Visual Music: The Concept of ‘Visual Music’ and Historical Excurse


In the public consciousness, the beginning of 20th century is being strongly associated with the emergence of a variety of avant-garde artistic styles, the practitioners of which would often go as far as defying the very soundness of many art-related conventions. It is namely during the course of 20th century’s first few decades that such artistic approaches to painting as cubism, surrealism, impressionism and primitivism, had not only gained social prominence, but even began to be discussed as only the manifestations of ‘true art’. The same can be said about the qualitative essence of early 20th century’s trends in musical composition – throughout the course of this particular historical era, a number of world’s renowned composers, such as Debussy and Ravel, used to feel an irresistible urge to experiment with unconventional methods for composing music. The metaphysical quintessence of all these art-related developments of the time can be defined as artists and composers’ striving to ‘purify’ art of its associations with objectively existing reality, as the foremost indication of such art’s earthiness. In the eyes of most progressive art-theorists of the era, the process of artistic forms and conventions’ continuous transformation was dialectically predetermined – that is, the fact that the growing number of creative individuals were trying to consciously distance themselves from artistic dogmas of the past, was being perceived as an additional proof of art’s historicity.

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The earlier articulated statement provides us with methodological framework for discussing the emergence of the concept of so-called ‘visual music’, the proponents of which used to suggest that Hegelian principle of historical dialects predetermines the eventual fusion of music with visual art. According to ‘visual art’ theorists, it is only logical for composers to consider the utilization of visual imagery to reflect upon the same ideas and motifs, contained in a particular music score, as the structural subtleties of composing music and painting on canvas are essentially the same. As Goldberg and Schrack (1986, p. 11) had put it: “The basic concepts (of composition) are common to both visual and musical art: line, texture, rhythm and color… The correlation of musical and visual structures is a theoretical discipline to be worked out creatively”. In a similar manner, early 20th century Marxists used to suggest that, since the dialectical laws of history create objective preconditions for ‘surplus value’ to continue increasing, it was only the matter of time, before representatives of working-class would overthrow bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, what is valid in theory is not necessarily valid in practice – as of today, only a small number of politically arrogant individuals continue to profess Marxist beliefs.

The soundness of an earlier statement can be also explored within the methodological context of ‘visual music. Despite the fact that in early 20th century, this concept used to be thought of as the way of the future; nowadays, only a small number of concept enthusiasts carry on trying to fuse music with images/light in a manner that would be appealing to broader audiences. While referring to the inconsistencies of a suggestion that music and pictorial art are naturally predisposed towards being fused with each other, Langer (1961, p. 25) stated: “One cannot prove the excellence of a concept, even if it be logically impeccable, except pragmatically, by operating with it successfully”. In its turn, this explains why the history of ‘visual music’ is being concerned with many accounts of ‘visual music’ related projects that had not even been completed. For example, after having discussed a high artistic value of Leopold Survage’s 1913 visually-musical film Colored Rhythm: Study for the Film, McDonnell (2007, p. 8) had no option but to mention the fact that this film never existed in reality: “Unfortunately, not being able to secure the funding or a patent for it, Survage never made the film”. Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that, since ‘visual music’ continues to be associated with the concept of artistic avant-garde, which makes it quite impossible for ‘visual music’ to become an integral part of today’s mass culture, there must be objective prerequisites for this type of music not to be able to attain a mainstream artistic legitimacy. In this paper, we will aim at exploring the validity of such our statement to a further extent, while coming with rationalizations as to why the idea that it is possible to fuse music and visual art into one inseparable compound might not be entirely feasible.

