren[21] (Synchromy, CAN 1971) and Lis Rhodes (Light Music, UK 1975). The image track in these films is laid out in equivalence to the equidistant beams on the optical sound track. In contemporary art practice, especially works by Bruce McClure and Derek Holzer’s Tonewheels (since 2007) project are representative of the transformative use of light.

Moholy-Nagy, ibid., 309. Trans. G. M.  
This formulation can already be found in thoughts about a handwritten scratched writing for the gramophone. Moholy-Nagy, “Neue Gestaltung in der Musik” (see note 11), 309.