Defining ‘visual art’

As of today, there is no universally recognized definition as to what ‘visual music’ really is. Nevertheless, there are two major perspectives, from which art critics refer to the concept, and which can be generally described as ‘theoretical’ and ‘technical’. The proponents of theoretical outlook on ‘visual music’ suggest that the concept derives out of methodological sameness between visual art and music as representational mediums, while pointing out the fact that this type of music is meant to provide listeners with the possibility to experience cognitive transcendence. According to Grant (2003, p. 184): “Visual music typically draws attention to things, to phenomena and to relationships which also exist beyond the piece and not just by means of it, but it generally does so by creating the very phenomena or relationships in question”. Moreover, some of the most radical advocates of the concept imply that its very purpose is to liberate the process of music’s composing of its spatially and socially defined hierarchical constraints. As Schoffer (1985, p. 59) had put it: “Musical composi­tion has been founded on extremely rigid rules, where defined time has been programmed from relationships clearly signifying the linearity and ordered arrangement of its unfolding… How does one move beyond this? The solution is in my opinion simple: one need only transfer the techniques of visual arts to the techniques of sonic arts”. On the other hand, critics who adopted a utilitarian outlook onto a subject matter, tend to define ‘visual music’ as essentially conventional music, although embellished with visual manifestations of an affiliative rhythm, in order to increase its own emotional intensity.

In his article, Johnson (1969, p. 8) hypothesized that, since music’s ability to trigger an emotional response in listeners depends on whether it is being existentially related to listeners’ psyche, the same can be implied about a particular music score’s visualized representations: “Music can arouse a rapid and powerful re­sponse… The response is non-rational; and this might seem to explain why music can make such a successful marriage with the screen image, which itself arouses a non-rational response”. Thus, we now have a peculiar situation – despite the fact that the bulk of ‘visual music-related academic studies had been traditionally concerned with exploring the concept as something rather utterly abstract; it is namely the practical implementation of a variety of technologies that allow music and images/lights to be simultaneously enhanced by each other, which defines concept’s actual subtleties. After all, it would prove quite impossible to find someone who had never seen Lumiere in disco hall, or someone who had not listened to music playing on Windows Media Player, while being simultaneously exposed to the visualizations of music’s pitch, tone and timbre. Yet, the chances would be rather great for the same person to be unaware of how the concept of ‘visual music’ had originated in the first place, or who were the people who formulated it. In order for us to be able to address the earlier mentioned inconsistency in paper’s consequential parts, we will have to make a brief excurse into the history of ‘visual music.

A historical excurse

Nowadays, it became a common practice among art and music critics to refer to Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee as the spiritual forefathers of ‘visual music, as their strive to ‘purify’ visual art by ridding it of its representational subtleties contributed rather excessively towards legitimization of an idea that music could also be ‘purified’ in essentially similar manner. In the article, from which we have already quoted, McDonnell (p. 4) states: “His (Kandinky’s) artwork imagery is like a counterpoint in music where there is interplay of form, color and expression… He (Klee) was interested in formulating a vocabulary of abstract art comparable to the rules and structures of music composition”. We do subscribe to McDonnell’s point of view, in this respect. Nevertheless, it appears that the artistic activities, on the part of both individuals, were concerned not as much with establishing a new dimension within art, as much as they were concerned with turning art into a pure theory that would represent value as ‘thing in itself.

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The following excerpt from Kandinsky’s 1911 book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, provides us with the insight into the fact that, despite book’s superficial sophistication, the art-related ideas contained in it, are not just highly abstract but utterly subjective: “The essential connection between color and form brings us to the question of the influences of form on color. Form alone, even though totally abstract and geometrical, has a power of inner suggestion. A triangle (without the accessory consideration of its being acute−or obtuse−angled or equilateral) has a spiritual value of its own(?)” (p. 34). Even though, throughout their lives, Kandinsky and Klee never ceased promoting the notions of ‘spirituality, ‘cosmic energy’ and ‘people’s oneness’, as such around which the very concept of an abstract art should revolve, their methodological approach to art is best referred to as utterly elitist – without familiarizing themselves with both artists’ art-related theorizations, people could never understand the actual meaning of their works’ motifs, even if we assume that such meaning does exist.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that, after having adopted the representational methodology of abstractionism (which always made point in non-representing), the pioneers of ‘visual music’ became just as obsessed with indulging in abstract art and music-related theorizing, as opposed to creating. In its turn, this explains why the classical works of ‘visual musicians’ in the first half of 20th used to be referred to as ‘revolutionary’, ‘progressive’ and ‘groundbreaking’, but never as aesthetically inspirational or pleasing. The watching of 1922 film Lichtspiel Opus 1, by self-proclaimed ‘visual music artist’ Walter Ruttmann substantiates the full validity of such our suggestion. In it, the appearance, disappearance, and morphing of triangularly and squarely shaped objects on the screen, is being ‘enhanced’ by cacophonically sounding and highly atonal music by Max Butting.

It goes without saying, of course, that from Ruttmann’s perspective, Lichtspiel Opus 1 was seen as nothing less than the work of genius, who was able to utilize visual imagery to extrapolate music’s metaphysical essence. In his book, Malte (2007, p. 55) provides us with the insight into how Ruttmann himself perceived the significance of Lichtspiel Opus 1, which he pathosly used to refer to as an ‘absolute film’: “It was inevitable: the absolute film is now in fashion… What is an absolute film? A film where one does not have to rely on the way the film is made for it to develop into art, but a film where the theory and the idea of film as an autonomous art are the most important – a priori”. This quotation alone disperses the myth that, while creating Lichtspiel Opus 1, Ruttmann was solely concerned with figuring out the visual technique for representing music – apparently, the fact that he used to popularize the idea that it was possible to morph images with music, was itself considered by Ruttmann as being ‘artsy’ enough. Director simply tried to create something distasteful enough to shock viewing audiences – hence, gaining himself a cheap fame. The same could be said about actual motivations, behind creation of Malevich’s Black Square and Ensler’s Vagina Monologues – just as Kandinsky used say: content is nothing, form is everything. And, the more shocking that form is, the better.

Whereas; Ruttmannn thought it was possible to combine music with animated visualizations of its rhythm and tone, Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter had gone as far as implying that there was no need for the musical film to feature actual music, in the first place. Eggeling’s 1924 film Symphonie Diagnonale represents a perfect example of what happens when such presumably ‘progressive’ art-related theory is being put to practice. Just as it was the case in Ruttmann’s Opus 1, Symphonie Diagnonale features a variety of oddly shaped graphical figures appearing and disappearing on the black screen. Yet, unlike Ruttmann’s ‘masterpiece’, Eggeling’s film is silent – apparently, director seriously thought that it is so much better for the music to be seen, as opposed to being just heard. Predictably enough, the first public screening of the movie had proven the sheer fallaciousness of such Eggeling’s idea – after being exposed to visual but silent music for while, people from the audience started to leave the theater. Therefore, it is quite impossible to agree with McDonnell’s description of the Symphonie Diagnonale as representing a revolutionary breakthrough in the field of ‘visual music’ and as such that represents a particularly high artistic value: “Symphonie Diagnonale has a tremendous musical feel to it, in its use of rhythm, motifs, themes and forms. The film has no soundtrack, but it has the most evocative musical quality to it” (p. 6). In all probability, it never occurred to the author of this statement that silence cannot have a ‘musical feel’ to it in a priori. Thus, just as is being the case with Ruttmann’s film, Symphonie Diagnonale exemplifies the essence of a process of an obscure artistic theory replacing the actual art.

Another classical example of ‘visual music’ being put to film is Len Lye’s 1935 A Color Box. This film features the flashing of differently colored graphic figures on the screen, attuned with the background music (not the type of film that people who suffer from epilepsy should be watching). Although director deliberately strived to rid the displayed imagery of any associations of objective reality, while making it appear particularly abstract, it is namely the fact that in few instances, these images appear to be reminiscent of a dancing individual, which makes them semantically related to the emotional essence of a played music. What it means is that, despite the fact that ‘visual music’ enthusiasts base their vision of a concept upon the premise of abstract imagery’s full semiotic sustainability, they unconsciously try to represent this imagery in existentially relevant manner.

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The soundness of an earlier suggestion can also be explored in regards to John Whitney’s 1975 visually musical film Arabesque, which is now being referred to as one of the earliest attempts to utilize computer graphics for the purpose of creating an aesthetic effect. In it, the rhythm, pitch and tone of music are being sublimated in corresponding computer-based visualizations. At the time this film was produced, the visually musical motifs featured in it, were thought to represent a highly integrative quality. Even the art critics from comparatively recent times continued to discuss the value of Arabesque within the context of how this film provides a guiding line towards eventual fusion between music and visual images, for the purpose of creating previously unheard-of artistic genre. For example, while referring to Arabesque, Evans (1992, p. 13) provides us with rather sophistically sounding explanation of the essence of Whitney’s artistic technique: “He bases his imagery on a static visual composition that allows him to concentrate on a dynamic part in which a composition is performed in a complex of color changes”. Nevertheless, the fact that nowadays the digital visualization of music had achieved a mainstream technological status (such visualization is now the integral part of the equalizers of just about every software-based musical player), points out a utilitarian value of such visualization. In other words – the digitally-visual enhancement of music if being of supplementary rather than of integrative nature. In its turn, this serves as yet another indication of the fact that theories, related to the concept of ‘visual music’, do not quite correspond to the particulars of how people’s sense of aesthetics operates. Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the very history of ‘visual music’ enthusiasts attempting to legitimize the concept in practice implies certain methodological inconsistencies within the concept. In the next part of the paper, we will aim to discuss these inconsistencies at length.


As we have pointed out earlier, ever since the concept of ‘visual music’ had emerged, it never ceased being the subject of an excessive theorization. A number of studies were conducted on the subject of such music’s melodic, semiotic and representational subtleties. A common feature of most of these studies is their utter complexity, which in many cases undermines studies’ actual value, due to semantic uninteligeblesness. For example, in the article from which we have quoted earlier, Evans comes up with the following justification for ‘visual music’ concept’s validity: “ Through repetition and variation of structural keys (music and images) there is motivic development unifying the whole, with the elemental units of these keys distinct yet in agreement with the motorically defined macro form” (p. 15). In all probability, author himself remained unaware of what was the semantic meaning behind this particular suggestion.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that promoters of ‘visual music’ appear rather proficient when it comes to indulging in sophistically sounding but very often meaningless theorizations, the analysis of their studies and articles reveals that only a few of them understand the basics of psychology. Had it been otherwise, they would know that the actual reason why ‘visual music’ remains largely unappealing to broader audiences is not due to these audiences’ lack of cultural refinement, but due to the specifics of brain’s functioning.

The main characteristic of just about any individual’s neurological activity is the fact that, while addressing life’s challenges, indulging in abstract thinking, or while being exposed to a particular aesthetic experience, person can only be focused on one thing at the time. If, for example, an individual puts on headphones with different music playing in each speaker, she or he would be able to focus on listening to only one tune – the brain will simply ‘cut off’ the other tune in one of listener’s ears. In their book, Dalton and Bergen (2007, p. 177) state: “The involvement of parietal regions in attention, working memory, and episodic retrieval are indicative of their joint role in shifting attention. Attention is shifted not only among external events involving spatial and nonspatial memory, but also among internal events involving the alternation between working memory and episodic retrieval”. Therefore, the suggestions that person can be simultaneously enjoying both: music and the related visual imagery, are best referred to as unscientific. And, as history indicates, it matters very little whether a particular socio-political, cultural, religious or artistic concept is being particularly sophisticated – if such a concept contradicts the laws of nature, it will never be able to attain a mainstream discursive status. People’s neurological makeup predisposes them towards associating music with a particular imagery, but this does not mean that imagery can be used to extrapolate music score’s aesthetic content.

As we have mentioned earlier, the concept of ‘visual music’ is closely affiliated with the concept of artistic modernism, which at the turn of 20th century was becoming increasingly popular in just about every artistic domain. The advocates of modernism used to suggest that art and music’s association with perceptional representation is something to be avoided. According to them, the more a particular artist strives to rid its artistic creation of any emotionally related appeal, the more such creation is ‘pure’, and therefore – more valuable.

In his book, Caballero (2001, p. 50) quotes one of co-founders of artistic modernism Paul Valéry: “The “pure” (artistic) modes do not burden themselves with characters and events that adopt whatever is arbitrary and superficial from observable reality, which are the only things subject to imitation. On the contrary, these modes exploit, organize and compose the values of our sensibility’s every strength, detached from all reference and all function assigns”. What it means is that the promoters of modernist artistic styles deliberately strived to disassociate art from physiological aspects of people’s lives. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to discuss the metaphysical essence of ‘visual music’ as being concerned with non-representation, rather than with utilization of visual imagery to enhance music. Yet, as we have shown earlier, such approach to art cannot be considered valid, since it denies the fact that the particulars of people’s artistic perception simply reflect the particulars of their biological makeup.

The reason why Richard Wagner is being considered probably the greatest composer that world has ever known, is that the semantic motifs, contained in his operas, and these operas’ melodic subtleties are being perfectly consistent with the innermost quintessence of people’s existential anxieties, which in their turn reflect upon people as essentially social beings. After having reached an adolescence, we get to realize what represents our existential potential, and from that time on we try to remain focused on attaining social prominence. The attainment of such prominence represents an apogee in just about everyone’s life – after that, the intensity of people’s life-related anxieties gets to be progressively lessened. In a similar manner, Wagner’s operas feature comparatively slow beginning, short but intense pinnacle, and not so intense ending. This is why, regardless of whether we listen to only the fragments from Wagner’s operas, or to these operas in full, we get to experience the same aesthetic pleasure, due to Wagner’s music being utterly organic in all of its emanations. Apparently, the very structure of these operas does correspond to the specifics of people’s cognition, which can be best referred to as spatially defined process.

Given the fact that in theory, visual and musical aesthetic experiences do feature a variety of common elements, it is only logical for ‘visual music’ promoters to suggest that, after having been visualized, the music should still be able to convey the same semantic message. As DeWitt (1987, p. 115) had pointed out in his study: “We enjoy the art born from the subtle manipulation of our aural psychology. If we apply this methodology to sight, it is reasonable to suggest that the eye has intrinsic physical properties that point toward an aesthetic”. DeWitt’s perspective on a subject matter resonates with that of McDonnell: “The non-representational nature of music and its emotional expression is mirrored in the non-representational nature of the resulting imagery that also expresses and appeals to emotions” (p. 3). Nevertheless, the closer analysis of the issue suggests that there is a fundamental difference between visual and sonic aesthetics – whereas, upon being exposed to a particular painting, we get to instantly experience the sense of aesthetic pleasure/displeasure, the same cannot be said about our exposal to a musical piece, as such exposal presupposes three-dimensional spatiality. In other words, in order for people to make their minds about whether they like a particular music or not, they would have to listen to it for at least some time. This is why it is not conceptually appropriate to think that music can be ‘translated’ into visual imagery, without alterations being made to the very essence of its semiotics.

Thus, it makes so much more sense to discuss the emergence of the concept of ‘visual music’ within the process of an overall decline of Western aesthetics, rather than an indication of a continuous progress within these aesthetics’ conceptual framework. To put it plainly – the emergence of ‘visual music’ suggests that Western art undergoes a gradual transformation into a theory, which has very little to do with the notion of art, in the first place. In his book, Wolfe (1976, p. 98-109) was able to define the implications of such transformation with perfect clarity: “In the beginning we got rid of nineteenth-century storybook realism. Then we got rid of representational objects. Then we got rid of the third dimension altogether and got really flat (Abstract Expressionism)… There, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes…. Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever decreasing tighter-turning spiral until… it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture… and came out the other side as Art Theory… Art Theory pure and simple”. This is exactly the reason why, in order for an individual to be able to enjoy Opus 1 or Symphonie Diagnonale, for example, he would have to familiarize himself with directors’ theories about what ‘visual music’ is all about.

This, however, is only the half of the problem – as earlier provided quotation from Kandinsky’s book implies, despite their superficial sophistication, many modernist art-related theories are best described as utterly subjective and very often – quite unintelligible. Therefore, the aesthetic value (or rather the absence of thereof) of the classical works of ‘visual music, such as Opus 1 or Symphonie Diagnonale, can be compared to the aesthetic value of Malevich’s Black Square – in both cases, this value appears rather dubious, simply because while indulging in creative process, Eggeling, Richter, Ruttmann, Lye and Malevich had made a point in trying to deprive their art-pieces of any links with objectively existing reality. This is the actual significance behind just about any avant-gardist art theory. As Malevich had put it in his 1915 Suprematism Manifesto: “The difference between the new, nonobjective (“useless”) art and the art of the past lies in the fact that the full artistic value of the latter comes to light (becomes recognized) only afterlife, in search of some new expedient, has forsaken it, whereas the unapplied artistic element of the new art outstrips life and shuts the door on “practical utility” (ArtChive.Com). Nevertheless, the conceptual elitism of avantgardist art-theories, including that of ‘visual music’, appears highly artificial.

For example, despite the fact that as of today, Malevich’s paintings are being sold for millions of dollars at auctions, very few people who buy these paintings would be able to substantiate their admiration of this particular artist’s creative genius rationally. The reason for this is simple – even though in theory, Malevich’s paintings contain motifs that can be interpreted from a variety of different perspectives, in reality there is not that much to be interpreted, simply because his artworks relate more to the theory than to the actual art. Moreover, the closer examination of this theory itself reveals it as being conceptually fallacious – despite the fact that Malevich never ceased being proud of having founded the non-representational methodology in visual art, he could not realize that even the different forms of not-representational notation are essentially representational. In their article, Smith and Smith (1982, p. 80) state: “All art is at once both representational and abstract. If, for example, a painting represents an object, that is, stands for it instead of merely duplicating the object, it is also an abstraction of it”. This is why, as we have mentioned earlier, it is namely when utterly abstract pieces of ‘visual music’ do correspond to people’s existential anxieties, which makes them artistically valid.

In its turn, this explains why nowadays, the production of ‘visual music’ seems to become increasingly utilitarian. For example, the so-called Audiovisual Environment Suite (a software for composing visual music), created by Golan Levin, is being usually discussed within the context of how it provides people with the possibility to familiarize themselves with computers’ full operational capacity, rather than within the context of how it can serve as the instrument for composing music. While referring to Golan’s artistic activities, Behrens (2000, p. 155) speaks of them as having socio-political rather than strictly artistic significance: “His (Golan’s) goal is not to develop ex­periments that are successful as art­works, but rather to acknowledge that artistic issues are critical to acceptance of innovations by society at large”. Apparently, there is a certain rationale behind the concept of ‘visual music. Yet, this rationale has very little to do with the theory of how the concept has been originally conceived – the practice has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that; whereas, music can be supplemented with visual imagery, it can never be replaced with such an imagery.


The realities of post-industrial living are being characterized by the exponentially increasing influence of science on just about every aspect of people’s existence, which in its turn, causes a growing number of social, economic, political and artistic theories to become outdated. The reason why, during the course of first few decades of the 20th century, the concept of ‘visual music’ had attained an academic legitimacy is that, at the time very little was known of how human brain actually operates. Nevertheless, in the light of recent scientific discoveries in the field of biology, the validity of ‘visual music’ as theory appears to be undermined rather considerably. Although certain parallels can be drawn between how we derive aesthetic pleasure from being exposed to music and how we enjoy visual art, the suggestions that visual imagery can be utilized as representational medium of music, have long ago been proven conceptually fallacious.

Even as far back as in 1924, Otto Ortmann had come up with suggestion that sheds doubt upon the legitimacy of the very notion of ‘visual music’, as conceptualized by Ruttman, Richter, Lye and Eggeling: “Since auditory sensations are but one form of sensations in general, they must obey the laws of sensation. These teach us that the endpoints of any simultaneous series are more clearly impressed upon consciousness than intermediate points” (p. 369). Early 20th century’s promoters of ‘visual music’ used to believe that the subtleties of how people perceive reality could be manipulated mechanistically – that is, they thought that if structural properties of a musical score were to be closely matched by the properties of visual imagery, this would lead to creating essentially the same aesthetic effect. Yet, as modern-day psychologists are well aware, people’s aesthetic aspirations are being organically embedded into the very matrix of their consciousness, which in its turn, actualizes itself in three-dimensional continuum. The series of visual images, on the other hand, cannot have ‘spatial prolongness’, due to the static manner in which every particular image is being represented. The morphing of images also cannot help the matter a whole lot – as earlier mentioned visually musical films by Ruttman and Eggeling indicate, there are no rationally substantiated reasons to believe that the morphing of affiliative images does indeed reflect music’s tone, pitch and timbre with utter exactness.

Therefore, there can only be one explanation as to why the enthusiasts of ‘visual music’ continued with their experimentation throughout the course of 20th century, despite facing criticism – they simply thought of such their experimentation as representing an artistic value of ‘thing in itself. In a similar manner, the proponents of a so-called ‘action art’ in fifties and sixties, used to burn holes in the canvases and then exhibitingexhibitvases in art galleries – according to them, the aesthetic appeal of a painting mattered very little, especially given the fact that they thought of the very notion of aesthetics as being synonymous to the notion of ‘bourgeois conventionality’. What it means is that the advocates of ‘visual music’ from the first part of 20th century, such as Ruttman, Richter, Lye and Eggeling, should be referred to as to whom they really were – nerdy theoreticians with aspirations to gain the fame of true artists. After having realized that there was simply no way for their visually musical innovations to appeal to the broader audiences, they nevertheless persisted with creating more and more aesthetically obscure ‘masterpieces’, as the ultimate mean of distancing themselves from ‘philistines’. If we also take into consideration the unsightly details of ‘visual musicians’’ biographies (for example, Ruttmann was a morphine addict), then it would only be natural for us to conclude that the very concept of ‘visual music, in its pure form, can be best discussed as one of many emanations of a degenerative art.

At the same time, it would be wrong to suggest that, since the idea that music can be replaced with visual imagery had long ago proven its apparent fallaciousness, it is impossible to incorporate such imagery within the fabric of a particular music piece. On the contrary – if thematically related and if properly incorporated, this imagery can serve as the agent of memorization. Unlike what early enthusiasts of ‘visual music’ used to imply – this type of music should not be discussed within the context of some utterly abstract and life-unrelated theory, but rather within the context of choreography. For example, the concerts of French musician and composer Jean Michel Jarre do feature a variety of visual special effects. However, without the actual music, these effects would be deprived of any semiotic significance, whatsoever.

We believe that the conclusions, we have come to, do substantiate the validity of paper’s initial hypothesis – up until comparatively recent times, it was absolutely appropriate to discuss the concept of ‘visual music’ as being nothing but a form of a degenerative art – an obscure art-related theory that nobody understood, including ‘theoreticians’ themselves. Nevertheless, it might very well be the case that, due to revolutionary progress in the field of informational technologies, which had taken place during the course of last thirty years, the same concept will reemerge aesthetically appealing not to just a narrow circle of self-proclaimed ‘sophisticates’, but to ordinary people as well.


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Evans, B. 1992, ‘Elemental counterpoint with digital imagery’, Leonardo, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 13-18.

Grant, MJ 2003, ‘Experimental music semiotics’, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 173-191.

Johnson, W. 1969, ‘Face the music’, Film Quarterly, vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 3-19

Kandinsky, W. 2004. Concerning the spiritual in art. Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish, Montana.

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Schoffer, N. 1985, ‘Sonic and visual structures: Theory and experiment’, Leonardo, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 59-68.

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